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Chapter 28

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

by
George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 30

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p501 XXIX
The World War (Continued)

American Submarines and Aircraft

We have considered the fight made by the several kinds of surface craft to enforce the surface blockade of Germany and to break up the under sea blockade with which that country was retaliating. There remains for discussion the fight made also by our submarines and aircraft.

In neither of these types was our navy strong. Our submarines, such as we had, were small and designed, like our early battleships and torpedo boats of the Spanish-American War period, mainly for harbor defense. They lacked necessary comforts and they were years behind those of leading European powers. Further, the navy as a whole had little confidence in them. Of aircraft we had next to none, with a correspondingly small personnel trained in flying.

Yet the experience of the Allies had plainly showed the value of both of these services for scouting and for offensive operations. Since America was determined to prosecute the war in every possible way, the Navy Department decided to send what was available and to build extensively.

It was in October, 1917, that one submarine flotilla set out for the Azores, and two months later that another went to the British Isles. The latter could not have chosen a worse season for crossing, encountering gale after gale, some rising to the proportions of a hurricane. But the boats, seven in number, eventually reached Bantry Bay, Ireland, and there after undergoing a brief period p502of instruction from selected British submarine officers they began regular patrol duty. Certain areas were assigned to them in St. George's Channel, Bristol Channel, and in waters to the south and west of Ireland, in all of which shipping was crowded and the U‑boats had wrought havoc.

The U‑boats found the submarine of their opponents hard to contest with when their own attention was focused on commerce destruction. As they were out for long cruises they had to be saving in use of their storage batteries. Therefore generally they had to run on the surface using their Diesel engines. Thus if an Allied submarine approached submerged, since they themselves were low in the water, they were in as great danger of surprise as were the merchant ships from them. Confronted by such a peril, they acted like the merchant ships; they planned to give the hostile submarine a wide berth. The result was that the U‑boats tended to operate farther and farther out at sea, where the chances of success were decidedly less.

Our submarines, designated as the AL‑boats, might well have been satisfied if this result had been their only service. But they were constantly seeking to destroy one of their foe. The exploit of the AL‑2, Lieutenant Paul F. Foster, is one that deserves especial notice.

The AL‑2, while running awash on her way to Bantry Bay near the close of an eight‑day patrol, changed her course to investigate a suspicious looking object that had been sighted in the dim distance. As she approached, a torpedo exploded only sixty feet away and a periscope appeared for a moment. But, for a reason that can only be conjectured — perhaps because the torpedo had boomeranged, striking the ship that fired it — it did not harm the AL‑2, and it did injure the U‑boat. The skipper of the AL‑2, at once grasping the situation, ordered a p503quick dive and circled around to ram the U‑boat. He passed so near that through his hull he could hear the propellers, but he did not strike. Quickly the propellers stopped, and though the AL‑2 searched for hours the officers detected no further sign of their enemy. It is very likely that the U‑boat in order to avoid the AL‑2 had dived, whereas if she had remained on the surface she might have been saved. The one thing certain is that the British Admiralty three months later published confidential reports secured by their intelligence officers in Germany, showing that the UB‑65, which had been reported operating off Fastnet, Ireland, on the day of this occurrence, had never been heard from since. On receipt of this intelligence, the Admiralty credited the sinking of the UB‑65 by indirect action, to the AL‑2.1

Considering next the work of the aviation service, one is struck with how little they had to begin with and how quickly they expanded. A year previous to hostilities a Yale University aviation unit had begun training under the leadership of Trubee Davison and this volunteer unit formed an important nucleus.a The aviators were the first of our forces to land in France, seven officers and one hundred and twenty‑two men arriving at St. Nazaire on the 5th of June, 1917.

Soon American naval aircraft stations were building all along the western coast of France, areas were charted off and each station was assigned one of them for patrolling. At the conclusion of hostilities we had four kite balloon stations, eighteen seaplane stations, three dirigible stations, and five bombing plane stations.2

And this was as nothing in comparison with the huge plant that was under construction at Pauillac and elsewhere. p504American equipment was lacking; nevertheless our men saw action and they made their presence felt. The Northern Bombing Group, commanded by Captain David C. Hanrahan, U. S. Navy, included 305 officers and 2000 enlisted men working with 112 planes. They gave their attention to bombing the submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend. The greatest single service of the craft, however, was the escorting of convoys that were approaching or leaving French ports. From their lofty positions they increased the means of picking up craft in the distance. Often they saw lurking U‑boats, even though submerged. When unequal themselves to engaging the enemy, they accomplished their purpose by directing a destroyer to where a depth charge might prove effective.

Figures show how active was this branch of our service. The American naval forces in the war zone under the command of Captains H. I. Cone and T. T. Craven had forty-four stations and made more than 5600 war flights.

The Northern Mine Barrage

The United States had entered the war resolved to make use of every device that would help to defeat the U‑boats. Nine days after hostilities began the Bureau of Ordnance put forward a scheme that was staggering in its immensity. This was the bottling up of the German craft in the North Sea, by laying a mine barrage from Norway to the Orkneys, a distance of 230 miles (about the same as from New York to Washington), where the water attains a depth of 1100 feet.

The British had already sealed the southern entrance leading to the English Channel, and during the two years and a half had planted 30,000 mines in the Bight of p505Heligoland. In 1917 they were using 7000 a month, and this was very nearly the limit of their capacity in production.

There was thus a challenge and to this the Bureau of Ordnance applied itself. Soon its chief, Rear-Admiral Ralph Earle, was able to submit to the Navy Department and the British Admiralty a new type of mine, very greatly improved, the combined work of Commander S. P. Fullinwider, Lieutenant-Commander T. S. Wilkinson, and Mr. Ralph A. Browne. An adjustable anchoring device permitted it to be planted at any depth, and a long antenna, consisting of a thin copper cable attached to a float a few feet below the surface, was so delicate in its mechanism that the touching of this by a metallic substance, as the hull of a boat, was sufficient to produce an electric current and explode the charge. Thus there was a danger for a submarine crossing the mine field either on the surface or to a depth of 240 feet.

When the period of study, conference, experimentation, and improvement was concluded there came the extensive organization required for production. No factory in America had the machinery or capacity for turning mines out in the numbers required. There was the safeguarding the secret, further, by distributing the work. Five hundred and forty contractors and sub‑contractors were involved in this great project. A base was established on the James River; later two bases were established on the east coast of Scotland, with Rear-Admiral Joseph Strauss, U. S. Navy, in command of the whole operation overseas.

It was on the 8th of June, 1918, that ten American mine layers commanded by Captain R. R. Belknap slipped out, attended by destroyers and screened by battleships, which got between them and the German coast, to plant p506forty-seven miles of mines. Twelve other such expeditions, coming at regular intervals through the summer and early fall, were necessary to complete the undertaking. The barrage was the combined work of Great Britain, and the United States. Altogether 70,263 mines were planted, and of these the Yankee Mining Squadron planted 56,611. The width of the barrage was fifteen to thirty-five miles. So it took a submarine on the surface from one to three hours to pass through the danger zone, submerged from three to six hours.

In June, almost immediately after the first planting, a U‑boat badly damaged by a mine exploding nearby crawled into a Norwegian port and had to be interned for the remainder of the war. Other disasters followed, and when a U‑boat which had been talking very glibly over her radio became suddenly silent as it reached the barrage, the inference was that something had happened. At the conclusion of the war German sources revealed that, on account of the barrage, seventeen3 of their submarines had been lost or damaged to such an extent as to be no longer serviceable.

The indirect results were probably still more important. The one to six hours spent in passing through the mine field were nerve racking to the last degree and broke down many a man's morale.

Had the war continued another year, American mine planting on a much larger scale would have occurred in other waters, including the Mediterranean. The knowledge of America's vast resources and the lavish manner in which she employed them in her enterprises brought Germany to a realization of the fact that she was near defeat.

The United States Navy, though its natural element is the sea, has never hesitated when there has been opportunity to fight also on land.

A second large project of the Bureau of Ordnance, also put forward by Rear-Admiral Ralph Earle, was constructing mounted railway batteries of a size beyond anything ever before attempted, sending them to France, and operating them on the battle front.

There were certain 14‑inch guns designed for battle cruisers which had been authorized, but which the war had delayed the building of. The proposal of the Bureau of Ordnance was that these huge rifles should be mounted, not on permanent artillery bases of concrete or steel, which were slow of construction and often when battle came were not where they were most needed, but on mobile and independent mounts — that is, on especially designed railway cars.

As in the case of the mine barrage, the work was advanced with the utmost expedition. By the middle of August, 1918, five of these monsters, under the command of Rear-Admiral C. P. Plunkett, were moving on the railways of France, and manned by navy crews were ready to go into action. For each gun there was a train of fourteen cars making the equipment and operation of the great piece complete, one or more cars being devoted to each of the following: armored magazine, machine-shop, crane, radio, kitchen, and berths. These cars as well as the mounts were all designed and contracted for by the Bureau of Ordnance.

