WI Germany doesn't make the Sussex pledge of May 1916, keeps sinking ships outside cruiser rules continuously?

raharris1973

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What if Germany never made the Sussex pledge of May 4 1916 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sussex_pledge). It keeps sinking merchant ships without cruiser rules, ie, without warning and without provision for survivors.

The Germans made the pledge under diplomatic pressure from the Wilson Administration which had been threatening to break diplomatic relations. With the change in policy marked by the pledge in OTL, Germany switched to operating its subs by restrained cruiser rules from May 1916 until starting unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.

With continuous unrestricted attacks on merchant and passenger vessels through 1916 in this ATL? Does the US break diplomatic relations? When?
Does the US go to war in spring, summer or fall 1916?

With broken diplomatic relations with Germany, Wilson can't really use the "he kept us out of war" theme for reelection.

If the US declares war in 1916, what if the effect on the war?

If the US is in the war, what does that do to the 1916 election? On the one hand, Wilson can't run on peace. On the other hand, there may be a reluctance to immediately switch leadership right after declaring war.

In OTL, one thing differed between the "unrestricted" submarine warfare as Germany practiced from 1915 through May 1916, and the version it practiced later from February 1917 to November 1918. In the second iteration, they sank not only Entente ships but American ships.

If they continue their pre-May 1916 U-boat policy I assume it's just a matter of time before they end up hitting neutral ships, including American ones. I assume it was only luck that prevented it from happening earlier.
 
Just for clarity Germany undertook unrestricted uboat warfare from Feb to Sep 1915, a 'sharpened' uboat campaign from Mar to May 1916 and full USW from Feb 1917. The Sharpened rules are "Attacks could be made without warning on: (1) all enemy ships inside the British Isles war zone, (2) all defensively-armed enemy ships outside the war zone which would be treated as warships, (3) troop transports sailing between Le Havre and Dunkirk. All passengers ships whether armed or unarmed, inside or outside the war zone, could not be attacked by a submerged U-boat" https://www.naval-history.net/WW1NavyBritishShips-Locations10AttackedMNDate1916.htm

The US was pretty busy with Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution in mid 1916, to the extent that the Defence and Naval Acts were passed expanding both and the entire National Guard was mobilised and deployed along the Mexican border until early 1917. I believe this experience of having the whole army deployed en masse gave Wilson the confidence boost to declare war on the German upon the introduction of USW.

If Germany had continued with it's 'sharpened' uboat RoE from May 1916 the US may have severed diplomatic relations but in legislative and military terms was in no position to go to war with Germany while engaged with Pancho Villa and without the experience gained from the NG mobilisation of 1916. About the only changes would have been financial and economic.
 

raharris1973

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...and I always learn something new from this site.

What ROE were the Germans using between October 1915 and February 1916? Did they just lay up all their subs?

Were there any differences in ROE or tech or operating areas between the two periods of "unrestricted" submarine warfare in Feb to Sep 1915, and after Feb 1917?
Why did they only hit US/neutral merchant ships in the latter period? Happenstance or basked into campaign design?
 
...and I always learn something new from this site.

What ROE were the Germans using between October 1915 and February 1916? Did they just lay up all their subs?

Were there any differences in ROE or tech or operating areas between the two periods of "unrestricted" submarine warfare in Feb to Sep 1915, and after Feb 1917?
Why did they only hit US/neutral merchant ships in the latter period? Happenstance or basked into campaign design?
Between the 1st USW and the Sharpened campaign the KM redeployed it's uboats to fleet support, but that was a tough game with little reward. They also started operations in the Med where there were less US ships so they could conduct an anti commerce ship campaign. In between the Sharpened and 2nd USW uboats tried with luck at an anti commerce campaign according to cruiser rules, with some success I think.

The RoE in Feb 1915 were: All waters around British Isles including the English Channel declared a War Zone where all merchant ships could be destroyed without ensuring the safety of passengers and crew; neutral ships would be at risk from attack.

1602049256546.png


The 1917 War Zone was much bigger, but the 1915 RoE were pretty liberal so I don't think they needed to be changed.

1602049326405.png


Uboats were improved as the war progressed, for example the coastal UB I subclass of 1915 had 2 torpedo tubes and a deck MG, but the UB III 1917 subclass had 5 tubes and an 88 deck gun, and this was typical across all types. During the war radio also improved, so by mid war uboats could communicate 1000km out to sea, along with a bunch of other stuff that improved effectiveness.

I couldn't say for sure why US ships weren't lost in numbers in 1915 but were in 1917, but there weren't many uboats in 1915, they weren't very lethal and their area of operations was much smaller in 1915. That said I think a lot of neutral ships were attacked, the British were sending ships t the Netherlands throughout the war for example. By 1917 the US was a combattant and there were a lot more uboats of much greater lethality, so the Germans used these in this last throw of the dice and didn't give a shit about being nice to the US.
 
