Great War Statistics – Economic


World % GDP $bn Per-Capita $
British 23.5% 561.2 1,258
Chinese 21.8% 241.4 582
Russian 9.3% 264.3 1,498
US 5.6% 522.2 4,917
French 5.2% 170.2 1,414
German 4.1% 258.4 3,227
Japanese 3.9% 92.8 1,251
Hapsburg 2.7% 122.4 1,986
Italian 2.0% 97.7 2,428
Ottoman 1.2% 25.3 1,100
Portuguese 0.8% 13.6 925

1 Global Empires in 1914

Columns –

World % – Percentage of world population

GDP $bn – Gross Domestic Product in $billion

Per-Capita Income – Average income in $

People GDP Per Capita Foreign Trade %GDP
millions $bn $ Imp Exp All Trade
Entente (1st Wave)
Britain 45.65 229.60 5,030 16.1% 13.5% 29.6%
Belgium 7.60 32.40 4,264 4.4% 3.6% 8.0%
France 39.77 129.04 3,245 8.0% 6.8% 14.8%
Russia 170.09 265.09 1,559 2.8% 4.0% 6.8%
Japan 55.10 76.50 1,388 1.8% 1.6% 3.4%
Serbia 3.03 3.20 1,060 (No Data)
Central Powers
Germany 66.98 280.00 4,180 12.7% 12.4% 25.1%
Austria-Hungary 47.51 122.39 2,576 3.4% 2.9% 6.3%
Ottoman Empire 23.00 18.30 1,408 (No Data)
Entente (2nd & 3rd Wave)
USA 97.61 517.38 5,300 9.1% 12.8% 21.9%
Italy 35.42 96.38 2,721 3.5% 2.5% 6.0%

2 Main Combatants Economic Balance (Home Territory Only) 1914

Columns –

People – Population in millions (excludes overseas territories)

GDP – Gross Domestic Product in $billions

Per-Capita – Average income = GDP / Population in $

Foreign Trade %GDP – Total Foreign Trade (Imports + Exports) as percentage of GDP


Per Capita Income $   Gross Domestic Product $bn
1 USA 5,300 USA 517.4
2 Britain (UK) 5,030 Germany 280.0
3 Belgium 4,264 Russia 265.1
4 Germany 4,180 China 243.7
5 France 3,496 Britain (UK) 229.6
6 Italy 2,721 Britain (India) 204.0
7 Austria-Hungary 2,576 France 129.0
8 Romania 1,708 Austria-Hungary 122.4
9 Russia 1,558 Italy 96.4
10 Greece 1,454 Japan 76.5
11 Bulgaria 1,450 Belgium 32.4
12 Turkey 1,407 Brazil 25.0
13 Japan 1,388 Turkey 18.3
14 Portugal 1,257 Romania 12.5
15 Brazil 1,232 Portugal 7.5
16 Serbia & Montenegro 1,056 Siam 7.0
17 Siam 833 Bulgaria 6.5
18 Britain (India) 753 Greece 4.0
19 China 552 Serbia & Montenegro 3.2

3 All Combatants Ranked by National Income $ 1914

Column –

GDP – Gross Domestic Product in $billions

Per-Capita – Average income = GDP / Population in $

Coal Steel Iron Ore Industrial Output
m tons m tons m tons % world
USA 517 31 42 36%
Germany 154 19 17 16%
Britain 292 9 10 14%

4 Major Powers – Industrial Capacity

Sources for statistics

Savereo John 2017



Great War Statistics – Casualties


Combatant Deaths % Total % Pop
Germany 2,000,000 24.8% 3.0%
Russia 1,700,000 21.1% 1.0%
France 1,358,000 16.8% 3.4%
Austria-Hungary 1,100,000 13.6% 2.3%
Britain (UK Only) 761,000 9.4% 1.7%
Italy 400,000 5.0% 1.1%
Ottoman Empire 375,000 4.7% 1.6%
Britain (Empire) 252,000 3.1% 0.1%
USA 114,000 1.4% 0.1%
Total 8,060,000

