Naval Power in the Present War
PART V: The Submarine
By Lieutenant Charles C. Gill United States Navy
[The New York Times/Current History, May 1917]
This article is the fifth in a series contributed to CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE by Lieutenant Gill of the superdreadnought Oklahoma—with the sanction of the United States Naval Department for the purpose of deducing the lessons furnished by the naval events of the European war.
Since the outbreak of hostilities the submarine has been a conspicuous naval weapon, and German science has developed it with characteristic energy, system, and thoroughness. Early in the war the more powerful allied navies practically swept the seas of all enemy merchant ships and contained the battle fleets of the Central Powers within comparatively narrow limits. Beyond these limits, except for a few raids on commerce by surface cruisers, the naval activities of both Germany and Austria have been restricted to the use of submarines. Considering the disadvantages inherent in underwater navigation, the results attained have been truly astonishing. In the first days of the war one small German submarine sank three British armored cruisers in less than one hour; since then German and Austrian submarines are estimated to have sunk 230,000 tons* of naval vessels and 3,600,000 tons* of merchant shipping. [* Even the approximate accuracy of these figures is questionable, because of conflicting reports and the difficulty in determining whether a ship was sunk by a mine or by a torpedo in the instances where neither was seen.] On Oct. 7, 1916, the U-53 appeared in Newport Harbor, exchanged official calls, read the daily papers, sent dispatches, and departed a few hours after her arrival. The next day a submarine destroyed off Nantucket four British traders and one Dutch trader. A few months ago peaceful Funchal was suddenly bombarded by a German submarine.
The underwater mine layer has become an accomplished fact it is disturbing to think of this huge mechanical fish secretly threading the ocean highways, laying its engines of destruction. In addition to all these, Captain König has smilingly introduced to us the Deutschland, a successful underwater blockade runner. With this evidence of accomplishments it is not surprising that the submarine has seized upon the imagination. Nor has Germany, in furthering her ends, failed to take full advantage of the mystery surrounding underwater attack. It has been part of the German war plan to prepare and circulate submarine propaganda designed to strengthen hopes at home, and at the same time break down morale in enemy countries. This has resulted in a somewhat confused perspective; but it is important that the United States should search out the facts, reason to logical conclusions, and take the true measure of the U-boat.
Arm of the Weaker Combatant
The outstanding characteristic of the submarine, as the name indicates, is its ability to navigate below the surface of the water. This enables it to evade the enemy, to make a surprise attack, and to escape by hiding. These faculties are manifestly suitable for the weaker belligerent to use against the stronger enemy. Navies that dominate, that have power to seek and destroy in the open, are not dependent upon abilities to evade and to hide. It is for this reason that allied submarines have found their chief opportunity to strike in sea areas controlled by the fleets of the Central Powers, the Baltic, Dardanelles, and other waters close to Teutonic bases, while German submarines have been active in all other ocean areas within the cruising radius of their U-boats. Since the Allies control practically all the high seas, the field of the U-boat has been large, while the activities of allied submarines have been confined to the relatively narrow coastal waters controlled by Germany, Austria, and Turkey.
Without depreciating the utility of the submarine, it may be truly said that if the Allies had not possessed a single one they would still, in all probability, have been able to enjoy the incalculable advantages that surface control of the seas has given them. The German submarines, moreover, have not proved effective against enemy battle fleets; and in order to facilitate their commerce-destroying operations they have found it necessary, because of inherent weaknesses, to adopt methods in violation of the laws of civilized warfare. Before going deeper into the uses and limitations of the submarine it might be well to touch briefly upon some of the rules governing its legitimate employment.
Rules of International Law
The purpose of rules regulating ocean-borne intercourse in times of peace and governing both belligerent and neutral conduct in time of war is to carry out practically the principles of the freedom of the seas, and it need hardly be added that these principles are identical with those grounding all rules of right conduct at sea and on shore; namely, principles of liberty, justice, and humanity.
As weapons and other conditions change, new situations arise which may require modifications in these rules; but both in time of peace and in time of war reason calls for a general concurrence of Governments before a modified or new rule can become operative; and any belligerent instituting methods in violation of previously established regulations assumes the burden of proof to show that new conditions compel new rules in order to carry out the never-changing principles of the freedom of the seas.