American ships were hit in the earlier period. Though I understand u-boat captains did make an effort to avoid American ships if possible. Some still got hit. I can’t recall the name but there was one that was torpedoed but not sunk a day or two after the Lusitania. It was saved from another torpedo by a British fishing trawler that charged down the u-boat. The u-boat thought the trawler was armed, so he dived and ran. The American had to be towed into port in Ireland for repair. I think there was another actually sunk shortly before the Lusitania.
 
As long as the Germans don't kill Americans on American ships, there may be a break in diplomatic relations but probably not a war.

"Rather oddly, many people here don't seem to get the significance of this. Prior to 1917, there had only been one incident of Germans killing Americans on an American ship--the Gulflight incident. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulflight And there "As an American ship, the submarine would not have attacked had he seen her nationality, but apart from an ordinary flag Gulflight was not carrying any additional markings painted on the hull to make clear her nationality, which other ships were then doing." A lot of Americans thought that Americans had no business traveling on belligerent ships but drew the line where attacks on American ships were concerned. Now in 1917 for the first time Germany had made sinking such ships a policy. " https://www.alternatehistory.com/forum/threads/german-denial-of-the-zimmerman-telegram.476897/#post-19638964
 
American ships were hit in the earlier period. Though I understand u-boat captains did make an effort to avoid American ships if possible. Some still got hit. I can’t recall the name but there was one that was torpedoed but not sunk a day or two after the Lusitania. It was saved from another torpedo by a British fishing trawler that charged down the u-boat. The u-boat thought the trawler was armed, so he dived and ran. The American had to be towed into port in Ireland for repair. I think there was another actually sunk shortly before the Lusitania.
The important point is that with the exception of the Gulflight incident, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Gulflight no Americans were killed on an American ship before 1917. The first sinking of an American ship, the William P. Frye, did not result in any fatalities. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_P._Frye_(1901) Likewise the Cushing incident did not involve any deaths: "another ship, the Cushing, had been bombed shortly before, again by mistake because no American markings could be seen from what was then a somewhat novel air attack. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Gulflight Likewise non-fatal was the Nebraskan incident: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/d676 So was the Leelanaw incident: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_shipwrecks_in_July_1915


From the Current History of January to March, 1916, here is a list of such incidents:

Clipboard01.jpg


In other words, the incidents were few, they were (with one exception) non-lethal, and they could be explained as "mistakes." It was only in 1917, when Germany, determined to destroy neutral as well as belligerent trade, made sinking American ships a policy, that war became inevitable.
 
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And here we go again, I learned even more from the last two posts.

Now on this from your last reply @ArtosStark


That surprises me, because @Mikestone8 often cites as a hallmark of the USW of 1917 that US-flagged ships were getting hit whereas that wasn't going on in the earlier times.
David T has more or less covered it. My half-baked recollection of an American ship being sunk before the Lusitania was incorrect. The ship I refer to that was damaged was the Nebraskan. I also mixed up the story with the story of the Morwenna, which happened the same day. In the Nebraskan’s case, there was a single torpedo hit, and no submarine was observed. The ship was left alone after one hit (probably they realized her nationality). The Morwenna was the one saved by a Belgian fishing trawler doing its best impression of a bull. Apologies for the confusion.

So yes, ships were hit. Most likely by accident, as it is not always easy to determine nationality from periscope. Luckily for the Germans and Americans, none of these incidents lead to loss of life.
 
A lot of Americans thought that Americans had no business traveling on belligerent ships but drew the line where attacks on American ships were concerned
Notably including the Vice-President of the United States.

On May 11, 1915, in Tupelo MS, Thomas R Marshall expressed the view that any American who sailed on an English ship had effectively placed himself on English soil, and must perhaps accept the element of risk involved. See https://www.newspapers.com/image/237585083/?terms=marshall+tupelo+english-ship for one of several newspaper reports.

Curiously, a few days later he indignantly denied any difference between himself and President Wilson, but iirc did not retract what he had said earlier.


Incidentally, here is a complete list of "U.S. Merchant Ships, Sailing Vessels, and Fishing Craft Lost from all Causes during World War I": http://www.usmm.org/ww1merchant.html
Indeed - a very helpful source.

What sticks in my mind is the small number of US vessels sunk with loss of life. Just two in Ma rch (Vigilancia, 15 killed, Healdton 20 killed), two in April (Aztec 28 killed, Vacuum 24 killed), two in May (Rockingham two killed, Dirigo one killed. Also Hilonia, three slightly wounded), two in June (Moroni four killed, John D Archbold three killed). four in July (Orleans four killed one wounded, Kansan four killed, Grace Three killed six wounded, Motano 24 killed).

In the same period 26 US ships were sunk without loss of life. One is left with the impression that the Germans could, at the very least, have postponed US intervention for many months just be overlooking a dozen or so vessels, and presumably using those torpedoes to sink a similar number of British or other ones/. They got a very paltry benefit (if indeed any benefit at all) in return for throwing away American neutrality.
 
