The One Boat Wolfpack

The Ger­man U-boat U-35 cruis­ing in the Medi­ter­ranean, April 1917

Shock­ing!” was the unan­im­ous opin­ion of the Brit­ish Admir­alty, when it became obvi­ous, in the earl 1900s, that the devel­op­ment of dies­el-elec­tric propul­sion would enable – soon­er or later – the con­struc­tion of ser­vice­able sub­mar­ines for war­fare.

It was quite against the sense of fair­ness that guided this august body. After all, they had built, and were still build­ing, rows and rows of expens­ive battle­ships – at a cost of a few mil­lion pounds each – which were to ensure Roy­al Brit­ish suprem­acy on the oceans of the world.

Could the build­ing of such cow­ardly weapons for­bid­den by means of an inter­na­tion­al treaty? Incom­pre­hens­ibly, no volun­teers among the navies of the com­pet­i­tion could be found. It was sus­pec­ted, that the mighty battle­ships were, due to their armour, per­haps not liable to become the prey of the igno­mini­ous new weapon, but the mer­chant ships, upon whose trade the Brit­ish Empire depended, would be help­less vic­tims. [FN1]

[FN1] The the­ory of the invi­ol­ab­il­ity of the battle­ship to tor­pedoes and mines went – lit­er­ally – to the bot­tom of the sea on Octo­ber 27, 1914, less than three months into the war, when HMS Auda­cious was struck by a mine and cap­sized a few hours later.

HMS Auda­cious

Sub­mar­ines had one excel­lent advant­age – they could not be seen, and their guns, tor­pedoes and mines could sink any ship in sneak attacks. It was truly unfair. They were cheap, too, hence every­body could build them – and did.

U 9

While sub­mar­ines could sink war­ships, these were rare cases. The two U-Boats – as Ger­man sub­mar­ines were called after the Ger­man term “Untersee­boot” – most effi­cient at this par­tic­u­lar task were U 9, which met the 7th Cruis­er Squad­ron, com­pris­ing the Cressy-class armoured cruis­ers Bac­chante, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, togeth­er with a few des­troy­ers, and sunk Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue with­in a few hours in the Action of 22 Septem­ber 1914. Three weeks later HMS Hawke fell prey to the same boat.

But this feat was out­classed by her sis­ter ship U 21, which on May 25 and 27, 1915, in the open­ing days of the Battle of Gal­lipoli, man­aged to sink the two Brit­ish pre-dread­noughts HMS Tri­umph and HMS Majest­ic, while adding the French armoured cruis­er Amir­al Charner to her bag in Feb­ru­ary 1916.

Yet the more immin­ent threat for Eng­land was, as men­tioned, the sev­er­ance of her trade lines. She impor­ted about 70% of food­stuffs and inter­me­di­ate goods, upon which the people and industry depended. There was a fin­an­cial con­sid­er­a­tion as well – money had to be spent for the pur­chase of these goods, but if the trans­port was sunk, so much for the bal­ance of pay­ments. [FN2]

[FN2] It is not gen­er­ally known, that by April 1, 1917, the Brit­ish Empire was bank­rupt, and the only hope for her main cred­it­ors, the US, to recov­er their loans was to join the war and help her debt­ors win. Amer­ic­an loans to the Allies were but the cost of keep­ing up the Imper­i­al shop, a fact that even the Encyc­lo­pae­dia Brit­an­nica makes no qualms in admit­ting: “The entry of the United States was the turn­ing point in the war, because it made the even­tu­al defeat of Ger­many pos­sible. It had been fore­seen in 1916 that if the United States went to war, the Allies’ mil­it­ary effort against Ger­many would be upheld by U.S. sup­plies and by enorm­ous exten­sions of cred­it. These expect­a­tions were amply and decis­ively ful­filled. The United States’ pro­duc­tion of arma­ments was to meet not only its own needs but also France’s and Great Britain’s. In this sense, the Amer­ic­an eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tion was decis­ive. By April 1, 1917, the Allies had exhausted their means of pay­ing for essen­tial sup­plies from the United States, and it was dif­fi­cult to see how they could have main­tained the war effort if the United States had remained neut­ral. Amer­ic­an loans to the Allies worth $7,000,000,000 between 1917 and the end of the war main­tained the flow of U.S. arms and food across the Atlantic.” (16)

Hence, the major task of the U-Boats was com­mer­cial raid­ing. In the First World War, this meant an ini­tial advant­age for the hunter for the dearth of elec­tron­ic coun­ter­meas­ures, which would be developed only much later. Essen­tially, U-Boats could only be found by hydro­phones, which were still rather prim­it­ive and sens­it­ive, espe­cially dur­ing con­voy oper­a­tions. The only weapon against subs were depth charges.

Unlike in WW 2 movies, the main weapon of the time was the deck gun, of medi­um cal­ibre, often 88 or 105 mil­li­metres. The reas­on was that the boats car­ried a very lim­ited num­ber of tor­pedoes only and ten­ded to save them, hence the gun became the more attract­ive altern­at­ive. The most fam­ous com­mand­er of U 35, Lothar von Arnauld de la Per­ière, used the deck gun in 171 of his 194 sink­ings.

