A surprise German U-boat visit to Newport Harbor during World War I started with pleasantries and ended with mayhem just south of Nantucket.
Though it may have been a means to gather intelligence, the sudden U-boat visit on Oct. 7, 1916, turned out to be an unexpected publicity stunt, planned or unplanned. It also created an international uproar.
The Surprise U-Boat Visit
The sub, skippered by Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, was first spotted near Point Judith, R.I.
As it approached the Brenton Reef Lightship, it requested permission to enter Newport Harbor, which was granted. From there, she sailed into port escorted by the American submarine D2 (Hull designation SS 18). The U-boat anchored near the U.S. Naval War College. among the Atlantic destroyer squadron near the USS Birmingham (Hull designation CS/CL 2), the flagship of Adm. Albert Gleaves.
World War I had been raging for two years, but the United States, officially neutral, had not yet entered the conflict.
Arriving about 2 pm, Capt. Rose rowed ashore and paid a courtesy call on the local naval officials. He invited them, their wives and the press to tour his vessel while in port. Several took advantage of the invitation and inspected the boat. Those who did reported the U-boat was neat and clean with little odor of fuel oil.
While ashore, Captain Rose spoke with a reporter about the U-boat visit and asked the reporter to mail a letter to the German Ambassador in Washington, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff. While ashore, the captain also purchased several newspapers.
It ought be borne in mind that there was no press censorship because the United States was still a neutral nation. It was also common practice to print shipping news, the times of the coming and going of cargo vessels – a nice piece of intelligence for a commerce raider on the prowl.
During the few hours of the U-boat visit, the crew whiled away its time waving to people and playing phonograph records on deck.
The U-53, a super sub, was 212-feet long and displaced 715 tons. She could make 15 knots on the surface and 11 knots while submerged using two 1200 horsepower engines.
Her armament included four 18-inch torpedo tubes, two fore and two aft with a complement of 10 torpedoes aboard. The sub also had two deck guns, again fore and aft for surface attacks; one was a three-inch gun and one a four-inch.
An interesting aspect to the super sub was a design change altering the location of its ballast tanks. That enabled it to carry more fuel, giving it a range of about 7,500 miles. It also had a third periscope for use by the chief engineer.
The boat included a radio capable transmitting and receiving signals for a range of 2000 miles.
The crew included the captain and three officers, the radio/electric officer, the chief engineer, and the executive/navigator, as well as a crew of 33 enlisted men.
At about 5:30 that same afternoon, the boat and crew departed Newport while the crew on the deck waved and saluted people along the shoreline. So ended an unexpected and unusual U-boat visit.
The next day, however, would bring a turn of events that precipitated a diplomatic firestorm and the demise of several ships, perhaps caused by intelligence from the free press of a neutral nation.
The U-53, a commerce raider, then did what a commerce raider does. It proceeded to score hits and sink several ships off the Massachusetts coast. The ships sank south of the Nantucket Lightship, clearly outside American territorial limits.
Sixteen destroyers led by the flagship Birmingham quickly came to pick up survivors of the sunken ships. So quickly did they arrive on the scene of the first victims, that they witnessed the nefarious activity and continuing mayhem. Indeed, the submarine almost collided with one destroyer. And, in an example of unmitigated gall, U-boat Capt. Rose requested that a destroyer get out of his way so he could sink yet another ship. Those were different times.
A total of six ships were sunk of British, French and Danish registry. American ships didn’t interfere because the U.S. was neutral. The sinkings also happened outside of U.S. territorial limits and the German captain acted entirely within the rules of the international prize court law.
Following those rules, the Germans notified their ship victims they were about to be sunk. They allowed everyone aboard to disembark via lifeboat. Thus there was no loss of life. So much for ‘the courtesy of war,’ as the Newport Daily News put it.
U-Boat Visit: A Warning
Needless to say, the U-boat visit alarmed the British because it demonstrated the extent of its threat. They were also angered by the U-boat attack in the presence of American destroyers.
Diplomats eventually smoothed over the so-called ‘row’ over the incident.
However, as historian Brian Wallin has written, “The incident demonstrated 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.”
Before the war ended, U-boat 53 racked up 80 sinkings, including one American destroyer, the USS Jacob Jones (Hull designation DD 61). It was the first American ship sunk by the Germans after the U.S. declared war in April 1917.
U-boat 53 successfully evaded the British blockade, having changed its hull number to U-boat 61, and returned to Germany.
At the end of the war, U-boat 53 surrendered to the Allies on December 1, 1918. Capt. Rose no longer commanded the sub when it was scrapped at Swansea, England in 1922. He retired, highly decorated, after 15 years of naval service. Rose finally passed away in 1969 at the age of 84.
Leo Caisse, the author of this story, recently published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He has also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. He has a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lives in East Providence, R.I.
If you’re interested in U-boat warfare in the Atlantic, you may be interested in this story about U-boats in World War II here. This story was updated in 2019.