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6th, February, 2013




The “Unterseeboot,” which is commonly known as the U-Boat, was a type of submarine, which Germany utilized during the First World War, between the years 1914-1918. This submarine was used successfully throughout the First World War period to engage Germany’s enemies. However, this submarine is popular for its devastating effects as a commercial raider. One of the factors that contributed to the high capability of this submarine to engage in the war successfully was the kind of technology involved. However, as technology became more advanced, it also hindered the abilities of this submarine, as countries developed more sophisticated tools of war. The U-Boats were unique and diverse, and belonged to different categories. These played the major role for Germany in the First World War. Their capabilities lasted up to the beginning of the Second World War. This was after Germany’s enemies developed their own different ways of combating the U-Boats (Sondhaus 2011). This paper focuses on the roles the U-Boat campaign played in the First World War, its effectiveness, and ultimate failure.

During the First World War, the submarine was seen as the main weapon in the war. The Germany U-Boat was the greatest challenge to the British maritime security during this war. In September 1914, a U-Boat sank three old British cruisers. In the month of October, the same year, a U-Boat again sank a state-of-the-art battleship. Subsequently, more British and French warships were sunk by the U-Boats in the following years. In May 1915, the HMS Triumph was equally sunk, among others. In December of the same year, U-Boat 38 facilitated the sinking of the P&O passenger liner SS Persia. While Britain and France used warships, Germany’s U-Boat campaign was a more effective strategy in the war (Williamson 2013).

During the First World War, Germany and Britain used naval blockades to ensure that no ship from one country got access to the other country. Initially, the British succeeded at this, as their surface fleet could intercept Germany-bound ships. This case compelled Germany to utilise the U-Boats.  In 1915, Germany adopted an unrestricted submarine warfare strategy. Since Britain relied on foodstuffs and weapons from Canada and America, which were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, Germany thought that this strategy could make British surrender from the war. Therefore, Germany was involved in the indiscriminate sinking of all ships, even those belonging to neutral states. By use of the U-Boat, Germany succeeded in sinking numerous ships, risking the fact that it could add more enemies, apart from Britain and France (Herwig 1998).

In May 1015, the U-Boat U-20, led to the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, leading to many deaths. Of the passengers on board, were 128 Americans, and 1,170 more passengers. This outraged America, which was neutral in the war during this period. THE U-Boats conducted further sinking of ships, and this resulted in a poor relationship between Germany and America. However, Germany decided to end the unrestrictive strategy in September 1915. This had already cause havoc to the affected countries, as the U-Boat campaign was effective in this. The U-Boat campaign of Germany managed to sink 750,000 tons of enemy’s shipping. However, this did not devastate the economy of Britain (Sheffield 2011).

When Germany returned their unrestricted war strategy in September 1916, more havoc was done by the U-Boats. During this period, Germany invested in more manufacturing of U-Boats at a high speed. This led the U-Boat campaign to accomplish another sinking of 250,000 tons within the duration of a few weeks only. This led to the development of more tension between Germany and its rivals. Germany did not care if America, which was neutral, would be compelled to join the war (Sheffield 2011).

In 1916, France and Britain defeated the Germany army. This led to Germany to conduct a few changes in its army, including the appointment of new generals. They also invested more in the U-Boats, which was their hope in the war. Germany launched an all-out submarine defensive, while disregarding the risks involved. This was meant to make Britain surrender, and conceit defeat in the war. The U-Boat campaign in this period went well for Germany, as the U-Boats managed to sink approximately 400,000 tons of enemy shipping each month. In early 1917, Germany improved on their former models of the U-Boats, making them more effective than the former models. The new models of U-Boats resulted in the sinking of 465,000 tons in the month of February, approximately 510,000 tons in the month of March, and close to 400,000 tons within the first two weeks of the month of April, and the year 1917. This was devastating to the enemies of Germany, and it was feared that if the trend would continue, Germany would experience a period of hunger (Terraine 2010).

The havoc that U-Boats wrecked on Germany and other affected countries compelled the USA to join the war in April 1917. In order to get back at Germany, Britain invested in high technology in developing war tools that would counter the Germany U-Boats. They made use of the newly emerged anti-submarine techniques, among others to develop the Q-Ship, which had the capability to attack surfaced U-Boats. This, coupled with use of aircraft, highly reduced the effectiveness of the U-Boat campaign. This counteraction by Britain was necessary, as it held end war in the Atlantic. However, the U-Boats still managed to sink 316,000 more tons of shipping. The Germans at this point did not win the war, and the USA had joined the war (Sheffield 2011).

British navy continued to launch attacks on the U-Boats, and in early October 1918, Germany was forced to abandon their bases due to multiple attacks from Britain. Germany was later defeated in November 1918, and lost it to Britain. Germany was forced to give 176 U-Boats to the Royal Navy as spoils for war. Were it not for the use of technology to develop anti-submarine war tools, the U-Boat campaign would have remained effective, and seen Germany take over victory. However, the U-Boat had remained a threat, even toward the end of the war (Williamson 2013).

Conclusively, the U-Boat campaign was the instrumental in the First World War. It was responsible for the multiple victories Germany had, while sinking thousands of tons of Britain’s shipping. The use of U-Boats was a unique strategy Germany utilized, which other rivals did not have. The fact that this relied on new technology to develop, made the U-Boat to be effective in sinking the enemy’s ships.


Works Cited

Herwig, H 1998, “Total Rhetoric, Limited War: Germany’s U-boat campaign 1917-1919,”

Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, I: 1 (1998), Viewed 6 February 2013 <http://www.jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/19/18>

Sheffield, G 2011, “The First Battle of the Atlantic,” BBC History, Viewed 6 February 2013


Sondhaus, L 2011, World War I: The Global Revolution, Cambridge University Press, London.

Terraine, J 2010, Business in great waters: the U-boat wars, 1916-1945, Casemate Pub & Book

Dist Llc, London.

Williamson, G 2013, U-Boat Crews 1914-45, Osprey Publishing, New York.

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