In 1916 a German “merchant” submarine suddenly popped up in Baltimore. It went on to sink 43 Allied ships during World War I.
AS THE FOG LIFTED JUST AFTER DAWN ON July 9, 1916, people along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland witnessed something never before seen—or even imagined—in the United States: a German Germany slowly making its way into an American port. At 213 feet long and 30 feet high, Deutschland was the largest submarine ever built. It had but one aim: to break the British naval blockade preventing undersea trade between Germany and the United States.
Americans who had read newspaper accounts of Germany’s death-dealing U-boats during the first two years of the war stood at the shoreline watching the world’s first unarmed merchant submarine proudly flying the German flag as it cruised up the Chesapeake and into Baltimore. Newspaper reporters, newsreel crews, and thrill seekers boarded small boats to get a closer look at the slow-moving Deutschland. Captain Paul König, who spoke English, stood with his crew on the submarine’s conning tower and answered questions about their historic trip, shouting over the din of Deutschland’s engines. A sudden, late-afternoon thunderstorm scattered the observers and inquisitors, allowing the massive submarine to complete its trip to Baltimore in relative peace and the reporters to file their stories in time to be printed in the evening papers.
Even before it had arrived, Deutschland was a full-blown media sensation. The July 9 evening edition of the Washington Times devoted its entire front page to the story, under these headlines:
U-BOAT LINER ARRIVES; IS NOW COMING UP BAY
German Submarine Reaches Virginia Capes Early Today After Escaping From French and British Warships. Bringing Valuable Chemical Cargo to Baltimore Deutschland carried more than 1,000 tons of dyes sorely needed by U.S. textile manufacturers. Before the war, Germany had enjoyed a worldwide monopoly on high-quality dyes used in textiles, with the United States one of its largest customers. But by 1916 the fabrics in American clothing, draperies, tablecloths, and other goods had become noticeably less vibrant as the British shipping blockade took hold and stocks of dyes imported from Germany before the war were exhausted. U.S. textile makers were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Deutschland’s very valuable cargo.
After weeks dodging British warships and maneuvering through rough seas, with temperatures inside sometimes reaching 120 degrees, Deutschland finally settled peacefully into a berth at Locust Point in Baltimore Harbor. Its crewmen found their new, spacious quarters on the German passenger ship Neckar, docked next to Deutschland.
On the rainy morning of July 10, hundreds of people gathered just outside the gates of the high fence surrounding the dock, hoping to get a glimpse of Deutschland or its crew. Later that day, reporters and photographers were invited to get their first close look at everything, and soon newspapers everywhere had pictures of Deutschland’s crewmen smiling and waving their hats for the cameras.
Baltimore enthusiastically welcomed König and his men. The city had one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Germans (some 20 percent of its population in 1914), as it had been a prime destination for German immigrants since the 1880s. Many of Baltimore’s public schools taught German, and the city had a German-language daily newspaper and a multitude of social clubs and activities for its German-speaking community.
König and other members of Deutschland’s crew were treated like celebrities, with newspaper interviews, dinner with Mayor James H. Preston, a visit from German ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, and banquets and other festivities organized by Baltimore’s German-American community. König responded effusively: “Only those who know American hospitality and American enthusiasm can form an idea of the hearty reception we were given everywhere,” he told reporters. “People’s heads were quite turned. It did one good to see with how much open and honest sympathy our voyage and safe arrival were regarded by the Americans, and how this sympathy was expressed with the most unrestrained rapture.”
Such was the mystique of Deutschland that people inquired about booking passage to Germany on the submarine’s return voyage. Some 200 members of Congress asked to see Deutschland, it being a political and technological curiosity, but König said no, citing security reasons. Germany further burnished the triumphal image of the voyage by announcing that it was building 25 more Deutschland-class submarines to sail under the British blockade, not only to the United States but also to Spain and South America. Postcards featuring Deutschland were published in the United States in both English and German. Movie theaters in Baltimore, New York, and other cities showed film shorts of its arrival. Scientific American, Collier’s, and other magazines featured stories about the technical wonders of the massive submarine, though editorials in the nation’s newspapers reflected conflicting attitudes:
The Deutschland’s feat is notable and if it is found to pay, it will doubtless be repeated. But the notion that it proves that “the English blockade amounts to nothing” [a German agent’s assertion] is delusional, as the Germans themselves are quite aware.
—New York Herald, July 12, 1916
The world will not withhold warm admiration for the initiative and daring that adapted this type of marine construction to the purposes of commerce and the navigation that solved all of the problems of its record-breaking trip and caused the longest voyage ever made by a submarine to be a voyage of peace rather than war.
In this brilliant exploit the German merchant marine has matched the resourcefulness of the German navy. And no higher commendation drawn from the analogies of the present war could be framed.
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 10, 1916
The giddiness of some of the American press and the people of Baltimore over the arrival of Deutschland wasn’t shared by the other Allies, and the event caused some consternation in Washington, D.C. In the early years of World War I, the United States and the Allies had sharply divergent views of the British blockade. The British were intent on cutting off shipments of any material that could aid Germany’s war effort. The foodstuffs, coal, metals, armaments, and even cotton on American merchant ships were considered contraband, and regardless of their final destination, ships found carrying those items had their cargoes impounded. Further dampening American trade, the British put quotas on what could be sent to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, as it was found those neutral European countries were being used as conduits for goods bound for Germany. The British also boarded more than 2,000 American ships sailing between the United States and Canadian ports, confiscating cargoes worth millions of dollars. Britain’s allies, France and Russia, supported the blockade as a way to choke off Germany’s access to war materials and foodstuffs.
Little wonder, then, that when the Allied powers, joined by Japan, filed a formal protest with the U.S. State Department to impound Deutschland as a weapon of war, the United States was less than sympathetic. As the submarine was purportedly owned by a private company, Deutsch Ozean Reederei, and the crew held papers showing that they were German merchantmen and not from the German navy, the U.S. government could not justify impounding it. It did, however, send Navy and Treasury Department representatives to inspect the submarine. They reported that it was unarmed and saw no way that it could be turned into an armed U-boat. Based on these findings, the Joint State and Navy Neutrality Board declared Deutschland to be a merchant vessel. But it added an important caveat: that the status of any Deutschland-type merchant submarine be reassessed with each visit to a U.S. port. That left open the door to a future reversal in policy based on German-American relations and Germany’s conduct of the war.
In Washington, the British and French embassies not only objected to the provisioning of the submarine while it was in Baltimore Harbor but also protested the U.S. government’s decision to classify Deutschland as a merchant ship. The British immediately made it clear that Deutschland or any submarine like it would be treated as a warship by its Royal Navy, shelled “at sight,” and given no quarter. Meanwhile, Deutschland’s cargo of dyestuffs was unloaded into a warehouse. The cargo for its return trip—376 tons of nickel, needed to reinforce steel for Germany’s arms industry, and about 500 tons of rubber for gaskets, bushings, tires, and other products needed for its war effort—was loaded into the ship shortly thereafter. Repairs were also undertaken. Engine parts made from German steel were replaced with U.S.-made brass parts, as the German parts were inferior and prone to failure. Deutschland topped off its tanks with as much high-quality American fuel as it could hold, which triggered another international protest, as the British and French pointed out that the extra fuel could be used to resupply armed U-boats.
As reports circulated that British and French ships were waiting for Deutschland in international waters off the mouth of the Chesapeake, newspapers ran stories suggesting that the submarine’s trip back to its home port of Bremen might not be as safe or easy as the trip to Baltimore. American fishing boats whose operators supported the British cause were said to be readying huge nets to try to snare the sub. Ambassador Bernsdorff, sensing danger, asked the U.S. government for an escort for Deutschland’s three-mile voyage to international waters, but the State Department rebuffed his request.
On August 1, Deutschland eased out of its berth in Baltimore and—joined by boats jammed with reporters, photographers, and onlookers—floated back down the Patapsco River. The next morning it reached international waters, submerged, and began the long trip back to Germany.
On August 25, after three weeks at sea without incident, Deutschland entered the Weser River. Thousands of people lined its banks to celebrate the heroic submarine, which for the occasion was decked with various flags, including the Stars and Stripes. Bremen’s mayor and other dignitaries greeted König and his crew. Banquets, toasts, and tributes for the blockade-running heroes followed. German newspapers and magazines, such as Der Brummer and Lustig Blätter, ran articles and cartoons extolling Deutschland’s success. With little to show from mounting battlefield casualties and worsening food shortages, the German people desperately needed good news, and the exploits of Deutschland gave them some hope, however fleeting.
