The most painful tragedy caused by the feared German submarines that even Felipe II could not stop

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César Cervera

Updated:05/07/2020 01:37

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It seems that for the USA Enter a war fully before you need to see sunken ships before your eyes. It happened with the battleship Maine, whose explosion in the port of Havana convinced American public opinion of the need to attack Spain in 1898. And also in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack that preceded the entry of the United States. In the Second World War.

Very similar case to the incident that led the emerging power until the First World War. The sinking of the British ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915 he was employed by the country then chaired by Woodrow Wilson to justify, among other reasons, his entry into the race. Of the 1,198 passengers who perished due to a torpedo launched by a German submarine, 128 were Americans and many of them were babies and children.

This heinous war crime, which the Germans justified for having been committed in a war zone, gave American leaders the powder necessary to convince the population that it was necessary to combat the authoritarianism of the central nations. The image of the drama was present in much of the recruitment campaigns.

RMS Lusitania arriving in New York Harbor.
RMS Lusitania arriving in New York Harbor.

Coming from New York, the RMS Lusitania He was about to complete his Atlantic voyage when a U-boat U-20 submarine crossed his path, which had already claimed three victims in British waters. From port, the ship received a warning at 7.50 am about a possible attack: “Submarines in action off the southern coast of Ireland.” As many similar communications, demanding that precautions be extreme or change of course, were sent throughout that morning towards the ocean liner.

At 2:12 p.m. the U-20 fired the only torpedo it had at that time at 700 meters, struck on the starboard side and causing a strong explosion and almost instantaneous sinking

The submarine’s captain, Walther Schwieger, identified the ship as “a large passenger ship” and chased after him. At 14:12 the U-20 fired the only torpedo it had at that time at 700 meters. The impact hit the starboard side and caused a loud explosion. British commanders tried to head ashore, they were only ten kilometers off the ground, near Old Head of Kinsale cape, but the rapid flood prevented any maneuver. The ship sank in just 18 minutes and there was little way to save 761 passengers. Reaching the lifeboats turned into a desperate struggle.

The war without restriction

German submarines took a leading role in a conflict where, probably due to British superiority, conventional naval battles almost did not affect the course of the war. Commercially blocked, Germany found a way in the submarines to torpedo the networks between the United States. and the British Empire and thus hit him back.

In 1914, the power with the largest number of submarines was the British Empire, with 54, of which only 17 could navigate the high seas. Although Germany had less quantity than the English and until the French (35), the vast majority of its 28 active submarines and 24 under construction were capable of sailing on the high seas and were more modern. More than half were powered by oil and others for diesel, apart from that all had a telegraph station unlike the rest of the powers.

Crew of a German UC-1 class submersible on deck
Crew of a German UC-1 class submersible on deck

Neither side knew very well how to use this new technology at the beginning of the conflict. The Germans began by attacks on large military ships, they continued with merchants and ended, after good results, by attacking any ship that left the delimited waters as exclusion. In early 1915, the German High Command approved a first “unrestricted” submarine warfare along the coasts of Italy, England, France and much of the Mediterranean, which had to be limited after the Lusitania incident in May of that year. The Germans thus tried to prevent the United States from entered the fray, but, when it proved impossible, total submarine warfare returned to the oceans.

Not even having declared neutral exempted anyone from suffering the attacks of this German kraken, who to avoid deceit and tricks like using false flags shot everything that floated. It is estimated that the Germans sank a total of 80,000 Spanish tons during the war, which is an exceptional figure considering that Alfonso XIII he had cordial relations with the kaiser. In total, there were eleven million tons that sank under the influence of submarines throughout the war.

It is estimated that the Germans sank a total of 80,000 Hispanic tons during the war

Of course the main victim of the German submarines were the British, whose conventional navy did not know how to adapt quickly enough to submarine warfare. Germany quickly multiplied its squad of submarines, where more than 13,000 people came to serve. By 1916 it already exceeded the annual production of more than a hundred. In addition to the torpedo boats, Germany included a large number of miners, who could plant the main routes with explosive spikes.

As it explains José María Treviño Ruiz in an article entitled “The Submarine Naval War, 1914-1918” (General Magazine of the Navy, 2014) the situation became unsustainable for Great Britain in April 1917, when a total of 860,000 allied tons were sent to the bottom of the sea. Austro-Hungarian submarines increased pressure in favor of the central powers. The need to zigzag and maintain great distances between ships hindered the supply shipment in the Atlantic on which the British Isles depended so much.

Philip II to the rescue of England

Faced with these stealthy weapons and their nightly ambushes, British leaders were forced, both in World War I and World War II, to dust off methods they had in the past neglected. The British studied in depth the convoy system put in place by the Spanish in the 16th century to ensure that the Fleet of the Indies was not reached by pirates.

Felipe II by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1565 (Museo del Prado)

Inspired by a memorial from Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Felipe II established by royal decree the conditions to ensure a naval defense system immune to pirate attacks, whose most characteristic and enduring features were already established by 1561. The voyage of the Fleet of Indias took place twice a year. The starting point was located in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the fleet carried out the last inspections, and from there left for La Gomera, in the Canary Islands. After the gouache (collect water on land), the squad consisting of about 30 ships sailed between twenty and thirty days, depending on weather conditions, until the dominica islands or Martinique (Central America) where supplies were replenished. From there each ship was distributed to its destination port.

The convoy was led by the flagship, while the best-armed galleons were positioned to windward (where the wind blows), to provide escort to the group. The goal was to keep no ship out of sight or off course. At night, the vessels lit a huge lantern aft to serve as a reference to the one behind them. This system, which Menéndez Avilés inspired and shaped, allowed that between 1540 and 1650 – period of greatest flow in the transport of gold and silver – of the 11,000 ships that made the America-Spain journey, only 519 ships were lost, most due to storms and other reasons of a nature natural. Against the myth promoted by cinema and literature, only 107 did so by pirate attacks, which was less than 1%.

As of January 1917, the British adaptation of Felipe II’s convoy system and other defensive measures managed to partially stop the bleeding from subsidence. However, the wound did not close until the following year, when the royal navy He also included offensive measures in his strategy against submarines, such as surface-launched antisubmarine charges or hydrophones, which gave the possibility of pursuing German submarines.

All this contributed, along with the increase of allied ships placed on the board, so that the effectiveness of the submarines was falling into nullity.

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