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Map caption follows By the end of the war, four U.S. submarine divisions had departed for European waters, and two of them saw war service in the Azores and Ireland, respectively. Largely, these boats made the voyage under tow from either Boston or Halifax, and the Ireland-bound boats used the Azores as a way-stop. Inclement weather and the large trans-oceanic
distances made these transfers a challenging experience, but no boats were lost either in transit or combat.

The School of War

Three years of actual war experience had given the British a significant advantage in tactical skills compared to their American allies. They had systematized the optimum procedures for the approach and attack of surface targets and computing the lead angle in launching torpedoes, as well as teaching these techniques in an “attack trainer” that imaged model ships through a periscope during simulated engagements. Among the peacetime habits that U.S. submariners were forced to abandon was the practice of keeping the periscope up for much of the approach, vice gathering sporadic target data during brief, hard-to-detect “looks.” Moreover, the Americans also adopted the British practice of assigning the Executive Officer the details of maintaining depth and speed to free up the Commanding Officer to bring the boat into firing position and manage the overall attack. All told, submarines of the Allied navies sank 18 of the 178 German U-boats lost during four years of war. However, during their year or so of active anti-submarine operations from southern Ireland and the Azores, the Americans failed to make a kill.

It was not from lack of trying. Under Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, RN, in overall command of operations off the coast of Ireland, the seven U.S. “AL” boats at Berehaven in Bantry Bay were assigned regular patrol “billets” in the gridded operations areas to the south and east. On average for much of 1918, three of the seven U.S. submarines would be at sea on eight-day patrols, while the others were enjoying refit periods in port. The basic patrol tactic was to cruise at periscope depth during the day, searching the assigned area for German submarines transiting on the surface and then to come up at night to recharge batteries.3 The record shows a total of 21 claimed enemy sightings, of which four led to torpedo attacks, none successful. However, in one unusual incident when AL-2 was returning to port from a fruitless patrol, a periscope was spotted near the Fastnet Rock. Before the submarine could react, a violent explosion was seen only a hundred yards away. After AL-2 crash-dived and leveled off, her crew could hear the desperate throbbing of small propellers and transmissions from a German underwater signaling set, which eventually ceased. After the war, it was revealed that UB-65 was lost there that day, possibly destroyed by a torpedo intended for AL-2.

Of conditions onboard the U.S. boats, RADM William S. Sims, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in European waters, wrote in his World War I account, The Victory at Sea:

Photo caption follows
Canadian-born RADM William S. Sims (1858-1936) was designated as the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in European waters during World War I. An 1880 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Sims became one of the great reformers in naval gunfire and destroyer tactics and ended his Navy career as President of the Naval War College in 1922. The Victory at Sea, his account of Allied-American naval cooperation during “the Great War”, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Even on the coldest winter days there could be no artificial heat, for the precious electricity could not be spared for that purpose, and the temperature inside the submarine was the temperature of the water in which it sailed. The close atmosphere, heavily laden also with the smell of oil from the engines and the odors of cooking, and the necessity of going for days without a bath or even a wash added to the discomfort… One could hardly write, for it was too cold, or read, for there was little light; and because of the motion of the vessel, it was difficult to focus one’s eyes on the page. A limited amount of smoking was permitted, but the air was sometimes so vitiated that only the most vigorous and incessant puffing could keep a cigarette alight. One of the most annoying things about the submarine existence is the fact that the air condenses on the sides as the coldness increases, so that practically everything becomes wet; as the sailor lies in his bunk this moisture is precipitated upon him like rain drops. This combination of discomforts usually produced, after spending a few hours under the surface, that mental state known as “dopey.”

These were minor annoyances compared to the danger of sudden and violent annihilation by enemy opponents – or more likely – by friendly assailants. By the end of hostilities, each of the Berehaven boats had been attacked at least twice by Allied destroyers or patrol craft in what we would call today “blue-on-blue” engagements. Fortunately, none were lost. In one incident recorded by Admiral Sims, the commanding officers of both the attacker and the attacked had been roommates at Annapolis! Despite the existence of recognition signals and identification protocols, Allied surface ships effectively adopted a “shoot-on-sight” policy for all submarines, which led British and American submariners to clear the area whenever they spotted any surface combatant, regardless of nationality.

