First World War Propaganda Map
As we come to the end of this year’s Christmas blog I would like to show off one of the more fragile objects in the museum’s collection. It is a German propaganda map from the First World War purporting to show all of the ships sung by German U Boats in British home waters. Printed as the stranglehold of the British blockade on German ports was reaching crisis point, this poster, and others like it, were printed to give hope to the citizens of Germany that Britain was suffering far more than their country was. Unfortunately for those people it was all a lie, and though this country did go through a crisis of its own during the U Boat campaign Britain never starved, as parts of Germany were to do towards the end of the First World War.
A few months ago we put an appeal out on social media requesting any German speakers to kindly translate the German on the map, and for the first time I am able to reveal the map in all its splendour, with full translation. The title of the map is ‘England’s Plight,’ and reads on the top left, ‘this symbol is for ships sunk by activities of our submarines, without regard to its size.’ Underneath the text tells us ‘The importance of submarine warfare in the ever rising number of ships sunk. I have looked at the numbers and been horrified by it. Sir Arthur Yapp Head of Food Economizing in England, 3rd December 1917, speaking to representatives of the Corn Exchange in London.’ In the bottom middle of the poster we have ‘Ships sunk by mines before the 1st of February are not included.’ Finally the bottom right reads, ’11 months of unrestricted submarine warfare in the northern sea campaign.’
Within two days of the war starting in 1914 the German navy sent a patrol of 10 U-Boats out into the north Atlantic to attack British Royal Navy vessels. This patrol returned only seven ships strong, with one U-Boat having returned due to engine trouble, one rammed and sunk, and one mined. The failure of this venture did not put off the German navy and soon her submarines were to claim their first victim, HMS Pathfinder, sunk 5th September 1914. Within weeks of this attack four other cruisers were sunk, and one U-Boat even penetrated the sea defences around Scapa Flow, the home of the British North Sea Fleet. Fortunately on this occasion the fleet was at sea, and the U-Boat, after suffering a number of misfortunes, had to be scuttled by her Captain.
On the 4th February 1915 the German military declared unrestricted submarine warfare in the British home waters. This meant that any and all vessels could now be sunk without warning, if they were carrying a belligerent nation’s flag. In the first month following this declaration over 80,000 tonnes of merchant shipping was sunk, though a number of internationally damaging incidents occurred, these included the sinkings of the neutral merchant ships Belridge, Hanna, Medea and Falaba. In April the Harpalyce, a Relief ship, was sunk, and on 7 May U-20 sank RMS Lusitania with the loss of 1,198 lives, 128 of them Americans.
These losses, and the international outrage that ensued caused the Germans to scale back their unrestricted warfare so as to ensure other nations would not use the losses as an excuse to declare war on Germany, in particular the United States. The end of the year saw some notable successes, mainly on merchant ships and by the end of the year the German Navy could look back with satisfaction at the knowledge that their small U Boat flotilla had sunk a total of 1,112,896 tonnes of shipping, for the loss of only 19 U Boats.
1917 was to see the worst losses suffered by the British Admiralty in the war, the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, but also the creation of tactics to combat the U Boat threat that were ultimately to bring victory to the allied forces in this first Battle of the Atlantic. At the start of the year the German Navy reckoned it needed to destroy a total of 600,000 tons of British shipping a month in order to starve the UK into surrender. In February the U Boats achieved 414,000, March 500,000 and in April 600,000 out of a total of 860,000 sunk that month. These losses scared member of the British Admiralty, but they were to prove the high water mark of the U Boat campaign. By May the Royal Navy started to escort merchant ships in convoys, and the effect was immediate and dramatic. Merchant ship losses dropped noticeably, and increasing numbers of U Boats were destroyed. In the following three months of the 8,894 ships that were convoyed only 27 were lost. This compares to 356 that were sunk sailing independently of the convoy system. In the same three month period 15 U Boats were destroyed, as opposed to 9 three months before that and 4 for the three months before that. For the first time in the campaign the U Boat Captains found themselves being hunted and the battle became increasingly desperate for them. A sign of this desperation is that for the first time Hospital ships, which sailed with their lights fully on and their sides emblazoned with the Red Cross, became targets in the Atlantic.
1918 saw the end of the war and drastically reduced losses suffered by the Allies. In January U Boats managed to sink around 170,000 tonnes of shipping. In February the number rose slightly, but by March and fallen to around the January figure, and would stay at that level for the rest of the war. The number of U Boat loses averaged out at about 6 a month for the duration of the conflict. What changed in the conflict was the introduction of the American navy into the conflict and their laying of a massive mine belt 300 miles across the Norwegian Sea to block the U Boat route to the Western Approaches via the northern sea channels. In retaliation for this the latest model of U Boat, the U 151 Class, a much larger submarine with increased range, actually involved themselves in attacking the American mainland, in particular the one hour Attack on Orleans, a town in Massachusetts, which was the first time that America had been directly attacked by an outside enemy since the Mexican American war of 1846.
By the time the armistice was arranged on 11th of November 1918 the U Boat arm of the German Navy could look back with a certain pride in the knowledge that they had fought a hard, difficult campaign that did much to threaten Britain’s involvement in the conflict. For a total loss of 153 U Boats, they had managed to sink an astonishing 12 million tonnes of shipping.