The U-boat Summer of 1918: Navy, Part 8

March 1, 2005 by Marc Milner

PHOTO: THE MARINERS' MUSEUM, NEWPORT NEWS, VA.

PHOTO: THE MARINERS’ MUSEUM, NEWPORT NEWS, VA.

Although nearly destroyed in 1918, the Dornfontein was resurrected as the Netherton in 1919.

On July 31, 1918, the new four-masted schooner Dornfontein cleared Saint John harbour bound for South Africa with a load of lumber. Three days later, 10 kilometres south of Grand Manan Island, N.B., U-156 suddenly rose from the sea and brought the Dornfontein to a halt with two shots across her bow.

While the schooner’s crew was hustled aboard the submarine, the Germans looted the vessel and then set it ablaze. As the ship burned to the waterline, her crew were fed a dinner of bully beef and rice. Then, five hours after the ordeal began, the schooner’s crew was put into dories and sent off amid waves and wishes of “Good luck!”, a sentiment not shared by the crew who had been “robbed of all we had on board worth taking.” But at least the sailors had escaped with their lives, and brought their story ashore at Gannet Rock, Grand Manan, the next day.

World War I had finally come home to Canada.

Naval authorities had, of course, been expecting this for some time. U-156 was actually the second U-boat to patrol in North American waters in 1918. In May and in June, U-151 hunted off the United States east coast, sinking 52,000 tons of shipping before heading home. The mayhem from the cruise was followed closely by the Canadian press, which was especially impressed by the transfer at sea of some 70 tons of copper from one of U-151’s victims. Even the tiny, 124-ton Canadian schooner Dictator, which had been loaded with salt, was not spared.

U-151 reported the coast of North American virtually undefended, and so on June 16, 1918, U-156 left Kiel, Germany, with orders to mine the approaches to New York, patrol the Gulf of Maine and the entrances to Boston, Mass., Saint John, N.B., and Halifax, attempt to cut the transatlantic cable off Canso, N.S., and if possible capture a local vessel and arm it as a raider. It was an ambitious assignment for Kapitanleutnant Richard Feldt, but his patrol was remarkably successful, apart his failure to cut the cable.

By late June, British naval intelligence was aware of U-156’s departure, and shortly after that the sailing of another large U-boat for North American waters, U-140, but no one on the Allied side as yet knew what their assignments were. U-156 announced its presence at sea on June 26 when she sank a British steamer. The sinking of two large sailing vessels near Sable Island on July 7-8, however, went unnoticed until their crews made land some time later. The crew of the Norwegian sailing vessel Marosa took more than a week to reach safety, travelling 1,100 kilometres in open boats before coming ashore near Canso and raising the alarm on July 16. The crew of the Norwegian schooner Manx King suffered a similar fate. Both vessels had their papers checked before they were sunk, and both were from a neutral country.

U-156 arrived off New York undetected, and immediately laid her mines off Fire Island. Despite a brief encounter with a U.S. warship on July 17, she seems to have raised no particular alarm, at least until the 13,600-ton cruiser USS San Diego struck one of the mines and then sank. Then on the morning of July 21, 1918, U-156 brazenly bombarded a tug and several barges off Cape Cod in broad daylight while vacationers looked on from the beach. During the bombardment, shells landed amid some cottages. After sinking a schooner north of Cape Cod, U-156 disappeared for 10 days. Based on signal decrypts, British authorities had Feldt heading for Delaware Bay between Delaware and New Jersey. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy assumed he would hunt off Boston and so it deployed forces there. Both were wrong. The next hard information on U-156’s whereabouts was brought ashore by Dornfontein’s crew on Aug. 3: The U-boat was clearly moving north.

In the process of bombarding her way through a group of schooners on Le Have Bank southeast of Shelburne, N.S., she sank seven boats and sent dory loads of Canadian and American fishermen rowing towards the Nova Scotia coast.

Local newspapers were soon awash in lurid stories of U-156 lying offshore, signalling spies based in Nova Scotia while the navy and the army dithered. The district intelligence officer in German-settled Lunenburg County was unable to cope with the flood of “information” on local turncoats. He wanted the army deployed and martial law declared. The arrival of dory loads of fishermen along the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland coasts, telling tales of German piracy just offshore, pointed to the Royal Canadian Navy’s inability to defend the fishing fleet. Canadians, not least politicians and the media, expected the navy to protect their shipping. The navy was under no illusions that it could. The fishing fleet was far too dispersed to protect in any event, and the navy lacked the vessels to do so.