There is little room for confusion of thought on this point. Unfortunately, however, it is the experience of wartime practice that military necessity and the doctrine of "might makes right" twist these rules into a bewildering tangle. One belligerent breaks a rule and attempts to justify his conduct. The enemy, as a matter of policy, turns a deaf ear to fhe arguments in justification, and, seeing only the broken rule, proceeds to retaliate by breaking another rule on the ground that military necessity forces him to resort to this act of reprisal. And so one act of reprisal leads to another until unconscionable degrees of lawlessness are reached.
It has been suggested as a possible solution obviating the difficulties of drawing up a set of good working rules to govern naval operations against commerce that one sweeping sanction of immunity might suffice by which all trade ships would be allowed to carry on their peaceful pursuits unmolested in time of war as in time of peace. The objection, however, to such a rule is, that when the world is divided between nations at peace and nations at war, this rule would satisfy peoples at peace and one side of the belligerents, but the other belligerents would find it discriminatory and would oppose it as an infringement upon their rights to use the seas in accordance with principles of equity and freedom.
To deny belligerents, moreover, their right to use the seas for suppressing enemy commerce and imposing economic pressure in order to hasten the settlement of their differences, would deprive the world of what is generally looked upon, when conducted according to the rules of civilized warfare, as a humane method of re-establishing conditions of peace. It may be added that those who aim at a world peace secured by a concert of power may reasonably assert that, while the freedom of the seas is a foundation principle on which to make a world peace secure, naval power, by instituting blockades, may at times prove a humane and effective means of compelling recalcitrant Governments to observe the provisions of this peace.
Certain Established Rules
During a war, the maritime interests of belligerents and neutrals are bound to conflict; and it is impossible to give either of them unlicensed use of the seas without restricting the freedom of the other. Hence a compromise is necessary, and so long as nations recognize a state of war as involving conditions subject to law in which both belligerents and neutrals have rights, it is manifest that rules are required to define and guarantee these rights. It will not be attempted here to examine closely the many rules drawn to govern naval warfare, some of which were still subjects of controversy when the present war began; but, as an aid to the memory, a few of the recognized and established regulations affecting the use of the submarine will be briefly outlined:
1. A blockade to be binding- must be effective ; that is, it must be maintained by a force sufficient to render ingress to or egress from the enemy coast line dangerous.
2. A blockade must not bar access to neutral ports or coasts.
3. During the continuance of a state of blockade no vessels are allowed to enter or leave the blockaded place without consent of the blockading authority.
4. The prohibition of contraband trade with the attendant adjudging of penalties is a belligerent right. This right can only be. exercised upon the high seas and the territorial waters of the belligerents and in accordance with the rules and usages of international law. (Contraband of war may be defined as articles destined for the enemy and capable of use as an assistance to the enemy in carrying on war either ashore- or afloat.)
5. Lawfully commissioned public vessels of a belligerent nation may exercise the right of visiting and searching merchant ships upon the high seas, whatever be the ship, the cargo, or the destination. If the examination of ship's papers and search show fraud, contraband, an offense in respect of blockade, or enemy service, the vessel may be seized. Force may be used to overcome either resistance or flight, but condemnation follows forcible resistance alone. In exercising these rights belligerents must conform to the rules and usages of international law.
6. When a vessel in action surrenders, (usually indicated by hauling down the national flag or .showing the white flag of truce,) firing must cease on the part of the victor. To continue an attack after knowledge of surrender, or to sink a vessel after submission, is a violation of the rules of civilized warfare only permissible in cases of treachery or renewal of the action.
7. Absolute contraband, including guns, ammunition, and the like, is liable to capture on the high seas or in the territorial waters of the belligerents if it is shown to be destined to territory belonging to or occupied by the enemy, or to the armed forces of the enemy. It is immaterial whether the carriage of the goods is direct or entails transshipment or a subsequent transport by land. Also there must be a trial and judgment of a prize court of the captor having proper jurisdiction in regard to the goods involved, whether destroyed or not.
