THE KAISER’S U-BOAT ASSAULT ON AMERICA & HITLER’S ATTACK U-BOATS

Reviewed by: Richard Sharpe

Another couple of detailed analyses of German U-boats, the eye-catching maritime weapons of the two world wars in the last century. In the 1950s, and on passage to Londonderry, I remember seeing some of the surrendered survivors of WW2 lined up in batches on the banks of the river Foyle, waiting to be towed away for scrap.  Rather than fearful weapons of terror and war, they looked abandoned and pathetic in the fine drizzle of a winter’s afternoon in Northern Ireland.

Whatever their ultimate fate, few warships have caught the imagination and been so carefully analysed by historians as the ‘grey wolves’ of the Atlantic. Of these latest two books the first, written by Hans Joachim Koerver, covers the diplomatic and military consequences of the German U-boat assault on American trade in the First World War.  It covers the knock-on effects of operations against America in the context of its influence on President Woodrow Wilson and his eventual engagement with the war in Europe.

The second book, by German naval historian Jak Mallmann Showell, is less focused on US involvement as a response to Kriegsmarine activity, but on American losses caused by U-boat unrestrained attacks on merchant convoys crossing the Atlantic. To use a farming analogy, diesel-driven submarines were the “horse drawn” instruments of underwater warfare, before the arrival of the early mechanised “tractors” (driven by nuclear power) which revolutionised the whole maritime engagement.

U-boat successes as reflected in German museums are measured in terms of tonnage destroyed, which is vaguely disturbing.  It was always going to be easier to sink the Lusitania than an Asdic-fitted corvette bristling with guns and depth charges, and yet the unarmed passenger liner chalks up a massively higher success score than the warship.

There is much detail in both of these books on the influence that German submarine warfare had on causing the decisive US involvement in both wars.  But I am not sure that the potential market isn’t becoming limited to historians only.