24 March 1916 – Sussex

Bound for Dieppe from Folkestone, the 1,565-ton passenger ferry Sussex is hit by a torpedo today. The explosion rips the bow away completely, drowning dozens, and more die as two lifeboats capsize. Altogether, fifty passengers are dead when the damaged and adrift, yet still watertight ship is found by a trawler nine hours later and towed stern first into Boulogne harbor (see above). They are victims of SM UB-29, which is operating under newly-expanded authority to fire without warning on suspected merchantmen within the Kaiser’s declared war zone around the British Isles.

There are notable dead: Irish footballer and tennis champion Manliff Goodbody, a Persian prince and constitutionalist exile, Prince Bahram Mirza Sardar Mass’oud; and the Spanish composer Enrique Granados, an artistic visionary and cultural nationalist. There are also some Americans on board. Some are injured, but none are killed. This latter group will excite the most international diplomatic drama in the weeks to come — along with a German campaign of denial and propaganda to equal any ‘information war’ a century later.


The Minneapolis before her disfigurement. In the top photo, the mast and radio antenna are destroyed

German propaganda activity follows a clear pattern. First, presented with passenger and crew testimony that a torpedo struck the Sussex, the Wolff Telegraph Bureau dutifully denials that a German torpedo is responsible, demanding forensic evidence. Presented with bits of the bronze fittings unique to German torpedoes that are recovered from the damaged vessel, the official voice of Germany denies they are relevant. Ultimately, Germany admits the attack and claims that a renegade commander has been “appropriately punished, yet there is no record of Oberleutnant Herbert Pustkuchen being reprimanded, while no details are ever provided. In the Netherlands, where the recent sinking of the Royal Holland Lloyd passenger liner Tubantia has sparked public outrage with German war policy, propagandists are now floating rumors of an allied invasion, intimidating the Dutch into submission once again.

Only the United States stands out among the neutrals, demanding explanations and accommodation. Committed to recent secret peace efforts and unhappy at the prospect of war with Berlin — especially in an election year — President Woodrow Wilson has only just settled the matter of his u-boat policy with Congress. His threat to sever diplomatic relations with the Kaiser is not accompanied by a military escalation of any kind, yet Wilhelm blinks; despite the sterling success of his submarine commanders, he lacks enough ‘blue water’ boats to truly strangle Britain before the Americans could arrive in force. Caught between a production bottleneck and a diplomatic impasse, the monarch chooses once again to procrastinate.


Passengers wearing life jackets on the deck of the Sussex after she was torpedoed

A similar procurement struggle is going on in the British Navy. Despite earnest efforts to develop and deploy new antisubmarine technologies, there is still little the Admiralty can do to stop the submarine threat. The first depth charges were engineered in January, but like any new technology, their application has been limited so far. Some Q-ships have been fitted with a pair of rear-firing ‘Type D’ weapons — basically, cans of high explosives with a depth-sensitive triggering mechanism — and one of them, the Farnborough, just destroyed the U-68 three days ago. In fact, depth charges will sink the UB-29 with all hands this December. However, only nine u-boats will be destroyed in all of 1916 using depth charges: the ‘Type D’ needs a more powerful throwing mechanism, and ship decks must handle many more salvos, in order to make these weapons effective.


A Type UB II similar to the UB-29. With a range of 6,650 nautical miles, she is capable of blockading the British Isles