The First Submarine War

November 1914

We Are Losing the War!

– Admiral William Sims, U.S. Navy, April, 1917

September 7, 1776: Turtle, a one-man submarine built by 34-year-old Yale graduate David Bushnell, unsuccessfully tries to attach a torpedo to the hull of the HMS Eagle anchored off New York Harbor.

February 17, 1864: The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley is the first to sink an enemy ship in combat when it rams its spar torpedo into the hull of the Union screw sloop USS Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina. The Hunley was also lost after the action, the cause remains a mystery.

April 11, 1900: John P. Holland sells his internal combustion, gasoline powered submarine, Holland VI, to the United States Navy for $160,000.

I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea. — H. G. Wells

Even if a submarine should work by a miracle, it will never be used. No country in this world would ever use such a vicious and petty form of warfare! — British admiral William Henderson, 1914

(N)o word of a submarine destroyer has ever been heard because it has been forced upon us, by experience, that submarines cannot fight submarines, nor has any successful antidote been found even by the most bitter antisubmarine experts with unlimited means for experiments. — British admiral Jackie Fisher, 1914

September 5, 1914: U-21 sinks Royal Navy light cruiser Pathfinder – first combat victory of the modern submarine.

September 22, 1914: U-9 sinks three British armored cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue.

Unrestricted submarine warfare begins:

The gravity of the situation demands that we should free ourselves from all scruples. — German Admiral Frederich von Ingenohl, November 1914

The waters round Great Britain and Ireland, including the English Channel, are hereby proclaimed a war region. On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening. — Admiral Von Pohl, Chief of Marine Staff, Berlin, February 4, 1915

The Royal Navy employed 193 Q-Ships (armed decoys) to battle the U-boat. Their toll was 15 U-boats sunk with 41 lost during WWI.

May 7, 1915: RMS Lusitania sunk off of Queenstown Ireland by U-20. Of the 1,195 lives lost, 128 were U.S. citizens. The ensuing controversy bought unrestricted submarine warfare to a temporary halt, but contributed to the rise of American sentiment for entering the war against Imperial German.


British Portrayal of Submarine Warfare as Criminal

Unrestricted submarine warfare resumed in February 1917.

April 6, 1917: The United States declares war on Germany.

860,334 tons of Allied shipping sunk in April 1917 – greatest one-month losses of the war.

The unprecedented losses suffered during the last fortnight of April [1917], especially in the approach areas, greatly strengthened the hands of those who advocated the general introduction of the convoy system… — Seaborne Trade, Ernest Fayle

May 1917: The convoy system is implemented, eventually reducing the losses markedly, but never eliminating them entirely. In October 1918, last full month of the war, losses were 116,237 tons. At the Armistice the German Navy had 134 boats in service with 229 more under construction.

After failing to limit submarine warfare during negotiations for the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy and the United States signed the London Naval Treaty in 1930 thru which limited the construction of submarines to vessels less than 2032 metric tons as is was declared that international law applied to them as to surface vessels. Also merchant vessels which did not demonstrate “persistent refusal to stop” or “active resistance” could not be sunk without the ship’s crew and passengers being first delivered to a “place of safety”. Germany, which was not a signatory, ignored these points in World War II when the U-boat again proved a strategic threat against the Allies.

The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. [Some sources suggest both World Wars was intended.] — Winston Churchill, 1946

July 20, 1960: First successful launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine by USS George Washington.

Submarine innovation continues in the post-Cold War security environment… with substantially greater roles in land attack and special operations forces delivery. — Admiral Henry Chiles, U.S. Navy, 2000

Credits: Illustrations from the collection of Tony Langley,
contributing editor of Trip Wire


Learn More About Submarines & U-boats in the Great War


RMS Lusitania, Most Famous U-boat Victim of WWI


  1. World War I at Sea
  2. Für Kaiser und Reich from U-boat Net
  3. Lusitania Controversy at the World War I Document Archive
  4. Lothar von Arnauld, U-Boat Ace
  5. The Zeebrugge Raid: April 1918
  6. British Submarines of the Great War
  7. Dönitz and the Rebirth of the
    U-boat from Military History Online

Romantic German Portrayal of the U-boat



  1. The U-Boat War, 1914-1918, Edwyn A. Gray, Cooper, 1994
  2. Smoke and Mirrors: Q-Ships Against the U-Boats in the First World War, Deborah Lake, Sutton, 2007
  3. Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in World War I, Dwight R. Messimer, Naval Institute Press, 2001
  4. The Submarine: A History, Tom Parrish Viking Adult, 2004
  5. The U-boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines, Eberhard Rossler, Cassell, 2001
  6. The Commerce War, Carl T. Taylor, Mountain Empire Publications, 1999
  7. The U-boat Wars, 1916-1945, John Terraine, Trans-Atlantic Publications, Inc., 1997

Captain Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, Greatest Submarine Ace of All-Time (194 sinkings)

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