On August 19th, 1915, the Hartlepool built Norwegian cargo ship SS Bras owned at the time of her loss by Hansen Harald, was on a voyage from Göteborg to Blyth with a cargo of pit props, when she was sunk by German submarine U-25. The crew in this instance came to no harm. There remained something of a gentlemanly feel to to U-boat-merchant interceptions in 1915, almost like a peculiar game in which nobody was quite sure of the rules, but that would change in time to come as the stakes got ever higher.
Bras was merely one of hundreds of merchant vessels which would fall victim to U-boats, many of them on our coast. The first U-boats visited our region in the Spring of 1915. To understand why, we must first look at the background to these events.
In response to the British declaration of November 1914, that the entire North Sea was now a war zone, on 4 February 1915 Admiral Von Pohl, Commander of the German High Seas Fleet, published a warning in the government mouthpiece, Deutscher Reichsanzeiger declaring that as far as Germany was concerned that the seas around Great Britain and Ireland would henceforward be regarded as a War Zone. From February 18, 1915, any allied merchant vessel encountered in this zone risked destruction. The German government announced it could not therefore guarantee the safety of any crew and passengers. Neutral vessels trading with Britain were also in great danger because of what the Germans [probably rightly] interpreted as a British misuse of the Prize Rules and the use of neutral flags.
Germany’s stance did not unfold in a vacuum. Admiralty staff had been planning for an economic war with Germany since 1908 when a blockade of Germany [Order no.10] was first inserted into fleet orders. Staff officers had done the maths. Britain could and would use its overwhelming maritime strength to strangle the German economy. The simple equation, the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow guaranteed the blockade, the blockade assured the defeat of Germany, would shape the policy of the Royal Navy throughout the First World War.
Although variables persisted, a great blockade of Germany guaranteed that nation’s defeat. Nothing was to be allowed through, ores, chemicals, foodstuffs, even medicines. Interceptions were low key affairs largely carried out by hired-in steamers, many from the NE. Suspicious vessels were stopped, searched, a prize crew put on board then the vessel would be sent back to the nearest British port. Maintaining the blockade was as thankless as it was unglamorous – but it probably did more to damage Germany in 1915 than all the effects of Neuve Chapelle, Gallipoli , Ypres and Loos combined. So as far as Germany was concerned, in the Spring of 1915 it was fighting an asymmetric war and it was the little guy. According to this view economic warfare against Britain and those who traded with her, was fully justified. The variable factor against the certainty that a grand blockade would reduce Germany to her knees, was to be the potential of the U-boat to turn the tables on Britain, hence the first declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare.
This policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was controversial of course. It was a high risk strategy which risked tipping not just neutral America into the allied camp, but the Scandinavian countries as well. The German government was divided on the issue between hawks, the less hawkish and those cynically informed enough to take the view that unrestricted submarine warfare, while desirable, was unrealistic until Germany possessed sufficient modern U-boats to wage economic war against Britain. The most optimistic estimates in 1915 put this over a year away. The While the German government vacillated, the KDM, despite its bellicose pronouncements, left the decision of whether and how to sink, in the hands of U-boat commanders, depending upon the perceived risk to the U-boat. Thus the crew of one merchant vessel might be handled with kid gloves, warned, allowed to take to a lifeboat and given provisions before the ship was sunk, while another might be sunk without warning in unsurvivable seas.
At the outbreak of war Germany possessed twenty-eight U-boats but U-1 to U-4 were training boats. The U-boats were organised under the High Seas Fleet into four half flotillas and based at Helgoland, the Jade basin and the Ems. These U-boats bore little resemblance to the sleek streamlined boats of later years. They had been built as experimental craft, U-9 and U-12 were powered by Körting paraffin [kerosene] fuelled engines which required a big funnel located aft of the conning tower. The later U-19 and U-23 types were diesel powered and managed to do away with the funnel but even these U-boats had a distinctly Heath-Robinson appearance. Navies were about big elegant ships engaging in decisive Mahanesque set-piece battles, not cheap steampunk submarine boats sinking expensive cruisers. Yet armed with six × 45cm (17.7in) torpedoes, they could wreak havoc, as the survivors of Pathfinder, Cressy, Hogue, Aboukir, Hawke and a myriad of merchant ships, could testify. The world was shocked at the potency of these ungainly toy-like craft. Fix a gun [50.8mm (2in) subsequently added to the U-9 class] deck and you have the means to wage economic warfare against the East coast of Britain but what brought the U-boats to the NE in the first place ?