1 Total Military Deaths by 1918

Columns –


% Total – Percentage of total military deaths

% Pop – Percentage of pre-war population

At Sea / Air Raids 110,000
Belgium 30,000
Roumania 800,000
Germany 813,000
Austria & Serbia 1,000,000
Russia 2,000,000

2 Total Civilian Deaths by 1918

Napoleonic Wars 1790 – 1815 233
Taiping Rebellion 1851 – 1866 3,632
Crimean War 1854 – 1856 1,075
American Civil War 1861 – 1865 518
Prusso-Danish War 1864 22
Prusso-Austrian War 1866 1,125
Franco-Prussian War 1870 – 1871 876
Boer War 1899 – 1902 10
Russo-Japanese War 1904 – 1905 292
Balkan War 1912 – 1913 1,941
Great War 1914 – 1918 5,509

3 Ten Major Wars – Comparison of Losses per Day

Sources for statistics

Savereo John 2017

Great War Statistics – General Military

Military Balance

Military k Navy k Tons People m % Forces
France 3,700 665 39.8 9.3%
Britain 975 2,158 45.7 2.1%
Russia 5,970 271 170.1 3.5%
Japan 800 520 55.1 1.5%
Belgium 216 0 7.6 0.1%
Serbia 200 0 3.0 6.6%
Entente 1st Wave 11,861 3,614 321.3 3.7%
Germany 4,500 952 67.0 6.7%
Austria-Hungary 3,000 222 47.5 6.3%
Ottoman Empire 600 100 23.0 2.6%
Central Powers 8,100 1,274 137.5 5.9%
Italy 1,251 285 35,420 3.5%
USA 140 774 96,500 0.1%
Entente 2nd / 3rd Wave 1,391 1,059 131,920 1.1%

1 – First Wave Combatants – Military Balance in 1914

Columns –

Military k – Size of armed forces in 1,000’s

Navy k tons – Size of Navy by tonnage

People m – Population in millions (home territory only – excludes overseas possessions)

% Forces – Percentage of the population under arms (= Military / Population)

Battleships  / crusiers Cruisers Destroyers Sub’s k tons
Britain + Dominions 59 107 301 65 2,158
France 25 39 83 55 665
Japan 17 34 50 12 520
Russia 4 10 21 11 271
Entente 105 190 455 143 3,614
Germany 36 54 144 28 952
Austria-Hungary 12 13 25 6 222
Ottoman Empire 2 3 8 0 100
Central Powers 50 70 177 34 1,274
USA 31 25 51 30 774
Italy 12 15 36 19 285
Second / Third Wave 43 40 87 49 1,059

2 – Comparative Naval Strengths 1914

Columns –

Battleships / Cruisers – Battleships and Battlecruisers of all types, including pre-Dreadnaught

Cruisers – Types including Light, Armored and Protected



k Tons – Tonnage in 1,000’s

Sources for statistics

Savereo John 2017


Great War Statistics – U-Boat and Merchant Shipping


Great War - Shipping Losses

1 British and Neutral Merchant Tonnage Sunk (1,000 tons) – by Cause

Britain 7,760
Norway 1,177
France 889
Italy 846
USA 395
Other Countries 1,785
Total 12,852

2 Entente and Neutral Merchant Tonnage Sunk (1,000 tons) – By Country

Germany 187
Turkey 62
Austria-Hungary 15
Total 264

3 Central Powers Merchant Tonnage Sunk (1,000 tons) – By Country


Great War - U Boat Losses

4 U-Boat Losses 1914-1918


Rank Name 1,000 tons
KK Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere 400
KL Walther Forstmann 380
KK Max Valentiner 300
KL Hans Rose 210
KL Otto Streinbrink 210
KL Waldemar Kophamel 190
KL Walther Schweiger 190
KL Hans von Mellenthin 170
KL Claus Rücker 170
KL Otto Wünsche 160
OL Reinhold Salzwedel 150
OL Wolfgang Steinbauer 140
KL Konrad Gansser 140
KL Robert Moraht 130
KL Willhelm Werner 130
KL Leo Hillebrand 130
KL Otto Schultze 130
KL Rudolf Schneider 130
KL Ernst Hashagen 130
KL Kurt Hartwig 130

5 Top Twenty U-Boat Aces 1914-1918

Sources used for statistics

Savereo John 2017


The Battle of Heligoland Bight (1939)


wellington and 109

Vickers Wellington and Messerschmidt 109

Battle of Heligoland Bight (18th Dec 1939)

Allied – 22 Vickers Wellington bombers

Axis – 44 Messerschmitt 109 and 110’s

Result – Axis victory


Allied – 12 bombers shot down, 3 damaged. 57 dead

Axis – 3 fighters shot down, 10 damaged. 2 dead, 2 wounded

German histories note this raid as the most significant air battle of the war, purely for the effect it had on the strategy of both sides.

By December 1939, the war had been in progress for 3 months and was well into the “phoney war” phase. Although the causus belli (stated reason) for the war was the German invasion of Poland; the French and British had assembled a powerful force, but had left it dug in along the German border, whilst the Germans and Russians crushed Poland unmolested. The raid occurred just 10 days after the battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of Graf Spee.

Bombing at the time was restrained by the need to avoid adverse publicity with neutrals, particularly the USA. Attacks on urban areas were to be avoided. This was respected in the western theatre by both sides at this time – but by nobody in the eastern theatre, where the city of Warszawa was heavily bombed and civilian columns on the roads attacked; up 7,000 Polish civilians were killed by bombing during the siege of the city.

The first British air raids on German territory started as soon as war was declared as did the first U-Boat attacks on British shipping. On 3rd Sep, just a few hours after war was declared, 18 Handley Page Hampdens and 9 Vickers Wellingtons took off from RAF Wyton to attack the battleship SMS Admiral Scheer, moored in the Jade Estuary near Willhelmshaven naval base. The target could not be found due to heavy cloud, and the force returned to base. About the same time as they were landing, submarine U30 spotted and torpedoed the Donaldson Atlantic passenger liner SS Athenia without warning, about 70 miles south of Rockall. The liner was 1 day out of Liverpool, en-route to Montreal and had 1,400 passengers on board; 98 passengers and 19 crew were killed. These were the first British, Canadian and American civilians killed in WW2.

The RAF tried again to attack the Admiral Scheer the following day, when 15 Bristol Blenheims returned and found the battleship. Germany had no integrated radar defence at this time and the Bombers found the ship before they were intercepted. Despite this only one bomb hit the ship, but it failed to explode; no significant damage was done. At the same time 9 Vickers Wellingtons attacked shipping in the Elbe Estuary, further along the coast, but again did no damage. 3 Wellingtons and 5 Blenheims were shot down, the first British military losses of WW2.

Sporadic air attacks on shipping in the North Sea continued until Dec when the RAF decided to mount its largest attack to date. The target was any German shipping in Heligoland Bight between Willhelmshaven and Cuxhaven. 22 twin engine  Wellingtons from RAF Milldenhall deployed, each with a crew of 5. The Wellington was adapted to the pre- radar era – it could attack land or sea targets fast and low and with great accuracy; the main danger was from anti-air craft guns, not enemy fighters.

But as a massed attack bomber, outnumbered 2-1 by high performance fighters vectored in by radar – it was hopeless. The flight flew east and was picked up by the newly installed Freya Radar station on Heligoland Island; The flight initially headed for Kiel, but veered south at the last moment and came in from the northeast. Consequently, radar had tracked them for a full hour before reaching the target. Air Defence Command in Hamburg put 100 fighters in the air, the first wave of 44 intercepting the bombers as they reached the target. Within a short time 12 Wellingtons had been shot down and the rest fled badly shot up. No ships were damaged.

