Many Rhode Islanders are familiar with the sinking of the German submarine U-853 off Block Island in May of 1945 in the waning days of World War II. But U-boats had been prowling Rhode Island waters for a long time, in fact even before the United States entered World War I.
This story is about one of the most audacious U-boat encounters and begins in the fall of 1916. The “war to end all wars” had been raging for two years. President Woodrow Wilson had managed to keep the United States out of the war and officially remain neutral despite provocative acts by the Germans, such as the loss of American lives during the sinking of ships of other nations, including the famous torpedoing of the Cunard liner Lusitania in 1915. Careful to observe international prize regulations covering attacks on merchant vessels in the wake of the Lusitania sinking, in the hopes of not instigating America to enter the war on the side of the allies, German submariners avoided attacking American flagged ships.
By 1916, the Germans were well ahead of other nations in submarine technology. They had launched large, long-range merchant and military undersea vessels capable of round-trips across the Atlantic without refueling. Lesser known are the cargo submarines that carried goods back to Germany and escaped the naval blockade imposed by Great Britain’s Royal Navy. In the summer of that year, the cargo-submarine Deutschland successfully ran the British blockade, crossed the Atlantic and sailed into Baltimore harbor. She returned to her homeport in August with some one million dollars’ worth of rubber and precious metals in her hold. The same submarine made a second trip to the U.S. in October, landing at New London, Connecticut. Another cargo sub, Bremen, disappeared and was believed sunk during its maiden voyage to America in September of 1916.
The combat submarine U-53, also on its first war patrol after commissioning, had been sent into the Atlantic to protect the unarmed Bremen from British warships. When the U-53’s clever and highly respected commander, Kapitanleutnant (KLt.) Hans Rose, learned of the Bremen’s loss, his plans changed. Subsequently, he managed to achieve extensive publicity and an intelligence coup resulting in the sinking of five (possibly six) enemy vessels after Rose and his U-boat had departed Newport, Rhode Island on October 7, after a brief but profitable visit.
Numerous accounts of Rose’s Newport visit have appeared in publications on both sides of the Atlantic. One highly detailed report is contained in a 1920 U.S. Navy publication titled “German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada.” More recently, Robert K. Massie’s excellent 2003 account of the British Navy in WORLD WAR I, Castles of Steel, briefly summarized the event.
Here is the story of how a daring and clever U-boat commander managed to add to his bag of enemy vessels, sinking five and possibly six non-U.S. vessels in a single day off the coast of nearby Nantucket.
It was 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 7, 1916. U.S. Navy Lieutenant G.C. Fulker and his crew were patrolling the waters off Rhode Island in the coastal submarine D-2, three miles east of Point Judith when they received a radio message of a possible submarine sighting. After a brief search, Fulker found the German U-53 on the surface steaming toward Newport. At first, the German sub shied away from the submerged American boat. Then D-2 surfaced, one of its crewmen ran up the American ensign, and it proceeded on a course parallel to the Germans. As both reached the Brenton Reef lightship outside Narragansett Bay, Klt. Rose hailed Lt. Fulker by megaphone and asked permission to enter Newport harbor. His request was approved. Rose then called back through his megaphone, “I salute our American comrades and follow in your wake.”
D-2 escorted U-53 through the bay’s East Passage into the harbor, anchoring off Goat Island within sight of the Naval War College and the major Newport Naval Station. Needless to say, the presence of this sleek, impressive German warship elicited considerable surprise and excitement among both the military authorities and the civilian population.
U-53 was directed to drop anchor near the cruiser USS Birmingham, flagship of Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commanding the Newport-based Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla. Rose brought his crew on deck in full be-medaled uniforms to impress his surprised hosts. He then went ashore by water taxi and presented his compliments to Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight, Commander of the Newport Naval Base and President of the Naval War College. Rose was informed that he could remain in the neutral port only a few hours or risk being interned. Nonplussed, Rose played his cards to the hilt, also visiting Admiral Gleaves aboard his flagship. Gleaves apologized that he could not offer Klt. Rose a drink, since the abstemious Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, had recently forbidden alcohol use aboard U.S. Navy ships.
Rose indicated that he needed no assistance or supplies and intended to leave the harbor before 6:00pm, well within the time to prevent his being interned. Rose was very proud of his boat and invited high-ranking Navy officials and their wives aboard U-53 for drinks. He also extended invitations to members of the press in the three hours he was in the harbor. American officers were thrilled to go below and get a first-hand look the highly advanced German technology. Needless to say, they took careful note of everything they saw.
