Warship Wednesday May 25, 2016: The Kaiser’s Pirate of Nauset Beach
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday May 25, 2016: The Kaiser’s Pirate of Nauset Beach
Here we see one of the few images remaining of the Deutschland-class handels type unterseeboot SM U-156 of the Kaiserliche Marine. Built to schlep cargo, she was converted to a U-Kreuzer and went on to wreak havoc off the coast of New England.
In 1915, with the Great War dragging into its second horrific year, Imperial Germany was cut off from overseas trade by the might of the combined British, French, Italian, Russian, and Japanese fleets, who certainly had a warship in every harbor from Seattle to Montevideo. That’s when an idea was hatched to cough up a fleet of large commercial submarines for shipping vital cargo to and from locations otherwise verboten to German freighters.
These handels-U-boots (merchant submarines) were helmed by 28-man civilian crews employed by the Deutsche Ozean-Reederei company, unarmed except for five pistols or revolvers and a flare gun, sailed under a merchant flag, and could carry as much as 700-tons in their holds.
A staggering 213-feet overall and some 2,300-tons, while small by today’s standards, these were the largest operational submarines of World War I.
The first of the class, Deutschland, was launched 28 March 1916 and in June voyaged across the Atlantic as a blockade runner carrying highly sought-after chemical dyes, carried medical drugs, gemstones, and mail to Baltimore where her crew were welcomed as celebrities before returning to Bremerhaven with 341 tons of nickel, 93 tons of tin, and 348 tons of crude rubber– worth seven times her 2.75 million Reichsmark cost. Her second trip to New London with gems and securities, returning to Germany in November was her last as a commercial venture.
You see Deutschland was taken up into the service of the German Navy in early 1917 and rechristened SM U-155, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Between 1916-17, a further six freighter u-boats were built to the same design as Deutschland in four yards, numbered in military service U-151 through U-157. These ships, however, were built to fight rather than make money (one other boat, Bremen, was completed for commercial work and she vanished in Sept. 1916 on her maiden voyage to New York–she was never part of the German Navy).
The subject of our particular tale is U-156, the only one of her class built at Atlas Werke, Bremen as Werke #382.
In war service these ships were completed with torpedo tubes and a torpedo and mine magazine rather than cargo holds and given a pair of large 150mm deck guns with a healthy supply of 1688 shells to feed them. Gone was the civilian crew, replaced by a 7 officer/69-man military crew that could spare up to 20 for prize crews.
Yes, these huge subs would act as submersible cruisers (U-Kreuzer), hence the large battery and stock of shells.
U-156 was commissioned 22 Aug 1917 under the command of Kptlt. Konrad Gansser. Under Gansser’s command and that later of Kptlt. Richard Feldt, over the next 13 months the huge submarine successfully attacked 47 ships of which she sunk 45 (for a total of 64,151 tons) and damaged two.
A list of her kills over at U-boat.net shows that most of her “victories” were small craft, with only one merchant ship over 5,000 tons, the Italian flagged steamer Atlantide (5,431t) sunk off Madeira on 1 Feb 1918.
In fact, some 32 of her kills were against trawlers and small coasters under 950-tons, making her the scourge of the American and Canadian coasts.
Speaking of which, U-156‘s most important victory at sea came not from her guns or torpedoes, but from a mine.
The 13,680-ton USS San Diego (Armored Cruiser No. 6), formerly the USS California, hit a mine sown by U-156 southeast of Fire Island on 19 July and sank in just 28 minutes, taking six bluejackets with her to the bottom. She would be the only major warship lost by the U.S. in the Great War. Her skipper at the time, Capt. Harley H. Christy, was a Spanish–American War vet who went on to command the battlewagon Wyoming with the British Grand Fleet in 1918 and become a Vice Admiral on the retired list.
It was after this strike on the San Diego that the good Kptlt. Feldt sailed to the coast of Cape Cod and got into a little gunplay in shallow water and spread “schrecklichkeit” (fear) along the coast.
At about 10:30 a.m. on the morning of 21 July 1918, the Lehigh Valley RR. Company’s hearty little 120-foot/435-ton steel-hulled tugboat Perth Amboy was hauling a series of wooden barges some three miles off Orleans, Mass when she came under artillery fire from U-156‘s big guns. While the barges were sunk and the tug damaged, no casualties were suffered.
This led to a frantic call to the newly-built Chatam Naval Air Station who dispatched two Curtiss HS-1L seaplanes (Bu.No 1695 and 1693, the latter of which suffered engine problems and couldn’t sortie) and two R-9s (Bu.No. 991 and another) that arrived on scene about a half hour later. The freshly minted Navy/Coast Guard pilots dropped a few small bombs, which did not damage the submarine, who dutifully submerged and motored off.