Photo caption below Photo caption below
Quite prominent in this photograph of USS L-1 (SS-40) at Berehaven is her disappearing-mount 3-inch/23-caliber gun just forward of the sail. In the gun’s stowed position, only the barrel protruded vertically above the deck. In the background is USS Nevada (BB-36), which operated out of Bantry Bay with two sisters in mid-1918 – and survived the Pearl Harbor attack 23 years later to serve throughout World War II.  USS L-2 (SS-41) at Bantry Bay, Ireland, in mid-1918. The 11 submarines of the L class were commissioned between April 1916 and February 1918, and all eventually crossed the Atlantic to European waters before the end of the war.

Defending the Atlantic Coast

Meanwhile, back in the United States and in operating areas as far afield as the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines, other U.S. submarines mounted numerous defensive patrols for the duration of the war. Despite the limited endurance of their earlier U-boats and the strategic advantage of concentrating their anti-shipping campaign in “target-rich” European waters, the Germans had demonstrated as early as mid-1916 that they could operate in the western Atlantic and along the U.S. coastline. In July, the large, unarmed, German cargo-carrying submarine Deutschland – having broken through the British blockade – appeared in Baltimore with a shipment of chemicals and dyestuffs, which was traded for a quantity of strategic war materials to be carried back to Germany. Deutschland made another round trip in November, but by then, the combatant submarine U-53 had also crossed the Atlantic to visit Newport, Rhode Island – and then sank five Allied freighters just outside the territorial limits before returning home.

Thus, when the United States entered the war in April of the next year, there was already significant anxiety about a potential submarine threat off the East Coast. Further exacerbating this concern was the Navy’s relative lack of first-line destroyers – approximately 50 in mid-1917 – and the decision to send most of those to Europe. A massive building program was already underway – it would lead to the eventual construction of 273 four-stack, “flush-deck” destroyers by 1921 – but for the rest of 1917, only five would be launched, and the need to escort troop convoys to France took top priority. As a stopgap, U.S. submarines were drawn increasingly into the anti-submarine campaign on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and two divisions were even shifted from Hawaii and Puget Sound to bolster their ranks.

By the beginning of 1918, small detachments of older U.S. submarines were patrolling regularly from Provincetown, New London, Cape May, the Delaware Breakwater (near Cape Henlopen), Philadelphia, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Key West, Galveston, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and Coco Solo in the Canal Zone. But in fact, a significant submarine threat only materialized along the U.S. East Coast for a few months in mid-1918, when Germany deployed a half-dozen long-range mine-layers and large “U-cruisers” – patterned after Deutschland – across the Atlantic in a last-ditch attempt to disrupt the American war effort. First to arrive was U-151, which left Kiel in mid-April, mined the entrances to both the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, severed several telegraph cables near New York, and sank 23 ships totaling 61,000 tons off New Jersey and Cape Hatteras before breaking off in mid-June.4 During the remainder of the summer, several more German long-range submarines carried out anti-shipping missions along the coast, sinking in excess of 50,000 additional tons – including the Diamond Shoals lightship – and planting minefields that destroyed at least seven more ships, among them the heavy cruiser USS San Diego (CA-6). Additionally, a submarine-laid mine heavily damaged the battleship USS Minnesota (BB-22) off Fire Island.

Despite this appearance of success and the ineffectiveness of the rudimentary ASW measures mounted by U.S. submarines, patrol craft, and airplanes, the brief German submarine campaign off the U.S. East Coast came too late in the war to affect the outcome. The total loss of Allied shipping was only a fifth or so of that sunk in a single month during the height of the conflict in European waters, and the gathering industrial capacity of the United States was fully capable of offsetting an even more dramatic toll. Nonetheless, the Germans had demonstrated convincingly that modern submarines could operate effectively over transoceanic distances and that a mere handful could divert a disproportionate share of naval resources to coastal defense.

U.S. Navy L-class Submarines

Laid down between March 1914 and February 1915, the 11 submarines of the L class were commissioned between April 1916 and February 1918. Seven were built by Electric Boat, three by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company, and one by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (to Lake’s design). The last named – L-8 (SS-48) – was the first U.S. submarine constructed in a government yard.