They got a very paltry benefit (if indeed any benefit at all) in return for throwing away American neutrality.
The benefit came from the relaxation of prize rules. Under prize rules the Germans had to surface, bring the ship to a halt, allow the crew to get into boats, and then either board her to sink her with bombs or sink her with guns. This gives you a chance to determine if sinking her is going to cause an incident (i.e. if she is American) but is harder to accomplish if she resists or runs and exposes the U-boat to more danger. USW meant they could just torpedo or shoot whoever they want in the area, which means they can sink British (and other) shipping quicker and safer.
 
The benefit came from the relaxation of prize rules. Under prize rules the Germans had to surface, bring the ship to a halt, allow the crew to get into boats, and then either board her to sink her with bombs or sink her with guns. This gives you a chance to determine if sinking her is going to cause an incident (i.e. if she is American) but is harder to accomplish if she resists or runs and exposes the U-boat to more danger. USW meant they could just torpedo or shoot whoever they want in the area, which means they can sink British (and other) shipping quicker and safer.
Not sure I follow.

As u-boats could carry only a limited supply of torpedoes, it was still necessary for many if not most ships to be sunk by other means. So it wasn't a question of whether to torpedo, but only of *which* ships to torpedo and which not. So how does torpedoing twelve fewer US ships and twelve *more* British (or other) ones put the sub at any greater risk?
 
Not sure I follow.

As u-boats could carry only a limited supply of torpedoes, it was still necessary for many if not most ships to be sunk by other means. So it wasn't a question of whether to torpedo, but only of *which* ships to torpedo and which not. So how does torpedoing twelve fewer US ships and twelve *more* British (or other) ones put the sub at any greater risk?
What I mean is, not having to go through the whole process of following prize rules, which they did to keep the US happy and make sure they were not sinking American shipping, allowed them to sink many more British ships, regardless of how many American ships were lost. IOW they did not go to unrestricted submarine warfare to sink American shipping. They went to USW to sink more British shipping in the hopes that they could break Britain before the probable US response could make a difference. The fact that American ships were sunk was, at least at the beginning, just a consequence, not a goal.
 

raharris1973

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What drove the timing of the Germans changes in rules of engagement? Naval bureaucratic politics? Available technology? Degree of blockade pressure? Changing analyses of the vulnerability of Entente shipping? Falling, rising and falling confidence in the ability of alternative means of victory including the land war, the air war, or surface naval war?

Would drastically different outcomes of any of the major naval North Sea surface actions like Helgoland Bight 1914, Dogger Bank 1915, or Jutland 1916, change Germany's unrestricted U-Boat calculus? For example, if the German's perceived themselves to do better in those battles, might they have delayed implementing the less restrictive, more shocking forms of U-Boat warfare? But if any of those battles basically wiped out their surface fleet, might they have gone all-in on unrestricted U-Boat warfare earlier? Or would you suppose the the fate of the surface fleet and U-Boat service were largely unrelated?
 
What drove the timing of the Germans changes in rules of engagement? Naval bureaucratic politics? Available technology? Degree of blockade pressure? Changing analyses of the vulnerability of Entente shipping? Falling, rising and falling confidence in the ability of alternative means of victory including the land war, the air war, or surface naval war?
Submarines attacking merchant vessels at all actually violates pre-war cruiser rules. Since the submarine cannot provide adequate space to berth the passengers of the ships they sink and must leave them adrift. If you look at the careers of the German surface raiders you can see that this was basically never done. The idea of sinking merchant vessels was played with before the war and a single U-boat (U-8?) was thought to have gone a cruise specifically to test its feasibility in the early months of the war. Germany's "U-boat blockade" was, IIRC, announced in response to Allied announcements about what goods were considered to be under blockade. It basically continued from there with U-boats now sinking ships without warning (though they stilled overhauled them and sank them with bombs and guns where possible to save on torpedoes). It was scaled back on (though not removed entirely) in response to the American ultimatum in the wake of the Lusitania sinking. The modified rules remained in place until 1917 when Germany believed that they could break Britain before the US could get significantly involved. They technically stayed in place until the end of the war.
 

CalBear

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At some point the Germans screw up spectacularly, get William Randolph Hearst pissed off/smelling a way to sell more newpapers, or step on their crank some other way, and the U.S. declares War. Difference now is, most likely the Americans are there in enough force to alter the results of the 1917 Entente Spring/Summer Offensives.

The Germans actually had a chance in WW I, not a spectacular chance, but a decent one, of forcing a straight-up Armistice with lines frozen in place if they simply kept the Americans and there more or less unlimited manpower reserves off the battlefield, or kept them off until 1919. Let the American in when the issue is in doubt, and, well, there is no doubt.
 
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