Did U-boats come to the US?

Did U-boats come to the US?

German U-boat U-14

U-Boats Visit the United States

The first U.S. destroyers arrived at Queenstown, Ireland, on 4 May 1917—the first U.S. combat forces to reach the European theater—and that the decision to send the destroyers was very controversial within senior leadership of the U.S. Navy.

Primary concerns included the fear that sending destroyers to Europe would leave the U.S. East Coast and the U.S. Battle Fleet unprotected against U-boat attack. Although German U-boats did not begin sinking ships off the East Coast until the spring of 1918, the concerns were not unfounded. In fact, two U-boats had already visited U.S. ports, much to the consternation of the U.S. Navy. 

The first U-boat to visit was the German submarine Deutschland.

A very large submarine built as a “merchant submarine” (but converted to an attack submarine later in the war), which showed up at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, by surprise, on 9 July 1916, made a port call in Baltimore. With much press hoopla and a warm public welcome. Then left with a cargo of critical strategic materials (tin, nickel, and rubber), and avoided several British and French cruisers that arrived off the Virginia Capes in an attempt to intercept the sub. The British were not amused by this successful effort to avoid the blockade of Germany.

United States Navy recruitment poster

Then, on 7 October 1916, U-53 brazenly entered Newport, Rhode Island, and anchored for a port call, also completely by surprise. While the U-boat’s skipper, Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, paid a courtesy call on Rear Admiral Austin Knight. Commander of the naval district. As a result, boats filled with curious Newport civilians swarmed the U-boat. In addition, many made it onboard (including a reporter) and were given tours inside the boat. 

German submarine U-53 at Newport, Rhode Island

Rose also paid a call on Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commander of the U.S. Destroyer Force, onboard his flagship, the scout cruiser Birmingham (CS-2.) Knight and Gleaves (with his wife and daughter) then paid a reciprocal call onboard the U-boat. 

SM U-53 at Newport, Rhode Island in 1916
Under naval protocol at the time, it was perfectly legal for a foreign warship to pay a call in a neutral port, as long as it did not stay more than 24 hours.
The crew of U-53 in America.

A port call by a combat U-boat, however, was unprecedented, and the wires burned between Newport and Washington, DC, seeking guidance. Before nightfall, Knight ordered the U-boat to leave and the circus ended. 

Claimed effectiveness: Artist’s conception of a U-boat commander’s periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right), Encyclopædia Britannica, 1922. The conspicuous markings obscure the ship’s heading.

However, the next day, U-53 sank five merchant ships just outside U.S. territorial waters while a large number (16) of U.S. destroyers looked on, with no authority to do anything about it except rescue 216 survivors from the British, Canadian, Dutch, Norwegian, and U.S. merchant ships. The U.S. merchant ship West Point had gone down before the destroyers arrived on the scene. 

U-53 used traditional “cruiser rules” for sinking the merchant ships: surfacing, firing a shot across the bow. Reviewing the ship’s papers, and, if “contraband” was found. Ordering the crew into lifeboats and sinking the ship with deck gun, torpedo, or demolition charge (U-53 used all three methods, expending a torpedo on the Canadian liner Stefano, which refused to sink despite gunfire and explosive charge). 

The sinkings, despite no loss of life, provoked outrage that soured any goodwill generated by the two port calls, and resulted in an embarrassment within the U.S. Navy over the German submarines’ ability to act with impunity. 

When the Deutschland returned for a second visit to the United States on 1 November 1916, to New London. She received a very unfriendly reception and also collided with a tug while departing, killing five U.S. seamen. 

Just like that, cartoon depicting Wilhelm II ripping apart Germany’s promise to “abandon ruthless submarine policy”

The Germans had definitely worn out their welcome. 

The next U-boat to reach the U.S. East Coast, U-151 in May 1918, would not make a port call. But would turn her torpedoes and guns on U.S. merchant shipping.

Did U-boats come to the US?

Back To News

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox