The account of the sinking given in Tirpitz's Memoirs

Dave Moran

Apr 23, 2002
My Discovery

I was rummaging through the British Heart Foundation shop in Oban two years ago, and my attention was caught by two dusty green tomes lying at the edge of a shelf, out of place among the Jeffrey Archers and Nora Roberts that normally clog the bookcases of such places. Gold letters on a spelled out the hypnotic words My Memoirs — Grand Admiral Von Tirpitz Vol I and II. £30 the pair, and pure gold dust for a hungry historian — how could I resist ? I think the women behind the counter wondered why someone would buy such out of date, falling to bits volumes — but I knew that here was a primary source for the attitudes and convictions of one of the major players in the sea wars of the 20th century.

And so I thought the members of this board might be interested in what the view of the top German naval commander was on the sinking of the Lusitania


Tirpitz, according to the Preface in his Memoirs, completed the work in April 1919 and it was first published in Germany in the May of that year. Since in its English translation it runs to 586 pages over two volumes it is likely that, as with many political men in retirement, Tirpitz had worked on the book over the years since his enforced resignation from the office of Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office in March 1916. He had remained politically active since then as head of the Deutsche Vaterlandspartei ( Fatherland Party ), which advocated a ‘Total War’ approach to the conflict, and as one might expect his political agenda inform his analysis of events throughout the books, always with a view to making Germany appear simultanteously righteous in its actions, and the victim of Perfidious Albion, the better to engender a pro-war attitude in his readers..

By the time he came to write the Preface prioir to publication, however, the internal national situation had changed - Germany was the nation that had sued for an Armistice in November 1918 but had not yet been informed of the Allied terms which were presented to the German delegation at Versailles on May 7th 1919. In essence, the nation was down and heading out. As such, the Preface presents an informative snap-shot of the attitudes and expectations of one of the major players in the pre- and early war periods forced to consider the probability that his strategies as failed.

As one might expect, Tirpitz is determined to present Germany as a whole, and the Kaiser and himself, as relatively blameless for events that led to the conflict breaking out, claiming that,

“ I can show proofs that the ancient sructure of our state was not antiquitated and rotten, but was capable of any development, and moreover that the political legned of a ruthless autocracy and a bellicose military cast having let loose this war is an insult to truth…If history is just …it would show that by far the greater measure of the responsibility for this war rests with our enemies.”

In so doing, Tirpitz precedes the well-attested attempts by German historians in the decades between the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the Fischer controversies of the 1960s to overturn the view of German war-guilt enshrined in Article 231 of the Treaty. This suggests that many at the summit of the German political system of the time had enough of a grasp of the realities of the situation that they expected such a clause, and that it was not such a shock to them as they liked to make out in the Reichstag or the chambers of Versailles.

The very next passage should be kept in mind when we come to consider Tirpitz’s attempted expiation of German guilt for the sinking of the Lusitania however,

“ The rule of the road at sea puts the blame in collisions on the person who causes the danger of the situation, and not on the one who makes a mistake through incorrect judgement at the last moment in his endeavour to escape from it.”

Though Tirpitz is referring directly to the outbreak of the Great War — with the reader expected to infer that it was Britain that was solely responsible - it is nevertheless an assertion that informs his explanation of the torpedoing of the liner, as we shall see.

Tirpitz and the Initial Submarine Campaign

Tirpitz was not wholly in favour of a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1914, but his objections were less informed by morality than by lack of means. For Tirpitz the problem was not whether unrestricted submarine warfare to blockade the British Isles entire was either legal or moral, but whether it was possible with the submarines available,

“ We ought not to select a date for such a declaration of blockade until we had available a number of submarines more or less sufficient to maintain it…I thought it would be wiser to start on a small scale, in order to see how matters developed from both the naval and political points of view. Such a limited declaration would have been more in accord with the means available, and would have accustomed the world gradually to the new idea of blockade. We should have spared America, in particular…”

On December 16th 1914 he wrote to the Foreign Office, commenting on the request submitted the previous day by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral von Pohl, for the waging of a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare,

“ I have in addition certain objections to the form of the campaign which Your Excellency proposes to adopt. Submarine warfare without a declaration of blockade…is in my view much more far-reaching in its effect on neutrals than a formal blockade, and is thus considerably more dangerous… I should expect that certain official quarters in Germanyy, where objections are already harboured on grounds of international law and morality against a submarine blockade would object still more to this form of procedure and make their objections effective.”

