The first campaign of the Royal Navy Submarine Service in the First World War

By Mark Harris

Harwich Submarines in the Great War has been published on the 120th anniversary of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. Submarine Boat Number 1 was launched on 2nd October 1901. As I write the nuclear-powered attack submarine Audacious has just been commissioned as the latest addition to the Royal Navy’s conventionally armed submarine force. Somewhere in the world’s oceans a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine is on patrol carrying the U.K.’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Technology has changed out of all recognition since the Submarine Service first went to war in 1914, only 13 years after it was founded. However, the uniquely challenging environment in which submariners operate stays the same. In his foreword, Rear Admiral Westbrook writes:

… being underwater in a submarine is, and always has been, a hazardous activity. To keep safe and be an effective and deadly fighting capability certainly requires a technological superiority, but it needs more than that; it needs a certain type of person willing to master the risks, environment and hardships and exploit them to achieve the upper hand on an adversary.

I set out in this book to tell the story of how the crews of the Harwich Flotilla achieved the upper hand over the German Fleet in 1914. In doing so they made a decisive contribution to the successful outcome of the Royal Navy’s campaign in the North Sea.

British submarines were in almost constant contact with the enemy right from the first day of the war. The crews had to adapt to new operational challenges on almost every patrol. Within days of war breaking out, E.5 had fired the first torpedo to ever be used in action by a Royal Navy warship, at a German destroyer in the Heligoland Bight.

HMS E.6, underway on her diesel engines off Portsmouth shortly before the war (US Naval History and Heritage Command NH 54964)

The work was dangerous and difficult. All of the technology was new and untried in war. A mechanical failure or a lapse in drill could cause the loss of a boat and the entire crew. Collision on the surface in poor visibility or darkness was always a risk. The weather in the North Sea could inundate the exposed bridges of the boats, washing crew overboard to never be seen again, or smashing control gear. Any of these factors could be the reason why D.2 never returned from her last patrol. Both British boat D.7 and the French boat attached to the flotilla, Archimède, endured terrible beatings from North Sea storms and barely made it back to port. Mines became an increasing hazard over time and sank D.5 with the loss of most of her crew. The threat from the enemy was ever present. E.3 became the first submarine to be ambushed by another submarine and was lost with her entire crew.

Each crewmember endured the hazards and hardships for different reasons. For some it was the better pay that they received – ‘hard lying’ money. For others it was the chance to be part of a small crew away from the hierarchy and spit and polish of the big ships. Many of the officers were attracted by the adventure and risk of commanding a vessel filled with cutting edge technology. It was no accident that submarine captains were often keen enthusiasts of the new sport of motorcycle racing, or had taken up flying.

The story of the campaign is told from the perspective of those who took part, on both sides, using patrol reports, log entries, diaries, letters, and memoirs. The text is supported by charts, compiled from the reports, logs and chart traces of the vessels involved. Contemporary photographs of the boats, crews and ships support the text. British, German, and French records have been cross-referenced to confirm not just what really happened, but also the impact on British and German tactics and strategy.

The bridge and crew of HMS D.7, showing just how exposed to the weather it was. (US Naval History and Heritage Command NH 54984)

The prominent role played by the Flotilla was due in no small part to the leadership of Commodore Roger Keyes. Together with his friend and ally, Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, who commanded the Harwich Destroyer Flotillas, Keyes was a driving force behind the offensive operations by the Navy in the North Sea during 1914. Behind both was Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, the political guiding force of the Navy and a vocal champion for the use of new technology, including submarines. The book charts the command intrigues and differences of opinion that surrounded the evolution and execution of British operations in the North Sea in 1914, focussing on the key role that both Keyes and 8th Flotilla itself played in shaping them.

Success also brought fame to a few, most prominent amongst whom was Lieutenant-Commander Max Horton of E.9. Horton torpedoed the first warship to be sunk by a Royal Navy submarine, the scout cruiser Hela. He quickly followed up by sinking the destroyer S.116. In celebrating each of his victories Horton also instituted a Submarine Service tradition; flying a Jolly Roger on return to port to mark a successful attack.

There were also frustrations and failures on the steep learning curve of these early patrols. Some captains would later rise to fame after the early disappointments, whilst others would face moves to less challenging commands or out of the Submarine Service entirely.

The book sets out to give a complete picture of every patrol of the Flotilla in 1914. The aim is to give a real insight into the story of each boat in the Flotilla, and how each crew met the different challenges that they faced. The way the patrols were planned and executed and the impact on tactics, strategy and the individuals caught up in the events are all explored. The real impact created by the unit was much greater than that of the warships it sank, playing a critical role in British intelligence gathering, operational planning and denial of the use of the Heligoland Bight to German surface forces.

British submarine operations have perhaps been overshadowed by the scale of the German campaign against commerce in both world wars. In writing this book I wanted to throw a new light on an unjustly neglected aspect of the First World War and the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service. I have also set out to tell the story in a way that should appeal to readers who are already very familiar with the naval side of the war, who will find much that is new to them, as well as tell a story that will appeal to those who have never read about the naval war in 1914.

The Flotilla maintained its fighting edge in the face of significant losses over this campaign during the first five months of the First World War. It held together through the professionalism, camaraderie and courage of the crews.

In assessing their achievements, perhaps the last word on the Flotilla and the strategic impact they had in this opening campaign should go to the commander of the German Fleet in 1914, Admiral von Ingenohl:

The submarine has entirely altered the conditions in our operational base in the German Bight, bringing constant danger and surveillance to this confined area, which we have no means of avoiding. In favourable weather conditions the German Fleet will be literally blockaded in the estuaries by enemy submarines unless it is prepared to expose itself to the risk of significant losses.

You can purchase Harwich Submarines in the Great War here.

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