Coal of course. The NE dominated British coal production, reaching peak output in 1913 before ceding primacy to the younger Welsh coalfields. Industry in general and the London power stations in particular, depended upon regular shipments of coal from Northern ports ferried by unlovely collier fleets. So did much of the rest of the world, not least France. The KDM was well aware of the importance of dislocating the British coal trade. Indeed, Most ships sunk by U-boat between St Abbs and Flamborough Heads in the First World War were engaged in the coal trade.
The very first indication that U-boats were now operating off the NE coast came on 9 March when the ore carrier Tangistan [Strick Line Ltd.] rolled over and sank some nine miles from Flamborough Head. The ship had recently arrived carrying 6,000-tons of iron ore from Ben e Suef in Egypt. Mr. James O’Toole, the sole survivor from a crew of thirty-nine, could shed no light on the cause:
‘The ship had arrived off Middlesbrough too early for the tide to enter and was going very slowly and at 00.30hrs she was brought up in a huge shock and explosion. The lights all went out and the crew rushed up onto the deck, but before they could launch the lifeboats, the ship went down with a rush, on a perfectly even keel…I was sucked down with the ship, but came up to the surface again and swam around for some two hours or so and drifted with the tide, before being picked up by the SS Woodville and landed at West Hartlepool.’
Even now it is disputed whether the 3,738 ton Tangistan fell victim to a mine laid by SMS Kolberg or a torpedo fired by a U-boat but U-12 [Kplt. Hans Kratsch] was certainly credited with sinking a large cargo ship on this day and postwar Admiralty analysis confirms this conclusion. The crew of Tangistan were the first victims of submarine warfare off the NE coast.
But Nemesis was waiting in the wings for for U-12. Next day Kratzsch commenced patrolling off May Island in the Firth of Forth. The trawler May Island sighted her off Fife Ness and reported the position to the SNO [Senior Naval Officer] Rosyth. Three destroyers of the 1st Flotilla, Acheron, Attack and Ariel were dispatched to the scene. What follows is an excerpt from the official report:
‘At 10.10 Ariel saw U-12 to starboard at a range of two nautical miles. All three destroyers turned in for a converging attack and the submarine dove. Ariel saw a periscope 200 yards to starboard. Ariel rammed the submarine at an angle of 70 degrees. Minutes later the submarine surfaced and the destroyers opened fire. The U-boat sank at 10.30 and 10 survivors were made prisoner. Ariel was so badly damaged by the ramming she had to be towed to port’
HMS Ariel [Lt. Cdr. J Creagh] U-boat men learned to respect the bows of a destroyer
Log entry of HMS Ariel, 10 March 1915
“10.12 – Sighted enemy S/M proceeded full speed required for ramming the same.
10.16 – Rammed S/M. Stopped both. – Full speed astern.
10.17 – Opened fire on S/M.
10.20 – Stopped engines lowered whaler to secure survivors.
10.25 – S/M sank.
10.30 – Whaler returned with 2 survivors (other vessels picked up more). – Proceeded slow astern both.
10.49 – Ship taken in tow by Fearless.”
Oblt. Seeburg of SMS U-12:
‘I was asleep when war pilot Völker called me to the control room. At least one destroyer had surprised us and Völker had ordered men forward to speed up the dive. At this time we were at 25 metres and Kplt. Kratzsch ordered us back up to 11 metres. He also called for the tubes to be flooded. As the boat levelled off the Kaptanleutnant raised the periscope. He immediately yelled ‘down 25 metres. The periscope had not retracted when our submarine was struck by a tremendous blow. The submarine rolled right over. There was an explosion as we blew the tanks. We tried to prop the hatch open but the boat was already flooding as it reached the surface. One man got trapped in the half-open hatch as the boat sank. During the time we were abandoning the boat the British ships kept firing on us’
Ten survivors [two officers and eight ratings] were taken prisoner, but twenty more, including Kplt. Hans Kratzsch were lost. The British authorities declared the survivors were pirates and placed each of them in solitary confinement, a move which did not subsequently play well with neutral sentiment. The sinking of U-12 provided a much needed boost for the reputation of the Royal Navy which had been under question since the sinking of HMS Pathfinder. U-12 might have been erased but there were plenty more to take her place.
