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The Ridiculous Way British Sailors Were Ordered To Stop German U-boats During WW1


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A solution to a problem implemented and soon forgotten.



In the opening days of WW1, Unterseeboots, better known simply as U-boats, proved to be a potent and constant threat to Allied ships, with one U-boat identified as SM U-9 infamously killing nearly 1,500 British sailors in less than an hour by sinking three armoured British cruisers on September 22, 1914. That same U-boat would go on to sink over a dozen British ships during its naval career, with targets ranging from small fishing boats caught in open water to the Edgar-class protected cruiser, HMS Hawke.

The reason for the U-boat success in the early going of the war was, in part, due to the fact that when they were submerged they were undetectable by technology of the day.

Another factor that played into German hands is that the Allies, especially the British, consistently downplayed the danger posed by submarines and their value in combat. In fact, at first British Naval brass simply refused to acknowledge that U-boats were sinking ships. For example, the aforementioned actions of U-boat SM U-9 were initially attributed to mines.

In short, British Naval officers had little faith in the potential of submarines and wrote them off as a mere fascination that had no real potential in combat beyond novelty. Thus, they did little at first to try to come up with viable ways to combat them.

Things got real, however, when U-boats like SM U-9 began targeting British supply ships, almost bringing the country to its knees when it found itself unable to secure even basic provisions for its citizens and factories.

A solution was needed. But how to take out a target that is capable of disappearing at will?

It was quickly noted that one weakness of the U-boat was that it needed to use its periscope to mark its target before attacking. This presented a brief, but exploitable window of opportunity to attack the craft in some way. But how?

Up until the introduction of depth charges in 1916, while mines and large nets were utilized to protect certain areas with some minor effect, the conclusion of the Admiralty Submarine Attack Committee was that the best thing to do was simply for ships to either run away from or try to ram the U-boats when the periscope was spotted.

Naturally, beyond risking damage to your own vessel, getting closer to the thing that’s about to shoot you with an otherwise somewhat unreliably accurate torpedo isn’t ideal, nor is necessarily trying to run away when you’re already a marked target. However, it is at least noted that with the periscope up, U-boats couldn’t go faster than about 6 knots and, as stated, torpedoes of the age weren’t terribly accurate or reliable so the more distance you could get between you and the U-boat the better. In the end, these two methods weren’t totally ineffective, but a better solution was still needed.

This all got the wheels turning among the military think tanks, with the result being some rather humorous proposals as to how to solve the U-boat problem, with particular emphasis put on somehow taking out the periscope. After all, without the periscope, the U-boat’s only way to target a foe would be to completely surface, making it a relatively easy target for more traditional and accurate weaponry. With proper escorts for the supply ships, this could easily solve the U-boat problem.

But how to take out the periscope?

A suggestion by the British Board of Invention and Research was to train seagulls to fly at the periscopes, which would both make the presence of the periscope more apparent and potentially obscure the vision of the person looking through the periscope long enough to take action… To do this, it was suggested that they feed seagulls in certain regions they wanted protected through periscope like devices.

Next up, there was a suggestion to simply put a type of paint in the water with the hopes that it would get on the periscope lens, blinding the operator.

Going back to animals, a sea lion trainer called Joseph Woodward was hired to look into the possibility of training sea lions to detect U-boats and then hopefully alert the British of their presence. Unfortunately it isn’t known whether this method was effective, though the Royal Society does note that the training of at least some sea lions was performed. We presume given that the program wasn’t expanded beyond trials that it wasn’t terribly effective or perhaps not practical.

As you might imagine, none of these methods went anywhere. But this brings us to the rather absurd method that does seem to have been put into practice.

In the early days of the war, sailors were put on small patrol boats, all equipped with the latest and greatest in anti-submarine technology- large hammers and bags.

They were thus instructed that if they saw a periscope popping up to the surface, they were to try to get close to it, then have one person place a bag over the periscope while another got their Whack-A-Mole on in an attempt to destroy it, hopefully all before any target could be identified and a torpedo launched.

Exactly how effective this tactic is isn’t clear but we do know that it was popular enough for at least one senior officer aboard the HMS Exmouth to enlist the help of burly blacksmiths with extra large hammers to patrol with sailors aboard the smaller boats. With their amazing hammering abilities, both in strength and blow accuracy, presumably it was hoped they’d do a better job than your average sailor at quickly taking out a periscope.

