6. Submarines in the Channel.

“Cherish merchandise, keep the Admiralty, That we be masters of the Narrow Sea.”
The Libel of English Policy. Anon. Late 1430s.

There were repercussions to the East coast raid on both sides of the North Sea. Hipper, despite achieving very little, had received a warm welcome from the German populace, but within the naval service there were many critics of Admiral Ingenohl, who was considered to have thrown away a great opportunity to destroy important elements of an enemy force, and to have shown little courage in allowing the High Seas Fleet to be driven back to port by a few destroyers.

The great British public rose in wrath: anger was aimed at the Germans and their dastardly breach of international law, but thousands of people followed the Scarborough coroner in posing the question “ Where was the Navy ? “. The Admiralty struggled to reply. As the First Lord wrote :

“We had to bear in silence the censures of our countrymen. We could never admit, for fear of compromising our secret information, where our squadrons were, or how near the German raiding cruisers were to their destruction. “ (1)

In Whitehall some advantage was squeezed out of the situation as propagandists had posters printed headed “Remember Scarborough” which implored young men to “Enlist Now”. Each version of the poster published, so governmental sources claimed, encouraged 1,000 men to join the armed forces

Inside the Admiralty building a fierce investigation was conducted. “Heads should roll” said “Jacky” Fisher, First Sea Lord, but none did. Vice Admiral Warrender, in charge of the operation performed inadequately, Commodore Goodenough failed to report a significant grouping of enemy ships, Rear Admiral Arbuthnot should have opened fire on the foe without waiting for orders, Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant, Ralph Seymour, misinterpreted an important signal with far-reaching consequences, but all survived. Julian Corbett summed up the operation:

“On our side the disappointment was profound. Two of the most efficient and powerful British squadrons, with an adequate force force of scouting vessels, knowing approximately what to expect, and operating in an area strictly limited by the possibilities of the situation, had failed to bring to action an enemy who was operating in close conformity with our appreciation and with whose close screen contact had been established.” (2)

The Admiral of Patrols did not escape criticism; both he and the Senior Naval officer at Hartlepool were reprimanded for not having the submarine C9 at sea before dawn, although the tone of the rebuke conveyed to Captain Bruce was softened because of the courage he had shown in commanding the scout cruiser Patrol in her brief fight with the German battle cruisers. Rear Admiral Ballard was summoned to the Admiralty and had a tempestuous meeting with the First Sea Lord which started with a discussion about C9 and broadened out into a debate about submarine operations in general. Ballard wrote to Commodore (Submarines) Keyes that Fisher “let me have it up and down because no submarines attacked them off Hartlepool or Scarborough”, adding “I simply shut my mouth and walked out when he had finished as it is futile to argue with him when he is in that frame.” (3)

Roger Keyes, who was to make his name leading the “Oversea” submarines (4) took the threat of invasion seriously, convinced that the government, in believing that the country would be attacked by an amphibious force, must have information that he did not. It fell to Commodore (S) to recommend how the submarines allocated to coastal defence, which were to be under the operational command of the Admiral of Patrols, should be deployed. Keyes thought that the small submarines available should not be used against ships landing infantry, cavalry and light artillery on open beaches but should be held back to attack vessels carrying supplies required for the second phase of an invasion - heavy artillery, means of transport, etc. - all the equipment, in fact which, to be brought into play, had to be unloaded in harbours with quays equipped with cranes, most of which would be defined as “defended ports”. Hence, 10 of the boats of the 6th.Flotilla (5)were concentrated in the Tyne or the Humber and 1 at Hartlepool, (6) all of which, so Keyes proposed, would cooperate with, and extend the range of shore batteries in the event of an invasion.

Like Fisher, Keyes was annoyed that C9 was not at sea when the German battle cruisers arrived off the East coast writing that:

“ -- it was deplorable that the submarine which was stationed at Hartlepool, solely to meet the situation which arose, should have have been in harbour, in a position from which she could not dive to attack.” (7)

The strictures of the First Sea Lord and Commodore (S) were justified to some extent in that the German ships were moving very slowly, and were vulnerable while the brief bombardment was being carried out, but it is doubtful whether C9, a small, solitary submarine with an underwater speed of 5 ½ knots, which was dangerously sensitive to the concussive effects of a near miss from a heavy projectile even when submerged, would have presented a formidable threat in the sea conditions which obtained even if she had been at sea earlier. (8)

Admiral Jellicoe’s report ,which stated that the patrol flotillas should have been informed when the German forces were first engaged, had not been received at the Admiralty when Jacky Fisher met George Ballard and it is extremely unlikely that the First Sea Lord admitted, even to himself perhaps, that the decision to keep the to keep the intelligence gathered by Room 40 so secret resulted in a situation where the first intimation that the Admiral of Patrols had of the size of the German force roaming the North Sea, and its purpose, was the appearance of Hipper’s battle cruisers off Scarborough and Hartlepool when it was far too late to organise any measured riposte.

The raids on the East coast towns eventually had far reaching effects on the future of TB1, the 7th.Flotilla. and the patrol flotillas generally. Fisher lost confidence in Ballard and this allowed Admiral Henry Oliver, the Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, to “gnaw away bits of his command at the north and south ends until there was nothing left.” (9) But it was not solely Oliver’s animosity which led a decline in Ballard’s influence; other factors involved included the diminishing belief in the possibility of invasion, an upsurge in U-Boat activity and the planning and mounting of an operation to force the Dardanelles by Royal Navy ships, all of which moved the interest of the War Group at the Admiralty away from the protection of the East coast by the Patrol Flotillas.

Christmas Day, 1914, was spent by TB1 in Immingham docks. No shore leave was granted and if there was a festive spirit abroad in the ship, as surely it must have been, it was certainly not reported in the log which recorded the great day in the most boring manner imaginable:

“7.0. Call hands. Breakfast. 8.0. Clean ship. 10.0. Divisions. 10.15. Church parties sent to St.George. 12.00. Dinner. 4.0. Tea. 9.30. Pipe down.”