Policy of "War Areas" At the beginning of the war Great Britain might have taken advantage of the well-established case of our legal blockade of the Confederate States. A summary of the steps, by which this civil war blockade was made legally effective will be found in the article, "American Tactics in the Present War," in CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE for November, 1916.
Instead of proclaiming a legal blockade of Germany, Great Britain in an Admiralty order, Nov. 2, 1914, announced military areas in the North Sea, trusting to British command of the sea, which at that time seemed undisputed. This was an unfortunate move, for the possibilities of the submarine were not considered; and Germany was able to retaliate by declaring all waters about Great Britain and Ireland a " war zone," beginning Feb. 18, 1915.
Great Britain at once realized her mistake, and by an Order in Council proclaimed a blockade of Germany, March 1, 1915. But the harm had been done, and the pernicious war area had been evolved. On Jan. 27, 1917, the British Admiralty announced that the area in the North Sea had been enlarged. This was modified Feb. 13, 1917. On Jan. 31, 1917, Germany sent to the neutral nations the " barred zone " note announcing unrestricted submarine warfare beginning on Feb. 1, 1917.
Merchantmen have the right to arm for . defense. A merchantman may repel an attack by any enemy ship, but only a man-of-war can attack men-of-war. According to international law the character of a ship is determined by her employment; and it is an established right of merchant vessels that they may carry arms for defense only without necessarily altering their status before the law as traders engaged in legitimate 276 THE NEW YORK TIMES CURRENT HISTORY peaceful pursuits. This right is well established by precedent, and although prolific of complications, it has on the whole operated to sustain the principles of freedom of the seas. Its usefulness was conspicuous in the days of piracy; and the "long toms " on board our clipper ships proved strong arguments in suppressing lawlessness.
In the heat of war, moreover, belligerents are inclined to infringe the privileges of noncombatants, and experience has shown thatfthe right of merchant vessels to arm for defense has tended to prevent belligerents from unlawful interference with peaceful traffic. The belligerent right to stop, visit, search, and capture merchantmen is a high sovereign power, and it seems reasonable to require that the vessels authorized to exercise it should possess potential strength. It would be a somewhat absurd condition, inviting abuse and irregularity, if rules were so framed as to permit a fast enemy motor boat, manned by three or four men armed with rifles, to stop, search, and capture an ocean liner, without allowing the liner to attempt lawfully either flight or resistance. On the other hand, a motor boat, submarine, or any other duly commissioned and authorized man-of-war has the right to employ force to overcome resistance or to prevent flight; and the merchantman has no redress for damage sustained during attempted flight or resistance. In the majority of cases, it is obvious that prudence will influence merchantmen to surrender promptly in the face of a respectably powerful man-of-war rather than forfeit immunity by attempting flight or resistance.
If an armed merchantman of a neutral country on friendly terms with the warring nations should resist by force a belligerent man-of-war, the neutral Government would properly discountenance the act as incompatible with the relations of amity existing between the two countries. If, however, neutral rights are violated to an intolerable degree a state of armed neutrality may supplant the relations of amity, and under these unus? ual conditions a Government has the right and may be in duty bound to preserve its neutrality by using such force as the circumstances may require; but in this delicate situation care must be exercised that force is used only in defense of neutral rights.
Blockades and Submarines
From the beginning of the war submarines have helped to prevent a close blockade of the coasts of the Central Powers, and the inability on the part of the allied navies to institute a coast line blockade strictly in accordance with the established rules of international law has led to what is generally known as a distant blockade. The so-called Orders in Council regulating this distant blockade have lengthened the contraband lists and extended the doctrine of ultimate destination until Germany's commerce with noncontiguous countries has been practically cut off.
As the effectiveness of the blockade increased, military necessity demanded that Germany do something to counteract it. The only weapon her navy could use was the submarine. Underwater attack against the blockading battle fleets met with little success; but the unscrupulous use of the submarine as a commerce destroyer brought better results. The vigorous protest of neutrals against the violation of their rights caused Germany, for a time, to make an effort to comply with the rules and usages of international law; but this effort proved ineffectual. The vulnerability of the submarine, with the increasing efficacy of the ways and means developed to safeguard merchantmen from its attack, presented to the German Government the alternative either of suffering a curtailment of submarine effectiveness or of abandoning lawful methods. Germany's decision to take the latter course was announced to the world by official notification that within a war zone embracing large areas of the high seas her submarines would sink all ships, neutral or belligerent, without warning. It was further announced that a weekly neutral steamer here and there would be spared, provided Germany's orders respecting cargo and behavior were carefully observed.
