29 February 1916 – Kill Chain

The German Navy has enjoyed only limited success at surface-ship commerce warfare. German mines and torpedoes have surely taken a toll on their enemy’s merchant shipping, and airplanes are now attacking vessels, while small boats serve admirably. But the grand armada that Wilhelm built to challenge British naval dominion before the war floats peacefully at anchor while minesweepers and trawlers do the fighting and dying, and while British fishermen and civilians do their own share of just dying. The Kaiser’s u-boats have done the majority of destruction, yet he is hard-pressed to build them fast enough. A new, more aggressive phase is underway as Field Marshall Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of Staff who designed the Kaiser’s new offensive on Verdun, argues for unrestricted submarine warfare. So does Admiral Reinhard Scheer, who has replaced the conservative Hugo von Pohl, and impresses his reasoning on Eduard von Capelle, Admiral Tirpitz’s replacement. In the meantime, the surface navy is determined to do its part.

Some of these efforts will prove somewhat successful, but this one will not. Sailing from Elbe two days ago disguised as the Norwegian Rena, the SMS Greif (Griffon) is a 9,900-ton converted merchantman on a mission of commerce-raiding. As the ‘merchant cruiser’ steams off the south-west coast of Norway at mid-morning, her master and commander Fregattenkapitän (frigate captain) Rudolf Tietze is unaware that he has been tracked remotely by Marconi stations.


Radio direction finding and fixing. This is basically how the feds track the iPhone in your pocket using network towers

Patents for radio direction-finding equipment were filed a decade before the Great War began, but not until radio became a weapon of war in 1914, with government offices and bureaus dedicated to development of such technologies, did the electronic battlefield see the development or production of its first weapons. Naval operations have already demonstrated the utility of radio signal strength as a measurement of range, an insight that leads to the invention of radar. By using a wire loop on a pivot with a compass built into it, a person with headphones can locate the angle of the highest signal strength, thereby determining the direction on a map from their own position. Cross-referenced with further “lines of bearing” from other stations, one can determine the approximate location of a radio source. Nations will spend trillions of dollars developing these technologies in the century to come.

Furthermore, the British have the benefit of two code books — one shared by the Russian Navy, who found it floating in the Baltic, the other taken during the botched arrest of a German agent in Persia. Both prizes have helped them crack the German Navy’s wireless encryption, allowing the Admiralty to read Tietze’s messages. An invisible and top secret army of technicians, analysts, and linguists mans the telephones, coastal listening stations, and map rooms that have tracked the Greif to her watery grave. Other major powers at war have erected such machinery of their own in competitive parallel development, with the Austrians being the first to adopt radio ‘signals intelligence,’ and together with their German allies, have used Russian radio habits to slaughter millions on the Eastern Front. Only with the Russian Army’s communications stabilized behind a secure front, where messages can be conducted by telephone or telegraph wire, has the Stavka (general staff) been able to amend their disastrous collapse in the face of their enemy’s joint offensives in 1915, which were in part powered by signals intelligence. (The peasant conscripts are being told the Tsar’s presence has made the difference, but as always truth is the first casualty in wartime.)

It is common to talk of the Great War as an industrial slaughter — as a thing that happened, which is full of things — and focus on weapons which fly and clatter and go boom, or the people who lived and died the experience. But there is more than one silent service being born in this conflict, and the advent of the electronic battlefield marks the definitive beginning of the modern era just as much as the airplane or the tank or poison gas or the submarine. Both sides are invisibly mobilizing a new branch of arms, yet this history is difficult to document — for one unsurprising and obvious reason, that it is so secret, and for the not-so-obvious reason that the whole point of ‘remote sensing,’ integrated intelligence, specialized training, and indirect fire weapons is to avoid a fair fight with an operation that reduces risk. Unfair fights are seldom pretty or epic, just lethal and effective.


The Greif. A bare-bones cargo ship with guns mounted on her deck; the wires on her masts include antennas

Of course, humans have a tremendous power to overcome the best planning and engineering with their very human needs for honor, fairness, and other nice things that increase the death toll. Both captains attempt to enact the fight that both navies yearn to have, but refuse to schedule — the classical, gentlemanly Nelsonian exchange of broadsides. Imitating a doctrine of warfare for the tremendous battleships sheltered by the minefields and aircraft patrols guarding the harbors at Cuxhaven and Scapa Flow, they silently agree to fight it out at close range.

Knowing that she is in the area and suspicious of the ‘Norwegian’ in his sights, Captain Thomas Erskine Wardle is lowering a boat and ready to return fire aboard the HMS Alcantara at 1,000 yards when Tietze answers his challenge by dropping pretenses and opening fire. Both ships are abandoned, with the Alcantara sinking first after being struck by a torpedo. Altogether, the fight takes about forty minutes. Though he is unimaginative, Wardle’s decision to use his radio to alert nearby vessels brings the Destroyer HMS Munster riding in to finish off the Greif, whose sailors are already in the water. Most of the Germans drown, but the light cruiser Comus, also sailing in search of the Greif, arrives to pluck survivors from the ice-cold North Sea. Seventy-two German sailors are consigned to the deep with Fregattenkapitän Tietze.

When the German Admiralty learns the results of their experiment in renewed cruiser war, they choose not to repeat it. Tomorrow, Scheer suspends all surface raiding and begins to unleash his u-boats, whose captains chafe at their restraints. The silent wars are escalating as fast as any other dimension of this conflict.


Alcantara was an 11,900-ton converted freighter. This is a prewar image; she was repainted and guns mounted on her deck