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SM U-20

22nd Apr 1915 German Embassy issues warning against Atlantic travel  

Warning in the press, adjacent to an advertisement for Lusitania's return voyage.


"Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk."

Imperial German Embassy, Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

7th May 1915 RMS Lusitania sunk  The Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by the German U-boat, U-20, 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, and sank in 18 minutes with the loss of 1,198 lives. 761 people were rescued. The sinking of the liner turned public opinion in many countries against Germany and contributed to the American entry into the Great War, despite the argument that the ship was a legitimate military target as she was carrying a large quantity of rifle ammunition and other supplies necessary for a war economy, as well as over 1,200 civilian passengers.

Her Captain, Walter Schwitzer, made the following entry in his log: "The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. In connection therewith great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately."

19th August 1916 Bombardment of Sunderland   The raid on Sunderland, 19th August 1916, was part of a German post-Jutland attempt to draw our units of the British Grand Fleet to ambush them hoping to inflict losses to try to address the numerical superiority of the British Fleet.

The Action of 19 August 1916 was one of two further attempts made by the German High Seas Fleet in 1916 to engage elements of the British Royal Navy following the mixed results of the Battle of Jutland in World War I. The lesson of Jutland for Germany had been the vital need for reconnaissance so as to avoid the unexpected arrival of the British Grand Fleet during any raid, so on this occasion four Zeppelins were deployed to scout the North Sea between Scotland and Norway for signs of British ships, while four more scouted immediately ahead of German ships. Twenty four submarines were also deployed off the English coast in the southern North Sea and off the Dogger Bank.


Although Jutland had been officially hailed as a success, the German commander Admiral Reinhard Scheer felt it important that another raid should be mounted as quickly as possible to maintain morale in his severely battered fleet. It was decided that the raid should follow the pattern of previous ones, with the battlecruisers carrying out a dawn artillery bombardment of an English town, in this case Sunderland. Only two battlecruisers were still serviceable after Jutland, Moltke and Von der Tann, so the force was bolstered by the addition of three battleships, Bayern, Markgraf and Grosser Kurfürst. The remainder of the High Seas Fleet, comprising 16 dreadnought battleships, was to carry out close support 20 miles behind. The fleet set sail at 2100 on 18 August from the Jade river.


Information about the upcoming raid was obtained by British Intelligence in Room 40 through intercepted and decoded radio messages. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the British fleet, was on leave so had to be recalled urgently and boarded the light cruiser Royalist at Dundee to meet his fleet in the early hours of 19 August off the river Tay. In his absence, Admiral Cecil Burney took the fleet to sea on the afternoon of 18 August. Vice-Admiral David Beatty left the Firth of Forth with his squadron of six battlecruisers to meet the main fleet in the Long Forties. The Harwich Force of 20 destroyers and 5 light cruisers commanded by Commodore Tyrwhitt was ordered out, as were 25 British submarines which were stationed in likely areas to intercept German ships. The battlecruisers together with the 5th Battle Squadron of five fast battleships were stationed 30 miles ahead of the main fleet to scout for the enemy. The assembled fleet now moved south seeking the German fleet, but suffered the loss of one of the light cruisers screening the battlecruiser group, HMS Nottingham, which was hit by three torpedoes from submarine U-52 at 0600.

Finding the opposition

At 0615 Jellicoe received information from the Admiralty that one hour earlier the enemy had been 200 miles to his south east. However, the loss of the cruiser caused him to first head north for fear of endangering his other ships. No torpedo tracks or submarines had been seen, so it was unclear whether the cause had been a submarine or entering an unknown minefield. He did not resume a south-easterly course until 0900 when William Goodenough, commanding the light cruisers, advised that the cause had been a submarine attack. Further information from the admiralty indicated that the battlecruisers would be within 40 miles of the main German fleet by 1400 and Jellicoe increased to maximum speed. Weather conditions were good, with plenty of time for a fleet engagement before dark. The German force had received reassurances about Jellicoe's position, when a zeppelin had spotted the Grand Fleet heading north away from Scheer, at the time it had been avoiding the possible minefield. Unfortunately for the British, the Zeppelin L 13 sighted the Harwich force approximately 75 miles ENE of Cromer, mistakenly identifying the cruisers as battleships. This was precisely the sort of target Scheer was seeking, so he changed course at 1215 also to the south-east and away from the approaching British fleet. No further reports were received from zeppelins about the British fleet, but it was spotted by a U-boat just 65 miles north of Scheer. Scheer turned for home at 1435 abandoning his potential target. By 1600 Jellicoe had been advised that Scheer had abandoned the operation and so turned north himself.