In all, the attack lasted about 90 minutes from the first shot to the last bomb, and caused little practical damage.
The submarine ticked off some 147 shells, some of which landed on shore and the subsequent impact zone became a tourist attraction into the 1930s.
However, it was the first attack on the U.S. mainland by a uniformed European enemy since 1815 and the first time enemy shells landed on her soil since the failed siege of Fort Texas near Brownsville by General Pedro de Ampudia’s light artillery in 1846.
U-156 then headed north to the Nova Scotia coast and captured the 265-ton trawler Triumph, which she used for three days in August as the first (and only) German surface raider to operate in Canadian waters. Using at times Canadian and at others a Danish flag, Triumph and U-156 worked in tandem, with the trawler creeping up on small craft, Germans taking said small boat over, rigging demo charges and allowing the Canuk mariners to row away in their dingy while the craft sank.
One of Triumph’s first victim was the Gloucester schooner A. Piatt Andrew, which was fishing in Canadian waters. The schooner’s skipper told the U.S. Navy that when Triumph hailed him to heave to, he thought it was joke until “… four shots were fired across our bow from rifles. We brought our vessel up in the wind and the beam trawler came up alongside of us and I then saw that she was manned [by] German crew.’’
The Lunenburg schooner Uda A. Saunders was another score for Feldt. The vessel’s captain gave the U.S. Navy this description of the encounter: “The Huns hailed us and ordered a dory alongside. I sent two men out to her in a dory and three of the raider’s crew came aboard. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ said the one who appeared to be in command. ‘We are going to sink your vessel. I will give you 10 minutes to gather up food and water enough to last you until you get ashore.’”
However, U-156‘s days as a pirate were numbered.
On her way back to Germany, the U-Boat failed to report in that she had cleared the North Sea passage and it is surmised that around 25 Sep 1918 she struck an Allied mine and disappeared with all hands, leaving 77 dead.
With the exception of U-154, torpedoed in the Atlantic 11 May 1918 by HM Sub E35, U-156s sisters largely survived the war, but not by much.
SM U-151 was surrendered to France at Cherbourg and sunk as target ship at Cherbourg, 7 June 1921.
U-152 and U-153 went to Harwich, England, where they were surrendered to the British and sunk by the Royal Navy in July 1921 (image below).
U-157 was interned at Trondheim, Norway at the end of the war but later taken over by the French and broken up at Brest.
Deutschland/U-155, was surrendered on 24 November 1918 with other submarines as part of the terms of the Armistice and exhibited in London and elsewhere before being sold for scrap in 1921.
With that being said, U-156 is better remembered than most of her class, at least in New England.
Today a historical sign on a private Nauset Beach in Orleans, Massachusetts marks the occasion in which the Kaiser reached out and touched the sand there.
For more information on the Attack on Orleans, here is an hour-long lecture by Jake Klim done in 2015 for the Tales of Cape Cod historical society.
For more on these blockade breaking U-boats overall, check out this site in German.
1,512 tonnes (1,488 long tons) (surfaced)
1,875 tonnes (1,845 long tons) (submerged)
2,272 tonnes (2,236 long tons) (total)
65.00 m (213 ft 3 in) (o/a)
57.00 m (187 ft) (pressure hull)
8.90 m (29 ft 2 in) (o/a)
5.80 m (19 ft) (pressure hull)
Height: 9.25 m (30 ft 4 in)
Draught: 5.30 m (17 ft 5 in)
800 PS (590 kW; 790 bhp) (surfaced)
800 PS (590 kW; 790 bhp) (submerged)
2 × shafts
2 × 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in) propellers
Fuel oil supply merchant submarine: 200 t
Fuel oil supply cruiser submarine: 285 t
Surfaced speed as merchant submarine: about 12 kn
Underwater speed as merchant submarine: about 6.7 kn
Surfaced speed as U-Kreuzer: about 11 kn
Underwater speed as U-Kreuzer: ca 5,3 kn
Dive time: 50-80 seconds depending on crew training
Compression depth: 50m
25,000 nmi (46,000 km; 29,000 mi) at 5.5 knots (10.2 km/h; 6.3 mph) surfaced
65 nmi (120 km; 75 mi) at 3 knots (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph) submerged
Test depth: 50 metres (160 ft)
Complement, commercial service: 28
Complement, military service: 6 / 50 Mannschaft
1 / 19 Prisenkommando
2 50 cm (20 in) bow torpedo tubes
2 × 15 cm (5.9 in) deck guns with 1688 rounds
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