Were there no carols ? Did not a portly Petty Officer, with a naturally flowing beard, make a surprise appearance as Father Christmas bearing presents from Princess Mary’s Christmas Fund ? Did not the skipper tour the mess decks spreading good cheer ? Was not the usual rum ration illegally and secretly supplemented ?

The weather in the North Sea during the months of January and February, 1915, was consistently stormy and TB1 spent many monotonous days and nights patrolling the Humber estuary, perhaps restricted to this duty by the poor sea keeping qualities of the diminutive ex coastal destroyers. There was one bright spot for the members of the starboard watch for they were granted 6 days leave at the end of January whilst the ship was alongside in Immingham; it does not seem that the hard done-by port watch was granted a similar privilege.

Not every day passed without incident. There was the occasion when TB1 took charge of a mine which had become entangled in a Grimsby boat’s trawl and towed it out to sea to be exploded by gunfire. And there was the day when the ship, then lying in Hawke Road, slipped and buoyed her anchor cable to race away to confront a U-Boat reported to be cruising in Bridlington Bay. Of course it was a false alarm and, on returning to the Humber, the seamen struggled to pick up the buoy and cable in a Force 5 wind, cursing the “pulley hauley” involved, their ship not being fitted with the steam capstan which the luckier and younger sister ships of her class possessed. On 5 February TB1, accompanied by TB5, steamed away to Gorleston, to spend a few days patrolling between the small, picturesque port and Cromer. On entering harbour the ship slightly damaged her bows striking the North Jetty and, 4 days later, demonstrated how difficult the ex coastal destroyers were to manoeuvre when going astern by colliding with Motorboat No.36 of the Auxiliary Patrol and a wherry, a local sailing craft, while changing berth. Altogether Gorleston was not a lucky port for TB1 as during her stay there a Stoker Petty Officer fell overboard on returning from a “run ashore” and was swept away by the swirling current, his body never being recovered.

TB1’s return to Immingham was marked by a change in skipper for, while lying in dry dock once again, Lieutenant Meade left the ship bound for the signal school at Portsmouth and was replaced by Lieutenant Chambers, formerly Number One of the destroyer Midge. It was the new commanding officer who was informed that once his ship was “ready for sea in all respects” she would say a last farewell to Spurn Point, leave the mud banks and currents of the Humber behind and make her way south to the English Channel where a new danger threatened.

On 4 August, 1914, the German Navy possessed only 22 submarines whereas the Royal Navy boasted more than 70 boats. But the British superiority in numbers masked a lack of quality. Germany had been slow to adopt the undersea weapon and, in consequence, was able to take advantage of technical improvements made by other nations when building her fleet as well as adding many of her own. In Britain however, of the numerous craft available only the 16 “Oversea” boats of the modern D and E classes were capable of taking the war to the enemy in the Heligoland Bight, the Baltic Sea, and elsewhere while the remainder, short of range and slow of speed, were assigned to coastal defence.

As the German naval staff was convinced that the British would establish a close blockade as soon as war was declared a plan was prepared for the “unterseeboots“, the U-Boats, to be stationed at intervals across the Bight moored to buoys until a retreating destroyer screen lured the British Fleet into range when they would submerge and launch a devastating attack. But no British ships appeared on the horizon and the priority for the U-Boats became searching for the Grand Fleet which, so it appeared to German intelligence, had vanished from the North Sea. On 6 August 10 boats of the 1st Submarine Flotilla were sent to sea to patrol as far as a line joining Scapa Flow to Hardanger Fjord on the Norwegian coast to investigate and appraise British naval dispositions. Only 8 boats returned to base; U.15 was rammed and sunk by the cruiser Birmingham while a flotilla mate disappeared without trace. This was not an encouraging start for the U-Boat fleet but there was one important result: Admiral Jellicoe, surprised that enemy submarines had the range to travel so far north and conscious of the vulnerability of Scapa Flow to enemy attack, moved the Grand Fleet to Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland until his main base could be made secure.

The U-Boat attacks gradually gathered momentum. On 9 September the scout cruiser Pathfinder, leader of the 9th.Flotilla in the Forth, became the first British warship to be lost to a submarine and on the 22nd. of that month Kapitanleutenant Otto Weddigen, commanding U.9, brought off one of the most remarkable feats of the naval war by sinking the cruisers Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir, patrolling off the Dutch coast, in little more than an hour; 1459 British officers and men were lost. Three weeks later Weddigen struck again torpedoing the old cruiser Hawke off the Scottish coast and on 22 October the British submarine E3 was torn apart by a torpedo from U27. On 31 October, the same submarine sank the seaplane carrier Hermes, en route from Dover to Dunkirk, and on 11 November the gunboat Niger succumbed off Deal. New Year’s Day, 1915, brought no joy to the Admiralty for it was marked by the destruction of Formidable by U24 when she, with 8 other battleships, was steaming in line ahead west of Portland at the comfortable speed of 10 knots. (10)

The rights of belligerents in relation to merchant ships were enshrined in the “Prize Regulations” or “Cruiser Rules” which had their origins in the 17th.century and had been refined and codified subsequently until in their final form they entered international law in the Declaration of London, 1909. Under the Prize Regulations a ship of a country at war could stop and examine the registration and bills of lading of any merchant vessel and search her for contraband. If prohibited commodities were found then the vessel could be seized and, manned by a prize crew, sent into port where, in the case of Great Britain, the whole matter would be put before the High Court of Admiralty who would decide if the cargo was “absolute contraband”, “conditional contraband”, “free goods” or a combination of all 3 - a legal minefield which had many a lawyer rubbing his hands. (11) If, for acceptable reasons, a prize crew could not be provided then it was lawful to sink the ship, but only after “all persons on board had been placed in safety”, a proviso which did not mean just shepherding everyone into life boats but also ensuring that they could reach land.