At 212 feet in length, U-53 was close in size to American submarines of the period. But with the realignment of ballast tanks to carry extra fuel, its range had been increased to far more than that of existing American subs. U-53 was powered by two 1200-horsepower, six-cylinder diesel engines, and had a maximum surface speed of 17 knots and a submerged speed of 9 to 11 knots. At an economical speed, it had a then astounding range of 9,400 nautical miles. Equipped with four 18-inch torpedo tubes, two fore and two aft. For surface encounters, the boat was armed with a pair of 3.5-inch deck guns. An interesting novelty was a third periscope mounted forward of the engine room and used by the chief engineer. The crew consisted of the captain, three officers (exec/navigator, engineer and electrical/radio), and thirty-three enlisted men. U.S. Navy officers described the submarine as well-laid out, extremely neat and clean with “no trace of foul air anywhere.” Its radio equipment, according to Klt. Rose, could receive messages from a distance of 2,000 miles. (Accordingly, U-53 was then out of range of its handlers across the ocean back in Germany.)
Meanwhile, messages were being relayed back and forth between Newport and Washington, D.C. about the surprise appearance of U-53. The niceties ended quickly when Gleaves and Knight were ordered to direct Rose to leave the harbor and U.S. territorial waters immediately. This was no problem for Rose since he had already obtained some astounding intelligence that would further his mission.
The U-53’s crewmen, happy to be in the fresh air rather than the hot and stale air of the enclosed submarine (even if it was not foul), lounged on the decks, waving to and chatting with the press and local residents who came along side. German sailors even played music on their prized phonograph to entertain curious onlookers.
Meanwhile, Rose was at work ashore. He handed an Associated Press reporter several letters and asked that they be mailed to the German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, in Washington, D.C. Even more interestingly, Rose was seen picking up copies of the afternoon newspapers that carried shipping news notices—the neutral Americans had no censorship issues about publishing shipping information. According to Lawrence Perry in his 1918 book Our Navy in the War, picking up these newspapers had been the real reason for Rose’s visit all along. Another unsubstantiated account in a Newport Mercury newspaper suggested that in the rush of visitors allowed on the boat, one man mysteriously offered $25 to a boatman to take him immediately and quietly to shore. In the wake of Rose’s visit, hints of spies and intrigue abounded.
About 5:30 p.m. that afternoon, U-53 set sail with its crew on deck still waving and saluting the U.S. Navy ships at anchor. A large yacht sailed up to about 30 feet away and briefly paralleled the German boat’s course. Rose tossed out a life ring in salute, called “good luck” and, when his boat had passed the Brenton Reef lightship into Rhode Island Sound, issued the order to dive the boat. Newport had seen the last of its unexpected visitor. Overnight Rose maneuvered outside the U.S. territorial waters and came to rest off Nantucket.
The next day, near the Nantucket Shoals lightship and the principal shipping lanes into New York, Klt. Rose and his crew stopped and sank five or possibly six merchant ships: the 3,449 ton British S.S. Stephano, the 4,321 ton British S.S. Strathmore, the 3,847 ton British S.S. West Point, the 4,850 ton Dutch steamer S.S. Blommersdijk, and the 4,224 ton Norwegian S.S. Christian Knudson. Some reports also had Rose sinking another British ship, the S.S. Kingston, which was inbound to New York, but this is doubtful since the Kingston was later accounted for and a ship with a similar name was not lost until 1918. Moreover, no crew was ever found from a sixth ship. According to survivors, Rose fired torpedoes and twenty-five shells at the Stephano before the liner sank. Unbeknownst to Rose, one American was on board this British vessel.
All passengers and crew were allowed to board lifeboats before the ships were sent to the bottom. In each case, the Germans observed international prize regulations by determining if the ships were carrying contraband. An American Line steamer from Hawaii, S.S. Kansan, had also been stopped but was allowed to continue after Rose examined her papers and found them in order.
When U-53 fired her first shots, an SOS was radioed to shore by the targeted ship and Admiral Gleaves immediately dispatched a squadron of sixteen destroyers to the scene. These warships were mustered so quickly that some sailed without all their crews aboard. The Americans arrived in time to rescue all crew and passengers from the stricken ships and to witness Rose continuing to pick off his remaining targets. At one point, the German skipper almost collided with one destroyer and then asked another to back away so he could get a clear shot at one of his targets. The Navy captain obliged and Rose sank his intended victim with his last torpedo.
