On 7 February, 1917, a single torpedo from the German submarine U-85 sank all nine thousand tons of the S.S. California. The steamer went down in only nine minutes, taking forty-three passengers and crew. A bobbing sea of debris was the calling card of the submarine, which by now had earned its reputation as an indiscriminate killer.
The California wasn’t a solitary casualty on 7 February, 1917. That very day, the Corsican Prince and Saint Niman were attacked by submarine only three miles from Whitby, England. The Boyne Castle was captured by submarine off the coast of Scotland, then sunk by gunfire. Saxonian, Vedeamore, and Gravine, over twelve thousand tons combined, also fell prey to the submarine.¹ And this was only the beginning. In April, U-boats would sink a total of 373 vessels.² Paint schemes, zig-zagging maneuvers, convoy formations and Q-ships played their part in deterring the menace, but only to a certain extent. A naval response, wrote Geoffrey Bennett, was often too late to stop the carnage.
As often than not, half an hour or more elapsed before the nearest patrol reached the position where a merchant ship had been torpedoed, with small chance of destroying her assailant when there was no adequate underwater detection device, and the only weapon one so imprecise as the depth charge. By the end of April 1917 Britain had lost a further 1 1/4 million tons of merchant shipping, a figure which rose to another 1 1/2 million tons in the next four months, a rate which all her shipbuilding resources could not hope to match.³
There was a moment at the dawn of both world wars when subs reserved their shots for warships or merchants of high value. Mercy was even tendered to the crew of a target ship by the submarine commander, allowing sailors to get into lifeboats before their vessel was destroyed. On the other hand, there are alternative accounts where survivors were shot to prevent them from reporting a sub’s position. But the seaways of the world were ferrying men and materiel to the enemy, and eventually subs were let off the chain. They practiced silent attacks on anything that moved. Sometimes the effect of this warfare was absolutely tragic, such as in the sinking of a passenger liner. In the Pacific during World War II, a U.S. submarine torpedoed a transport full of American P.O.W.s.
The submarine haunted sailors in wartime. Nervous lookouts tried to discern between the trailing “feather” of a periscope and the natural shapes of the ocean surface. Some expected to end their voyage in a life vest. Entire battle forces could shift their course to the report of an enemy submarine. A new area of weaponry and sensors, most notably sonar, were developed to confront the submersible raider.
The weapon that claimed such ships remained supreme in a hunting ground which, to this very day, still belongs to the submarine.
¹ British Vessels Lost at Sea: 1914-1918. Patrick Stephens, Cambridge, 1977.
² Banks, Arthur. A Military Atlas of the First World War. Pen and Sword, South Yorkshire, 2001.
³ Bennett, Geoffrey. Naval Battles of the First World War. Penguin, London, 2001.