For the RAF, an attrition rate of 50% was unsustainable; this added to the realisation that accurate bombing against a defended and radar-enabled target was difficult if not impossible with the technology they had, led them to abandon daylight bombing altogether. RAF bombing activity was light until the Axis offensive in the west in May 1940, when first tactical, then strategic bombing re-appeared, but with a radically different set of objectives to the first tentative attacks.  Britain (and the USA) both understood the notion of “strategic” bombing – attacks directed far behind the lines at economic and industrial targets as opposed to “tactical” bombing – attacks in support of army or navy operations. Add to this the British view that the morale of the enemy population was a legitimate strategic objective, particularly that of war workers and you arrive at the following –

A separate “air front” – a strategic campaign of psychological warfare (nuisance raids and leaflet drops) and night-time bombing of economic targets conducted by larger bombers, with bigger bomb loads in bigger numbers. Accuracy at night was impossible, only wide areas could be targeted. The intention was not to hit just factories, but worker housing, with the stated intent of destroying housing and killing the inhabitants to bring about a collapse in the productive capacity of the enemy society and economy and to force them to withdraw from the war.  This policy was not put into effect earnestly until after the Blitz, in which 30,000 British civilians had been killed in the space of about 9 months. It should also be noted that the tactic of using electronic vectoring at night and a much higher  proportion of incendiaries in the bomb load were both copied by the RAF from Luftwafe tactics during the Blitz.

The German’s saw bombing very differently. To them the primary role of the bomber was tactical – it was there to support the operations of the other two services. They could conceive of tactical objectives behind the lines – attacks on British ports and aerospace industries during the Blitz being two obvious examples. Where the Luftwafe attacked civilian areas in Britain specifically it was usually “Vergeltungswaffen” (revenge weapons) – either the Baedecker raids against historic town centres or the V-weapons program, ie retaliation for Allied attacks on German cities. It wasn’t that Hitler was opposed to killing civilians – it was just that he didn’t think bombing was the way to do it.

Their biggest mistake however was to overestimate the effectiveness of their integrated defence and to inadequately fund not only fighter defence, but bomber development also. This was to have increasingly dire consequences from 1943 onwards as the Allies, by now re-inforced by the Americans could put 1,000 Lancasters and Wellingtons with electronically vectored Mosquitoes as pathfinders into a nightime raid and 1,000 Flying Fortress bombers plus 800 Mustangs and Thunderbolt fighters into a daytime raid.

The British and the American’s believed that strategic bombing could win a war – the Germans never did. As it turned out, the Allies were wrong. Despite repeated raids, the USAAF was never able to seriously dent, for instance, German aerospace industrial capacity. They simply dispersed most of it and moved the rest underground. German aircraft production actually rose and continued to do so until mid 1944 when the outer areas of the German empire were overrun and supply of raw materials dried up. The British (and later American) area bombing also failed to break the morale of the German population; although 350,000 of them had to die and 40% of urban Germany reduced to charred rubble to prove the point.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John


The Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914)

churchill and tirpitz 2

Alfred von Tirpitz and Winston Churchill


Battle of Heligoland Bight (28th Aug 1914)

Entente – 5 battlecruisers, 8 light cruisers, 33 destroyers, 8 submarines

Central Powers – 6 light cruisers, 19 torpedo boats, 12 minesweepers

Result – Entente victory


Entente – 1 light cruiser and 3 destroyers damaged. 35 dead, 45 wounded

Central Powers – 3 light cruisers, 1 destroyer, 2 torpedo boats sunk and 3 light cruisers, 3 destroyers damaged. 715 dead, 149 wounded, 338 POW.

This was the first full-scale naval battle of the Great War.

By the end of Aug 1914, the war on land for the Entente looked grim. On the western front, the Germans had overrun Belgium, and in the east, they had turned inflicted such a defeat at the battle of Tannenberg that the Russian commander, Gen Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.

The war at sea was a different story. As soon as war was declared all the telegraph cables between Germany and the outside world were cut. A minefield was laid across the Straits of Dover with lanes patrolled by submarines and airships. The North Sea was declared a war zone patrolled by destroyers, submarines and weaponised trawlers. A blockade was imposed on all goods, even food and medicine. Germany’s GDP was the 2nd highest in the world in 1914, but the blockade ended the multi-billion dollar trade with the Americas and crippled the economy.