The actual attack

A second cruiser attached to the battlecruiser squadron, HMS Falmouth, was hit by two torpedoes from U-63 at 1652 and sank the following day while being towed to the Humber, when hit by two more torpedoes fired by U-66. By 1745 the Harwich force had sighted German ships, but was too far behind for any prospect of an attack before nightfall so abandoned the chase. A British submarine HMS E23 commanded by Lieutenant-Commander R.R Turner managed to hit the German battleship SMS Westfalen at 0505 on the 19th, but the ship was able to return home.


This was the last occasion on which the German fleet travelled so far west into the North Sea. On 6 October a decision was made in Germany to resume attacks against merchant vessels by submarine, which meant the submarine fleet was no longer available for combined attacks against surface vessels. On 13 September a conference took place on Jellicoe's flagship to discuss recent events and it was decided that it was unsafe to conduct fleet operations south of latitude 55.5° North (approximately level with Horns reef and where the battle of Jutland had taken place), except in extreme emergency such as a German invasion force. Scheer was unimpressed by the efficiency of the zeppelin reconnaissance. Only three zeppelins had spotted anything and from seven reports four had been wrong. On 18–19 October Scheer once again led a brief sortie into the North Sea and British intelligence gave warning. However, the Grand Fleet declined to prepare an ambush, staying in port with steam raised ready to sail. The German sortie was abandoned after a few hours when SMS München was hit by a torpedo fired by E38, Lieutenant-Commander J. de B. Jessop, and it was feared other submarines might be in the area. Scheer suffered further difficulties when in November he sailed with Moltke and a division of dreadnoughts to rescue U-20 and U-30 which had become stranded on the Danish coast. British submarine J1, Commander J. Laurence, managed to hit the battleships Grosser Kurfürst and Kronprinz. The failure of these operations reinforced the belief, created at Jutland, that the risks involved in such operations were not justified by the outcomes. Both sides feared the loss of their capital ships to submarines or mines.

4th November 1916 U-Boat Index - WW1  SM U-20

Type U 19 Shipyard Kaiserliche Werft, Danzig (Werk 14) Ordered 25 Nov 1910 Laid down 7 Nov 1911 Launched 18 Dec 1912 Commissioned 5 Aug 1913.
5 Aug 1913 - 15 Dec 1914 Otto Dröscher 16 Dec 1914 - 4 Nov 1916 Walther Schwieger

Career 7 patrols 1 Aug 1914 - 4 Nov 1916 III Flotilla.
Successes 37 ships sunk with a total of 145,830 tons. 2 ships damaged with a total of 2,643 tons. (View ships hit by U 20)

  • 30 Jan 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Ikaria 4,335 br
  • 30 Jan 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Oriole 1,489 br
  • 30 Jan 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Tokomaru 6,084 br
  • 7 Mar 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Bengrove 3,840 br
  • 9 Mar 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Princess Victoria 1,108 br
  • 11 Mar 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Florazan 4,658 br
  • 5 May 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Earl Of Lathom 132 br
  • 6 May 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Candidate 5,858 br
  • 6 May 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Centurion 5,495 br
  • 7 May 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Lusitania 30,396 br
  • 8 Jul 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Marion Lightbody 2,176 ru
  • 9 Jul 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Ellesmere 1,170 br
  • 9 Jul 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Leo 2,224 ru
  • 9 Jul 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Meadowfield 2,750 br
  • 13 Jul 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Lennok 1,142 ru
  • 2 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Roumanie 2,599 br
  • 3 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Frode 1,875 da
  • 4 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Hesperian 10,920 br
  • 5 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Dictator 4,116 br
  • 5 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Douro 1,604 br
  • 5 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Rhea 1,145 ru
  • 6 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Guatemala 5,913 fr
  • 7 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Bordeaux 4,604 fr
  • 7 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Caroni 2,652 br
  • 8 Sep 1915 U 20 Walther Schwieger Mora 3,047 br
  • 30 Apr 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Bakio 1,906 sp
  • 1 May 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Bernadette 486 fr
  • 2 May 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Ruabon 2,004 br
  • 3 May 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Marie Molinos 1,946 fr
  • 6 May 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Galgate 2,356 br
  • 8 May 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Cymric 13,370 br
  • 1 Aug 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Aaro 2,603 br
  • 29 Aug 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Ibo (damaged) 397 pt
  • 26 Sep 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Thelma 1,002 br
  • 18 Oct 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Ethel Duncan 2,510 br
  • 23 Oct 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Arromanches 1,640 fr
  • 23 Oct 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Chieri 4,400 it
  • 23 Oct 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Felix Louis 275 fr
  • 26 Oct 1916 U 20 Walther Schwieger Fabian(damaged) 2,246 br