Of course, as more sophisticated technologies were developed, this tactic, sadly, became obsolete. But never forget for a brief, but glorious time in history, there was a guy who could claim his job was to hunt submarines with a giant hammer, no doubt giving a cry of “For Asgard!!!” before smiting his foe.


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Never over estimate the intelligence of military brass - Maxim used too much

Or the ingenuity of the enlisted  - hedgerow shredder

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I had someone ask me about the history of depth charges and I know the forum is dying to know this.  The article is from an issue of All Hands dated June of 1958.  This is not what I was looking for at the time, but since I happened upon this article, well....


Depth Charges Depth charges are about the oldest antisubmarine weapon of them all, yet they are still an important part of the ASW picture. Developed by the British in World War I, they first went into action in the summer of 1916, about the same time as the hydrophone. The “ash cans” (called that because of their appearance) and the new listening device gave sub-hunting ships their first fairly effective means of locating and destroying enemy subs underwater. The first successful depth-charge attack was made on the night of 6 Jul 1916 against the minelaying submarine UC-7. A British patrol craft was credited with the kill. Before long other nations4mong them the United States, Russia and Germanyhad gone into the ash can business. And, even though depth-charge attacks weren’t always successful, they did cause considerable wear and tear on the submariner’s morale. For instance, on 6 Sep 1918 practically the entire crew of one German Uboat shot themselves to death one-by-one during a prolonged depth-charge attack by American sub chasers. One of the big troubles with the early depth charges was that there iust weren’t enough to go around. In early 1917 British destroyers were only allotted four of them - two filled with 300 pounds of TNT and two containing 120 pounds. However, by the end of that year the allowance rose to 20 to 30 for each DD. It was estimated that they could destroy a submarine within 14 feet and damage one within 28 feet. As with modern depth charges, this destruction or damage was caused by a tremendous pressure wave generated by an explosion. Because water cannot be compressed, this wave strikes the hull of a submarine like a weight of hundreds of tons. By the end of World War I there were two principal methods for launching depth charges. One was to roll them off the fantail from an inclined rack much like those still carried today on the latest destroyers. This system was quite effective for covering the area beneath an attacking ship, but by itself it didn’t permit a wide enough drop pattern. So, to spread out the pattern (thus increasing the chances for a kill) the Y-gun was developed. This handy item, which could simultaneously hurl charges about 50 yards out to port and starboard, came along in 1917. lAfter World War I depth charges didn’t receive very much attention. There were a few minor advances during the 1920s and ’305, but there weren’t any major ones until the Second World War. The first of these was the K-gun, which began to replace the Y-gun in 1941. This piece of equipment could be installed along a ship’s topsides as needed and didn’t interfere with a ship’s gear the way the Y-gun had. Thus, more effective patterns were made possible. So far as the depth charge itself was concerned, there wasn’t much change in the old World War I style ash can until 1943, when the Bureau of Ordnance perfected the streamlined Mark 9 model. Capable of sinking faster and straighter ,than the old cylindrical charges, and packed with “torpex” instead of TNT, the Mark 9 considerably improved the effectiveness of a depth-charge attack. The Mark 9,, still carried aboard some ships today, is equipped with a hydrostatic fuse not much different from those used on the earliest depth charges. This ingenious mechanism can be preset to detonate the charge when it reaches a certain depth. The fuse ”knows” from water pressure when it has gone down far enough. Since the advent of the Mark 9 other types of fuses have also been developed. These, plus modem sonar, have helped remove much of the guesswork that a depth-charge attack formerly involved. Today, although most of the depth charges developed during World War II still meet the Navy’s needs, development of new types is not being ignored. For example, the experts are now working on one lightweight depth charge for use by patrol craft and picket boats against small sneak craft; and another, so light it can be thrown like a grenade, to deter frogman attacks on harbor defense installations or anchored ships. The emphasis nowadays may be on antisubmarine rockets, torpedoes and nuclear depth bombs, but there’s still plenty of room for the depth charge in the ASW picture.

Just remember  The above article was released in 1958. I am confident a lot of changes have occurred since that article was published, over 60 years ago.

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