Deutschland WAS CONCEIVED OUT OF THE DIRE SITUATION in which Germany found itself as a result of the British blockade, which by early 1915 was already constricting the flow of raw materials needed for its war effort. German arms makers, for example, needed nickel, saltpeter, iron ore, coal, and other materials to manufacture guns, artillery, and ammunition. The largest such company was Friedrich Krupp AG. In addition to submarines, Krupp manufactured most of Germany’s artillery (including the renowned Big Bertha) as well as other weapons and war matériel. It did the same for Germany’s allies, the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans.
In August 1914, with the onset of war, Krupp had purchased stores of U.S. nickel to strengthen the steel used in U-boats, ships, artillery barrels, and other armaments. But the British blockade kept Krupp from obtaining this valuable metal, so in late 1915 the company assigned its engineers to design a merchant submarine that could travel under the British fleet to retrieve the nickel warehoused in America.
At about the same time, Karl Helfferich, Germany’s finance minister (and one of its leading financiers), brought the same idea to the German navy. With Alfred Lohmann, a Bremen-based businessman, Helfferich developed a plan not only to build the submarine but also to construct an intricate deception that would make it appear as if the submarine were a strictly private initiative.
To do this Helfferich and Lohmann set up a civilian front company, Deutsche Ozean Reederei, that was nominally owned by Norddeutscher Lloyd, a well-respected concern that for more than 30 years had transported immigrants from its base in Bremen to Baltimore and handled shipments of goods between Germany and the United States. But behind the scenes, the Imperial German Navy’s design bureau would draw up the construction plans in consultation with Krupp, which would actually build Deutschland and be paid by the navy. The ship’s engines had been designed for the German navy’s heavy cruisers, and its crew was selected from experienced U-boat personnel. In every way Deutschland was a creation of the German navy, under the civilian veneers of Deutsche Ozean Reederei and Norddeutscher Lloyd.
With the German government paying for Deutschland’s construction, Deutsche Ozean Reederei turned to warehousing, supplies, and other needs in the United States. It hired Paul Hilken, an MIT graduate and pillar of Baltimore’s German-American community, who in 1915 was working as a German spy while running the operations of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Steamship Company. Hilken arranged for the dock, warehouse, and other facilities the Deutschland would use while it was in Baltimore. Hilken also arranged to bring the raw materials to Baltimore that Deutschland would take back to Germany, with the priority on the nickel that Krupp had previously purchased.
In December 1915 the keels were laid for Deutschland and a sister merchant submarine, Bremen. Weeks later König was chosen as Deutschland’s commander because he spoke fluent English, was an experienced captain, and had previously navigated the route to Baltimore while with Norddeutscher Lloyd. Like much of the crew, König was a member of the German navy, but to maintain the facade of Deutschland being strictly a merchant vessel, all of the crew would carry papers attesting to their status as merchant sailors. In truth, Deutschland was an unarmed Imperial German Navy U-boat manned by an Imperial German Navy crew.
GIVEN THE SUCCESS OF DEUTSCHLAND’s FIRST VOYAGE—it got the much-needed nickel to Krupp and the rubber to other German companies—the massive submarine left Bremen again on October 1, 1916, for New London, Connecticut, as that destination shaved about a week from the round trip.
This time, in addition to dyes, Deutschland’s cargo included German pharmaceuticals, diamonds and other precious stones, and securities—all for the purchase of American goods. As it was with the dyes, the German pharmaceuticals had a large market in the United States, which was now cut off by the British blockade.
After fighting its way through a three-day storm in the Atlantic, Deutschland finally pulled into New London on November 8. But things didn’t go as well as they had in Baltimore. For starters, there was the surprise arrival on October 7 of U-53 at the Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island. Undetected until it surfaced at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the U-boat’s appearance proved that the U.S. Navy was vulnerable to submarines at one of its largest bases. After a courteous visit of six hours, U-53 left Newport and, over the next six days, sank six Allied vessels as it cruised the Atlantic.
Under the Sussex Pledge, issued in May 1916 in an effort to appease the United States after a German submarine torpedoed a French passenger ferry without warning, Germany had promised that its U-boats would allow merchant ships enough time to load crews and passengers on lifeboats before attempting to sink them. It was then left to the United States to send out ships to rescue those adrift at sea. The attacks moved public opinion further against Germany, and American business leaders quickly came to fear that all shipping on the East Coast would soon be under attack by U-boats.