While the hysteria built on land, U-156 moved further east and north. On Aug. 5, she torpedoed the tanker Luz Blanca 80 kilometres south of Halifax. When U-156 surfaced to finish the tanker by gunfire, the merchant ship fired back and an hour-long gun battle ensued. The action was witnessed by an American ship nearby which radioed the warning. The Luz Blanca eventually went down only three-hours steaming from the Halifax waterfront. With few ships available and communications failures preventing the information from reaching those already on patrol, it took nine hours for the first vessels to reach the scene. It was hardly the RCN’s best moment, and worse was to come.

Vice-Admiral Sir William L. Grant, the new commander in chief, North America and West Indies, immediately abandoned Halifax as a convoy assembly port. He shifted that duty to Quebec City, while the RCN stepped up its patrols in the area.

But despite all the hype and the public outcry during the U-boat campaign off Canada in 1918, the convoys continued to operate. Indeed, trade sailed largely on time and the three U-cruisers that operated off the Canadian coast in 1918 were reduced to preying on the fishing fleet. As U-156’s battle with the Luz Blanco suggested, taking on a convoy was an entirely different thing from sinking defenceless sailing vessels. By 1917, most trans-oceanic steamers carried at least one gun. And so while on the high seas, convoys depended on their speed and combined gun power to defend themselves against U-cruisers. Inshore, anti-submarine escorts met the convoys as they entered the high danger zone where submarines were expected to operate submerged.

In Canada, the organization, sailing and preliminary escort of oceanic convoys were working well by 1918. The bulk of traffic came out of the St. Lawrence River, and so the adoption of Quebec as the main assembly port for convoys posed no burden. In fact, Captain Walter Hose, the officer in charge of the forming-up escort force, had decamped from Halifax in May for his operational base at Sydney, N.S. By the time U-156 arrived in July, Hose commanded more than 50 ships. Three of his ships were American sub-chasers, the rest included 19 Admiralty-class trawlers, 22 drifters (smaller wooden vessels), three battle-class trawlers and a number of trawler minesweepers. Many had just arrived from the builders and five were still not armed, but Hose’s little ships made for a workable convoy system. They screened the ocean convoys while they formed up, and for a brief period as they headed out to sea. The rest of the tiny RCN not assigned to Hose’s Sydney-based forming-up escort force were busy patrolling the approaches to Halifax and Saint John.

Hose’s trawlers and drifters conducted offensive patrols once their brief escort duty was done, but U-boats were damned difficult things to catch. They were fast at about 18 knots, while the U-boat commander’s duty was to sink shipping—not to die in a blaze of glory. Even slight damage to a sub’s pressure hull seriously reduced the chances of evading hunting forces or slipping back through the Allied naval blockade of Europe. The mere presence of escort vessels was sufficient to keep subs away from the convoys, and the addition of air support for shipping movements late in 1918 made such an attack even less likely. So, despite fears in the RCN that a U-cruiser could wipe-out a portion of the fleet, any contact between Canadian patrols and the U-cruisers would be accidental and fleeting. For all these reasons, only one confrontation between a U-boat and vessels of the RCN occurred.

After sinking the Luz Blanco off Halifax, U-156 disappeared and it was some time before naval intelligence identified her as the U-boat once again operating off New York. In the meantime it was revealed that U-117 and U-155—the former U-Deutschland—were en route to Canadian waters. On Aug. 10, U-117 cut a swath through the fishing fleet on George’s Bank, while as late as the 17th there was evidence that U-156 was still off Cape Cod. Three powerful U-cruisers in Canadian waters represented a major jump in the threat—if they all arrived at the same time.