To counter bad news from France, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill a ordered a flotilla from Harwich to ambush a regular patrol north of the main German base at Willhelshaven.

Attacking in patchy fog, they achieved complete surprise and despite poor visibility, sheer weight of numbers won out and the Germans took heavy losses. In the final action, two German cruisers, SMS Arethusa and the flagship Cöln, were caught by the flagship of Grand Fleet, the 26,000 ton HMS Lion and sunk, with the dead including the German Commander Rear Admiral Leberecht Maas. The British picked up over 300 German survivors before withdrawing, including Wolfgang von Tirpitz, son of Winston Churchill’s opposite number in the Kreigsmarine – Großadmiral Alfred von Tirpitz.

The Entente followed a containment policy in the North Sea from this point on and relied on the long term effect of the economic blockade to cause the most harm to the enemy. By the wars end, 400,000 German civilians would be dead from shortages of food and medicines; the biggest impact came from the end of imported fertilisers which caused agricultural yields to fall at a time when Germany needed to become self-sufficient in food.

The Germans for their part realised the futility of trying to match the British ship for ship. Instead they looked to attack commerce with surface raiders stationed in the oceans and the new naval weapon, and the one for which the Kriegsmarine would become famous – the U-Boat.


Copyright ©2017 Savereo John

Great War Statistics – Economic and Military

Military Balance – Population, Size of Military, Size of Navy

Casualties – Military and Civilian

The Economic Balance of the Combatants in 1914 – GDP, Per-Capita Income, Foreign Trade, Industrial Capacity

The Cost of the Great War – Government Spending, Loss of Production, Subsidies from Britain and USA to other Entente Powers

Britain the World’s Banker in 1913 – British Investments Overseas in 1913

Sources for statistics


Savereo John 2017



The First U-Boat Sinkings of the Great War.


The Battle of the Broad Fourteens (22 Sept 1914)

Entente : 3 cruisers
Central Powers : 1 U-Boat
Result : Central Powers victory

Losses :
Entente : 3 cruisers sunk, 1,459 dead
Central Powers : None

Known also as The Action of 22nd Sept 1914, it was fought about 25m northwest of Hoek van Holland over a submerged Doggerland plateau 14 fathoms below the surface. It appears on naval charts as a line of 14’s – hence The Broad Fourteens.

After the disastrous first patrol in the opening days of the war (2 boats lost, no Entente ships damaged), the U-Boats needed a success to prove their worth. It wasn’t long coming.

In early Sept 1914, U-21 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing was sent on patrol to the North Sea between Scotland and Norway. His orders were to harass Entente shipping and gather intelligence on ships enforcing the blockade. U-21 was part of the latest class of diesel-powered submarines commissioned by the Kriegsmarine, more reliable and with a longer range; she had a crew of 29. On 5th Sep, U-21 encountered armoured cruiser HMS Pathfinder near the Isle of May in the mouth of the Forth Estuary, Scotland. The U-Boat attacked and the torpedo struck Pathfinder causing the magazine to detonate and the ship to explode; she capsized and sank within 5 minutes. Total British casualties – 261 dead. This was the first successful submarine attack of the conflict.

Two weeks later on the 22nd Sept, U-9 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddingen was making across the North Sea to attack troopships carrying British re-enforcements to the beleaguered Entente garrison in Ostend, Belgium when he encountered three obsolete pre-dreadnaught era cruisers, HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy. Weddingen attacked and hit Aboukir from a range of 500 metres. Not seeing any submarines, the British thought they had struck a mine and the other ships stopped to help. Thirty minutes later as Aboukir was sinking, U-9 torpedoed HMS Hogue, which also began to sink. However, the inexperienced U-Boat crew had fired from too shallow a depth and as the torpedoes left, the sub briefly lifted out of the water where she was spotted by Cressy, who opened fire. U-9 submerged again and, 20 mins later torpedoed HMS Cressy as well. Total British dead 1,429.

During the battle Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave, a midshipman on HMS Aboukir, became the only man in history known to have been torpedoed three times on the same day. He swam away from Aboukir as it was sinking, was picked up by HMS Hogue and torpedoed a second time then swam to HMS Cressy and was torpedoed again. He was found later that day by a Dutch trawler, barely alive, clinging to a piece of driftwood. Dutch steamers and trawlers picked up about 400 survivors.

Weddingen returned to a heroes welcome in Germany, where he was awarded the Iron Cross. He was killed in Mar 1915 when in command of U-29, which was rammed by HMS Dreadnaught in the Pentland Firth between John O’Groats and Orkney killing all 29 men on board.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John


The First Air-Raid on Britain in WW2


HMS Southampton, Edinburgh and Mohawk by the Forth Bridge


Battle of the River Forth (16th Oct 1939)
Allied : 6 – 12 Supermarine Spitfires, 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer at anchor
Axis : 12 Junkers 88

Allied : Three ships damaged, 16 dead, 44 wounded
Axis : 2 Junkers shot down, 1 damaged. 8 dead, 4 POW
Result : Axis victory

British air attacks on German coastal targets began on the same day as war was declared, 3rd Sep 1939, and targeted military and merchant shipping in the North Sea and Heligoland Bight. Very little damage was done and no ships sunk for losses in bombers of over 30%; to be frank, the raids’ main value was as an unwitting live fire exercise for the Germans to tighten up their defences.

Hitler was at first reluctant to countenance heavy air attacks against Britain; in these early days of the war he still hoped that the British would come to their senses and reach an accommodation with him rather than risk another conflagration like 1914-18. Added to this both sides had an eye to neutral opinion elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA, and trod carefully in their selection of targets. Just as with the Baedecker raids and the V-weapons program later in the war, Germany launched this raid as a retaliation for the earlier British attacks. Even so, 6 weeks had elapsed before the first German attempt to attack the British coast with aircraft took place.

At 09.40 on the 16th, the radar station at Coldingham detected aircraft approaching the Forth Estuary in Scotland. Ground observation confirmed a Heinkel 111 at high altitude over Dunfermline heading towards Rosyth naval base, a major installation with many ships at anchor; protected by anti-aircraft batteries and a fighter squadron nearby at RAF Leuchers. Three spitfires led by FL George Pinkerton were scrambled to intercept and spotted the aircraft as it was turning away, having photographed the ships in the estuary. Pinkerton opened fire, but the Heinkel dove into a cloud bank and contact was lost – it returned safely to its base on the German island of Sylt, near the Danish border, at that time the closest Luftwafe base to Britain. Those were the first shots of the air war over Britain.

Heikel and JU88

Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111

The plane radioed that it had spotted several warships in the estuary including a battleship, which they thought was HMS Hood – actually it was the Repulse. About two hours later, 12 JU88’s, each carrying 2 500kg bombs, and led by Hauptmann Helmuth Poule took off from Sylt to attack the ships. The JU88 was designed as a multi role aircraft, used for reconnaissance, anti-submarine, bombing and as a night fighter. Its slow speed and lack of a tail gun however made it vulnerable to fighters – over 300 were shot down in the battle of Britain, more than any other aircraft.

As the Luftwafe formation approached the coast, it split up into 3 waves of 4 aircraft each, which separated and attacked the target from different direction. Radar picked them up at 14.00 and Spitfires were scrambled from Leuchars; the RAF managed to get 20+ machines into the air, but most were spread out across east-central Scotland trying to find the bombers and took no part in the battle. Consequently, the first wave was able to attack before being intercepted. Repulse was docked in Rosyth by now, as was aircraft carrier HMS Furious, but Poule’s orders forbade attacks near built up areas. Instead he attacked 2 light cruisers, HMS Southampton and Edinburgh anchored by the Forth Bridge and a destroyer HMS Mohawk, heading for the base. A civilian travelling on a train crossing the bridge witnessed the raid

“ …. there was a giant waterspout as high as the bridge alongside one of the capital ships and a barge tied up alongside; it seemed to fly up in the air! In later life I discovered it was HMS Southampton. There were two or three other explosions further off and one of the ships was actually struck.”

In fact, all three ships were hit; Mohawk took the most damage with 13 dead. Southampton also took a direct hit, but the bomb passed through the ship and out the other side, finally detonating when it hit the water. As the second wave arrived, the Spitfires intercepted them and a running air battle developed over the estuary and the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, with 2 Junkers shot down and 1 damaged; that aircraft made it back to Sylt, but crashed on landing killing all 4 of the crew.

The British press presented the incident as a victory, but in reality it was anything but that. The RAF squadrons contained a high proportion of auxiliaries, basically reservists only just called up; none had ever been in combat before. Also, the squadrons had only recently been upgraded to Spitfires; 6 months earlier they were still flying Gloucester Gladiator biplanes. The Luftwafe men however were all veterans of the Polish campaign; their superior tactics and skill in the attack were very apparent.

Despite powerful fighters and radar, raid had reached Rosyth naval base. HMS Repulse and Furious were recently docked and had their full complements on board – 2,000+ men and were sitting ducks. Where it not for Hitler’s early scruples about bombing built up areas in Britain, there might have been a mini Pearl Harbour that day. A year later, during the Blitz, 12 lumbering JU88s in daylight with no fighter cover would have been easy meat for the RAF – they would have got every one.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John

The first U-Boat attack of the Great War


HMS Birmingham and U-15

On the 1st Aug 1914, 4 days before Britain’s declaration of war, the Central Powers deployed a force of ten U-Boats – one third of their strength – into the North Sea for reconnaissance. Submarines at that time had yet to prove themselves as effective weapons platforms, being thought useless novelties by many commanders on both sides. In truth, nobody then had any real notion as to how effective the submarine could be. It was realised that, although a submarine was almost immobile and practically blind while submerged, until the development of depth charges by Britain in 1915, there was nothing a surface ship could do until the sub re-surfaced. Once on the surface though, they were easy targets for even a small ship. Nonetheless, the world’s largest submarine force in 1914 was the British with 65 boats and the second largest was the French with 55, however some of the Entente hardware was ageing. Germany by comparison had only 28 submarines, but they were of more modern types.

On the 8th Aug, near Fair Isle, halfway between Orkney and Shetland, the British 2nd Battle Squadron from Scapa Flow, consisting of seven large battleships, were engaged in gunnery practice when they were spotted by German submarine U-15. The U-Boat fired a torpedo at the nearest ship, HMS Monarch, a 26,000 ton Orion-class super-dreadnought with a crew of 1,000. U-15, in comparison, was a 500 ton experimental paraffin-fueled boat and had a crew of 23. Unfortunately for the attackers, the experimental torpedo ran too deep and passed harmlessly under the battleship; the British ships were alerted, but U-15 was able to escape.

The following day, light cruiser HMS Birmingham, commanded by Captain Arthur Duff, part of the screen of ships protecting the battleships, was sailing through thick fog near Fair Isle when it suddenly encountered U-15 on the surface. Most likely the U-Boat had suffered engine failure, the paraffin engines in those early subs were notoriously unreliable; the inexperienced crew had failed to post any lookouts. Birmingham opened fire and the German crew belatedly attempted a crash dive, but it was too late, with full steam up Birmingham rammed U-15, which broke in two and went down with all hands; the first U-Boat to be lost in the conflict. The remaining submarines returned to base shortly after, but lost another boat, most likely to a mine.

This inauspicious debut for the submarine only encouraged those, especially on the British side, who believed that they were practically useless against powerful surface ships. The real lesson, not lost on the Germans, was that most of the time a big battleship is at sea, it’s an easy target for a submarine; and more big ships just meant more targets. Total German casualties – 23 dead.


Copyright ©2017 Savereo John