The first action in which they took part was near Laon, September 16. At once their great power was perceived. They had a range of thirty miles and could fire behind the enemy lines, reaching points hitherto out of reach of Allied artillery. They saw service with our p508army also in several later engagements. Of their performance Admiral Earle remarked, "By their fire the German railway lines were disrupted, especially at their most important junctions of Montmédy, Longuyon, and Conflans; and ammunition dumps supposed to be immune from damage were destroyed in the areas well back of the firing lines."4

The Marine Corps, established in 1798, almost immediately after the creation of the Navy Department, has had a history to be proud of, but it was in the last five months of the World War that it won its brightest laurels. At Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, in the offensive near Soissons, in the battle for the St. Mihiel salient, and in the capture of Blanc Mont Ridge near Rheims, the marines fought with a courage, a desperation, and an endurance that cannot be surpassed. Their first engagement coming at a critical moment in the war, their service was out of all proportion to the number engaged, in the turning of the great German offensive into a retreat. The severity of their fighting was shown by the casualty lists; out of 8,000 men engaged they lost 1600 killed and 2513 wounded, that is, more than one‑half.5 Even a general account of their battles would be beyond the scope of this book, and as they were serving with the army under the command of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing it is commonly treated in military history.

The Surrender

Early on the 21st of November, 1918, the Grand Fleet arriving at a rendezvous forty miles east of May Island, which guards the entrance to the Firth of Forth, was drawn up in two long columns six miles apart to await p509the German High Seas Fleet. The American Sixth Battle Squadron occupying a place about the middle of the northern column was thus present at the closing scene of the great drama. A British light cruiser had guided the German ships to the meeting place where was Admiral Sir David Beatty on the Queen Elizabeth, waiting to receive the surrender. Then, led by the Queen Elizabeth, the High Seas Fleet steamed down the long lane; first, five battle cruisers in single column, three cables apart, and nine ponderous dreadnoughts; then three miles astern of the last battleship, six light cruisers, as before three cables apart; and, last, three miles astern of the rear light cruiser, fifty destroyers arranged in five groups.6

When the German fleet had reached a point where it was enveloped by the two columns, the Allied ships countermarched, turning outward, and escorted it to its anchorage. The German colors were still flying from the gaff. Near sunset Beatty gave his famous signal, "The German flag is to be hauled down at 3.57 to‑day, and is not to be hoisted again without permission."

The victory had been won, and America had taken part during the last year or year and a half in almost every phase of the struggle. It would be folly to magnify what our forces did, and not to be profoundly grateful to our Allies, who threw larger numbers into the struggle and bore the brunt of fighting for a much longer period. On the other hand, it would be untrue to our dead and living if we failed to recognize their remarkable adaptability and spirit of coöperation, their thoroughness, and their eagerness as they threw all into the conflict.

p510 Admiral Scheer, the redoubtable leader of the High Seas Fleet at Jutland and the one in charge of German naval affairs at the close, in a volume published a year after the war,7 though with a curious logic depreciating what the British and American forces accomplished, nevertheless admits the general undermining of the German morale. He tells of the High Seas Fleet weakened in the effort to send out old and new U‑boats. He tells of the U‑boats becoming ineffective because of the better submarine defense and the loss of experienced U‑boat captains. He tells of the plan cherished by German naval leaders, when their government, recognizing the inevitable, was making overtures for peace, of sending out the High Seas Fleet to give battle. Theirs was a forlorn and desperate hope, but not even the glory of dying in battle was granted them. When orders were given to get under way, October 29, 1918, the fleet mutinied. And the disaffection spread with great rapidity throughout northern Germany.

The end came quickly, for German morale had crumbled. The tireless American destroyers, yachts, subchasers, aeroplanes, and mine-planters, the unending line of men, munitions, and supplies of every kind pouring from America, increasing instead of diminishing, when added to one side of a scale that for months and years had been balancing almost even, were of unquestioned weight in deciding the issue.


The Authors' Notes:

1 Alden, "American Submarine Operations in the War." Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. XLVI, pp1035‑1040.

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2 Report of Secretary of the Navy, 1918, p12.

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3 These figures are taken from Admiral Earle's statement in Makers of Naval Tradition, p311.

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4 Makers of Naval Tradition, p313.

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5 Report of Secretary of the Navy, 1918, p103.

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6 Under the terms of the Armistice the Germans were to surrender ten battleships, six battle cruisers, eight light cruisers, fifty destroyers, and all submarines. The submarines had surrendered previous to the great day off the Firth of Forth, and a few of the other types were surrendered elsewhere.

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7 Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War.


Thayer's Note:

a The fascinating and heroic story of the group is onsite, in a full-length book illustrated with over a hundred photographs: The First Yale Unit by Ralph Paine.


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Page updated: 11 Sep 13