Despite the obvious difficulties that the Prize Regulations presented to submarines, which would have to remain on the surface, vulnerable and endangered, whilst a lengthy procedure was followed, most people believed that they would comply with international law or, as the majority saw it, the laws of humanity. When, in 1913, Admiral Fisher, then in temporary retirement, wrote a memorandum for the Admiralty suggesting that the Germans would use submarines for sinking unarmed merchantmen without challenge, the First Lord was appalled and replied:

“I have read and reread with the closest attention the brilliant and most valuable paper on Submarines which you have drawn up - - -

There are a few points on which I an not convinced. Of these the greatest is the question of the use of submarines to sink merchant vessels. I do not think this would ever be done by a civilised power.” (12)

It was not only landsmen for whom Churchill spoke: in 1934 Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, the former Commodore (S), wrote in his memoirs that Fisher’s memorandum:

“- - - visualised one aspect of submarine warfare which we all discarded as impossible and unthinkable, the indiscriminate sinking by the Germans of British and foreign merchantmen, without any regard for the safety of their crews.”(13)

Those who shared the viewpoint of Churchill and Keyes felt, at first, that their beliefs were had been confirmed because ,for almost 5 months after the declaration of war, U-Boats complied with the Prize Regulations, the occasional infringement being put down to “the perverted zeal of individual officers who had lost their heads”. (14) The launching of an unrelenting submarine attack against allied merchant shipping had been discussed in Germany as early as September,1914 but the idea had been rejected, not only in deference to international law but because it was considered that the number of U-Boats available was too small to bring such a campaign to a successful conclusion and, most importantly, that neutral countries, particularly the USA, would be outraged. However, the dimming of hope of a quick, victorious ending to the war in France led to an increasing emphasis being placed on the war at sea and the Kaiser’s reluctance to risk the capital ships of the High Seas Fleet in a major confrontation turned the thoughts of the Admiralstab once again to the potential of the U-Boat which only now was being fully appreciated and which, unhindered by the Prize Regulations, could be harnessed and launched to devastating effect against commercial shipping in unrestricted submarine warfare.

On 5 February, 1915, a Declaration was issued in Berlin (see appendix IV) under the name of Von Pohl, Chief of Naval Staff, (15) which stated, that the waters around Great Britain and Ireland were now a War Zone and that:

“ from February 18 onwards, every merchant-ship met with in this War Zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to obviate the danger with which crews and passengers are thereby threatened “.

Writing to The Times in July, 1914, Admiral Sir Percy Scott, a gunnery specialist, had pointed out that the submarine had introduced a new method of attacking our supplies from overseas and had finished his letter with the dramatic question “Will the feelings of humanity restrain our enemy from using it ? “ The German Declaration gave a clear answer.

The statement of 5 February was followed by a lengthy memorandum attempting to justify the action taken which began by claiming that Great Britain, in interfering with German commerce, “had made a mockery of all the principles of the law of nations”, a statement which provoked an unexpectedly forceful reaction from the USA. To please neutrals it was decided to postpone the date of the inauguration of the U-Boat assault from the 18 February to one chosen personally by Kaiser Wilhelm but it transpired, unsurprisingly perhaps, that the “All Highest”. wished his submarines to begin their blitz just 4 days later. On 22 February U8 and U30 were already at sea and subsequently were joined by U21 and U27, thus beginning, in modest fashion, a campaign which by 1917 was close to bringing Britain to her knees.

"Buy bonds for the U-Boat war against England." A poster of February, 1915.

On 22 February, at 5.30 a.m., Lieutenant Chambers gave the order “cast off for’ard, cast off aft”, the engine room telegraph moved to “Slow Ahead” and TB1 began to move away from Immingham Dock and out into the stream. Picking up speed to 15 knots and then 20 knots as the little ship left the Humber estuary astern, familiar and unfamiliar sea marks began to flow past and were recorded in the log - Spurn Point, Haisborough Light, Cross Sand Light, Corton Light Vessel and “Buy bonds then South Foreland Elbow Light. “Courses and for the U-Boat speeds as required” were adopted to thread a war against way through the Downs where a 100 or so ships England.” were using the traffic lane or waiting for a visit from c contraband control. The port of Dover, with its ill designed and exposed anchorage, was reached at 5 p.m. and a berth sought amongst the destroyers, submarines, monitors, trawlers and drifters “Buy bonds for which constituted the Dover Patrol. “Pipe Down” the U-Boat war was sounded at 9 p.m. but a lone sailor was left on against England.” watch on deck to hail the Guard Boat each time it A poster of passed by on its regular round. (16).
February, 1915.

But Dover was just an overnight refuge for the following morning TB1 left the port behind and steered south westward along the coast passing the famous white cliffs and the majestic Beachy Head, 500 feet high, where the course was altered to the north east to reach the port of Newhaven which, 58 sea niles from Dover and situated at the mouth of the river Ouse, was to be the ship’s new base. The Sussex Ouse (17), whose tributaries flow through the wooded countryside of the High Weald, is 33 miles long, and, gathering strength, breaks through the chalk escarpment of the South Downs at Lewes, from where it takes a circuitous path to the sea. For centuries the point where the Ouse joined the Channel wandered back and forth according to the vagaries of “longshore drift” but in 1790 the construction of a breakwater and “The Cut”, a short length of canal, gave the river a permanent outlet and allowed access to a sheltered harbour - a “new haven”.

As ports and towns Immingham and Newhaven could not have been more dissimilar, but they shared 2 features - both were built on former Saxon settlements and both owed their modern importance and prosperity to the railways. In 1847 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway extended the line southwards from Lewes to Newhaven and labourers were soon hard at work building a harbour station and then a wharf, with all the necessary facilities for cargo handling, on the east side of the river. The railway company had a clear view of what the future of the port should be and, in the years following the arrival of the first train, financed many projects which improved the harbour, including extensive dredging, so that in 1863 it was proud to announce that, in partnership with the Chemin de Fer de l’Ouest, a Newhaven - Dieppe ferry service would be in initiated. The new venture thrived; increasing numbers of English men and women wanted to savour the delights of La Belle France while there was a ready market for French merchandise - farm produce, timber, granite, slate - on this side of the Channel.