The quiet of the Canadian coast was finally broken on Aug. 21 when the crew of the trawler Triumph rowed into Canso harbour with an astonishing tale. The day before, as they fished 95 kilometres to the south at Middle Bank, U-156 had surfaced, fired a warning shot and put a prize crew aboard. Within half an hour, Feldt had equipped Triumph with a wireless set, two light guns and 25 bombs. Thus did the Nova Scotia trawler become the only steam-powered merchant raider to operate successfully off Canada’s east coast. This was a new threat and authorities reacted swiftly. Hose immediately dispatched the ships Cartier, Stadacona and Hochelaga and two trawlers. Also assigned to help were three American sub-chasers from Halifax and the escorts from the latest convoy. Other American vessels, including several destroyers assigned to passing troop convoys, were also sent to patrol the area.

Meanwhile, Triumph—well known to the local fishing fleet—set off on a three-day escapade straight from a novel. With U-156 lying awash (only her conning tower showing) a short distance off, Triumph made her way through the fishing fleet, sinking schooners with bombs. As the captain of the schooner O’Hara observed, Triumph was a familiar sight and she was able to get within rifle range before anyone noticed the naval crew and German ensign at the trawler’s masthead. Like all the others, O’Hara’s captain was ordered to bring his papers aboard Triumph and then the dory was sent back with three Germans and a bomb, which “was hung under the stern with a line.” The fuse gave enough time to get back aboard Triumph before the bomb exploded “and the vessel went down stern first”.

By Aug. 24, Triumph had sunk seven schooners, and exhausted her coal. Feldt removed the radio, guns and prize crew and Triumph was scuttled, ending one of the most remarkable sagas in Canadian history.

The next day, Aug. 25, a Canadian patrol, led by Cartier, with the yacht Hochelaga, and trawlers TR22 and TR32, finally caught up with U-156. She was 60 kilometres south of St-Pierre-Miquelon islands. The sub was just sinking the last of four schooners when a lookout on Hochelaga spotted the final masts tipping into the water. Only TR22 was with Hochelaga: The other division was apparently within visual signalling distance about six kilometres away. Given what happened next, the captain of Hochelaga was clearly well aware of the disparity between his small force and U-156. The entire fire power of his two ships amounted to two 12-pounder guns, no match for U-156’s two 5.9-inch guns. Moreover, U-156 was more than twice the displacement of both Hochelaga and TR22 combined, and nearly twice as fast. Then there were those enormous torpedoes. As soon as Hochelaga’s captain saw the U-boat he turned his ships and ran. The senior officer of the patrol in Cartier was driving hard for the scene when Hochelaga signalled, “Do you see reinforcements astern, don’t you think it better to wait for them?” There were, of course, no reinforcements nearby. Cartier’s captain quickly got his patrol pointed in the right direction and arrived to find one schooner lying on her side, the sea littered with dories full of fishermen and wreckage—but no sign of U-156.

U-156 destroyed one more schooner the next day before turning for home. In many ways her two-month cruise off North America was a great success: She had sunk 23 vessels and caused frenzy by stirring popular fear of U-boats and spies. No one knows if she tried to cut the transatlantic cables. But as dramatic as her cruise was, U-156 sank only one ship of any size, the Luz Blanco, and she never stopped the convoys from sailing. Nor, in the end, was fate kind to Feldt and his gallant crew: U-156 was destroyed on a minefield in late September 1918 while trying to slip back into the North Sea. With her went most of the details of her remarkable cruise.

The captain of Hochelaga, in contrast, was forced to live with his moment of weakness. He was dismissed from the service following a court martial, which found that he had not used “his utmost exertion to bring his ship into action.” It would have been nice had he driven headlong into battle and crippled or sank the submarine. But it was not to be and the leniency of the court martial suggests he was treated with some consideration. Hose at least understood the limits of his personnel, and observed that his force would have to be completely revamped for the 1919 U-boat campaign.

In the end there was no 1919 campaign, nor did the RCN get a chance to fight U-117 or U-155. In the event, neither submarine accomplished much in Canadian waters either. The real importance of the 1918 U-boat campaign lay in what it did for national naval policy. Borden’s government had steadfastly resisted Kingsmill’s pleas for naval construction since 1914, sending troops to the Western Front, and trusting the Admiralty promises that any serious threat in Canadian waters would be met by British forces.

When the enemy finally came to Canada’s shores in 1918, running amok through the fishing fleet and revealing the woeful inadequacy of naval defence, the Admiralty sent nothing but more promises. The legacy of the 1918 U-boat campaign was the realization that Canada had to look after its own naval defence: No one else was going to do it.

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