In tracing the developments leading to NAVAL POWER IN THE PRESENT WAR: THE SUBMARINE 277 this decision it is interesting to follow the various measures of retaliation adopted by both sides and to note the part taken, either directly or indirectly, by the submarine; the creation of danger zones, the indiscriminate use of mines and torpedoes, the lengthened contraband lists all the various successive moves by which the belligerents, actuated by the policy of military necessity, have trespassed more and more upon the rights of neutrals and noncombatants. But in spite of the scientific triumph of the modern U-boat, and notwithstanding the toll of shipping sacrificed, a careful study of all sides of the question seems to lead to the conclusion that in the end the submarine will not vindicate the expectations of those who hail it as a decisive factor of modern war. The submarine may be able to prevent a close blockade by the enemy; but it does not seem to be able either to break the grip of a distant blockade or to establish an effective submarine blockade as a countermeasure.
The Submarine s Limitations
Submarines are of many different types and sizes, which may be divided into two general classes: the smaller coast-defense submarine of moderate cruising capacities, and the larger seagoing submarine with greater fighting and cruising abilities. The first-mentioned class comprises the five-hundredton to eight-hundred-ton submarines, and includes the familiar E, F, G, H, K, and L boats of our navy. Germany uses these types chiefly in the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and other home waters. The other and more modern class includes the larger U-boats operating on the high seas. The most recent of Germany's large submarines may be described as the fighting consorts of the Deutschland. Although little is known positively about them, the following approximate characteristics may be attributed: tonnage, 2,000; Diesel engines of 6,000 to 8,000 horse power, giving a surface speed of 18 to 20 knots and a submerged speed of 12 to 14 knots; a cruising radius at most economical speed of about 7,000 miles; and an armament of one or two small calibre (three inch or four inch) guns in addition to about sixteen torpedoes. These are formidable craft, capable of doing much damage, especially if operating from a secret base supplied and provisioned by ships like the Deutschland. But they have difficulties to overcome.
The problems of submarine navigation have not all been satisfactorily solved. AVhen submerged the speed is slow, making it necessary to rise to the surface in order to overtake even moderately fast freighters. It is then that the trader's guns for defense become dangerous. Moreover, the distance the submarine can go below the surface , on a stretch is still comparatively short, probably 150 miles for the newest U-boats is an overestimate.
When the limit is reached the submarine either has to remain stopped or come to the surface to recharge her batteries. If the submarine is forced to keep below the surface, besides having a reduced speed, she cannot use her guns and therefore has to draw upon her limited supply of expensive torpedoes. Nor is it an altogether easy matter to manoeuvre a submarine by periscope so as to score a hit on an alert merchantman.
Advantages of Armed Ships
Suppose a submarine on the edge of the war zone, either stopped or cruising slowly on the surface looking for merchantmen. Smoke is sighted, say, at twenty-five or thirty thousand yards. The submarine would probably manoeuvre to get in the path of the quarry and then submerge at a range of about fifteen to twenty thousand yards before there were likelihood of her being sighted by the supposedly armed trader. If the merchantman should come straight on, to destroy her is comparatively easy; but if, instead of this, a zigzag, irregular course should be steered, the submarine would have to estimate the changes through her periscope and manoeuvre to keep ahead of the merchantman, with consequently more likelihood of being discovered and less likelihood of getting near enough for a sure shot. If the periscope should be seen by the trading vessel, she would probably open fire and turn away. Shots 278 THE NEW YORK TIMES CURRENT HISTORY splashing in front of a submarine's periscope would hamper her manoeuvring abilities and the chances of getting a hit in a stern-on target steering a zigzag course would, unless close aboard, hardly be worth expending a torpedo. To catch the trader, unless a slow one, the submarine would have to come to the surface and risk destruction by gun fire.
