Grieve not, but try again

N.A.M. Rodger

  • The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks
    Allen Lane, 823 pp, £12.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84614 580 3

Warships are built for war, but not only for war. They have always had an eloquent symbolic value as expressions of power, wealth and resolve, as instruments of threat or reassurance. They speak this language in peacetime just as much as in war. But ‘language’ should really be in the plural. Different kinds of warship convey different meanings, in different languages, and the languages are not easy to translate. This applies to all warships, but especially to submarines. The range of ideas and associations linked with German submarines, for example, in the period of the two world wars and since, were not the same inside Germany as outside. For many episodes of Anglo-German submarine history there are at least three versions of the narrative: the British, the German and what actually happened.

During the Second World War, the British officially described all enemy submarines as ‘U-boats’, regardless of nationality, so that they would all be tainted by the sinister connotations of the German word, and so that the public would not confuse their activities with the heroic campaigns of British and allied submariners. Today, most books in English on the First World War still describe Germany’s adoption of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ as the critical point of the naval war, but what they imagine to have taken place bears only a slight resemblance to the reality. ‘Unrestricted submarine war’ implies the rejection of legal restraints that did not exist, for international law as yet had taken almost no note of the existence of submarines. The German submarine force was divided into different commands that followed different policies and operated different types of boat, but most of them were occupied with stopping cargo ships on the surface in daylight in coastal waters, then allowing the crews to escape in their boats before sinking the ships by shellfire or scuttling charges. This was a highly efficient form of attack involving minimal loss of life. In August 1916 Lieutenant Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, the captain of U-35, returned to his base having sunk 54 ships, still the record for the single most destructive submarine patrol in history. The quayside was black with cheering crowds, ‘and yet,’ he commented, ‘so far we had scarcely had any adventures. It was all rather humdrum. We would stop the ship, order the crew into the boats, check the ship’s papers, give the crew a course to the nearest land and sink the prize.’

This practice was economical and brilliantly successful, but German senior officers were not cheering. It was hateful to German admirals, and even more to generals, because to them it looked like a concession to civilian values that would ruin Germany’s reputation for Abschreckung (‘frightfulness’ or terror). They wanted the U-boats to torpedo passenger liners, which was difficult to achieve and had limited military value, because the mass slaughter of civilians, they believed, would frighten enemies into surrendering and drive neutrals into port. So they ordered the reluctant submariners to abandon surface attacks in favour of the more murderous, but much less effective, submerged attack. The German submariners knew (as did the British) that the economic blockade was Germany’s most effective weapon. But economic blockade was an alien concept to German senior officers, and had little to do with victory as they understood it: they weren’t fighting to win so much as to assert the social values of the German military and claim their rightful status in the command of society. In the final weeks of the war, the German admirals deliberately tried to provoke a fleet battle so that they could be defeated in a suitably Wagnerian style. This, in their view, would establish the moral superiority on which a future High Seas Fleet could be founded. The sailors vetoed this tactic, but in the postwar years German naval officers, in their pursuit of the same objective by different means, contributed powerfully to the creation of what became the Nazi party. The inscription on the 1923 naval officers’ war memorial at Mürwik read: ‘Nicht klagen, noch einmal wagen’ (‘Grieve not, but try again’).

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