Soon after the outbreak of war, all commercial activity in and out of Newhaven harbour ceased. The port was now nominated as the principal departure point for general stores and munitions despatched to the Army in France and placed under governmental control: the fast passenger ferries were requisitioned and whisked away to act as troop carriers while the rail sidings and warehousing facilities were rapidly expanded. Eventually, electric lights would be installed around the harbour so that ships could be loaded overnight and the station would be closed for civilian use altogether. During 4 years of war 17,000 crossings of the Channel were made from Newhaven, the ships involved carrying over 6 million tons of stores to French ports. Until TB1 arrived at the port on 23 February, 1915, steaming down between the 2 piers which, together with a strong breakwater to the west, formed the harbour entrance, the supply ships had sailed unescorted. It was to protect them against the U-Boat attacks which must surely follow the German Declaration that TB1, joined by 7th.flotilla mates TBs 2, 3 and 5, was despatched south to the Sussex coast. But there were to be many tasks to be performed by the ex coastal destroyers operating in the sparkling but troubled waters of the English Channel.

The history of the 29,000 square miles of water bounded in the west by a line joining Lands End to Ushant and in the east by the Straits of Dover, is one marked by war and bloodshed, storm and shipwreck:

“Start Point and Beachy Head Tell their tale of quick and dead.

Forelands both and Dungeness See many a ship in dire distress.

The Lizards and the Longships know Oft the end of friend and foe.

And Wolf Rock and Seven Stones Rest their feet on sailors’ bones. (18)

Signal Station, Newhaven 

To Admiral Fisher, Dover was “one of the five keys which lock up the world” (the others being, in his view, Singapore, the Cape, Alexandria and Gibraltar) and, once the Navy had adopted the principle of the “distant blockade”, the port became of importance in the plan to close the North Sea exits , north and south, and imprison the High Seas Fleet within what was once known as the “German Ocean”. Yet, notwithstanding its significance, the port of Dover:

“- - - was ill prepared for war, despite work on a great naval harbour being carried out between 1897 and 1909. Neglected in favour of Rosyth as a warship base, it lacked a repair dock and a barracks for sailors.” (19)

Apart from its lack of facilities, not all of which are mentioned in the quotation above, Dover suffered from “double tides”, an arcane natural curiosity which meant that streams flowing in different directions met within the harbour at certain states of tide, making it an uncomfortable anchorage - “the last haven of refuge that the Almighty had ever made” (20) - and leading critics to question why it had been developed as a naval base at all. Certainly, the crews of the ships which were to become part of the famed Dover Patrol had little comfort in their home base as their floating homes plunged and swayed to the uncertain rhythm of the erratic tides.

When war was declared the 6th.Flotilla was already on station at Dover, 12 Tribal class destroyers and 12 old “30 knotters” commanded by Captain (D) Johnson in the scout cruiser Attentive. Also under the command of the Admiral of Patrols were 4 C class submarines assigned to coastal defence. Like the patrol flotillas on the east coast the duty of the 6th.was to harry an invasion force, in this instance in the unlikely circumstance that the enemy attempted to make a landing on the English side of the Channel or on the French coast in the rear of an allied army, but it was also positioned to check the advance of the High Seas Fleet if it attempted to break out of the North Sea, “back up” in strength being provided by the battleship squadron based at Portland. War did not bring an invasion force to the Straits of Dover nor did the ships of the mighty High Seas Fleet make an appearance but ever changing military and naval crises affecting the “Narrow Sea” led to increasing numbers of ships of different types being based on Dover so that in September, 1914, it was made a separate command under Rear Admiral Hood (21). By the end of the war the Dover Patrol consisted of over 400 ships of 27 different categories but with the hard worked 6th.Flotilla still at its heart.

(Click to Enlarge)

The area which the Dover Patrol covered, some 4, 000 square miles, was bounded on the eastern side by a line from from the North Foreland to the Scheldt and on the western side by a line running due south from Beachy Head to the French coast. As the war progressed the duties of the Patrol became ever more onerous. From the outset all vessels attempting to pass through the Straits were required to anchor in the Downs where they were searched for contraband by men of the Examination Service based in Ramsgate, most of whom had served in the Merchant Navy and soon developed an expertise in identifying smugglers. It was the duty of the 6th.Flotilla to ensure that all passing ships were examined, not always an easy task, particularly at night, as the vessels of several neutral nations, particularly those from Sweden and Holland it seems, objected to their voyages being interrupted and did everything they could to avoid being diverted to the Downs and submitting to humiliating and time devouring searches. With the passage of the BEF to France the protection of the developing supply routes between Dover, Southampton, Folkestone and Newhaven and the French ports of Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre and Dieppe became a matter of prime importance while the slow moving and vulnerable monitors, assigned to the Patrol to support the army by bombarding enemy coastal positions, required the protection of minesweepers and escorting destroyers when at work,

The chief threats to the sea links with the BEF, which by November, 1914, were sustained by an average of 12 ships a day (21), were raids on the Straits by destroyers or submarines and the 6th.Flotilla maintained patrols across the Channel from the Goodwin Sands and along the Belgian coast by day and night with some assistance from French ships based on Dunkirk. The loss of Ostend and Zeebrugge brought “the enemy’s light naval forces within a nights’ steaming of our coast” (22) and it astounded many commentators that it was not until October, 1916, that German surface ships made a serious attempt to destroy our cross - Channel communication system. Post war it was discovered that German Admirals had planned attacks on the ships conveying the BEF to France but had been told by a confident Chief of the General Staff “that this will not be necessary, and it will even be of advantage if the Armies of the West can settle with the 160,000 English at the same time as the French and Belgians.” (23).

The U-Boat threat to ships in the Channel was recognised and countered, it was thought, by the laying of a large minefield in early October 1914,between the Goodwin Sands and a point about 10 miles north of Ostend: in fact, the minefield was ineffective and regarded with contempt by U-Boat captains. At the beginning of the war the men at Dover treated the menace of the German submarine with some insouciance, believing that:

“the enemy had not so many U-Boats to spare in 1914, and I think we expected the Hun to aim for something better, and to play for higher stakes than the somewhat faded vessels of the obsolete Sixth Flotilla. (24)

But this view soon changed after 27 September when a torpedo fired by Von Hennig’s U18 narrowly missed the scout cruiser Attentive, patrolling a few miles from Dover, and inaugurated a period during which periscopes were seen and reported everywhere, each imaginary sighting having to be investigated immediately by a destroyer of the Patrol, perhaps summoned from resting, oiling or coaling. The sinking of the seaplane carrier Hermes, the gunboat Niger (an embarrassing episode witnessed by hundreds of people lining Deal beach) and the battleship Formidable showed that, despite the defensive minefields and the constant patrolling by the 6th.Flotilla, U-Boats were penetrating the Straits. All ships, except destroyers travelling at full speed, were ordered not to cross the Channel in daylight but this could only be a temporary measure; something more needed to be done to halt the advance of the U-Boats which, although few in number, had a greater range than had been thought and now, it was realised, were using the Channel route to reach out as far as the Western Approaches to the British Isles.

