No. 2878: U-BOATS IN WW1

by Andrew Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2878

Today, full speed ahead. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

November 20, 1918, was a typically gray, foggy day in Harwich, England, a port city located to the east of London. The event that was about to unfold, however, was anything but typical as the convoy of German U-boats made its way into the harbor.

Germany was a latecomer when it came to deploying submarines for warfare. When the First World War began just four years earlier, the German Navy had only ten battle ready U-boats, and they were intended for coastal defense. But aspiring German naval commanders saw the potential to cripple the British by sinking ships carrying supplies. And the idea proved to be one of the most devastatingly effective in the German arsenal. Over the course of the war some five thousand Allied ships were sent to watery graves. To passengers and crews traveling the seas near England, U-boat captains were hated and feared. At home in Germany, the same captains were heroes — gladiators of the sea. And like gladiators, the mortality rate was grim: half of all U-boats went down with their crews.

U-boat at sea photograph

All of which made the foggy morning in Harwich so incongruous. The ships slipping into the harbor weren't on a secret mission, but a public submission: they were surrendering. A gaggle of reporters accompanied British naval men on their way to board the chastened predators. In an effort to convey the eerie feeling that day, one British officer compared the situation to watching man-eating tigers arrive at your doorstep, then letting you cut off their tails and put them on a leash. But would the Germans go without a fight? British boarding parties bearing side arms didn't know what to expect as they made their way down ladders into the U-boats. Would they find booby traps? Would they encounter hostile crews? Would there be armed conflict? In fact, resistance was the one thing they didn't encounter. The German crews were not only orderly; they were described as "gentlemen." One German crewman was so accommodating, a British officer commented that the crewman "might have been trying to sell [him] the boat."

boarding the U-boat

U-boat surrender

In all, 114 U-boats surrendered in Harwich over an eleven day period, all without incident. Over the following month an additional 62 were discovered while another 142 were found under construction. They were either dismantled or divvied out to the Allied powers. Most went to Britain and France. As a result, at the conclusion of the First World War not a single submarine was left in the German fleet. And under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty, Germany was forbidden from building any submarines in the future. It was a well intended effort by the Allies to eliminate the future threat of destructive submarine warfare. Unfortunately, this provision, like so many others in the Treaty of Versailles, meant nothing once Adolph Hitler came to power. The more technologically advanced U-boats of the Second World War proved even more destructive than their forebears.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Notes and References:

S. Budiansky. Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Treaty of Versailles. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles. Accessed April 16, 2013.

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

This episode first aired on April 18, 2013.