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When Lloyd went Underwater

The sea route across the Atlantic was under blockade – so Norddeutscher Lloyd had a submarine built during World War I. The incredible story of the submarine cargo ship “Deutschland”.

Jules Verne, the French author who caused a sensation with his science fiction novels “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Around the World in Eighty Days” could not have come up with a better story: a trading voyage not on, but under the sea – with a submarine carrying not torpedoes, but valuable cargo. This is no fairy tale, however, but a true story. Long before it merged with Hapag, which was still its main competitor, Norddeutscher Lloyd played a key role in this bizarre, almost forgotten episode in the middle of World War I.

Ready for the launch of the secret project: The submarine cargo ship “Deutsch­land” at the shipyard in Kiel. Ready for the launch of the secret project: The submarine cargo ship “Deutsch­land” at the shipyard in Kiel.

The submarine cargo ship “Deutschland”, a somewhat unspectacular and bulky little freighter, literally subverted the British naval blockade one hundred years ago. In autumn 1914, Great Britain had declared the entire North Sea to be a war zone and blocked German ships and goods from travelling across the Atlantic – an economic blockade aimed at significantly weakening the Germans through shortages and hunger. That this “hunger blockade” in fact proved to be devastating for the civilian population was due not just to the efficiency of the Royal Navy, but largely to the indifference of the German government. A war, Berlin had always assumed, would last no more than a few weeks, and during this time “the people” should cheer and otherwise see how they coped. An indifference that “borders on a crime,” as Hapag Director ­Albert Ballin rightly called it at the time.

But the government was more concerned about the shortage of commodities needed for the war effort – and therefore about trade with the United States, which was still neutral at this stage and which supplied some of these commodities. Bremen was the only German port which was initially able to maintain limited trade with the USA, using American ships which brought in cotton and returned carrying potash. At the start of 1915, however, Great Britain declared cotton to be contraband, and the freighters ceased sailing. This meant that both supply and national prestige were equally at stake. The solution that Bremen came up with was one worthy of Jules Verne: if the blockade at sea could not be broken, why not travel under the sea?

On the Weser: The “Deutschland” in 1916 near Bremen: the bulky and slow-moving submarine cargo ship could carry as much weight as 25 full, 40-foot containers today. On the Weser: The “Deutschland” in 1916 near Bremen: the bulky and slow-moving submarine cargo ship could carry as much weight as 25 full, 40-foot containers today.

This resulted in the creation in November 1915 of a consortium led by Norddeutscher Lloyd and Deutsche Bank called Deutsche Ozean-Reederei GmbH. Under the utmost secrecy, the Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel built a “submarine cargo ship,” which was launched as early as 28 March 1916. It was the first of six boats planned, 65 meters long and, at almost nine meters wide, significantly bulkier than ­military submarines. The “Deutschland” travelled at a speed of just ten knots and, with its 791 GRT, could carry a payload of some 750 tonnes – around 25 fully loaded 40-foot containers in today’s terms.

Lloyd captain Paul König, who was 48 years old at the time, was astounded when an agent from the shipping company offered him this unusual mission to the USA: “After all, I was familiar with the waters and depths off Chesapeake Bay from my journeys on board the ships of Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Baltimore line, and it was a question of whether I felt capable of navigating a submarine cargo ship like this safely across the Atlantic if the matter ­actually came to pass.”

König agreed on the spot, and “the matter actually came to pass”: “I walked on the narrow deck for the first time and climbed up onto the fin, onto its navigation platform, and from there I looked down and was astonished: stretching out below me was a long, narrow vehicle with graceful contours and an ­almost delicate form. Only the sides, where the green body bulged out of the water, revealed how vast the entire hull must be.

Now I knew: what had previously appeared to me to be the product of an engineer’s unrestrained fantasy was in fact a ship that was capable of travelling overseas, a real ship that could capture the heart of an old sailor.” It was a fondness which the “Deutschland” only reciprocated to a very limited extent initially, as König discovered on the test journeys that lasted weeks: “A submarine is temperamental like a woman and vulnerable like a race horse; it is honest like a tramp steamer and reliable like a tugboat; it can have characteristics which are good and some which are not; it can be steered like a racing yacht and buck like a cart horse.”

