The daring feat of the German submarine Deutschland

Albert J. Silverman

July 10, 1991|By Albert J. Silverman

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, July 10, 1916, Baltimoreans were electrified to learn that the submarine Deutschland had arrived in the Patapsco and would dock near Fort McHenry. It was front-page news in The Sun, which hailed the event with these words:

"Completing one of the most remarkable trips by a craft of its type ever attempted and making good a boast of the Germans that it could be done, the submarine Deutschland, carrying 1,000 tons of cargo, appeared in the Virginia Capes yesterday and will dock in Baltimore today. Thus will be given another powerful demonstration of German maritime resourcefulness and daring, for the Deutschland is the largest submarine in existence and has completed the longest voyage ever made by one."

According to the Baltimore agents of the Deutschland's owners, it was not a warship, but a privately owned merchant submarine. It carried neither torpedo tubes nor deck cannon. The Coast Guard later checked the Deutschland out and confirmed that it was indeed unarmed.

The Deutschland was 315 feet long, with a beam of 30 feet and a surface speed of 14 knots, which was two or three knots better than that of the average freighter. It had twin screws and was powered by diesel engines. The time required for submersion was 1 1/2 minutes, and it carried a crew of 29 merchant seamen.

In Europe, World War I was in its third summer. On the whole, Americans, with strong cultural and economic ties to England and France and turned off by Prussian militarism and the kaiser's sword-rattling, sympathized with the Allies. At the same time, they earnestly desired to stay out of the blood bath and thanked God for 3,000 miles of ocean moat. One of the most popular songs of the time was "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier," and the slogan of the Wilson Democrats in the presidential election of 1916 was "He Kept Us Out of War."

Suffering from slow strangulation by the British blockade, Germany retaliated with a deadly submarine campaign. In this vast global struggle for control of the seas, neutral shipping suffered severely. In America, dye chemicals, an industry in which Germany was dominant, were in short supply, and there was rejoicing that the Deutschland's cargo consisted mainly of dye stuffs.

Baltimore had a large German population and, filled with pride and elation, it pulled out all stops in entertaining the crew of the submarine. The euphoria was contagious, as Baltimoreans realized that their city had suddenly become the cynosure of international attention. Koenig was lionized. He was cheered in the streets and dined and wined at the Belvedere, the Baltimore Country Club and Mayor James H. Preston's home.

The rejoicing was sustained in no small measure when the Deutschland's agents hinted that a sister submersible, the Bremen, was about to sail and that a fleet of 25 additional merchant submarines was being planned. Baltimoreans assumed, of course, that their port would be the entrepot of choice. Still another improbable story surfaced -- that, with a view to inaugurating a freight and passenger service by air, Germany was planning to construct a fleet of merchant zeppelins!

Under the rules of war, warships were permitted to remain in neutral ports only 24 hours, but since the Deutschland was unarmed, it could stay indefinitely. The Allies took a dim view of this, insisting that all submarines were warships. Protests were lodged with the State Department, but to no avail; the Deutschland remained, unloaded its cargo and took on another one of nickel and rubber for the return voyage.

In the meantime, a swarm of British and French warships was reported to be hovering off the capes. Koenig had originally planned to remain only nine or 10 days, but the presence of enemy craft at the mouth of the Chesapeake caused him to delay. According to a report in The Sun, the pilot and tug captain who had brought the submarine to Baltimore were approached and invited to take passage on the return trip to Bremen. Knowledge that they were aboard would be publicized; because they were Americans, the Germans thought Allied warships would hesitate to attack. Both men, however, declined.

The German embassy, meanwhile, requested that the U.S. Navy provide protection for the submarine through the capes. Prolonged negotiations ensued, and it wasn't until Aug. 1 that the Deutschland, with a huge basket of roses on her conning tower, left Baltimore. It was escorted through the capes by an American destroyer until it was outside American territorial waters. There it quickly submerged and made its getaway.

Less than nine months later we were at war with Germany, and the Deutschland entered military service. After the war, it was turned over to the British and scrapped in 1922.

Before his retirement, Albert J. Silverman was head of the history department at Poly.

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