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.


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