With bad press from the U-53 episode already coloring the reception of Deutschland on its second voyage, things didn’t get much better on the public relations front. In New London there was a total news blackout on the dock where Deutschland was berthed. No one could even see the submarine, much less have any interaction with the crew.
Once again navy inspectors were sent to make sure Deutschland wasn’t armed. This set of inspectors, however, saw things in a different, decidedly negative light. They concluded that Deutschland could easily be retrofitted into a surface raider or mine-laying submarine and could be armed with torpedoes. They also noted that the large cargo holds would make it easy for Deutschland to serve as a submarine tender, providing fuel and spare parts to other U-boats.
Just after midnight on November 17, Deutschland left New London loaded with a cargo of nickel, rubber, tin, and silver. As it was being escorted out to sea by the tugboat T. A. Scott Jr., the tug suddenly turned into its path and collided with the giant submarine. The tugboat sank immediately; all five members of its crew died.
Deutschland returned to New London for repairs. In short order, more than $200,000 in claims were filed against its owners. Although a trial was scheduled for December 18, König received clearance to leave, and on November 21 Deutschland headed home. As there had been no public relations bonanza from its second trip, no dignitaries, adoring crowds, or banquets greeted the submarine and its crew on their return to Bremen.
THOUGH DEUTSCHLAND HAD TWO SUCCESSFUL TRIPS transporting goods to and from the United States, events unfolding in Germany would soon change its fate.
Germany began rationing bread in January 1915. The rest of the year saw rising prices for bread, milk, meat, and other basic foodstuffs. Before long, shortages of these foods led to riots. As other products—including fats, flour, and potatoes—became subject to rationing the following year, civil disturbances over food broke out in cities all across Germany. On the battlefront, German troops suffered large losses at the Somme and Verdun, among other places, with little to show in terms of either military or political advantage over the Allies. The situation for Germany was becoming increasingly dire.
As 1916 wore on, Germany’s grim position once again brought the idea of unrestricted submarine warfare into play at the highest levels of the German government. Having built a much larger U-boat fleet since 1915, the Germans hoped to force Britain out of the war by cutting off the supplies it was importing from the United States and other countries. With the approval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany declared that its unrestricted submarine attacks would resume on February 1, 1917.
IN DECEMBER 1916 THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT ORDERED ALL Deutschland-class submarines to be transferred to the jurisdiction of the German navy so that they could be converted into U-cruisers—larger U-boats designed to stay at sea for months at a time. On February 27, 1917, Deutschland, now assigned the name U-155, was sent to the North Sea naval base at Wilhelmshaven, where it began its retrofitting as a U-cruiser. The interior was reconfigured for a larger crew and stockpile of ammunition, and the old narrow walkway from the conning tower was replaced by a larger, elevated deck. Two 150mm deck guns were installed on the new deck, and six torpedo tubes, all taken from the old battleship Zähringen, were installed fore and aft of the guns.
The retrofit, however, left U-155 with two disadvantages at sea. First, its external torpedo tubes were constantly exposed to seawater, increasing the need for maintenance and making them prone to mechanical issues, and the sub had to surface to reload them. Second, it was slow. Deutschland could make only 10 knots or so on the surface and was significantly slower when submerged. It couldn’t chase fast ships, and its slow dive time meant that it was much more vulnerable to depth charges and surface fire from Allied vessels. As a result, Deutschland’s captain had to be especially cautious in his attack tactics.
With Deutschland’s conversion to a U-cruiser, König returned to the navy to serve in its personnel office, selecting merchant seamen for U-boat duty. Two of Deutschland’s officers stayed with U-155, serving under its new captain, Karl Meusel, who had trained as a U-boat commander and previously served as a watch commander. A new crew was brought aboard U-155 and on May 23, 1917, after a series of sea trials, it left Kiel for patrol in the Azores.
Only a day out to sea, one of U-155’s compressors failed and had to be repaired. This was just the beginning of a long list of mechanical failures that plagued the U-boat during its first patrol. But Meusel pushed tenaciously on as his mechanics overcame the technical difficulties by cannibalizing parts and using the onboard machine shop. To make up speed while maximizing the firepower of his deck guns, Meusel, using the naval tactic of “crossing the T,” would surface U-155 in the path of an oncoming ship to bring both of his deck guns to bear on the target. He reasoned that no ship would be willing to ram the large submarine. None did.