Early in the war, the larger destroyers had been issued with a device called the “Modified Sweep” which, towed astern of the ship, was intended to destroy a submerged submarine if it made contact with it, but this was a complicated, unhandy and inefficient contraption which was feared more by the sailors attempting to put it to use than the men who manned the U-Boats. Given the poor quality of British mines, the enemy submarine could only be destroyed with certainty when on the surface by gunfire or by ramming, this last solution often having serious consequences for the attacking vessel (25). Could an appliance be designed which, when used in restricted waters, would make a U-Boat helpless or bring it to the surface where it could be dealt with ? After all fish had been netted in rivers, estuaries and at sea for centuries and what were submarines but huge fishes ? And so it was that the drift net and the “drifter” - the fishing vessel that handled it - came to be adapted and put into use as a defence against underwater mararauders. (26)

The indicator nets, as they were called, were made of light but tough galvanised steel wire and had meshes 10 to 12 feet square. Each net was a 100 yards long and about 60 feet deep, the actual drop depending on the depth of the water in which it was to be used. Normally, a drifter, a much smaller vessel than a trawler and often of wooden construction, was equipped with 10 nets making a “fleet” (a fisherman’s term) 1,000 yards long which it ran out and towed into position. Every net was kept afloat by glass balls and attached to the wire hawser running along the top of the fleet by a metal clip which opened if a pull of more than a 100lb was exerted upon it. Also fixed to the net by a wire lanyard was an indicator buoy filled with chemicals which, when exposed to sea water, burnt furiously. It was thought that when a U-Boat blundered into a net, the metal clips would open and the submarine would be entangled in the galvanised steel wire meshes like a netted fish, while the indicator buoy, pulled beneath the surface, would give off a smoke signal guiding a patrolling destroyer to the spot. A new way of destroying a captive submarine brought to or near the surface was by the use of lance bombs - conical containers fixed to broom handles !

“A strong man could whirl one of them round his head, like a two-handed sword or battle-axe, and, when the momentum was sufficient, hurl it over the water for about seventy-five feet. On nose-diving into the sea and hitting the hull of a submarine in the act of rising or plunging, the little bomb, containing about 7lb. of amatol, was exploded by contact.” (27)

Click to enlarge

Today, with our lives dominated and buttressed by electronic and digital devices of every nature, we view with incredulity the primitive concept of the indicator net as an anti-submarine weapon, but on 13 February, 1915, 17 miles of the new contrivance were shot by fishing vessels conscripted and brought down to Dover from their home ports in the north east. The fleets of nets, each 1,000 ft. long, were run out on a line joining the Goodwin Sands to the Ruytingen Bank from where they drifted slowly down on a west going tide until they reached positions spanning the Channel from Folkestone to Cape Gris Nez where they were hauled in to await the tide making in the opposite direction when, set once more, they were carried back to their starting positions. Despite the skill of the drifters’ crews and their endurance, which drew the admiration of everybody who came into contact with them, the indicator nets had few successes. In bad weather the nets could not be run out, were carried away or could not be kept in exact alignment, while the detachable clips, the glass floats and the buoys, with their potassium mixture fillings, often malfunctioned. U-Boats evaded the nets by running into the Channel on the surface at night with the conning tower just awash, or by waiting on the sea bottom near the Ruytingen Bank until the currents and weather favoured them.

The exploitation of the Channel route by U-Boats from Heligoland meant that they could spend more time on what became their favoured cruising grounds in the Western Approaches and off Liverpool, where several oversea trade highways met, than if they attempted the longer and somewhat dangerous course around the coast of Scotland. The loss to the enemy of the port of Zeebrugge, so close to the mouth of the Channel, raised fears in the Admiralty that it would become a submarine base, thus increasing the threat to Franco-British communications and cut again the travelling time of U-Boats to and from their chosen fighting arenas. Consequently, on 23 January, 1915, 12 Royal Naval Air Service aircraft, based on St.Pol near Dunkirk, bombed port installations in Zeebrugge and this raid was followed up by others of increasing strength - on 12 February by 34 planes and 4 days later by 48 machines. Although the bombs used were tiny, of only 10 or 20 lbs weight, a fear of the as yet unknown potency of attack from the air, and slight damage to U.14, led to submarines being banned from using the port, as they had done for short periods for maintenance or to take on stores, until effective anti-aircraft defences could be provided.(28) It was not until May, 1915 that Zeebrugge became a permanent submarine base but primarily for the diminutive, but dangerous “tin tadpoles” of the UB and UC type boats.

Early in 1914 a certain Kapitanleutnant Blum had calculated that it would need 200 submarines conforming to the Prize Regulations to conduct a successful underwater campaign against the British (29) and, coincidentally or not, Germany possessed close to this number of boats in 1917 when unrestricted submarine warfare brought Britain to the brink of defeat. In February, 1915, however, when the infamous Declaration was made, allowing for boats sunk and newly commissioned since war was declared, there were still only between 20 and 25 U-Boats with fully trained crews available to mount an offensive and only a maximum of 1/3 of these could be on station at any one time: an average of 6 boats were at sea each day. Admiral Tirpitz complained that the decision to attack was made without consulting him and, like many post war writers, asserted that the campaign was opened prematurely.

When TB1 arrived in Newhaven at 1.15.p.m. on 23 February 2 submarines, U30 and U8, were already on station while 2 more, U20 and U27, put to sea 2 days later:

 “With these four boats the great gamble began”.(30).

