The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America – Germany’s Great War Gamble in the First World War, Hans Joachim Koerver

The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America – Germany’s Great War Gamble in the First World War, Hans Joachim Koerver

This book looks at the U-boat campaigns of the First World War from a rather different angle, focusing on the motivation and actions of the German Naval high command and making the argument that they deliberately distorted the evidence about the effectiveness of warfare conducted under cruiser rules and disobeyed direct orders from the Kaiser, all so they would be given permission to begin unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The main argument was between two different methods of using the U-boats. The first was to obey the existing rules of naval warfare, which required any enemy ship to stop and investigate any merchant ship it suspected of trading with their enemies, only sinking them if they were carrying contraband cargoes, and only after the crew had been allowed to get to safety. These were known as ‘cruiser rules’, and was the established method of attacking trade at sea. The alternative was unrestricted U-boat warfare, carrying out surprise attacks on any merchant ship heading towards Britain, using torpedoes to attack while submerged. The official view of many in the High Command of the German Navy was that the first alternative would be ineffective, and too dangerous for the U-boat crews,


One of the most unexpected revelations here is that U-boat warfare conducted under cruiser rules, with the crews of ships given time to abandon ship etc, was actually more effective than unrestricted U-boat warfare with surprise torpedo attacks. When you get into the details, it soon becomes clear why this was the case. Any history of the British response to the U-boat campaign in this period makes it clear just how difficult it was to actually detect submarines, and even if they were detected, how hard it was to actually damage them. On the German sides the U-boats of this period only carried a handful of torpedoes, but hundreds of shells. Any individual boat could sink many more merchant ships using crusier rules than they could with their torpodoes, and those submarines that operated under crusier rules were provably more successful than those carrying out surprise attacks with torpedoes. The most successful German U-boats captains of the First World War all served in the Mediterranean, and all worked under cruiser rules!

The author does a very good job of proving his case. He has used a wide range of wartime German sources, including a series of important diaries. The key thing with these is that they often give us the actual views of the people campaigning for un-restricted U-boat warfare rather than the views of their political opponents. This includes quite remarkable statements, such as the stated desire of senior Naval commanders to make sure that the proven success of cruiser rules warfare wasn’t used as an argument against unrestricted U-boat warfare! There were even periods where the German Navy actually had permission to carry out restricted U-boat warfare against British merchant ships, but refused to send its ships to sea!

The motives of the supporters of un-restricted U-boat warfare seem to have varied. For Tirpitz it appears to have been an attempt to compensate for the failure of his battleship building programme, which had failed to produce a surface fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy, and had firmly moved the British into the anti-German camp. Some appear to have genuinely believed that the terror induced by killing a few merchant crewmen would stop all neutrals trading with the UK and force the British to negotiation. Later on the aim of some actually appears to have been to force the Americans into the war on the Allied side, in the mistaken belief that the American military was too feeble to have any impact on the war, and to stop President Wilson’s attempt to arrange a negotiated peace. 

This is a fascinating, well researched and well documented look at the First Battle of the Atlantic, painting a very different picture to the view from Britain.

1 – World Economy
2 – Anglo-German Naval Arms Race

August 1914 – Meltdown
3 – Great Britain
4 – Imperial Germany
5 – Communication
6 – Neutral Countries
7 – British Blockade and German Uboats

1915 – Trial and Error
8 – Step by Step to the Uboat war
9 – First Submarine War
10 – British Blockade in Spring
11 – Kaiser, Reich and Tirpitz
12 – Lusitania
13 – War of Words
14 – Arabic
15 – Tirpitz’s Uboat War
16 – British Blockade in Autumn
17 – America and Germany

1916 – All Options on the Table
18 – Storm Warning
19 – Conflicting Decisions
20 – Hurricane
21 – Sussex
22 – British Blockade in Spring
23 – Peace Wanted?
24 – Uboat Warfare
25 – Krupp and the Uboats
26 – Merchant Submarines
27 – Uboat Armament
28 – Uboat Strike continues
29 – New Leadership
30 – Soft Uboat War
31 – England and the Uboats
32 – Famine, Peace and Uboats
33 – Uboat Peace?

1917 – All-out Uboat Offensive and War with America
34 – January – Final Decisions
35 – February – Prelude
36 – March – High Noon
37 – April – Mr Wilson Goes to War
38 – The Epochal Year

Author: Hans Joachim Koerver
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 328
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2020

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