The Flanders Flotilla and U-Boat Alley

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The Flanders Flotilla and U-Boat Alley

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 04 maart 2012, 21:52

The repeated claims that America declared against Germany during WW1 because her citizens and ships had been attacked by German U-boats is not accurate. Though the U-boats were restrained as a result of American diplomatic protests, America did not enter the war at that time and when they did, it was for different reasons. This has not been the first nor the last time that war was pursued for reasons that were not stated. This type of media management has of course reached heights of a totally new sophistication today.

American citizens died crossing the Atlantic when their ships were attacked by U-boats, before and after the Lusitania incident in 1915. Despite this, America did not enter the war until a full two years later. The reasons were; America felt that it was still early in the conflict and Britain might be victorious. And besides, orders for all kinds of war material were doing very well thank you. Public and political opinion in America had not reached a point favouring the sending of troops to die in Europe. Lastly and more pragmatically; its state of preparedness – America was just not ready to fight a gigantic war in Europe, either militarily, industrial or morally. Lastly and probably not least, the ground rules had to be agreed. Who would get and pay for what!

By 1917 the position had changed dramatically. The war was dragging on and it had become apparent that Germany could achieve a victory over France, or a more otherwise favourable armistice. Germany had made impressive technological advances with submarines and their advanced programme of mass production threatened to overwhelm the Allies. An invasion of Britain by Germany might not have been possible or even desirable then, but the embargo of Germany and the restriction of its mercantile and still intact naval fleet’s access to the Atlantic and world commerce would have ended. The result might have been, a European power administrated from Germany. One is tempted to observe – a bit like where Europe is heading, a second attempt and 100 years later by another route.

A year of living dangerously.

The battle that took place around Britian and Ireland between the Allies and Germany’s U-boats from January 1917 until the spring of 1918 decided the outcome of WW1. Britain was already having serious difficulties with supplies and war material and it was Germany’s intention to choke off all shipping to Britain before America could deploy its enormous resources. At the same time, they also planned to over-run the Allies in France. America began to roll out her war machine and at a stroke, any hopes of an unfettered access to the Atlantic by Germany was threatened and proved irreversible. The land war across Europe remained in the balance until the spring of 1918. The German Fleet was still bottled up and the success rates enjoyed by their submarines began to diminish after May 1917.

Further research now shows that despite Germany’s failing fortunes in 1917, this was not the situation faced by those travelling the seas between Ireland and England. Known by many as the Irish Sea or the Irish Channel, the term is sometimes meant to include all of the water that is the North Channel, the Irish Sea and the George’s Channel. However, because of the utter havoc and destruction that was perpetrated in these waters by German submarines during WW1, it can deservedly be known as ‘U Boat Alley'.

Following Germany’s announcement of its second ‘unrestricted U-boat campaign’, the wrath of its undersea boats was unleashed. The full range of the Germany’s submarines attacked enemy ships in the ‘Alley’: The larger ocean going U class, the coastal class UB and minelayer UC type. All had by then, improved armaments and excellent radio communication capabilities. Although the smaller boats were rated ‘coastal’ they undertook amazing ‘cruises’, as they were called. Circumnavigating Britian and Ireland in all kinds of weathers, with some cruises sometimes lasting 3-4 weeks. A more accurate description of these cruises would be ‘attack missions’.

The range and capabilities of these ‘ocean pests’ both surprised and disturbed the most senior British naval commanders. The successes of the different submarines that operated in the ‘Alley’ at this time, varied. Some taking every opportunity to attack all kinds of enemy vessels and others achieving little success. Seemingly reflecting their experience or capability. ‘Submarine’ and ‘U-boat’ are words that conjure up impressions of daring, adventure, danger, heroism even glamour and all that stuff, but submarines were dam dangerous. Iron tubes which housed as little as twenty and as many as 80 submariners in cramped conditions and in some terrible seas. Their crews suffered terrible strain and some of the more successful commanders were invalided out of active duty. An effect of the U-boat war that was not peculiar to German submariners but Allied naval staff too. In particular, those serving on ‘Q’ or ‘Mystery’ ships.

Of particular relevance to the Alley were the UC boats – submarines that laid mines. These submarines carried torpedoes both inside and outside of the submarine, 18 mines in 6 ‘chutes’ and a deck gun. When the loaded torpedoes had been fired, spare torpedoes that were stored inside the boat and externally behind the outer tubes, were then reloaded. This rearmament could only be accomplished when the submarine was on the surface, where the mines in the top of the chutes could be accessed and reset for any required change in operations. This was sometimes carried out in remote bays at night. The mines were laid across known shipping routes in very particular places at very particular times. There were a number of UC boats and other types operating in the Alley during this period but only a few of these presented a threat so great that the Allies must have felt they had to be stopped.

Westwards! (‘Log of a U-boat Commander’. 1939. Ernst Hasagen – U 62)

The first of these submarines out of the traps at the elaborate submarine base at Bruges, Flanders and into the Alley, was UC65, commanded by Otto Steinbrinck. Born in 1888, Steinbrinck entered the naval service in 1907. He specialised in torpedoes and like other notable aces – artillery. His first submarine command was U6, followed by UB10, UC65 and UB57. He was withdrawn from active duties in January 1918 due to exhaustion. He served in German industry during WW2 and was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment by the Allies for honorary membership of the SS. He died through ill health and a sickness requiring an operation in 1949, just before the expiration of his sentence.

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