Just the day before U-12 had been lost, the KDM had despatched the High Seas Halb-Flotille boat U-23 [Oblt. Hans Schultheß ] to explore activity on the NE coast. U -23 was ordered first to approach Whitby then skirt Hartlepool and Roker to the Tyne.
At 08:30 on 13 March the surfaced U-23 fired at torpedo at the SS Invergyle off Newbiggin. The ship was in ballast having earlier delivered a cargo of naval supplies to Scapa Flow. Invergyle had been heading for Hartlepool when U-23 stopped her by firing a shell over her bow. The crew was first allowed to evacuate the vessel and there were no casualties. Schultheß remained in the area. On on 15 March U-23 made another surface interception against SS Fingal.
Above: SS Fingal
Fingal was owned by the London and Edinburgh Shipping Company based at Leith. The ship, carrying both passengers and general cargo. regularly plied her course up and down the East coast. This time there was no warning shell. At 10:50hrs (GT) Schultheß fired one torpedo at the vessel . Fingal began to sink rapidly. Twenty one of those who took to the lifeboats were picked up by the trawler Ayacanora and landed in North Shields. Six died, presumably when the torpedo struck, including one of the stewardesses.
Thomas Gray, 19 Ordinary Seaman, Walter Hogg, 31, Able Seaman, John Laurenson 48 Able Seaman, Nellie McPherson, 28 Stewardess, Walter Reibelt 28 Fireman, John Smith 54 First Mate
U-23 was not finished yet. At 15:00hrs that day the U-boat stopped the Norwegian ship Gazelle. The crew was ordered to evacuate the ship while the German boarding party searched the ship before Gazelle was allowed to proceed. This interception was spotted by the Danish vessel, Diana which later relayed the news to Senior Naval Officer, Tyne. On 16 March Room 40 picked up U-23’s return transmission stating that she had sunk two steamers off the Tyne but two further attacks had been thwarted when the torpedoes had failed to explode. U-23 returned to the Ems on March 17, Hans Schultheß reporting not only was there plenty of trade off the NE coast, the defences were ‘minimal’.
Above: U-9 moors at Wilhelmshaven
U-9 was a household name in Germany because on 22 September 1914, under Otto Weddigen, U-9 had sunk three British cruisers, Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy, ‘three before breakfast’. Weddigen’s successor Spiess endured a rather more frustrating time when U-9 was ordered to patrol the zone between Longstone Light and Dunbar between the 18 and 27 of March. On the 25 and 26 March two steamers were attached without warning but in both cases the torpedoes missed. Spiess returned to base without success to report.
Above: track chart of U-10. The red dots represent the sunken fishing vessels
U-10 [Kplt. Stuhr] left Helgoland on 30 March to patrol off the NE coast. The U-boat sank several trawlers off Newbiggin on April 1, Gloxina 145t, Nellie 109t and Jason 176t. The trawler Acanthus 322t was sunk by torpedo. The fishing boats were destroyed with pre-prepared explosive devices. In each case the crew was safeguarded and allowed to safely evacuate the boats before the small craft were blown up.
Next day the U-boat proceeded towards Holy Island where she stopped two Danish steamers, interrogating their crews before letting them go. Late on April 5, U-10 challenged and stopped a Danish vessel named Hansen. A chart was seized providing the details of the Lindesnes Light-Longstone Light route. Since time immemorial Scandinavian vessels had traded pit props for coal with the ports of NE England.
U-10 returned to Helgoland on April 8 with this valuable information. From this point onward until the introduction of convoy, this hitherto safe passage came under intense scrutiny from the High Seas U-boat flotillas.
