War of Words – ‘U-boat’

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Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool by SM U-21. Painting by Willy Stöwer.
Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool by SM U-21 (Willy Stöwer).

Desperate air battles over the English countryside, harrowing Luftwaffe bomber raids on London, the danger of a cross-Channel invasion by Nazi Germany, and devastating setbacks in North Africa and the Far East did not daunt Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the Second World War. ‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war,’ he wrote candidly years later, ‘was the U-boat peril.’

The word ‘U-boat’ derives from the German Unterseeboot, which means ‘undersea boat’ – a submarine. Normally shortened by the Germans to U-boot, this became the English ‘U-boat’.

The word first appeared in English in The Times in July 1916, when German U-boats were despatched into the Atlantic to strike at British shipping. With Britain reliant on overseas imports for so much of her food, fuel, and war materials, she was especially vulnerable to any disruption to her maritime trade.

U-boats stealthily prowled the ocean, sinking many Allied ships in an attempt to starve Britain into submission. By the time the First World War had ended, German submarines had sent some 5,000 ships to the seabed, and the ‘U-boat’ had become a synonym for a lurking, unseen hunter, ready to strike without warning.

During the Second World War, Germany again tried to cut Britain’s sea-links to the rest of the world. With better technology, U-boats were even more fearsome, and the Allies expended great effort to repel these ‘grey wolves’ of the deep.

Nevertheless, German submarines took a heavy toll on Allied merchant shipping, sinking thousands of ships in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to strangle Britain. The toll of the war on the U-boat force was dire – 783 U-boats were sunk, and 28,000 out of Germany’s 41,000 serving U-boat crewmen perished at sea.

Marc DeSantis

This is an article from the November 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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