One hundred years ago Raikeswood Camp held more U-boat commanders than any other camp in the country. Unrestricted U-boat warfare and a massive land offensive in 1918 had intended a German victory. Historian Alan Roberts writes.

GERMAN crewmen prepared to leap into the freezing waters off the coast of southern Ireland after a successful attack by two American destroyers USS Fanning and USS Nicholson. The German crew was wearing primitive life jackets as the men made their way to safety on the American ship. Many were in a very weak condition. One man could not hold on to the lifeline that had been thrown to help him. Two American sailors heroically dived into the water to rescue him, but he died shortly after being brought on board USS Fanning.

Lieutenant Friedrich Müller, one of four officers on board U-58, spent just over a month at Skipton Camp before being shipped across the Atlantic to a prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia.

Submarine technology was still in its infancy when war broke out. The German U-boat bases were situated at Bruges, Zeebrugge and Ostend in Belgium. Submarine commander Werner Fürbringer, who was later held prisoner at Colsterdale near Masham, recalled guiding an ailing submarine home through the English Channel using the available currents, a sail made from canvas hammocks and some oars made from wooden bunks.

Submarine technology would make rapid progress. In May 1915 the Cunard liner Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo launched from submarine U-20. 128 of the 1,201 passengers and crew who lost their lives were American citizens. The loss of two further passenger liners brought the campaign to a halt. New rules of engagement now required U-boats to surface, establish the identity of a merchant ship and ensure the safe evacuation of the crew before sinking it. This whole process would leave the U-boat extremely vulnerable to attack.

In February 1917 after intense pressure from the German Navy, Kaiser Wilhelm reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to deprive Britain of resources and starve it into submission. All allied or neutral shipping in and about Britain, and extending far into the Atlantic Ocean, could now be sunk without warning.

The tragic story of Skipton prisoner and U-boat commander Claus Lafrenz is worth telling in some detail. Lafrenz had always wanted to join the Imperial German Navy, but his father a wealthy landowner on the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea, was firmly against the idea. In the hope that he would change his mind, Lafrenz was given a large cheque and told to travel around Europe for 15 months or more. Accordingly Lafrenz set out on his travels spending 5 months in Spain, 5 months in France and 5 months in Edinburgh where he studied at the university. At the end of his time travelling round Europe, he declared that he still wanted to join the navy and his father duly relented.

Lafrenz was an outstanding student. He finished second in his year group of two hundred officer cadets at the German naval college on the Baltic Sea. When war broke out in 1914 he had already been assigned to the torpedo service, and later served on newly completed torpedo destroyer. Lafrenz later volunteered for duty in the submarine service, taking command of U.B.18 in October 1916.

Lafrenz was one of the most successful submarine officers, and had been awarded a first-class Iron Cross together with an award for taking the first photograph of a Q-ship. Lafrenz claimed the Kaiser was greatly pleased with the photograph.

Submarines still tried to intimidate innocent-looking merchant ships into surrender by surfacing alongside them. They would not want to waste ammunition or one of their precious torpedoes on an unworthy target. The Q-ships appeared to be ordinary British merchant ships, but beneath their innocent façades were in fact heavily-armed Royal Navy vessels. Gunner Edwin Slater from Barnoldswick was serving aboard such a sailing ship when a surfacing U-boat opened fire. The sailing ship returned fire, but unfortunately it had already been badly damaged and began to sink. Slater and his fellow crewmen were cast adrift in the North Sea in an open lifeboat with just two oars between them after their compass and sail had been confiscated. After two days and two nights they were lucky to be rescued by a passing trawler.

British Naval Intelligence dryly noted that Lafrenz was unusually communicative under interrogation. According to U-boat commander Fürbringer, British intelligence was so good that it felt like there was a spy in their mess in Belgium eavesdropping every conversation and picking up all the latest news and developments.

Lafrenz reported that crops on his family’s estates were suffering due to a lack of fertiliser caused by the British naval blockade. Despite employing 200 Russian prisoners of war, yields were around half their pre-war levels. He said the prisoners worked well if they were given sufficient food.

British Naval Intelligence considered Lafrenz to be a good example of a German naval officer. To the Germans Lafrenz was a war hero, but his return home in 1919 would end in tragedy as a later article will reveal.