Battles at sea in the First World War

Submarines at Yarmouth south quay during the First World War. The two on the left are British, the one on the right is a captured UB boat, its smaller scale specially designed to sink British fishing boats.

Submarines at Yarmouth south quay during the First World War. The two on the left are British, the one on the right is a captured UB boat, its smaller scale specially designed to sink British fishing boats.

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North Sea War 1914-1919, by Robert Malster. Review by Gareth Calway.

Much war narrative, like war itself, is driven by demonisation of the enemy, the thrill of defeating an ‘axis of evil’ to foil the end of

civilisation as we know it.

In the First World War, both sides waged this propaganda war of ‘inhuman barbarians’ (the Germans) against the ‘deceitful duplicities’ of the English. The first casualty of war –the author notes – is truth.

“Considerable efforts were made in Britain to portray the U-boat crews as cold inhumane killers… ‘pirates’ who enjoyed nothing better than causing death and injury to innocent travellers … A tale which did not make the headlines is told by… a Royal Naval Reserve officer (in 1918) … The U-boat surfaced among the boats containing survivors to find out the name of the ship that had been sunk; the commander…had his own telescopic wireless masts erected and made a signal himself to bring rescue ships to the scene.”

The first British shot of the sea war was fired off the Suffolk coast on 5 August 1914 at a German minelayer seeking control of “The German Ocean” (renamed The North Sea.)

The key role of Yarmouth and Lowestoft remains hidden by century-old war propaganda representing the towns as non-combatant civilian victims ruthlessly bombed by the Germans. The book meticulously uncovers their importance to the war effort, laying and sweeping mines. It similarly spotlights Harwich Force’s heroic marine and sub-marine role in guarding merchant convoys.

A fascinating and detailed chronicle of hidden history, hidden heroes and nautical expertise, the book’s satisfactions are a glow of faith in humanity in the midst of war and of detached truth amid war fumes of propaganda.

North Sea War 1914-1919 is published by Poppyland Publishing (ISBN B9781909796157), priced  £14.95,