The crew bids farewell: Women and children were allowed on board one last time before the submarine cargo ship set off on its voyage to the USA with its valuable cargo amid as much secrecy as possible. The crew bids farewell: Women and children were allowed on board one last time before the submarine cargo ship set off on its voyage to the USA with its valuable cargo amid as much secrecy as possible.

When the 29 crew members had been familiarised with their “nautical amphibian” after two months of test journeys, the submarine was loaded with its cargo: 123 tonnes of dyes were placed on board, along with pharmaceutical compounds like the valuable Salvarsan worth 60 million marks – it could be used to treat syphilis but was not yet produced in the USA at the time.

There was also post for diplomats, provisions for the long journey and, not to forget, cigars and gramophone records for the crew. Then, on 23 June 1916, the “Deutschland” set off on its historic voyage from Wilhelmshaven amid as much secrecy as possible. Although Captain König described the ­rotund submarine as an “outstanding ocean-going vessel,” it proved not to be user-friendly.

Its short, jerky motions caused severe seasickness even among experienced men, and the temperature in the steel hull ­exceeded fifty degrees at times. Nevertheless, the long voyage was unex­pectedly uneventful, apart from an accidental “headstand” by the boat after submerging to avoid a destroyer. It was therefore all the more sensational when the “Deutschland,” lit up like a normal freighter, met the pilot steamer shortly before midnight on 8 July off the east coast of the USA in Virginia: “I’ll be damned, there she is!” was the welcome message from the American pilot.

The captain recounts: “The incoming passenger steamers had since ­discovered the unusual arrival and they ­illuminated us from all sides with their lights.” Local agents from Norddeutscher Lloyd had discretely ensured that a tug was already waiting. “And so we entered the bay at dawn. Our journey was gradually becoming a triumphal procession. All of the neutral steamers which we encoun­tered, from America and elsewhere, welcomed us with three hoots of their steam whistles and sirens.

Rumours of our arrival must have spread extremely quickly because, to our great surprise, boats with reporters and cinema people on board came towards us when we were hours away from Baltimore.” A special edition of the “New York Herald” featured the sensational story: “German U-Boot in ­Baltimore!” A government commission confirmed the boat’s civil status, signed postcards of the “Deutschland” crew were in great demand and the men were swamped with various invitations. There was a big “German party” in aid of the Red Cross and “our people proved their worth on terra firma as well. When the time came to dance, they held their own, and a few decent fellows danced with the women of their hosts as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for them.”

The captain: Paul König, 48, prior to that ­captain on ­Norddeutscher Lloyd ships. The captain: Paul König, 48, prior to that ­captain on ­Norddeutscher Lloyd ships.

The cargo on the return journey consisted of commodities needed for the war effort, in particular rubber, nickel and tin. When the “Deutschland” sailed into Bremen on 25 August amid much jubilation, with flags flying from its topmasts and adorned with bunches of roses, its two-month round trip had covered 8,450 nautical miles, only 190 of which were underwater – and brought in a handsome profit: the commodities on board had become so scarce in the meantime that the submarine had already made 17.5 million marks with this first voyage, more than four times its construction costs. It was celebrated accordingly, “by the German Emperor down to the lowliest port worker.” “We had been welcomed by the navy out near Heligoland, and on the journey up the River Weser and in Bremen an entire people welcomed us,” said Paul König in amazement. A whole region celebrated the happy conclusion of an endeavour.

The prestige gained by subverting the sea blockade seemed immense. They had “shown the English,” and so there were medals, gala banquets and speeches which made it sound as if this voyage had not only ushered in a new age of sea trade but had also decided the outcome of the war against Great Britain.

Both proved to be wrong. ­Although the commodities which the ship had brought through the blockade lasted, indeed for several months, and although the second journey made by the “Deutschland,” in autumn 1916, was also a success, the second ship in the ­series, the “Bremen,” was lost without trace on its first journey – and with it its crew. On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on the German Empire, and the underwater trade thus became history. The “Deutschland” was subsequently converted into a submarine cruiser. In 1918, it was among the British spoils of war, and in 1922 it was dismantled in England.

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