The German High Seas Fleet sortied into the middle of the North Sea on January 23rd to challenge the British fleet in an area called Dogger Bank. The engagement resulted in the loss of a German dreadnought and the near loss of a second. The British warships had proven to be better armed, better coordinated, and faster than the German squadron. The loss of the SMS Bluecher caused Wilhelm II to dismiss Admiral Ingenohl and appoint Admiral von Pohl to take command of the High Seas Fleet. While von Pohl ordered periodic sorties from Kiel, the German admiralty refused to risk a direct confrontation with the numerically superior British Grand Fleet. Thus, the blockade of England, which the admiralty estimated would take 220 submarines to enforce, was taken up by twenty-five U-boats, only five or six of which patrolled the ocean at any given time. The German blockade was illegal by the standard of the Declaration of London, as was the English counterpart.
Two days before the German Empire announced its war on commerce, Colonel Edward House, President Wilson’s friend and confidante, left New York on the Lusitania for Britain on January 30th 1915. The president had sent him on a diplomatic mission to the warring nations of Europe hoping to get both sides to accept a mediation offer from the United States. As the ship neared the Irish Coast, the captain of the large passenger liner gave orders to hoist the American flag. Colonel House, who witnessed the ruse, was furious. He filed a report to the State Department and denounced the abuse of neutral flags on British ships. The affair caused a raucous in the House of Representatives and in the American press, yet without any tangible consequences for Britain. The German claim that Britain had ordered her merchant marine to use neutral flags in the war zone had become fact, certified by one of the highest officials of the U.S. government. The first submarine to patrol the newly declared war zone left Ems on February 11th 1915. U-30 under Lieutenant Commander von Rosenberg-Gruszczynski crossed the Channel at Dover and reached the patrol area on the 17th. Another gas-powered sub, the U-16 under Captain Claus Hansen, had taken position in the Channel on February 1st. On the February 16th U-16 torpedoed the British Collier Dulwich off the coast of France, giving the crew time to launch lifeboats. Hansen blew up the small French steamer, Ville de Lille, a day later. The German commander meticulously followed search and seizure procedures as mandated by international law, even towing the lifeboats with the crew to the coast. Another French steamer, the Dinorah, suffered damages from a torpedo on the 18th. This time, in accordance with the new orders, the U-16 attacked without warning.
The first potentially serious mistake occurred on the following day, when Captain Hansen failed to properly identify his target and torpedoed the 9,000-ton Norwegian steamer Belridge. The Standard Oil Corporation tanker transported oil from the United States to the Netherlands. Luckily for Germany, no one was injured in the attack and the steamer beached itself before it could sink. However, the impracticality of the German admiralty’s orders not to harm neutral ships now showed the first result. Germany quickly admitted to the mistake and committed to paying for the damages to the ship in order to quell public attention. A mistake it was! According to the files of Heinrich Albert, the Belridge served as a blockade-runner for his office since the fall of 1914 and carried benzene (gas) for the German government.
U-30 also scored hits on February 20th, sinking two English freighters without warning. U-8, under Lieutenant Commander Stoss, which left on February 16th, destroyed five steamers in the shipping lanes between Dover and Calais. It sank on that voyage after hitting a mine. U-6, another gas-powered boat returned home after it suffered damage from a ramming by a freighter it had attacked. Despite the bad winter weather, which forced U-30, in particular, to abandon targets and submerge for the rough sea to pass, the four submarines scored one sinking per day since the campaign began.
The German submarine fleet, consisting of fourteen boats, entered the theater of war full force in the month of March. U-12 sank after the British cruiser HMS Ariel rammed it. U-17 suffered mechanical damage from a wave and had to return to port. U-37 disappeared without a trace after damaging one steamer and sinking two others. U-29 sank on March 26th without survivors after the British armored cruiser HMS Dreadnought rammed it. The British media noted with enthusiasm that justice had been done, since the commander of the U -29 was Otto Weddingen, who had sunk three British cruisers in the beginning of the war with 1,200 sailors dying in the incident. U-33 barely escaped a ramming attempt after it stopped a British freighter under observance of ‘cruiser rules.’
U-28 sank the British cargo-passenger steamer SS Falaba on March 28th, causing the first American submarine casualty of the war, the thirty-one year-old mining engineer of Massachusetts, Leon Thrasher. One hundred-four of the 242 passengers, including Thrasher, drowned. According to the German government, the U-28 had signaled the Falaba to stop. The steamer, however, attempted to flee and signaled nearby British warships for help. The U-28 then torpedoed the ship. The cargo contained munitions, an absolute contraband. Whether or not the German version of events was true, the sinking took place well within the confines of international law. The presence of enemy warships likely caused the U-boat captain to abandon plans for time-consuming rescue operations. One of the surviving passengers shot a host of photographs documenting the tragic end of the ship. The pictures wound their way onto the front pages of American dailies, bringing home the brutality of Germany’s naval war, an ever-growing public relations fiasco. The U-boat fleet sank thirty-six ships in that month alone, amounting to 79,000 GRT with six ships damaged, amounting to 22,000 GRT. The use of neutral flags by British and French shipping, the losses, especially of the valuable diesel-powered U-29 and U-37, and the ramming attempt from a stopped freighter all contributed to snuffing out the last remaining efforts to respect cruiser rules.
The campaign proceeded full steam in April 1915. Thirty-seven ships – seventeen British, three French, three Russian, and eight neutrals (no American) – with absolute or conditional contraband sank after U-boat attacks. Two freighters, one French and one British, suffered damages but could be hauled into safety. One British and three neutral freighters were captured and hauled into German harbors for prize court proceedings, in which a panel of judges decided on the distribution of the captured ships and property. The submarine campaign thus destroyed 62,000 GRT and damaged 11,000 GRT in April, using fifteen submarines, of which thirteen were equipped with oceangoing diesel engines and tanks. The rapid increase of diesel-powered boats particularly alarmed the British war planners. Despite the raw number showing less than one percent of shipping vessels in and out of England being physically attacked, the psychological effects on seamen and neutral shippers began to show. A growing number of ocean carriers refused to take on freight destined for the war zone. Seamen, as well, rather switched to shipping lines not involved European trade.
The First Sealord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, proposed to arm the merchant marine to defend against submarine attacks in response to the German aggression. This proposal further sealed the decision of the German admiralty that traditional search and seizure procedures could not be followed in the case of a submarine. Once surfaced, these vessels had little chance of defending their vulnerable hulls against ramming, machine gun, or cannon fire. The German ‘hardliners’ in the submarine debate, especially the commander of the submarine fleet, Hermann Bauer, demanded that restrictions on targeting, such as excluding neutral vessels, would be dropped. He cited the British policies of ramming, false flagging, and now arming of merchant vessels as the justification.
Read more in The Secret War on the United States in 1915.