The sheer volume of U-boat attacks on this route in 1917 was a major reason for the introduction of the convoy system. The next series of 1915 U-boat patrols saw U-38 attack vessels sailing in the middle section of the Lindesnes-Longstone route while U-10 operated off the Farnes. She left Helgoland on April 24. She chased several neutral steamers before chancing upon the fishing boat Lilydale on April 28. The fishing boat was stopped by gunfire. The crew was allowed to take to a boat while Lilydale was sunk by an explosive device. At that moment one of the Granton-based Auxiliary Patrol vessels, Ben Lawers appeared on the scene. Ben Lawers opened fire, pursuing the U-boat. U-10 was not armed. Ben Lawers fired 37 rounds before the U-boat dived to safety. Ben Lawers then went on to rescue the crew of Lilydale. According to his KTB [Kriegestagebuche or patrol diary] Stuhr was unaware that his attacker was a Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol vessel, believing that an armed steamer without a flag had opened fire on him.
Above: the track of U-9
While other boats were dispatched to explore the mid section of the Lindesnes-Longstone route, U-9 returned to the NE coast, leaving Helgoland on May 2. Spiess set course for that happy hunting ground for U-boats, the Dogger Bank. Here U-9 was able to rampage amongst the local fishing fleets, unmolested. Iolanthe, Hero, Northward Ho and Progress were sunk using a delayed explosive device.
Coquet, Hector and Bob White were shelled to pieces using the boat’s gun. The crews were first allowed to evacuate the fishing boats before they were sunk. Despite the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, for the most part the U-boat crews treated the crews of fishing boats well, often issuing them with provisions or a compass. This was not however universal and there is at least one case of a U-boat lining the crew of a fishing boat on its bows before diving and leaving them to drown. For the fishermen of the NE coast this was often a time of terror.
Terror was part of the process. Fortunately Kplt. Werner Furbringer of UB-39 was a humane man and no harm came to the crew of the Hull trawler Bute when intercepted and sunk off the Tyne on 14 July 1916.
On May 4, U-9 sank another fishing vessel, Rugby [26 in the chart extract above], then as she approached Whitby she ran into two further fishing vessels, Merrie Islington  and Straton . Both were dispatched via torpedo. Once again the crews were allowed to leave the boats before they were sunk. Untroubled by the Royal Navy, Spiess headed North up the shipping channel. Off Newton Point on May 8, U-9 stopped the 939 t steamer Don by firing a warning shot with the gun. The ship was in ballast and en route from Cromarty to Blyth. All on board were allowed to take to the lifeboat before the vessel was sunk by torpedo. Moments after Don had sunk, a large Southbound ship, hove into view.
The attack on the 3590 t Sunderland-built Queen Wilhelmina  must have made Spiess fume. The Furness Withy and Co. ship was in ballast, sailing between Leith and Fowey. Following the standard procedure, the ship was stopped with a shot over the bows, the people on board evacuated, then the ship dispatched using a torpedo. Only the ship did not sink and U-9 had fired her last torpedo. Patrol vessels were spotted in the distance, leaving Spiess and his men no option but to make a quick exit. As the U-boat departed, so the master and a skeleton crew re-boarded Queen Wilhelmina. They succeeded in beaching her at Bondicarr Bush, just South of Amble but the vessel was later declared a total loss and broken up. U-9 returned to base on May 10.
Track of U-25
On May 7 the Lusitania was sunk. Neutral indignation forced Germany to abandon its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, even though it had never fully been a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, at least not like the one imposed in 1917. Even though the KDM had, for the most part, kept its kid gloves in place, it must have seemed to many East coast fishing communities that, sinking of U-12 aside, the U-boats were able to operate at will against the East coast. This was largely true. The 9th Destroyer Flotilla was stretched to the absolute limits. This Flotilla charged with defending the coast, which operated under Rear Admiral [East Coast] Stuart Nicholson, could in theory draw upon a strength of twelve River class destroyers operating between Flamborough Head and St Abb’s Head. In fact they were organised into four groups of three. One group would always be at Immingham cleaning boilers. HMS Patrol, the Flotilla leader and HMS St. George the depot ship took up station at the mooring adjacent to Jarrow Slake. Reports from fishing boats and Auxiliary Patrol trawlers indicated that the U-boats remained on the surface for most of the time and that they approached headlands, cliffs and lighthouses for navigational purposes, Longstone Light being a particular favourite.
