Many Rhode Islanders are familiar with the sinking of the U-853 off Block Island in the waning days of World War II. But, that wasn’t the first U-boat to prowl Rhode Island waters. For this tale, we go back to 1916. World War I had been raging for two years. The U.S. had managed to maintain neutrality despite provocative acts by the Germans. Careful to observe international law and cruiser warfare rules in most cases, German submariners avoided attacking American flagged vessels.
Our story: how a clever U-boat skipper managed to score both publicity and intelligence when he turned up in Newport, RI, on October 7, 1916. A detailed account of the visit of the U-53 appears in a 1920 US Navy publication titled “German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada”. Robert K. Massie’s excellent account of the British Navy in World War I, “Castles of Steel”, also briefly recounts the event.
At 2:00pm, the U.S. submarine D-2 was alerted by radio that a German U-boat was east of Point Judith, headed towards Newport, RI. At the Brenton Reef Lightship, the German skipper, Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, asked the U.S. Navy’s permission to enter port. On approval, the D-2 escorted U-53 into the harbor. It anchored near the USS Birmingham, flagship of Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commanding the Newport-based destroyer flotilla. Klt. Rose went ashore and paid courtesy calls to the commandant of Naval Station Newport, 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 U.S. Navy officials, their wives and members of the press to visit his boat in the brief time he was in harbor.
The U-53 represented state-of-the-art German technology: 212 feet in length, it was powered by two 1200-horsepower, six-cylinder diesel engines. It had a maximum surface speed of 15 knots and could sail submerged at 9 to 11 knots. Equipped with four 18-inch torpedo tubes (2 fore and 2 aft), it carried 10 war shots. For surface use, the boat carried a 4-inch and a 3-inch gun. 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 33 enlisted men. The U.S. Navy described the boat as well-laid out, extremely neat and clean with “no trace of foul air anywhere”. U-53’s ballast tanks had been realigned to provide extra fuel capacity. It’s radio equipment, according to Klt. Rose, could receive messages from a distance of 2000 miles. The crew spent most of their brief time in port on deck, playing a phonograph and waving to the curious crowd of military and civilians who hovered nearby. When Klt. Rose went ashore to pay his courtesy call, he gave a reporter a letter to be mailed to the German ambassador in Washington and (here’s where the story gets even more interesting) picked up copies of the local newspapers which carried information of ship schedules in the fashion of the day (remember, there was no censorship concern as the US was a neutral).
About 5:30pm that afternoon, the U-53 set sail with its crew on deck waving and saluting and Newport saw the last of this expected visitor. The next day, off the Massachusetts coast, Klt. Rose and his men captured and sank five British ships (one with American passengers aboard), followed by a Dutch steamer and a Norwegian. All passengers and crew were allowed to board lifeboats before the ships were sunk. The entire incident infuriated the British, because of the audacity of the Germans to pull into Newport, blatantly gather strategic information (and publicity) and then depart unmolested to continue their war patrol.
A group of some 16 American destroyers sent out to search for survivors of the initial sinkings, witnessed some of the action. According to one account, Klt. Rose almost collided with one destroyer and later asked another to move aside so the U-boat could sink one of its victims. All of this further angered the British, even though the neutral Americans could not take direct action. The Germans added confusion by changing their hull number creating the myth that U-53 was not operating alone. According the US Navy, the boat returned to Germany carrying the hull number U-61 evading a number of British warships along the way. The U-53’s successful patrol covered more than 7500 miles without refueling.
After some fancy American diplomatic footwork over the affair, the British calmed down. Rose wound up as the 5th highest World War I German submarine ace sinking 79 merchant ships and one American destroyer (USS Jacob Jones). He had put the U-53 into commission in1916 and served as her commander until August of 1918. He received a number of awards and medals during his 15 years of naval service, including Germany’s highest medal for valor, the Pour le Merite (in 1917). 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.
Our story just goes to show you never know “who’s coming to dinner”.