Yet Tirpitz had no intention of being constrained by such concerns, but instead intensified submarine production whilst pressing for a total blockade at the moment of only the Thames Estuary,

“… I am wholly of the view that a systematic attack on a large scale upon English trade by means of submarines must be prepared by the navy with the utmost energy and with every means at our disposal. So far as my department is concerned this is already being done.”

Further proof of his lack of moral concerns is given in the passage where he expressed his sole reservation on grounds other than lack of numbers,

“Neutral ships, also, would be in danger if they navigated in the proclaimed areas, since owing to the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the British Government it would be inevitable that neutrals should in fact suffer from attacks intended for enemy ships.”

Though the British Government never gave orders for British ships to fly neutral flags, one suspects that it would have been impossible to convince Tirpitz of that. Even four years later when the unrestricted campaign had wrought carnage, for Tirpitz the possibility, in his mind, that a vessel might have been a disguised British ship overrode the fare more likely probability that she was indeed a neutral, and should be spared attack.

To further post-facto justify the actions of his submarine commanders, Tirpitz alleged in his Memoirs that Germany was forced to respond as best it could to alleged American perfidy,

“ The main difficulty was to be expected in our relations with America, especially since this country, contrary to the whole spirit of neutrality, had developed shortly after the outbreak of war into an enemy arsenal. Since the bulk of the freight trade of the North Atlantic sails under the British flag, any attack on English trade must of necessity injure the American manufacturers.”

So the mind-set of Tirpitz in 1915 is clear — the Americans are selling arms and ammunition to the British, and shipping it in British ships that have been instructed to disguise themselves as neutrals. Submarine warfare was a reasonable response to the British blockade and that ; “If it was to be employed against enemy commerce, it was clear from the outset that the existing rules of maritime law, which in the main date from the days of sailing vessels, did not properly cover the circumstances of the present day.”

With this conviction firmly in place Tirpitz turns to deal with the effects of the campaign in general, and then the attack on the Lusitania specifically.

Dave Moran

Apr 23, 2002
Sinking the Lusitania — Tirpitz’s Account

Given the international outcry in response to the sinking of the liner it is reasonable to suppose that at some point Tirpitz must have consulted Schwieger’s war diary. It was a primary source for information and as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office he would have had unrestricted access to it. If he had indeed done so he would have read the following,

Tirpitz on page 405 of his Memoirs insisted that,

“It may be mentioned that the commander of the submarine that attacked the Lusitania did not know that it was the Lusitania until it turned on its side in sinking. He attacked the ship from forward so that he could not at first count the masts or funnels… “

This is simply not true - Schweiger reported in his diary that he spotted a large ship approaching at 1.00 pm and that by 1.40 pm he had approached underwater to a distance of 700 yards, when he identified the ship clearly as a four funneled ship. This meant she was possibly the Lusitania, Mauretania or the relatively new and less familiar Aquitania.All were listed in the German ship identification manuals as naval auxiliaries, true — but Tirpitz’s Memoir makes no mention of this, instead opting for the suggestion that the ship was in effect unrecognizable as a large liner.

This was wise on his part — for as he must have know from the German experiences with their won large liners, notably the Kaiser Wilhlem der Grosse the pre-war obsession with the use of crack liners as naval auxiliaries had not lasted beyond the first autumn of the war. After a brief flirtation with Naval service Mauretania was released from Government employ and had from 26th August 1914 had been laid up in Liverpool. Aquitania had a slightly longer service as an armed merchant cruiser, during which her only contribution to either belligerent was to collide with another British vessel during thick fog, and had limped back to Liverpool for repairs which lasted until the end of 1914. By May 1915 the four-funnel Cunarders were either laid up as too hungry for coal to allow for commercial use or, in the case of Lusitania alone, running a limited service between Liverpool and New York.

A service so familiar to the Germans that the German Embassy in Washington famously attempted to print a warning of possible attack on the ship. This warning ran in only one newspaper, the Des Moines Register, due to US State Department intervention, but it nevertheless stands as a recognition by the German government that a four funneled liner was in civilian service, and carrying neutral passengers, on the Atlantic that April. Tirpitz tacitly acknowledges this when he advanced the explanation that the commander of U 20 could not have counted the number of funnels or masts before his attack - the implication is that at that time a four funneled steamer could not have been reasonably viewed as a viable target. The further implication is that either Tirpitz is trying to excuse himself by implying a ban on attacking such vessels, and we will come to why that might be later, more likely to excuse his commander’s impulsive act, and possibly to excuse his navy and nation as a whole by constructing the excuse that since she was not recognizable as a non-target she was, presumably, a viable target after all.

