HARWICH SUBMARINES IN THE GREAT WAR: THE FIRST SUBMARINE CAMPAIGN OF THE ROYAL NAVY IN 1914

February 2, 2022
Posted by: RICHARD CHANNON

On 31st July 1914, twelve D- and E-class ‘overseas’ submarines arrived at Harwich, accompanied by their depot ships Maidstone and Adamant:  four days later they were joined by the destroyers Lurcher and Firedrake, all of them being under the command of Commodore Roger Keyes. Harwich Haven is not only the best harbour on the east coast of England, but the one nearest to the German naval ports.   The 8th Submarine Flotilla was thus poised for operations against German forces in the North Sea and Heligoland Bight. This book is a history of the British Submarine Service cutting its operational teeth in war, in the most formidably demanding of environments – shallow water swept by strong tidal streams, few navigation marks, frequent poor visibility, North Sea winter weather at its worst – and in small, flimsy and unreliable vessels prone to storm damage which offered no shelter to their surfaced watchkeepers, whereby several men were lost overboard. And of course, the only detection system was the human eye, poorly aided by periscopes inferior to those in German and French service.

The account opens with general chapters on the submarines and their crews, and preparations for war, but the bulk of it devotes a chapter describing each patrol in great detail, with a map to show where incidents took place. It is dense reading, and has involved deep research in British, French, and German archives (there is a comprehensive bibliography). Most patrols must have been uncomfortable and tedious, and highlights are few – among them the sinkings of the cruiser SMS Hela and destroyer S116 by Horton; the successful passage of E1 and E9 into the Baltic; and the recovery of five intrepid aviators after the Cuxhaven raid on 25th December 1914, the first carrier-borne airstrike in history. Amongst the handicaps the submarines suffered was lack of reliable radio communication over any significant distance, and it was accepted that a destroyer was required in the offing to relay messages. This did not prevent collection of an enormous amount of useful intelligence on German minefields, patrol areas and ship movements, nor did it detract from the major achievement of deterring the German big ships from venturing to sea in the Bight: in this the flotilla was very much the (unacknowledged) spearhead of the British blockade of Germany.

It was a period unique in the history of warfare, when everyone involved in the campaign was a novice, and both sides had to learn by hard-won experience how best to achieve their aim.   The 8th Flotilla was not only deployed to the Bight, but covered the British Expeditionary Force’s passage to France and undertook reconnaissance of the Kattegat, during which E11 providentially missed the Danish submarine Havmanden with two torpedoes. There were British losses – E3 torpedoed by U27, D5 to a mine, and D2 to an unknown cause, very possibly a drifting mine.

The author’s Conclusion sums up the achievements of the flotilla, which were not only in operations but in learning to relieve the discomfort and stress suffered by everyone in the submarines. Keyes’ energetic leadership was important to both aspects, but he failed to insist on the operational analysis and discussion which could have improved efficiency. There are appendices on the submarines’ specifications; those of the torpedoes in service; a list of the 8th Flotilla vessels, their 1914 COs, and their eventual fate; a summary of their 1914 war patrols; and an index. This is a book which will inform anyone interested in Great War submarine operations and the influences in the very beginnings of the British submariners’ ethos. Profits from royalties will be donated to the Friends of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.