The Undersea War: Germany, Britain, America, and the WW1 U-Boat Campaigns

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Duration 01:15:57

University of Wolverhampton, UK

Spencer Jones is Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, UK and serves in the British Army as the Regimental Historian of the Royal Artillery. He is a noted expert on the First World War, Second World War, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. An award-winning historian and author, he has published widely on these topics and his work has been translated into five languages. Dr. Jones’ most recent publication is The Darkest Year: The British Army on the Western Front 1917.


The First World War marked the true dawn of submarine warfare. Germany soon saw the potential of her submarines – the dreaded U-boats – and tasked them with destroying British merchant ships. Yet Germany’s campaign aroused the ire of the United States. In 1915, the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania–with the loss of 128 American lives–caused international outrage and prompted the U-Boats to revise their tactics.

But by early 1917, Germany needed to turn the tide of war and planned to unleash the ‘grey wolves’ to savage Allied shipping and starve Britain into submission. But to do so was a grave gamble. An all-out attack on shipping would enrage the United States and bring her into the war. German planners calculated that this was a risk worth taking. They believed the U-boats could starve Britain before the United States could muster its full military might. Throughout 1917 and 1918, Allied merchantmen and escort ships would battle against U-Boats in a gruelling war of attrition. The campaign would reshape the entire First World War.

In this lecture, Professor Jones will explore the bitter undersea war between 1914-18. He will consider the technical capabilities and limitations of U-Boats, examine the early efforts to blockade Britain in 1915, and focus on the intense battle for control of the sea in 1917-18.


Recommended Reading:

The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War, by Lawrence Sondhaus

War Beneath the Waves: U-Boat Flotilla Flandern 1915-1918, by Tomas Termote

Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars 1916-1945, by John Terraine

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


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the Royal Navy face such difficulties against U-Boats?
  2. Why was the U-Boat campaign such an emotive issue in the United States?
  3. How close did the U-Boats come to winning the war for Germany?
  4. What lessons were learned from the conflict and how did they influence the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War?





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Marcia Goldstein

New Perspective on WWI

I never knew that submarine warfare had such an early history; usually we think of WWII when we think of submarines. The loss of life among merchant seamen must have been horrific, but only can be deduced from the figures of lost tonnage. Sadly, history does a better job acknowledging the loss of military lives in war, without recognizing how very many lives were sacrificed to supply the military and provision civilian populations.

2 years ago
Ron McDowell

Great presenter; extremely knowledgeable. This was a fascinating account of a historical element from World War I. Be sure and listen to his Winston Churchill presentation as well.

2 years ago
Maggie Olmstead

Very interesting

Interesting history of a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention. I had just read Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, about the Lusitania, which made this talk even more interesting.

2 years ago

PRESENTOR very knowledgeable

We are veterans and WWI / WWII history buffs, found this to be an amazing lecture by a professor with a stunning grasp of his topic. Highly recommended!

2 years ago


Great lecture by a professor with a stunning grasp of his topic – Highly recommended

2 years ago
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