1. Overture

At the beginning of the war in August 1914, Germany had about 20 operational U-boats in its High Seas Fleet, commanded by Korvettenkapitän Hermann Bauer as Commander of U-boats (Führer der Unterseeboote, FdU). Their forward base was the fortified island of Heligoland, and as soon as hostilities with Russia started, they were deployed in a defensive screen in the North Sea on 1st August.

On the bridge of SM U-9, lying in wait on the surface on this first sunset of the war, Kptlt. Otto Weddigen remarked to his First Watch Officer, Johannes Spieß:

"Spieß, look how red the sky is. The whole world seems to be bathed in blood. Mark my words - England will declare war on us."

These were Prophetic words which came true three days later, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland declared war on the German Empire on 4th August.

The German U-boats in Kiel in May 1914

Two days later the energetic FdU sent SM U-5, U-7 to U-9, U 13 to U 18 in a bold move to attack the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. The campaign started rather unpromising: SM U-5 and SM U-9 had to turn back because of engine troubles, SM U 13 was lost without a trace and SM U 15 was sunk by the light cruiser HMS Birmingham, when trying to move in for an attack. The rest of the boats as well as SM U 19, U 21, U 22 and U 24, which had left port for the North Sea later in August achieved nothing. On top of that, on 23rd November 1914 SM U 18 (Kptlt. Hans von Hennig) was able to penetrate Scapa Flow but was sighted and sunk.

The first lost. SM U 15 (Kptlt. Pohle) was rammed and sunk by the British light cruiser
HMS Birmingham on 9 August 1914 in the North Sea with all hands.

The German U-boat flotilla had lost one fifth of its total strength without managing to sink a single ship. All in all the war had started very disappointingly for Germany's submariners and an unnamed U-boat officer remarked:

"Our submarine fleet performed about as well as any other nation's, however, not very well."

Soon that would change.

See chapter 2. First blood.

The U-boat War in World War One