Early last May my son Ian and I were sitting on the fantail of the Nancy Ellen, a 42-foot sports fishing boat out of Tilghman Island, Maryland. We had just completed a very successful day fishing for trophy rockfish (striped bass) out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Watching the freighters and massive auto carriers moving up and down the shipping channel as they made their way to and from the port of Baltimore, we recalled one of the more fascinating stories in the annals of shipping on the Chesapeake Bay . . . the maiden voyage of the German merchant submarine Deutschland to the United States during the summer of 1916. World War I had been going on for two years while the United States remained neutral, and the Deutschland and her captain and crew had to run a British naval blockade off the East Coast of the United States in order to reach the relative safety of the Bay.
The Deutschland was the embodiment of a new type of merchant vessel designed for wartime. Laid down by the Germania-Werke in Kiel, Germany in early 1915, the Deutschland was constructed by the Flensberger Schiffbau at the Krupp shipyards in Kiel and eventually launched on March 28, 1916. When it was commissioned the following month, the Deutschland measured 213 feet long, weighed almost 2000 tons, and was capable of 7 knots submerged. Painted gray-green it was likened to "some cumbrous monster of the brine."
Captain Paul König, who had commanded merchant ships belonging to the North German Lloyd line and who had considerable experience on the Bremen-Baltimore route and operating conditions in the Chesapeake Bay, was invited to Berlin in September 1915, while the Deutschland was under construction in Kiel, and asked to command the merchant submarine’s maiden voyage to Newport News and Baltimore. It was important that Germany resume trade with the neutral United States which for over two years had been cut off by the British blockade. Although Deutsche Ozean Reederie was technically the owner of the new vessel, it would operate under the aegis of the North German Lloyd shipping line. Following the commissioning of the Deutschland in April 1916, Captain König and his crew of 29 spent six weeks on shakedown cruises making sure the boat was seaworthy and up to the task before it.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Royal Navy viewed submarines as unethical weapons . . . very "un-English" . . . and believed they should be banned from "civilized warfare." Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Channel [Home] Fleet, considered submarines as an "underhand method of attack." Some even believed submarine crews captured during wartime should be hanged as pirates. By 1916, as the Deutschland prepared to make its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, the Germans had unleashed unrestricted U-boat (submarine) warfare, first against British merchantmen before threatening to sink any neutral ships, including American vessels. This move forced the U.S. government to rethink its own neutrality; either submit to this new German threat and abandon its claim to free passage on the high seas, or fight back. Nevertheless, North German Lloyd went forward with its plans to send the Deutschland to Baltimore where, ironically, its steamer S.S. Neckar (built in Germany in 1900) was already interned, thereby writing a rather strange chapter in American maritime history.
With a cargo of dyes, gemstones and medical supplies, the Deutschland set sail from Bremen and the Jade-Bucht on June 14, 1916, entering the North Sea and evading British detection by frequently changing course and submerging whenever it spotted smoke from nearby ships. Once it left home waters, the Deutschland and its crew were in a hostile environment and under constant threat of attack until they reached the neutral territorial waters of the United States. Two routes were available to Captain König - a northern route above Scotland’s Shetland Islands and west of the Hebrides, or directly through the English Channel. He opted for the Channel and a more southerly route in search of better weather and a safer route where the Deutschland might go undetected. Unfortunately, there were days of incessant bad weather and heavy seas yet these also allowed the Deutschland to proceed without being detected. Eventually the weather broke and crew ran test dives almost daily in preparation for their arrival in the waters off the United States where they would have to run submerged past the three mile territorial limit in order to avoid British naval patrols sent to find and destroy it. Arriving in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, it encountered more steamer traffic, and a greater threat of detection, as it approached the American coastline.
Nearing the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay around dusk on July 8, 1916, Captain König planned to wait in deep water 10 miles beyond the three mile limit in order to ascertain whether there were any hostile naval forces in the area. With good visibility, he steered for the lights on the Virginia capes - Cape Henry to the south and Cape Charles to the north. Running at half speed with only the conning tower above water, König would increase to full speed whenever the running lights of nearby ships could be identified. Toward midnight the Deutschland was approaching the three mile territorial limit near Cape Henry Light, and once in neutral American waters, Captain König searched out the escort vessel sent from Baltimore to meet the Deutschland.
The tugboat Thomas F. Timmins had arrived on station off Newport News and the Virginia capes in late June with orders to escort Deutschland directly to Baltimore where everything was prepared for its arrival. On board the Timmins was Captain Frederick Hinsch of the North German Lloyd steamer S.S. Neckar which sought the safety of the neutral port of Baltimore at the beginning of the war, in April 1914. Since then he and his crew had been living on board their interned vessel moored at the North German Lloyd piers. The rendevous accomplished in the very early hours of July 9, the surfaced Deutschland and Timmins proceed up the Chesapeake Bay where they are greeted by other passing vessels while toasting the success of this maiden voyage with champagne provided by Captain Hinsch.
The nearly 200 mile trip up the Bay was a relatively uneventful one for both the Deutschland and the Timmins. During the evening of July 9 the two vessels encountered a drenching thunderstorm while near Annapolis, not too far from where Ian and I were reminiscing on the fantail of the Nancy Ellen, and eventually arrived in Baltimore around 11pm, dropping anchor at the Baltimore Quarantine Station, at Leading Point, just west of Hawkins Point (now at western terminus of the Francis Scott Key Bridge). A physician from the quarantine station came on board around 5am on July 10 to receive health certificates for captain and crew issued by the American consulate in Bremen, and the tug Baltimore (built 1906) arrived to assist the Deutschland to its final mooring at Pier 8/9 belonging to North German Lloyd and situated on the north side of Locust Point, at the foot of Andre Street and just west of Fort McHenry. Here the Deutschland would discharge and load its cargo. This area was very secure and the pier included a long shed with a high fence surrounding it. The interned Neckar was moored along side the Deutschland and the only way to access her was by cross the deck of the Neckar. The other side of the submarine was protected by beams and netting reaching down to the harbor floor. Land access to the piers was barred by a deep ditch covered with barbed wire. The captain and crew were housed on the Neckar while they are in port which allowed them to keep an eye on the boat and its cargo.
Captain König did not plan to remain in Baltimore very long. Merchantmen from belligerent nations were allowed to remain in port only long enough to unload and load cargo while military ships could remain only 24 hours or be interned for the remainder of the war. Upon arrival at the North German Lloyd piers, the crew of the Deutschland set about unloading 750 tons of medicinal and coal-tar dye products worth more than one million dollars in exchange for a load of nickel and 500 tons of rubber destined for Germany. Giant search lights were trained on the moored submarine while the Timmins patrolled day and night to insure that U.S. neutrality was respected while the Deutschland was in port.
Beyond the routine surrounding the visit of a foreign merchantman, Captain König and his crew were treated like celebrities. Swarms of press boats tried to breach the security cordon to take photos and ask questions. Captain Hinsch was courteous but insistent that no one other than a few select VIPs have access to the submarine and its crew. But there were also those who saw the Deutschland’s presence as a threat to U.S. neutrality and feared the this country would be pulled into a war not of their making.
NEXT: The Deutschland Comes to Baltimore - Part 2
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