The great tac­tic­al dif­fer­ence in U-Boat war­fare between the two wars lay in the area of com­mu­nic­a­tions, whose improve­ments allowed Germany’s Sub­mar­ine Com­mand­er Karl Dön­itz in the Second War the inven­tion of the “Rudel­tak­tik”, in Eng­lish called “Wolfpack”. Improve­ments, how­ever, worked for both sides – U-Boats could be con­trolled and dir­ec­ted much tight­er by tac­tic­al com­mand, yet the enemy could mean­while share their own inform­a­tion of sight­ings and loc­a­tions. Hence, in World War I, each boat was on her mis­sion alone. No Wolfpack of WW II, how­ever, came close to the suc­cess of the “one boat wolf pack” that was U 35.

Thus, we arrive at the main point of our art­icle, the per­form­ance of U 35 in WW I. U 35 was a pre-war con­struc­tion ordered in 1912 [Design, see Wiki, and FN3]. She offi­cially entered ser­vice on Novem­ber 3rd, 1914, under the com­mand of Kapitän­leut­nant Wal­de­mar Kophamel. Under his com­mand, U 35 sunk no less than 38 ships until Novem­ber 17, 1915.

The next day Cap­tain de la Per­ière took over. He was to become the most suc­cess­ful sub­mar­ine com­mand­er of his­tory. His main area of oper­a­tions was the Medi­ter­ranean Sea, and, in 14 or 15 patrols (sources dif­fer), sank 189 mer­chant ships and five men-of-war for a total of 446,708 GRT. [Com­plete List of Sink­ings and Dam­ages caused by U 35]

Attack on SS Maple­wood

[FN3] Ger­man Type U 31 sub­mar­ines were double-hulled ocean-going sub­mar­ines sim­il­ar to Type 23 and Type 27 subs in dimen­sions and differed only slightly in propul­sion and speed. They were con­sidered very good high sea boats with aver­age man­oeuv­rab­il­ity and good sur­face steer­ing.[5] U-35 had an over­all length of 64.70 m (212 ft 3 in), her pres­sure hull was 52.36 m (171 ft 9 in) long. The boat’s beam was 6.32 m (20 ft 9 in) (o/a), while the pres­sure hull meas­ured 4.05 m (13 ft 3 in). Type 31s had a draught of 3.56 m (11 ft 8 in) with a total height of 7.68 – 8.04 m (25 ft 2 in – 26 ft 5 in). The boats dis­placed a total of 971 tonnes (956 long tons); 685 t (674 long tons) when sur­faced and 878 t (864 long tons) when sub­merged.[5] U-35 was fit­ted with two Ger­mania 6-cyl­in­der two-stroke dies­el engines with a total of 1,850 met­ric horsepower (1,361 kW; 1,825 bhp) for use on the sur­face and two Siemens-Schuck­ert double-act­ing elec­tric motors with a total of 1,200 PS (883 kW; 1,184 shp) for under­wa­ter use. These engines powered two shafts each with a 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in) pro­peller, which gave the boat a top sur­face speed of 16.4 knots (30.4 km/h; 18.9 mph), and 9.7 knots (18.0 km/h; 11.2 mph) when sub­merged. Cruis­ing range was 8,790 naut­ic­al miles (16,280 km; 10,120 mi) at 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) on the sur­face, and 80 nmi (150 km; 92 mi) at 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) under water. Diving depth was 50 m (164 ft 1 in).[5] The U-boat was armed with four 50 cm (20 in) tor­pedo tubes, two fit­ted in the bow and two in the stern, and car­ried 6 tor­pedoes. Addi­tion­ally, U-35 was equipped in 1915 with one 8.8 cm (3.5 in) Uk L/30 deck gun, which was replaced with a 10.5 cm (4.1 in) gun in 1916/17. The boat’s com­ple­ment was 4 officers and 31 enlis­ted.[5]

His­tor­ic­al Video Clips from U-35: Imper­i­al War Museum / Back­ToThePas­tWeb

Lothar von Arnauld de la Per­ière, her second cap­tain, was of French Huguenot des­cent, of the many fam­il­ies that fled France after Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fon­tainebleau in 1685, end­ing reli­gious tol­er­ance in France in favour of the Cath­ol­ic Church. In reac­tion, Fre­d­er­ick Wil­helm, Duke of Prus­sia and Elect­or of Branden­burg, issued the Edict of Pots­dam in late Octo­ber 1685, encour­aging the Prot­est­ants to seek refuge in Prus­sia, which many did and became an eco­nom­ic boom and élite in the (then) rel­at­ively back­ward coun­try.

Fre­d­er­ick Wil­helm wel­com­ing the Refugees

He strictly adhered to the Prize Rules then in effect, which makes his achieve­ments all the more impress­ive. His four­teenth patrol (26 July to 20 August 1916) stands as the most suc­cess­ful sub­mar­ine patrol of all time, in which 54 mer­chant ships totalling 90,350 GRT were sunk.

U-35 also sank the Brit­ish gun boat HMS Prim­ula on 29 Feb­ru­ary 1916, the French gun­boat Rigel on 2 Octo­ber 1916 as well as the Armed mer­chant cruis­er La Provence.

She sur­vived the war and was trans­ferred to Eng­land and broken up after 1920.

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2019)

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