Publish date:
Updated on

Germany ceases unrestricted submarine warfare

On this day in 1918, a German U-boat submarine fires the last torpedo of World War I, as Germany ceases its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was first introduced in World War I in early 1915, when Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy. To confront the overwhelmingly superiority of the British navy, the Germans utilized their most dangerous weapon, the stealthy U-boat submarine. A string of attacks on merchant ships began, culminating in the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The attack on the Lusitania—which killed 1,201 people, including 128 Americans—sparked the ire of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships. Over the next year, the German navy reluctantly limited the practice at the urging of the country’s government, who feared antagonizing the U.S. and provoking its intervention in the war against Germany.

At the beginning of 1917, however, naval and army commanders managed to convince Kaiser Wilhelm II of the need to resume the unrestricted submarine policy, claiming that unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British at sea could result in a German victory by that fall. On February 1, Germany resumed its submarine attacks on enemy and neutral shipping interests at sea. Two days later, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany; on April 6, 1917, the U.S. formally entered World War I on the side of the Allied powers.

The hope that Germany—despite the deadlock on the battlefields of the Western Front—could win the war by naval warfare persisted until the last months of the war, growing fainter with the Allied resurgence in France and Belgium in the summer of 1918 and the deepening discontent and frustration with the war on the German home front, as well as among its soldiers and sailors. In mid-October 1918, as the German government grappled with how to obtain an armistice without damaging Germany’s chances to obtain favorable peace terms and its army commanders contended with the dire situation at the front, Admiral Reinhardt Scheer dealt the final blow to Germany’s U-boat strategy, ordering all his navy’s submarines to return to their German bases.

The final German torpedo of World War I was fired in the Irish Sea on October 21, sinking a small British merchant ship, the Saint Barcham, and drowning its eight crewmen. In a measure of the characteristic aggression of German submarine warfare, a total of 318 merchant seamen had been killed that month alone. Now, however, the German submarines returned home, leaving the entire strategically important Belgian coast firmly under Allied control.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!


Von Braun moves to NASA

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs an executive order transferring the brilliant rocket designer Wernher von Braun and his team from the U.S. Army to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Von Braun, the mastermind of the U.S. space program, had more

USS Constitution launched

The USS Constitution, a 44-gun U.S. Navy frigate built to fight Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli, is launched in Boston Harbor. The vessel performed commendably during the Barbary conflicts, and in 1805 a peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the Constitution‘s deck. more

Battle of Trafalgar

In one of the most decisive naval battles in history, a British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson defeats a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off the coast of Spain. At sea, Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy consistently thwarted Napoleon Bonaparte, more

Guggenheim Museum opens in New York City

On this day in 1959, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, thousands of people line up outside a bizarrely shaped white concrete building that resembled a giant upside-down cupcake. It was opening day at the new Guggenheim Museum, home to one of the world’s top collections of more

Fisk homers off foul pole

On October 21, 1975, Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hits a homer off the left-field pole to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth game of the World Series. The Sox went on to lose the championship, of course. Still, even 30 years later, the films and photos of Fisk urgently more

Harding publicly condemns lynching

On this day in 1921, President Warren G. Harding delivers a speech in Alabama in which he condemns lynchings—illegal hangings committed primarily by white supremacists against African Americans in the Deep South. Although his administration was much maligned for scandal and more

Dizzy Gillespie is born

An iconic figure in the history of jazz music who was instantly recognizable even to millions of non-jazz fans by his puffed-out cheeks and his trademark trumpet, with its horn bent upwards at a 45-degree angle, John Birks Gillespie—better known as “Dizzy”—was born on this day in more

Battle of Ball’s Bluff

On this day in 1861, Union troops suffer a devastating defeat in the second major engagement of the Civil War. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia produced the war’s first martyr and led to the creation of a Congressional committee to monitor the conduct of the war. After the more

Thousands protest the war in Vietnam

In Washington, D.C. nearly 100,000 people gather to protest the American war effort in Vietnam. More than 50,000 of the protesters marched to the Pentagon to ask for an end to the conflict. The protest was the most dramatic sign of waning U.S. support for President Lyndon more