Meusel’s patrol took him up the Norwegian coast, around the northern tip of Ireland, and then down to the Azores. From May 23 to August 8, U-155 sank or damaged 21 ships, mostly by using its 150mm deck-mounted guns to force them to stop and then boarding them to set charges. Only once did U-155 use its torpedoes to sink a ship.
But combat exposed further issues with Deutschland’s conversion. Most of its torpedoes were damaged from being stowed improperly and getting jostled in rough seas. Heavy use of the large deck guns loosened them from their mountings and wore out their traversing gears, ruining their accuracy.
U-155 spent the next month making its way back to Kiel, arriving on September 7. It was immediately sent to the dockyards for repairs, and Meusel was reassigned to another U-boat. Commander Erich Eckelman took over U-155. It was his first combat assignment.
After being outfitted with new deck guns and an onboard torpedo room as well as getting a general overhaul, U-155 undertook a new series of sea trials in December 1917. On January 14, 1918, it once again headed south of the Azores, charged with intercepting ships heading to and from the Mediterranean Sea via the Straits of Gibraltar. On the way there and once in position, Eckelman had trouble finding suitable targets, as the Allies had begun using defensive convoys to reduce losses to their merchant ship fleet. As a result, Eckelman began going after sailing ships. He sank 17 of them. After returning to Kiel on May 4, 1918, U-155 underwent three months of overhaul and was outfitted with mine-laying equipment. A new captain, Ferdinand Studt, was assigned. Like Eckelman, he had no U-boat experience.
On August 11, U-155 left Kiel for what turned out to be its last patrol, along the Eastern Seaboard from Canada to New York City. Before being called home with the rest of the U-boat fleet on October 21, Studt managed to sink only four fishing vessels and four other ships. U-155 arrived back in Kiel on November 14, three days after the signing of the armistice.
The saga of Deutschland/U-155 did not close quietly or quickly with the end of World War I. Under the terms of the armistice, the German navy had 14 days to turn over all of its submarines to the Allies. And so, on November 24, 1918, the last of the operational German U-boats surrendered to British rear admiral Reginald Tyrwitt, the commander of the Harwich Force, which during the war had helped hunt down U-boats and aided in the blockade against Germany. With Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord of the Admiralty, looking on from the bridge of one of Tyrwitt’s destroyers, Germany’s remaining 28 U-boats, led by U-155, were handed over to the Royal Navy.
The British did not miss any opportunities to flaunt the captured U-boats as war trophies. Five of them, including Deutschland, were sent from Harwich to London. On December 14 the mighty Deutschland, moored at St. Katherine’s Dock near Tower Bridge, was opened to the public, and people by the hundreds lined up to get a peek inside.
After its return to Harwich in early 1919, Deutschland was sold to financier Horatio Bottomley, a former member of Parliament and owner of the patriotic magazine John Bull. The submarine was put on display around England to help sell more than £100,000 in Victory Bonds, with profits from admissions and souvenirs earmarked for the King George’s Fund for Sailors, a charity formed in 1917. More than 150,000 people reportedly saw Deutschland when it was displayed at various English ports from May 1919 to September 1920.
But the whole enterprise turned out to be a scam engineered by Bottomley, who was arrested and convicted in 1922 for fraud involving the purchase and commercialization of Deutschland and for using the money from the Victory Bonds for his own benefit.
Deutschland’s final chapter was tragic. In June 1921 it was brought to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, to be disassembled. Three months later, as the submarine was being taken apart, an explosion ripped through its engine room. Five young apprentices died and one was seriously injured when the torches they were using ignited tanks of hydrogen gas where they were working. Shortly thereafter, what was left of the submarine was sold for scrap.
Deutschland was, without doubt, the most famous German U-boat of World War I. It was a symbol of German resolve, and of the innovative thinking of the German navy and German industry. Germany, faced with the crippling consequences of the British naval blockade, saw merchant submarines as a possible solution. But the Germans’ desperation caused them to overlook the obvious—namely, that the Deutschland-class submarines were too small, too slow, and too few to appreciably affect the outcome of the war. Ultimately, Deutschland was as much folly as it was famous. MHQ
Warren Bernard is the author of Cartoons for Victory (Fantagraphics Books, 2015). He has lectured at the Library of Congress on various historical topics.
Featured in MHQ magazine’s Summer 2017 issue.
Photo: Warren Bernard Collection