Kaiser subs

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Deck of a ship model

The Malancha with her guns at her stern

I love studying photographs, drawings and plans of the mighty Dreadnought battleships that dominated navies about 100 years ago. I admire the high-quality engineering which combined with great design to produce beautiful fighting machines gleaming from end-to-end with polished brass and steel armour plating.

However, submarine technology advanced during the First World War when undersea warfare became a reality and, along with the development of bomber and fighter aircraft, marked the beginning of the end of battleships.

Dreadnoughts and other huge warships bristling with guns that marked the arms race in Edwardian Europe were sitting ducks to much smaller war machines swooping from the skies or lurking beneath the waves.

Upon the declaration of war in 1914 Britain had around 50 submarines while her allies the French had more than 70. The Imperial German Navy, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, had between 30 and 40 diesel and petrol-powered U-boats.

By the end of the war the UK had 137 submarines in service with another 78 being built, having lost 54 subs during hostilities. The German Navy had more than 170 operational U-boats which were surrendered to the Allies.

In the First World War submarines were slow, fragile and only capable of staying under water for about two hours at a stretch. Early submarines had five or six torpedo tubes and deck-mounted guns, making them also dangerous on the surface.

Around 5,000 ships were sunk during the First World War by U-boats. The most famous was the Cunard liner Lusitania, torpedoed off Ireland in 1915 with the loss of 1,200 lives. There are a number of exhibits from the Lusitania in the Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress.

The most famous victim of a U-boat was probably British general Lord Kitchener, whose face graced the recruiting poster with the slogan “Your Country Needs You”. He died on a mission to Russia in 1916 when the cruiser HMS Hampshire hit a mine laid by the U-75 off the Orkney Islands.

The Maritime Museum’s display Liverpool: World Gateway has two models of ships linked to submarine warfare in the Great War, as it was also known. One is a superbly-detailed model of the cargo liner Malancha, (shown here) built in 1918 for the Brocklebank Line. It has two quick-firing guns mounted near the ship’s stern as protection against submarines.

The other is the Johnson Line’s cargo liner Barnesmore of 1905. After being sold and renamed Whitehall, she was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic in 1917.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).