Intended primarily for coastal defense, the L-class boats displaced 450 tons surfaced and 548 tons submerged on a length of 168 feet. With two 450-horsepower diesel engines (600-horsepower Busch-Sulzers on the Lake version), they could make 14 knots on the surface and 10-1/2 knots submerged, with endurance of 3,150 nautical miles at 11 knots. Underwater endurance was 25 miles at 8-1/2 knots. The submarines were armed with four 18-inch torpedo tubes (in the bow) and were the first to carry a deck gun – a 3-inch/23-caliber disappearing mount just forward of the bridge. When stowed, only the gun barrel projected vertically, but reportedly this cost them a half-knot in underwater speed. The complement was 28 officers and enlisted men.

Seven of the L-class submarines were stationed at Bantry Bay, Ireland during World War I, and the remaining four had just reached the Azores when the war ended on 11 November 1918. All were decommissioned in 1922 and 1923, and all but two had been sold for breaking up by 1925. L-2 (SS-41) and L-9 (SS-49) were finally disposed of in late 1933.

The End of the Beginning

As Allied successes on the Western Front drove the Great War toward its final denouement in the autumn of 1918, two more divisions of U.S. submarines departed for Europe. First, the four Lake-designed L-boats of SUBDIV 6 (L-5 through L-8) left Charleston for the Azores on 20 October. They arrived at Ponta Delgada on 7 November, four days before the Armistice on the 11th. On 2 November, the tender USS Savannah (AS-8) and the recently-completed submarines O-3 through O-10 – constituting SUBDIV 8 – left Newport for Bantry Bay. They arrived in the Azores on 16 November, five days after the end of the war, and were quickly recalled.

When the fighting stopped, the Navy had 74 submarines in commission, with 59 more under construction. Except for two submarines sunk in accidents – F-4 off Honolulu in 1915 and F-1 near San Diego in 1917 – no U.S. submarines had been lost during the conflict. Moreover, by early February 1919, all of the boats that had served in the Azores and southern Ireland had re-crossed the Atlantic and returned to the United States. By the end of 1923, all had been decommissioned, replaced by the new S-class boats whose design and construction had benefited from the many lessons learned during the “Great War.” More significantly, the cumulative experience of U.S. submariners in European waters – and the wartime example of their counterparts in the Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine – provided a firm foundation for developing the world-class submarine force that emerged in the United States between the mid-1920s and the late-1930s.

Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE.


1 The secret Zimmerman telegram – sent by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman to Germany’s U.S. ambassador in January 1917 – revealed a suggestion to the Mexican government that the southwestern United States could be restored to Mexico if that country would ally itself with Germany in a victorious war. The message was intercepted by the British, decoded, and obligingly passed to the Americans, who were naturally outraged.

2 In December 1917, the U.S. Navy also sent a division of five battleships to the Royal Navy’s fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, where they constituted the 6th Battle Squadron of the British Grand Fleet. Moreover, three U.S. battleships operated out of Bantry Bay later in the war, and eventually, over 40 U.S. destroyers served in European waters, the first arriving in May, 1917.

3 In The Victory at Sea, his account of the U.S. Navy in World War I, RADM William S. Sims, the commander of U.S. forces in European waters, claims that the relative success of Allied submarines in hunting their German counterparts was due to the closer proximity of the Allied bases, which enabled them to operate submerged for a much greater percentage of the time. Moreover, the German anti-shipping campaign required the Germans to operate on the surface to maximize their area coverage.

4 Under Korvetten-Kapitan Heinrich von Nostitz und Jänckendorf, U-151 covered nearly 11,000 miles in 94 days in one of the greatest submarine war patrols of all time. In addition to sinking six ships in one day off the coast of New Jersey, von Nostitz intercepted the Norwegian freighter Vindeggen off Cape Hatteras and substituted its cargo of copper ingots – in short supply in Germany – for his own iron ballast before sailing home. More remarkably, by adhering strictly to the traditional rules of “cruiser warfare” and putting passengers and crews “in a place of safety” before sinking their ships, he caused minimal loss of life.


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Botting, Douglas, The U-Boats, Time-Life Books (1979)

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Friedman, Norman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 – An Illustrated Design History, U.S. Naval Institute Press (1995)

Jane’s Fighting Ships 1914 (reprinted edition), Arco Publishing Co. (1969)

Jane’s Fighting Ships 1919 (reprinted edition), Arco Publishing Co. (1969)

Silverstone, Paul, U.S. Warships of World War I, Ian Allan (1970)

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