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The Destruction of the U-Boat Menace: Admiral Sims and the Anti-Submarine War, 1917-18

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The Destruction of the U-Boat Menace: Admiral Sims and the Anti-Submarine War, 1917-18
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): John Langdon Leighton & Cora W. Rowell
Date Published: 09/2022
Page Count: 172
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-915234-81-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-915234-80-3

Simsadus: London by John Langdon Leighton
A Short Biography of Admiral Sims by Cora W. Rowell

The anti-submarine war of the later stages of the Great War

It’s possible that some students of submarine and anti-submarine warfare during the First World War may have overlooked the ambiguously titled ‘Simsadus’, the main title in this Leonaur special edition. Simsadus stands for ‘Sims-admiral-U.S’ and the narrative tells the story of how the German U-Boat menace was finally brought to ruin. Germany became increasing threatened by the steady stream of materiel that crossed the Atlantic Ocean to assist the allied cause during the course of the conflict. That situation worsened when the USA actively joined the allied effort. The U-Boat wolf-pack potentially offered a solution to this perilous strategic threat, especially since, for a period, convoys of shipping could not be protected for the entire Transatlantic crossing. However, the introduction of American destroyers working in concert with their Royal Navy counterparts, sounded the submarine’s death- knell. Admiral William Sims was the commander of this operation and this book, written by an American intelligence officer on his staff, benefits from the closest first-hand knowledge. Useful tables on submarine losses, maps and pictures are included, as is a short informal biography of Sims to provide context.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Whenever we used to hear of an attack on a ship or transport, there were always at least two submarines present and sometimes four or five or more. These tales were invariably exaggerated and false, for it was not the policy of the submarines to operate together. In the first place, one torpedo was sufficient to sink almost any vessel; if a second submarine stood by and watched the other submarine fire the torpedo and do the sinking, its presence was useless. If it took part in the attack and fired a torpedo, its efforts were wasted, for one submarine would be very nearly as sure of getting its prey as two of them together. The story of the U. S. S. AL-4 on July 10, 1918, will be recalled. In which two submarines accidentally became mutually interested in the AL-4 and before they had finished, the one had sunk the other. There are other cases on record in which the presence of two submarines was only a hindrance or serious menace to both of them.
Attacks on ships were of two kinds: those in which the submarine would stop a sailing vessel or steamship by gunfire, and sink her by placing bombs in the hold, and those in which the submarine would fire a torpedo at the vessel, submerge, and try to effect an escape. The former sort became less numerous as more ships were armed, and after a few submarines had encountered British mystery ships, the torpedo attack became prevalent. Imagine a steamship on the horizon. The commanding officer of the waiting submarine would approach nearer to the vessel to ascertain her course and speed, which, of course, he must know in order to be able to fire a torpedo accurately.
Dazzle painting or camouflage was used on ships to make them less visible. This application of protective coloration was good in theory, but on the open sea with the vessel’s mast and hull standing out above the horizon, streaky painting of lights and shadows had little effect. There were cases, I suppose, in which, because of camouflage, a submarine officer found it difficult to make out the exact types of ship he was to attack. For instance I remember when I was attached to the U. S. S. Leviathan, in March, 1918, that one of the destroyers, escorting us into Liverpool, appeared to have only two funnels, (all American destroyers have either three or four funnels), and that several of us remarked upon it at the time.
A few moments later, the sun came out from behind a cloud and we saw the third stack. This destroyer was camouflaged, and under certain conditions of light we had been deceived in her appearance. The submarine commander, however, did not care to definitely make out the sort of ship his prey was; what he wanted to know was what course he should steer in order to intercept her, or in other words, in what direction was the ship going. In order to determine this, he would look at the masts and funnel. (If the ship were running parallel to him, he could determine this immediately.) The closer together the two masts and funnel were in his periscope picture, the nearer directly towards him the ship would be coming.
If the mast on the left was higher than the one on the right, he would know that the left mast was the forward mast and hence the ship was approaching him on a course to his left; and if the right mast was the higher mast, he would know that the ship was approaching to his right. If the masts and funnels had a “rake” to them, that is if they slanted a trifle aft, his estimate of the course of the ship would be made much easier. For this reason, camouflage, according to experience and statistics, did not prove of value in preventing his gaining this information. It only continued to be applied throughout the war because merchant crews gathered a certain sense of confidence from having their ships painted in this way.
What did help out though, was the erection of straight masts and funnels, all as short as possible, with the after mast a little higher than the forward one. This arrangement gave no information one way or the other to the submarine officer as to the ship’s direction, for with the masts short and stubby, and practically no funnel at all, his chief source of information was gone. With the introduction of the convoy system, camouflage of any sort became entirely useless.
But to return to the attacking submarine. When the submarine had ascertained the speed and course of the merchant ship. It would submerge, periscope and all, and by dead reckoning—which means steering by compass—proceed to a point very near from which it had been estimated a torpedo could be fired. Submarines had to be within one thousand yards or less of a ship to be sure of the torpedo striking its mark. The captain of the submarine would then bring his boat within ten or fifteen feet of the surface, and stick his periscope up to see how matters stood. If all were well, that is if he were within a thousand yards of his prey, a torpedo would be fired and if it hit its mark, he would look around hurriedly to see if any patrol boats might attack him, and then submerge to a depth varying from 30 to 200 feet, and try to make good an escape.
After this attack, some of the survivors would relate that no submarine was seen at any time, while others would tell how the ship was attacked by three submarines, two of which were rammed and sunk. The former tale would, of course, be the correct one, but the latter tale would be the one more popularly told, and in this way much misinformation was spread. There were many cases where ships were sunk and the submarine never seen, even though destroyers were present. The most ideal conditions under which a submarine could attack a ship, was from a position between the ship and the sun.
When a submarine attacked a convoy under the escort of destroyers, the submarine officer’s task was more difficult. A convoy was always zigzagging, which meant that the submarine, if it came too close to the convoy, would always run the chance of being rammed. To avoid getting too close it was necessary to keep the periscope above the water, and this might be seen by one of the watchful destroyers. Often it was believed that a submarine, because of the difficulties involved in an attack upon a convoy, would fire a torpedo at the middle of the convoy and trust to good fortune that it would hit something. As soon as a ship in convoy had been torpedoed, the excitement for the submarine began.
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