Fate 4 Nov 1916 - Grounded at 5633N 0808E on the Danish coast and blown up by her crew the next day.

On 7 May, 1915 U 20 (Kptlt. Walther Schwieger) torpedoed the British liner RMS Lusitania. She sank in 18 minutes, taking 1195 lives with her, including 123 Americans. This sinking pushed the Americans slightly closer to declaring war on Germany, but that would not take place until April 1917.

There was another U 20 in World War Two.
That boat was launched from its shipyard on 14 Jan 1936 and commissioned into the Kriegsmarine on 1 Feb 1936.

5th November 1916 Naval Action - 5th November 1916  The Naval Action on the 5th November 1916 was fought between a Royal Navy submarine and a dreadnought squadron of the Imperial German Navy. It took place in the months after the Battle of Jutland and is significant as it signalled a major shift in German naval policy.


On the 2nd November 1916, the German U-boat U-30 suffered a mechanical failure while patrolling off the Norwegian coast. She sent a distress signal which was answered by U-20 returning from patrol around Ireland. They met and both U-boats set off for the Danish coast where they were to be met off the Bovsberg Light. The British meanwhile had intercepted this wireless traffic and dispatched a destroyer force to intercept them, but were unsuccessful. However, on the 4th November, both U-boats went aground during the evening fog. The German Admiralty were concerned that the Danes would intern the two U-boats or that the British would find them. They were also mindful of the reputation of U-20 and her skipper who were responsible for the sinking of the ocean Lusitania. Admiral Scheer dispatched a salvage group, with a cover force comprising destroyers of the 4th Half-Flotilla and the battlecruiser SMS Moltke. These were followed by four dreadnoughts of 3rd Battle Squadron (SMS König, Grosser Kurfürst, Kronprinz and Markgraf). This move was also detected by the British, who alerted the submarine HMS J1, which was on patrol in the area. On the evening of 5 November, J1 encountered the Battle squadron and was in a position to attack.


On the 5th November, J1 was submerged on patrol in the North Sea, 30 miles south-west of Horns Reef. Her skipper, Commander NF Laurence, had been alerted to the approach of the German forces and, at 1150 in heavy seas, he spotted the four dreadnoughts of 3rd Battle Squadron only 2 miles away. Laurence went deeper to manoeuvre into a firing position, but on returning to periscope depth, he found that the dreadnoughts had altered course and were moving away. Surfacing to take advantage of J1's higher surface speed, but risking detection by the Squadron's destroyer escort, Laurence again moved into a firing position and at 1208 dived to launch four torpedoes. Two of these hit, striking Grosser Kurfurst astern and Kronprinz on the bow. Both were damaged, but were able to return to base under their own steam. J1 had not been detected by any of the screening destroyers during her approach and they were unable to make an effective counterattack. Laurence remained submerged until 1430 and on surfacing found the area was clear. The two damaged dreadnoughts were able to return to base, but both were under repair in drydocks for several months. The other German forces were able to return to base without further incident. U-30 was also able to return to base, but U-20 was unrecoverable and was scuttled to avoid capture. Laurence was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order for this action.


Following this action, Scheer came under criticism from Pless, the Naval chief of staff, and the Kaiser himself, who felt that risking so many capital ships of the High Seas Fleet and having two dreadnoughts put out of action, for the sake of two U-boats, was inappropriate. However, Scheer defended himself robustly, stating that it was imperative to give the men of the U-boat arm the fullest possible support. He also stated that Germany's naval strategy should be to concentrate all her efforts on the U-boat offensive. Henceforth the main role of the German surface fleet should be to ensure the safety of the U-boat force. It was a major demonstration of the shift in German naval policy to the war on commerce by her U-boat arm.

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