Then Rose and his crew set sail for Germany, having accomplished everything they had set out to do. The Germans added to the confusion by changing their hull number, creating a myth that U-53 was not operating alone. According the U.S. Navy, the U-boat returned to Germany carrying the hull number U-61 as it evaded a number of British warships along the way. The British sent a squadron of ships from their base at Halifax, Nova Scotia, as soon as the word of the first sinking was received, but the Royal Navy vessels arrived long after the Germans had departed. The U-53’ssuccessful patrol covered more than 7,500 miles without refueling.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy picked up and safely returned to shore the more than 200 survivors, including many women and children. A Newport Mercury newspaper account indicated that “the air was warm and the sea was calm, so that those in the boats did not suffer severely.” When they arrived at the Government Pier in Newport, survivors were taken to the Naval Station and the Naval Hospital, but overflow accommodations were needed so many were taken in by private homeowners in the city. Among those sheltering survivors were members of prominent families who opened their spacious mansions. These included Mrs. French Vanderbilt (mother of Rhode Island Governor William Vanderbilt), Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice, Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James, Mrs. R. Livingston Beeckman, and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., whose son, a well-known newspaper correspondent, was on hand to report the event.
The entire incident infuriated the British because the Germans had the audacity to pull into Newport, gather strategic information from public sources, and then depart unmolested to continue their war patrol. Of course, the hamstrung neutral Americans could not legally take direct action against the Germans and in favor of Great Britain. Even though Rose had, in the minds of many, acted as an officer and a gentleman at all times, the American government was also displeased. President Woodrow Wilson told German ambassador von Bergstorff that sinking neutral ships in America’s backyard (even though outside territorial limits) was not acceptable.
Although the U-boats suffered extensive losses during the war, Rose survived and wound up as the fifth highest WORLD WAR I German submarine ace, sinking 79 merchant ships and, after the United States entered the war in 1917, one American destroyer (USS Jacob Jones DD-61). He had sailed the U-53 on its maiden voyage in1916 and served as its commander until war’s end in August of 1918. While he earned a reputation as an aggressive and successful U-boat skipper, he was also known for his humanity. Many other U-boat commanders gave no or little notice to targeted ships, thus virtually insuring that many sailors and passengers on board would drown. Rose would sometimes tow lifeboats from torpedoed ships until they were in sight of land. In the case of the sinking of the Jacob Jones, he took aboard his boat two seriously wounded sailors and radioed the position of the survivors to the British naval station at Queenstown and asked that help be sent. He received a number of awards and medals during his fifteen years of naval service, including in 1917 Germany’s highest medal for valor, the Pour le Merite.
Rose left the German navy at the end of WORLD WAR I with the rank of Korvettenkapitan (Junior Commander) and went into private industry. He died in 1969. The U-53 also survived the conflict and was surrendered to the Allies on December 1, 1918. She was broken up in Swansea, England, in 1922.
The visit of the U-53 to Newport may have had an unintended consequence, even if it was not part of Rose’s express mission. It demonstrated to Americans the destructive power of German U-boats and served as a warning of what would come if the United States entered the war on the side of the allies.
[Banner Image: Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly’s October 19, 1916 edition ran a story on U-53’s visit to Newport (Naval War College Museum)]
The writer wishes to extend a special note of thanks to John W. Kennedy, Director of Museum Education and Public Outreach, Naval War College Museum, in Newport, Rhode Island, for his valued assistance in researching facts and images for this article.
Douglas Botting, The U-Boats (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979)
William Bell Clark, When the U-Boats Came to America (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 1929)
Edwin A. Gray, The Killing Time. The German U-Boats 1914-1918 (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972)
German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930). (U.S. Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library (Periodical Section)).
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel (New York, NY: Random House, 2003)
Lawrence Perry, Our Navy in the War (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918)
“German Submarine Sinks Six Ships off Nantucket,” Boston Post, Oct. 9, 1916
“German War Submarine Here,” Newport Mercury, Oct. 14, 1916
“Second Visit Here on an Armed U-Boat,” New York Times, June 4, 1918
“U-Boat War Comes to America,” Leslie’s Weekly, Oct. 19, 1916, p. 424
“Visit of U-boat 53 to Newport Recalled,” Newport Mercury, Sept. 15, 1939, pg.6
On the web
US Naval Institute Naval History Blog, “German Skipper Showed Compassion, Humor to His Foes”,Dec. 12, 2006, www.navalhistory.org
www.wikipedia.org/wiki/SM_U-53 (history of U-53)
www.uboat.net/World War I/boats/index.html?boat=53 (vital statistics on U-53)
www.uboat.net/World War I/men/commanders/273.html (biography of Klt. Hans Rose)
For viewing: An excellent piece of rare 16mm film on WORLD WAR I German U-boats produced by FestungNorwegen.com can be found on the following site: