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German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada

Publication Number 1

The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published seven monographs on the U.S. Navy and World War I between 1920 and 1923. The monograph German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada was the first in the series and was published in 1920. This 2017 essay from NHHC historian Chris Martin provides an introduction to the monograph as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I. The text of the monograph itself along with a downloadable PDF is available in the Navy Department Library Online Reading Room.


The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published the first monograph on the U.S. Navy’s performance in World War I in 1920. Rather than a lengthy comprehensive history of the Navy’s actions in World War I, the department chose to publish seven different histories, each highlighting a separate aspect of the Navy’s performance in the war. The first monograph focused on the German U-boat offensive off the American east coast in 1918. The history not only heavily influenced all the subsequent scholarship on the Navy’s antisubmarine efforts in World War I; it illustrates a lesson in the value of readiness for today’s Navy.

Publication Number 1 discusses each of the encounters between the United States and the German submarine force, beginning with the port visits made by Deutschland and U-53 in 1916. In addition to providing details on the attacks made by each of the U-boats that hunted off the American coast in 1918, Publication Number 1 discusses each minefield laid off the American coast in 1918, the impact that minefield had on American merchant shipping, and how the Navy cleared each minefield.

In writing Publication Number 1, the Historical Section attempted as best it could to vet all reports of submarine activity off the east coast of the United States; the publication was “believed to be strictly accurate with the information available at the present time.” Most of the information contained in the report is taken from eyewitness statements of merchant sailors whose ships fell victim to one of the U-boats active on the American coast during 1918. While the Historical Office utilized these witness statements to illustrate what happened to coastal shipping attacked by German U-boats, the historians who authored the publication were careful not to overstate their evidence. At the time of publication, the authors did not have conclusive evidence that German U-boats cut undersea communications cables off the east coast and therefore only declared it “quite probable.”

In the nearly 100 years since the U-boat attacks discussed in Publication Number 1, surprisingly little has been published about them. Only two books focus on the attacks off the American coast in 1918. The first postwar source, published by William Bell Clark in 1929, When the U-Boats Came to America utilized Publication Number 1 almost exclusively. That the only other sources he uses are all open public sources like newspaper accounts only further illustrates the information he gleans from Publication Number 1.

Surprisingly, Publication Number 1 is in some ways more accurate than Henry J. James’ book German Subs in Yankee Waters. Published in 1940 just after the beginning of World War II in Europe, James’ book is devoid of footnotes or endnotes, thus it is unknown whether he utilized Publication Number 1 at all. However, it appears as if James either did not consult the publication or chose to ignore its evidence in favor of hyperbolic statements declaring the United States “unprepared for submarine warfare as we are today, by all accounts, for invasion from the skies.” Publication Number 1 makes clear that the Navy was prepared for the German U-boat offensive in 1918.

READINESS: After the American entrance into the war in 1917, Admiral William S. Sims cabled the Department of the Navy that the British Admiralty did not believe U-boats would be sent to attack shipping off the American coast. Nevertheless, in February 1918, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William S. Benson appointed a board “to make recommendations as to the methods to be taken to provide for ‘defense against submarines in home waters.’” This special board recommended that coastal shipping employ a system of convoys protected by Navy submarine chasers. Each naval district would protect convoys in its own district. Convoys steaming between districts would be “handed off” to a new force of submarine chasers as the merchant ships entered a new naval district. Admiral Benson approved the special board’s recommendations on 6 March 1918. It was not until over a month later on 11 April when Sims cabled the Department and suggested the probability of a U-boat offensive off the American coast, and not until 1 May when Sims cabled the Department warning that the German Navy had dispatched a Deutschland-class U-boat with orders to attack American shipping. This would not be the last cable he sent to Washington warning of a potential U-boat threat to American merchant shipping. Throughout 1918, Sims warned the Navy of every U-boat headed to American waters. Had it not been for the extremely valuable intelligence included in his cables, the German U-boat force might have succeeded in its goal of forcing the Navy to recall vessels engaged in antisubmarine or convoy protection in European waters.

Publication Number 1 also discusses another example of the value of readiness. The Navy believed that, should the United States enter World War I, the German Navy would immediately seek to sever the communications cables between the United States and Europe. The Navy planned for that potential interruption in communications long before the United States actually entered the war in April 1917.

In October 1917, the Navy agreed to allow the Allies use of radio stations in five different locations on the east coast. In return, the Allies allowed the United States the use of four European radio stations. Collectively, these stations were capable of transmitting 55,000 words per day between Europe and the United States. According to publication Number 1, these stations, “served as an insurance for effective communication; and gave assurance that the enemy could not completely interrupt transatlantic communication. Had the enemy cut all the transatlantic cables it would have been impossible for [Germany] to have stopped effective communication between the War and Navy Departments and our forces in Europe.”

—Chris Martin, NHHC

Published: Tue Sep 10 12:46:38 EDT 2019