All these limitations contribute to make the submarine vulnerable and less effective. Although nets, aircraft, and the lighter submarine chasers will not be as competent against seagoing submarines as against the smaller coast submarines, both because of the greater size of the former and because of the rougher weather and sea conditions to be contended with, still they may do some good while more effectual methods are being developed. Undoubtedly the United States Navy will be of great help in solving this problem but it would be improper at this time to discuss our navy's share in the game.
Until means of neutralizing the submarines are found they will take great toll from merchantmen. It is folly not to realize that they are destroying many vessels, and not to acknowledge that merchantmen run risks, especially under conditions of poor visibility at night, in fog, and in mist. Early dawn is also a critical time for the trader. But it is probable, as schemes of co-operation are developed between the submarine-hunting navies and the shipping they are trying to safeguard, that these dangers will be lessened.
Future of the Submarine The question of the future of underwater craft is conjectural, but it is possible to make some tentative deductions from the trend along which development has so far proceeded.
The submarine is always asking for a greater cruising radius, more speed, better habitability, and more power. It ia also reported that new designs call for an increased number of torpedoes, together with guns and armor protection for surface fighting. There is perhaps a new type of submarine under construction or possibly already afloat, some idea of which might be had by conceiving a sort of submersible monitor of about 4,000 to 6,000 tons displacement, carrying a turret mounting two six-inch guns so attached to the hull as to present when firing only armor-protected parts above the water. A division of these submersible monitors, accompanied by a few Deutschlands fitted as troop-carrying and supply ships, might set out from a blockaded coast, steam to distant parts, and there seize, fortify, and hold with considerable tenacity an advance base from which to operate against commerce. Such an expedition might do a lot of damage unless met and defeated by the determined measures of an equally enterprising adversary.
The evolution of the submarine appears to be toward the submersible battleship; but the consensus of naval opinion at present seems to be that a supersubmersible capable of navigating under the water and also strong enough to fight battleships on the surface involves an almost prohibitive cost, which would be out of proportion to the advantages gained. By increasing the tonnage of the submarine its mechanical difficulties are aggravated. On the other hand, the large tonnage of the surface battleship is like a reserve of wealth, which may be expended in any desirable way; if underwater attack is a serious menace to the battleship some of this tonnage can be drawn upon to supply suitable protection, such as a series of outer and inner bottoms so constructed and subdivided as to make the ship practically nonsinkable; or, if attack from the air is dangerous, reserve tonnage may be drawn upon for aero defense and so on. In estimating the value of the submarine in wars to come it would appear safe, therefore, to assume that in future struggles for control of the seas the role of the submarine will always be secondary to that of surface ships.
Summary of Results
In making a brief survey of the naval activities of the war it is seen that the submarine has been of no great value to the superior navies controlling the seas, but has been practically the only effective NAVAL POWER IN THE PRESENT WAR: THE SUBMARINE 279 naval weapon of the inferior fleets. When used against the enemy battle squadrons it has influenced strategy and tactics and scored a few minor successes in sinking some of the older men-of-war, but generally speaking has produced no very important results. When used against merchant ships the submarine has been unable to attain effectiveness while complying with the rules and usages of international law, but by resorting to unscrupulous methods it has become a dangerous commerce destroyer; and the suppression of this evil must be one of the tasks of the navies at war with Germany.
The war has shown that the chief tactical value of the submarine is for defense, to hold the enemy at a distance. The fleet submarine has also demonstrated an offensive value which may be useful in attaining a tactical advantage. In addition, it is not to be denied that the submarine has raised havoc with both neutral and belligerent commerce. But the submarine blockade has not proved effective, and the lawless methods of the U-boat have aroused a worldwide condemnation. The reactive effect of Germany's submarine war on commerce may easily prove so damaging as to more than counterbalance any temporary advantage gained. It may be inferred, therefore, that the United States needs submarines both to help defend her coasts and to operate as a tactical subdivision of the fleet. A lesson also learned is that, although the submarine is not now, and probably never will be, a dominating factor in naval warfare, it should be squarely faced as a serious menace which to combat successfully under certain circumstances might demand our utmost ingenuity and energy.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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