Yet Schweiger by his own account recognized the ship in front of him as a four funneled liner, possibly being used as a naval auxiliary, possibly still in service as a liner. Alas, like Tirpitz on the possibility of a neutral being a British ship in disguise, Schweiger saw a valid target and ignored the possibility that she was not. In this frame of mind he began his attack,

“ 2.10 pm. Pure bowshot at 700 meters range, angle of intersection 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Shot strikes starboard side right behind the bridge.”

Schweiger’s report is clearly contradicting Tirpitz’s 1919 reconstruction — the U-20 launched her attack from a perpendicular position that ensured that the torpedo impacted at 90 degrees to the side of the ship.

Yet he does not stop at the motives for the attack, but goes on to consider the results,

“ After the torpedo had hit the vessel, there was a second explosion in the interior of the vessel, due to the quantities of munitions on board. It was this circumstance alone that led to the immediate sinking of the vessel and the great loss of life.”

The second explosion on the Lusitania is attested to by both Schweiger’s diary — “The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). “ — and survivor’s testimonies at the Mersey Inquiry. Its existence is therefore a matter of fact — its cause a matter of conjecture. Initial British accounts simply held that U 20 had fired another torpedo into the stricken vessel, the better to drum up neutral, particularly American, outrage. By contrast, the Germans alleged that the ship must have been carrying explosives in her holds, and these had been set-off by the impact of the torpedo. Debate has raged over the years, and will no doubt continue to, given that her manifest as filed with the US customs records the loading of small-arms ammunition, non-explosive in bulk it should be noted, and allegations of contraband cargoes disguised on the manifest as “cheese” which are incapable of either confirmation or refutation at this far remove.

Yet even if history were to accept the hypothesis there were explosives on board the Lusitania it would not be “ this circumstance alone” that led to her destruction — it required the impact of a torpedo to set them off. Nor could Schweiger possibly have know there were any hypothetical explosives on board when he first fired. Tirpitz’s attempts in his 1919 Memoirs to portray Schweiger as an innocent are contrary both to what he must have been able to find out at the time and what he knew in 1919 for a fact — that the commander of U 20 fired a torpedo into a ship that there was at least a one in three chance was not a naval auxiliary with no other intention than to at least disable and most likely sink her. In order to do so he ignored his own cardinal rule expressed in his Preface and reproduced above that - “ The rule of the road at sea puts the blame in collisions on the person who causes the danger of the situation...”. In the case of the Lusitania that person was Walter Schweiger on the spot, and the strategy adopted by the German High Command as the frame of reference for that decision.

More bizarre than that is Tirpitz’s account of his immediate reactions on hearing of the disaster,

“ .., it was now urgently necessary to make good our legal position, and that compromise was more dangerous than firmness. One could regret the loss of life, but must insist on our clear rights. Our prestige would then be increased in America and the danger of war thus most effectively diminished.”

It is difficult to conceive what sort of mind-set imagined that following the sinking of a major liner at the cost of 1,198 lives the best response would be assertiveness, still less that this man continued to believe that when subsequent events in the USA proved this strategy to be utterly misguided. Tirpitz could not have been unaware of the mass protests that incidents such as the striking of the infamous commemorative medal by Munich metalworker Karl Goetz, probably the most notable propaganda own-goal ever carried out by a belligerent, had on Allied and neutral opinion. Nor could he have missed the fact that the Paris Peace Conference deliberately opened four years to the day after the Lusitania was sunk.

The possible explanation for all this was that Tirpitz was expecting to be put on trial as a war criminal. Schweiger had died during the war and calls to “ Hang the Kaiser “ were frustrated by his escape and exile in Holland, which refused to hand him over to the Allies lest they carry out that very threat. Tirpitz, however, was all to easy to hand and as symbol of the Germany Navy that had both challenged British hegemony before the war, and thus the symbol of pre-war militarism, and had sunk so many ships at great cost of life, the old man might reasonably have been expecting to be dragged before the court of international opinion. The Memoirs thus function partly as an apologia, partly as that Germanic obsession, the last testament of a martyred man, and partly as a document intended to record the glories of Germany’s fighting record in the regrettably lost war.

So we find Tirpitz keen to wash the hands of his beloved navy or if not that, to present it as the one bastion of what in his view was the proper Germanic spirit, proud and unbending in the face of world opprobrium. By demonstrating his resilience to criticism Tirpitz was portraying himself as the exemplifier of the attitude he expected Germany to demonstrate in the post-war world — unashamed and even proud of its experiences. No wonder that in later years he should have represented the right-wing Deutschnationalen Volkspartei (DNVP, German National People Party) in the Reichstag. This was a man who, had he been put on trial, would no doubt have been defiant in court.

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