U30, badly commanded and on her first war voyage, sailed northabout around Scotland and, appearing in the Irish Sea sank 2 just 2 steamers before making for Heligoland and home. U8’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Stoss, already a veteran, was made of sterner stuff and, with his boat propelled on the surface by kerosene fuelled engines which gave off a thick black smoke, decided to dive deep and take his chance with the indicator nets when passing through the Straits. Off the Varne U8 came to a sudden halt with her propellers whirling helplessly and her bows entangled in a drifter’s net; somehow, although attacked by 2 destroyers with their modified sweeps, she struggled free and continued on her way down Channel to wreak destruction.

At 2.15.p.m. on 23 February the Admiralty collier Bramksome Chime from Grimsby was 6 miles West of Beachy Head when she blew up and began to sink, an occurrence reported by wireless to Dover by a passing ship. Soon all the Senior Officers in bases along the Channel coast knew what had occurred and TB1, only 2 ½ hours after her arrival at Newhaven, was ordered to sea once again to steam at full speed for the stricken ship and provide what help she could. Admiral Hood, commanding the Dover Patrol, ordered the destroyer Maori to join TB1 but when, after an exciting run at 30 knots, she arrived off Beachy Head, it was to find a second ship, the Oakby proceeding from London to Cardiff in ballast, in a sinking condition. While TB1 returned to Newhaven with survivors from the Branksome Chine, Maori, soon joined by Ghurka, also of the Dover Patrol, patrolled all night in search of submarines although, as no periscopes had been seen, it was possible to believe that the losses had been caused when the ships wandered into a hitherto unknown minefield . The Admiralty instructed the Senior Naval Officer at Newhaven “ to use any torpedo boats not required for escort duty in patrolling for submarines off Beachy Head” (31) and, in consequence, TB5 linked with the 2 destroyers at about midnight to extend the search.

On the following day, 24 February, TB1 was patrolling between Brighton and the Royal Sovereign light vessel, which was anchored to the east of Beachy Head in waters for which the Dover Patrol was responsible, when at 3.10 p.m. the collier Rio Parana, on passage from Newcastle to the Mediterranean, blew up and sank. A little later S.S. Western Coast, carrying a general cargo from London to Plymouth, sank in sight of TB1 and at 5.10 p.m. Harpalion, travelling from London to the United States, also succumbed. TB1 picked up 31 men from the Rio Parana before returning to Newhaven where her skipper, Lieutenant Chambers, reported to Dover that, in his opinion, all the ships lost had struck mines in a field newly laid off Beachy Head. Neither Admiral Hood nor Admiral Meux, C. in C., Portsmouth, fully believed in the minefield theory, but they were aware that U-Boats often lurked off prominent headlands which vessels closed to take bearings and fix their positions, so 2 destroyers were stationed in the area to warn and divert approaching shipping. It was a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had fled for U8 after torpedoing and sinking all the 5 ships mentioned within 24 hours was on her way back to base and a hero’s welcome. TB1’s log records, with a slightly aggrieved air, that 2 pairs of combination linings and 1 pair of duffle trousers loaned to Rio Parana survivors were not returned.

On the night of 22 February, when TB1 was safe in Dover harbour on passage to Newhaven, men of the North Midlands Division began to cross the Channel from Southampton to Le Havre. Two troopers sailed that night, each accompanied by a destroyer, and 8 the following night similarly escorted. However there was a shortage of the “fast packets ships” (mainly paddle steamers) used as transports and, reluctantly, slow cargo ships were pressed into service to convey soldiers to France. On the night of 24 February 4 transports were due to sail but they were all slow ships, there was a bright moon and, having been informed of the losses off Beachy Head during the day, the Admiralty ordered that no vessel was to sail unless it could be escorted by 3 destroyers. Admiral Meux, C.in C., Portsmouth, and in charge of the Southampton - Le Havre supply route, just did not have enough ships to provide the required number of guardians for all the troopers and 2 of them had to remain in port. Quickly a backlog of 11 ships built up, 3 capable of a top speed of 19 knots and the others only able to steam at 13 knots or less: Admiral Meux’s orders were now that the fast vessels could sail without escort but that the slow craft were still to be detained in port if no protection could be provided. Despite the muddle and the congestion, 18,848 troops, with their equipment and necessary stores, were conveyed to Le Havre between 22 and 28 February - quite a remarkable feat but one which put great pressure upon the escort vessels.

TB1 and her 3 sister ships based at Newhaven were swept up in the new and, as it seemed, ever changing arrangements. On the day after U8 left the Channel after completing her disruptive cruise, TB1 patrolled from Brighton to Beachy Head during the afternoon and early evening but then at 9.20 p.m , as her log records, she “left Newhaven on special duty escorting transports to Le Havre” arriving at the French port at 7.40 a.m. on the following morning. The return trip escorting troop ships, presumably empty, carrying lightly wounded men or those due for a short furlough in Blighty, passed without incident and on arrival at Newhaven shore leave was given to the port watch from 1.30 to 9.30 p.m . The libertymen, however, had little time to savour their temporary freedom for at 2 p.m. Lieutenant Chambers received sailing orders and a naval patrol was despatched to recall the sailors many of whom, with caps “flat aback” and pints in hand, were giving serious consideration to the strength of the local beer and the attractions of the various pubs in the town. The round up obviously took some time to complete because it was 7.10 p.m. before TB1 left port to rendezvous with a steamer off Folkestone which she accompanied to Boulogne. TB1’s log gives no indication why a fast ship on its own should receive special treatment at a time when escort vessels were in short supply, but the probability is that it ferried senior army officers, diplomats, politicians and other luminaries back and forth across the Channel. The Naval Staff Monograph, written in 1922, dealing with Home Waters does not disclose what function the escorted ship had, nor yet it’s identity, but it does give unusual attention to this single vessel and the arrangements made to protect her:

“A packet for military purposes was crossing nightly between Folkestone and Boulogne. This was now to be escorted; at first the intention was to employ Dover destroyers but on the 27th. two destroyers from Newhaven were transferred to Folkestone to run the service while the moon was bright, the storeships from Newhaven on the 27th. having to sail without escort. The torpedo boats were soon found to be too small for such work.” (32)

TB1 arrived in Boulogne harbour at 4.0 a.m. on 28 February in the midst of a howling gale which still persisted when she left for Newhaven 3 hours later. The ship rolled badly as the port was left astern and was soon affected by the design flaw which , as mentioned in Chapter One, all the ex-coastal destroyers inherited and which made them liable to engine failure in adverse weather. As the log put it:

“Slipped and proceeded to sea but lost suction (condenser trouble) 4 cables off breakwater. Ship uncontrollable.”

It must have been a very uncomfortable period for all the ship’s company as the little craft lay pitching and tossing helplessly with the breakwater, originally 800 yards distant, looming ever closer. The log does not describe how control was regained and danger averted but eventually the torpedo boat crawled back into port where she was to remain for another 2 days before the gale blew itself out and she was able to make for home in company with TB3.

The weather at the end of February was extremely bad and the torpedo boats stationed at Newhaven suffered so much that their senior officer reported to Admiral Meux at Portsmouth that they were totally unsuitable for the work they were called upon to do and requested that, if they couldn’t be relieved, 2 more craft should be sent to the port so that 4 vessels could operate while 2 rested and thus always conform with the Transport Officer’s time table for the sailing of transports and store ships. The reply, however, was that nothing could be done and that the 4 ex-coastal destroyers based in Newhaven would just have to manage as best they could.

While TB1 was sheltering in Boulogne an unusual success had been claimed in the Channel. Early in February the Admiralty had sent confidential advice to the masters of merchant ships on how U-Boats could be eluded, which consisted of telling them that if a submarine appeared astern, ring for full speed, steer for shoal water and hope for the best, or if a periscope appeared close ahead steer straight for it causing the boat to dive and then, maintaining the same course, steam over the submerged vessel and make an escape:

“There was no suggestion that they should attempt to destroy an assailant - nothing, indeed, which could be used by the enemy to prejudice their status as non-combatants.” (33)

On 28 February, Captain John Bell, master of the 500 ton coaster Thordis, espied a periscope on his starboard hand while his ship was steaming off Beachy Head. The submarine drew slowly ahead of the ship and crossing to her port bow fired a torpedo which missed. Taking the Admiralty advice Bell immediately swung his ship round and headed for the submarine. Whether the U-Boat was slow in diving, as the official report stated, or whether Captain Bell was too angered to bother about protecting his non combatant status, Thordis rammed the boat at speed and a little later oil began to appear on the surface. When Thordis was docked for examination on returning to port it was found that her keel was torn and dented and that a propeller blade was missing. The damage and the evidence of the escaping oil convinced everyone that an enemy submarine had been destroyed and Captain Bell was rewarded with a gift of £500 from the nautical publication Syren and Shipping, the cheque being presented by the Lord Mayor London at the Mansion House. The U-Boat involved was U6, the destructive U8’s replacement in the Channel, which had passed unscathed through the Dover defences. Although the conning tower was severely damaged with one periscope being torn away and the other bent at right angles, U6 survived and, completely blinded, skilfully threaded her way home through the minefields and indicator nets of the Straits to reach Wilhelmshaven safely.

On returning to Newhaven TB1 was soon again on escort duty accompanying a “transport to Boulogne“, although whether this was the nightly packet the log does not reveal.. Now control of the 4 torpedo boats at Newhaven had passed from the Senior Naval Officer of the port to the C.in C., Portsmouth, to help relieve the pressure on Admiral Meux’s destroyers, 2 of which, so the Admiralty had decreed, should escort slow ships carrying vehicles, horses or small numbers of men on the Southampton- Le Havre supply line while 1 should accompany fast troop transports when the moon was bright. “Some risks”, the Admiralty pointed out, “must be taken to get troops across in sufficient numbers” (34) . In fact no sooner had the conveyance of the North Midlands Division across the Channel been completed than it was the turn of a London Territorial Division to make the passage and then, in the last days of March and the early days of April, the South Midlands Territorials, another division of the New Army, was transported to Le Havre and Boulogne without loss. TB1 was at sea during 17 days of March either escorting a single transport to Boulogne or on patrol.

On 1 March the Admiralty made an official announcement that there was no enemy minefield off Beachy Head but merchant ships were advised to avoid the promontory and keep well out into the channel. In view of the sinkings which had taken place off the headland which marked the boundary of his command (there were 3 more during March, 1915) the C.in C. of the Dover Patrol kept 2 of his destroyers patrolling the area but there was a shortage of these maids-of-all-work throughout the Fleet and Admiral Hood asked that the torpedo boats at Newhaven should relieve them for other duties. The Admiralty, however, preferred to keep the ex-coastal destroyers escorting the fast transports unless the weather was too bad for the little craft to keep up when the merchant ships would sail unprotected. Notwithstanding the Admiralty decision some compromise must have been reached for from the 7 March onwards TB1’s escort duties were interwoven with patrols from Brighton to Beachy Head ; on occasion patrolling in the morning would be followed by an overnight trip to Boulogne. On the morning of 27 March, when returning to Newhaven from the French port, TB1 ran into a Force 5 gale which resulted in “bridge screens and rails broken by heavy weather”. The damage did not prevent the torpedo boat sailing the following evening for one more cross channel journey but, on the way to join the transport, a Dutch ship was encountered less than 2 miles offshore showing lights: could she be set on meeting a U-Boat a or making contact with German spy on land ? Whatever the reason for her behaviour the neutral vessel had to be ushered into Newhaven to be searched and the crew questioned.

From the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in late February until the end of March, 1915, 27 allied merchant ships and 1 Armed Merchant Cruiser were sunk but the number of ships sailing to and from British ports had hardly fallen and the strength of the British Expeditionary Force, continually reinforced and supplied, stood at 600,000 men at the end of the period. However, the minefields, the modified sweeps, the indicator nets (35)and the lance bombs were shown to be of limited use in the fight against the U-Boat - enemy submarines were still using the Channel as a highway to killing fields further west - and the search for an effective anti-submarine weapon intensified.