Rear Admiral [East Coast] arranged for two destroyers, Test and Moy, to be based at Blyth. One destroyer could be sent to patrol the Farnes just before daybreak, the time when U-boats were most frequently spotted.
It was unfortunate that Nicholson lacked the resources to respond quickly to these reports. Talk of laying defensive minefields remained just talk. Besides, it was an open secret in naval circles that the Admiralty pattern and Elia mines did not work. The depth charges issued to the Royal Navy were even more unreliable. The truth was that all around the British Isles the U-boats were running rings round the Royal Navy. It would take intelligence and immense luck to sink a U-boat. Nevertheless the 9th Destroyer Flotilla did come pretty close.
A German torpedo picked up by HMS Test some five miles off Blyth. produced massive search between Tyne and Longstone in early June. On 6 June U-25 attacked fishing boats on Western end of Dogger Bank, sinking SS Glitterland and four trawlers, Pentland, Nottingham, Velocity and Saturn. Captain [D] ordered HMS Moy from Blyth to investigate reports of U-boat off Newton on June 8. No sooner had the ship reached the sector when a report was received from boats newly arrived at North Sunderland [Seahouses] than a U-boat was on the surface off Big Harcar in the Farnes.
At 08:45 HMS Moy sighted a submarine three miles ENE from Longstone and raised speed with a view to ramming the vessel. The men on the U-boat bridge were concentrating on an approaching Swedish steamer,
manouvreing the U-boat into an attacking position. Moy rammed the submarine, riding straight over her with a terrible grinding screech of metal. U-25 was forced under but moments later the submarine broke surface astern of Moy, her periscope standards shattered, lolling uselessly in their casing.
U-25 slightly more streamlined than her predecessors
The U-boat dived suddenly raising hopes she had been sunk. Moy, by this stage joined by two other destroyers, buoyed the position. Auxiliary patrol trawlers swept the position for three days but to no avail. U-25 had escaped, arriving back at base on 10 June, her crew shaken but unharmed.
And that was that. The High Seas Fleet U-boats disappeared from our coast as quickly as they had descended. During the brief campaign they had exposed the weakness of the British responses. The much-vaunted supremacy of the Royal Navy was now being called into question by the actions of a few cheap experimental craft. Even the deciphering skills of Room 40 could not prevent the U-boat incursions if the destroyer flotillas lacked the resources to act upon such information. In time, faster new destroyers would become available in significant numbers but in the Summer of 1915 they were a long way off. The U-boats would of course return to the NE but not until the high Summer of 1916 – and this time they would bring their mines with them.
Of course it had not been all plain sailing for the U-boats. U-12 had been caught on the surface and rammed. U-25 came very close to the same fate. The luck of Hans Schultheß and the crew of U-23 ran out at 07:55hrs on 20 July 1915 when they moved in for the kill on a Norwegian trawler off Kinnaird Head. in Aberdeenshire. No sooner had the crew of U-23 fired a warning shot over the bow of the trawler, Princess Louise than a slight disturbance was spotted on the water 250 metres abeam of the U-boat, followed seconds later by the unmistakable wake of two torpedoes. To their abject horror they watched the streaks approach U-23, while the trawler ran up a White Ensign. Princess Louise was a decoy. Twenty feet under the surface her ‘little friend’ HMS/M C27 [Lt. Dobson] in telephone communication with Princess Louise had manoeuvred into a firing position, all the time letting U-23 approach just a little more closely.
One torpedo struck home, U-23 sank. Ten men including Schultheß were rescued but the rest went down with the boat.
In 1915 the Royal Navy might have been behind in the game – but it was fast picking up the moves
ADM 53/34069, ADM 137/4142, ADM 116/1418, T-1022, Roll 31, PG61516, Spindler ‘Handelskrieg der U-booten, Band 2’
© P Armstrong