World War 1 History: 1916—German Merchant U-Boat Arrives in U.S.
U-Boat Deutschland in US Waters
Unarmed Merchant U-Boat
On July 9, 1916, during World War One, the unarmed German U-Boat Deutschland docked in Baltimore, U.S., loaded with 750 tons of valuable cargo and seeking to trade for scarce materials needed by German war industries. The Deutschland, oversized and with a much larger range than the attack submarines prowling the Atlantic, was specifically built as an unarmed merchant submarine to carry cargo long distances and evade the British naval blockade of Germany.
Deutschland in Baltimore, US
Big and Slow
The Deutschland was the first of two purpose-built merchant submarines by a private consortium of German businesses with the sole purpose of conducting trade despite the iron grip of the Royal Navy's near-total blockade of Germany's coast. She was over 200 feet long and displaced nearly 2,300 tons (almost twice the tonnage of the largest military ocean-going U-Boats). She could carry 750 tons of cargo and had a range of 12,500 miles; her top speed was 17 mph while surfaced and 8 mph submerged. Because she could stay submerged for a long time, the Deutschland's relative slow speed was not a problem.
Deutschland Unloading Cargo in US
Belligerent Warship or Unarmed Merchant?
Since she had such a limited cargo capacity, the Deutschland was loaded with 750 tons of carefully considered goods: valuable chemical dyes, medicinal drugs, gemstones and mail, worth about $1.5 million. On June 23, 1916, she slipped under the surface and navigated the English Channel without incident. Just over two weeks later, she appeared, to the astonishment of all, in Baltimore's harbor on July 9. The Allied belligerents immediately demanded that the Deutschland and her crew be interned as a belligerent warship, since a submarine, even unarmed, could not be readily identified or its cargo inspected for contraband. The U.S., officially neutral at the time, rebutted that the Deutschland, being an unarmed vessel, could come and go as she pleased. It is believed that the German government pressured the U.S. to honor their neutrality, which many times before had been slanted in favor of the Allies.
Deutschland Crew on Shore Leave
Celebrity and Profit
The twenty-nine officers and men were regaled as celebrities and attended several dinners in their honor during their three-week stay in Baltimore. She sailed on August 2, loaded with 350 tons of nickel, 100 tons of tin and 350 tons of crude rubber-- 250 tons of which were carried outside the pressure hull. She arrived back in Germany on August 25, 1916 and her cargo was dispersed to German war industries, supplying them for several months. The profit from the trip was $17.5 million dollars, nearly four times what it cost to build the Deutschland.
Deutschland Emptied of Cargo
In November 1916, she made another trip to the U.S., this time to New London, Connecticut. This time the cargo included gems, securities and medicinal products and again, she evaded the British blockade without incident. After unloading and taking on supplies and cargo for the homeward journey, including 6.5 tons of silver bullion, the Deutschland collided with and sank a tugboat. Five on the tug died and the submarine spent a week getting repaired. On November 21, she again set sail for home. It was her last trading mission.
German Daily Food Ration
By the end of 1916, due to the British naval blockade, a typical German daily food ration was: five bread slices, half a small cutlet, half a glass of milk, two small dollops of fat, some potatoes and an egg cup of sugar.
After the Deutschland returned to Germany, her sister ship, the Bremen, started her maiden voyage to Norfolk, Virginia, but she never arrived. Various theories were put forth as to what happened, from being sunk by an Allied sub to hitting a mine, but her fate remains unknown.
Deutschland Converted to a Submarine Cruiser
Conversion to a U-Kreuzer
In any case, relations with the U.S. were worsening-- especially regarding German U-Boats starting to hunt in international waters just off the northeast coast-- and a third trip by the Deutschland to the U.S. in January 1917 was aborted. The German Navy took over the Deutschland and converted her into a U-Kreuzer-- a submarine cruiser-- and designated as the U-155. At this time, the German Navy was in the process of converting or building six other submarine cruisers based on the merchant submarines. The Deutschland was fitted with torpedo tubes and two 150-mm cannons, much larger than the single 88-mm cannon typically outfitted on U-Boats. This was possible because of her much larger and sturdier beam (width). The idea was she would perform, literally, like a submersible cruiser.
Deutschland as War Booty
Three War Cruises and the End of the Deutschland/U-155
In her capacity as a U-Kreuzer, the Deutschland made three war cruises, one in 1917 that lasted 105 days and covered more than 10,000 miles-- one of the longest submarine cruises of the war-- and two in 1918. She sank 43 vessels, nine of them armed merchant ships, before returning after her third cruise to Germany on November 12, 1918, the day after the Armistice took effect. Under terms of the Armistice, she was surrendered and the British towed her up the Thames and exhibited her in London. In 1921, the Deutschland was sold for scrap and, while being broken up, exploded, killing five.
Questions & Answers
If Germany was believed to have sunk the Lusitania with significant loss of American lives, why was it allowed to dock in Baltimore?
Great question. The Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 and, while there was outrage in America and Britain, American sentiment for war was still low; it would take two years before America declared war on Germany. American pressure did result in the Germans dialing back their submarine strategy somewhat. But the fact is the U.S. was not at war and, as a neutral nation, felt that they could trade with anyone. As a matter of fact, there was some resentment that the British blockade restricted American trade with Europe and Germany. As they say, war is a terrible thing, but business is business.
© 2012 David Hunt