On 4 March U8, the boat which had opened the German campaign so dramatically, returned to the fray after a week spent refuelling, rearming and taking on fresh stores. U8, still commanded by Alfred Stoss, was spotted on the surface in misty conditions by the Dover Patrol destroyer Viking but, after firing a torpedo which missed, the submarine dived and started to feel her way, submerged, through the Straits. As on her first foray, U8 soon became entangled in an indicator net but this time there was no escape. Summoned to the spot by the drifter following the smoking buoy, destroyers hunted the submarine for several hours until Ghurka’s “comical old modified sweep” (36) made contact and exploded driving U8 to the surface where, confronted and shelled by hostile craft, Alfred Stoss surrendered, but not before ordering his crew to open the sea-cocks and drive his stricken vessel to the bottom of the sea. Once back in Dover U8’s captain and officers were entertained aboard the submarine depot ship Arrogant where they were wined and dined by their opposite numbers in the Royal Navy, with whom they shared jokes and reminiscences, an incident which is often quoted as an example of the chivalric attitude often adopted by opponents in the early days of WW1 but one which contrasted sharply with the treatment given to the ratings of U8 who were segregated in detention barracks and treated as pirates rather than prisoners of war, a position which the Admiralty could not maintain when the German government threatened to treat British detainees in the same manner. During the party aboard Arrogant the U-Boat officers were persuaded to sing the “Hymn of Hate”, a rollicking song identifying England as the principal enemy which had been officially printed and distributed:

French and Russian they matter not, A blow for a blow and a shot for a shot; We love them not, we hate them not We have one foe and one alone.

Hate by water and hate by land, Hate of the head and hate of the hand. We love as one, we hate as one, We have one foe and one alone - ENGLAND.

A fuzzy photo of the end of U8 (centre) with her crew on deck to the right awaiting boats from Ghurka and Maori, the ship in the distance.  

The loss of U8 was followed 6 days later by that of U12 which was rammed by the destroyer Ariel off Aberdeen after being hunted by trawlers for 4 days. But by far the most serious loss to the U-Boat fleet during the opening weeks of the new campaign was that of U29, commanded by the redoubtable Otto Weddigen, who had despatched 3 Cressy class armoured cruisers off the Dutch coast and had been rewarded with the captaincy of a brand new boat. Weddigen made his skilful way through the defences of the Straits and the Channel to sink 4 ships off the Scilly Isles and 2 more near the Casquets, after ensuring the safety of the crews, for he was a man who, disregarding the views of his superiors, was determined to comply with international law. After reaching as far west as the Fastnet, Weddigen decided to return to Heligoland by the Northern route but after passing the tip of Scotland he found himself in the midst of the Grand Fleet engaged in exercises. U29 fired a torpedo at the battleship Neptune which missed and then, in the confusion which followed, was run down and crushed by Dreadnought. Such was the end of a brave and principled man: “flawless was his starry flight, undimmed by any dishonour.” (38)

Admiral Tirptz, possibly tongue-in-cheek, had assured the Kaiser that the restrictions imposed on German sea-borne trade by the application of British maritime power would be lifted within 6 weeks of the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare but by the end of March, 1915,it was clear that this objective would not be reached. From the German point of view the results obtained during the first few weeks of the campaign were disappointing; only 28,000 tons of merchant shipping had been sunk and 3 U-Boats had been lost. In London a degree of complacency was mixed with a feeling of foreboding while in Berlin there was discontent with the progress of the offensive and hope for its future. In Newhaven, TB1 and the other little ships , went about their daily business, dangerous and exhausting though as it was, with little time to brood about what the coming months and years would bring.


1. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
2. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
3. Ed. Paul Halpern. “The Keyes Papers. Vol.1.”
4. These were 16 of the most modern submarines accompanied by the destroyers Lurcher and Firedrake.
5. Submarines were always known as “boats” from their introduction into the RN, although this was normally a term used to describe small craft, often open decked.
6. Keyes had recommended that 2 boats should be stationed at Hartlepool but was overruled.
7. The Naval Memoirs of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes - The Narrow Seas to the Dardanelles, 1910-1915.
8. The C class were of 300 tons displacement but their immediate successors, the D class, were twice as big.
9. Admiral Sir William James. “A Great Seaman”.
10. Admiral Lewis Bayly was ordered to strike his flag for not taking precautions against submarine attack but subsequently made a great name for himself in command of the Coast of Ireland Station.
11. Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, commanding the cruiser squadron patrolling the northern exit of the North Sea, complained of the number of neutral ships set free after they had been intercepted carrying contraband. 12. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
13. The Naval Memoirs of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes - The Narrow Seas to the Dardanelles, 1910 - 1915.
14. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
15. This was Von Pohl’s last action as Chief of Staff. He became C.in C. of The High Seas Fleet on the following day.
16. A guardboat was like a police boat. It patrolled the harbour at intervals during the night and had to be hailed “Guardboat Ahoy” by every ship that it passed. A ship from which no hail was forthcoming was boarded and the sailor on watch charged with being asleep or not being attentive to his duties.
17. Ouse is a common name for rivers and stems from the Celtic word for water.
18. From “A Channel Rhyme” by Cicely Fox Smith.
19. Douglas d’Enno. “Fishermen against the Kaiser.”
20. “Taffrail”. “Swept Channels.”
21. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
22. Admiral Sir Roger Bacon. “A Concise History of the Dover Patrol.”
23. Quoted by Martin Gilbert in “The First World War.”
24. Captain E.G.R.Evans. “Keeping the Seas.”
25. The depth charge was not introduced until 1916 and was only produced in numbers in the following year.
26. Introduced in the Straits of Dover their use was soon extended to the North and St.George’s Channels.
27. Charles W.Domville Fife. “Submarine Warfare of Today.”
28. Naval Staff Monograph. “Home Waters. Vol.XIII. Part IV.”
29. Paul G.Halpern. “Naval Histrory of World War One” and others.
30. R.H.Gibson and M.Prendergast. “The German Submarine War, 1914-1918.”
31 Naval Staff Monograph. “Home Waters. Vol.XIII. Part IV.”
32. Ditto.
33. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
34. Ditto.
35. A planned extension of the use of these nets in home waters was delayed because many were sent to Gallipoli.
36. Captain E.G.R.Evans. “Keeping the Seas.”
37. R.H.Gibson and M.Prendergast. “The GermanSubmarine War, 1914-1918.”

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