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SM U-20 was a Germanmarker Type U 19 U-boat built for service in the Kaiserliche Marine. She was launched on 18 December 1912, and commissioned on 5 August 1913. During World War I, she took part in operations around the British Islesmarker. The U20 became infamous following her sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitaniamarker on the 7th of May 1915, an act that dramatically reshaped the course of World War I.


On 7 May 1915, U-20 was patrolling off the southern coast of Irelandmarker under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. Three months earlier, on 4 February, the Germans had established a U-boat blockade around the United Kingdommarker and had declared any vessel in it a legitimate target.

At about 1:40 pm Schwieger saw a vessel approaching through his periscope. From a distance of about 700 m Schwieger noted that she had four funnels and two masts making her a liner of some sort. He recognised her as the RMS Lusitaniamarker, a vessel in the British Fleet Reserve, and fired a single torpedo. The torpedo struck on the starboard side, almost directly below the bridge. Following the torpedo's explosion, the liner was shattered by a second explosion, possibly caused by coal dust, munitions in the hold, or the self-destruction of its boiler plant, so huge that Schwieger himself was surprised. The Lusitania sank rapidly in 18 minutes with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives.

Fifteen minutes after he had fired his torpedo, Schwieger noted in his war diary:
"It looks as if the ship will stay afloat only for a very short time. [I gave order to] dive to 25 metres and leave the area seawards. I couldn't have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves."

There was at the time and remains now a great controversy about the sinking, not only over whether the rules of engagement permitted Schwieger to attack and whether Lusitania was smuggling contraband war material to Englandmarker, but also over the number of torpedoes Schwieger fired.

Before he got back to the docks at Wilhelmshavenmarker for refuelling and resupply, the United Statesmarker had formally protested to Berlinmarker against the brutality of his action.

Kaiser William II wrote in the margins of the American note: "Utterly impertinent" and "outrageous" and "this is the most insolent thing in tone and bearing that I have had to read since the Japanese note last August." Nevertheless, to keep America out of the war, in June the Kaiser was compelled to rescind the unrestricted submarine warfare order and require that all passenger liners be left unmolested.

4 September, 1915 Schwieger was back at sea with U-20, eighty five miles off the Fastnet Rockmarker in the south Irish Seamarker. This rock held one of the key navigational markers in the western ocean, the Fastnet Lighthousemarker, and any ships passing in and out of the Irish Sea, would be within visual contact of it.

The RMS Hesperian was now beginning a new run outward bound from Liverpoolmarker to Quebecmarker and Montrealmarker, with a general cargo, also doubling as a hospital ship, and carrying about 800 passengers.

She was attacked off the Fastnet, a landmark islet in the north Atlantic, off the south-west coast of Ireland. The "History of the Great War: The Merchant Navy, Vol. II", by Hurd, reads:
"Only a few days before, Count Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador, had assured the United States government that passenger liners will not be sunk without warning and without ensuring the safety of the non combatants aboard providing that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance."

This time, Schwieger was received with official disgust upon his return to Wilhelmshaven. Ordered to report to Berlin to explain himself, he was required to apologise for having sunk another passenger liner in defiance of a direct order not to do so again. He complained about his treatment in Berlin thereafter.

After his death in 1917, Schwieger was forgiven in Berlin. He received Germany's highest decoration: Pour le Mérite, having sunk by that time 190,000 tons of ships.


On 4 November 1916 U-20 grounded herself on the Danishmarker coast around position . Her crew destroyed her in an explosion the following day.


Novelist Clive Cussler claims his National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) located the remains of U-20 in 1984.

Operations known to British Intelligence

SM U-20 Kaptlt. Dröscher, October 1914, later to U-78; Kaptlt. Schwieger in April 1915, later to U-88. Completed at Danzig before the war and subsequently joined the 3rd Half Flotilla.

September 1914. Cruising.

October 1914. Cruising.

25th - 26th December 1914. Patrolling in Bight.

26th January - 7th February 1915. Cruise to Channel. Sank 3 S.S.

25th February - 19th March 1915. Cruise to Bristol Channel putting into Zeebrugge on outward and into Ostend on homeward passage. Sank 1 S.S.

30th April - 13th May 1915. Northabout to south of Ireland. Sank LUSITANIA, 2 other S.S., and 1 sailing vessel.

3rd July - 16th July 1915. Northabout to south of Ireland. Sank 4 S.S., 1 sailing vessel.

29th August - 15th September 1915. Northabout of Bay of Biscay. 9 S.S. and 2 sailing vessels sunk.

17th November - 23rd November 1915. North Sea, apparently some special task.

17th December - 23rd December 1915 ? Bight patrol.

7th April - 10th April 1916. North Sea, ordered 8th April to return.

11th April - 15th April 1916. North Sea, returned with defective torpedo tubes.

24th April to 14th May 1916. Northabout to south of Ireland. Sank 2 S.S., 3 sailing vessels.

16th June to 20th June 1916. Bight patrol.

? 3rd July to 13th July 1916. North Sea patrol.

21st to 24th July 1916. North Sea patrol.

26th July to 2nd August 1916. North Sea patrol.

21st September to 28th September 1916. North Sea patrol. Sank 1 steamer ship.

13th October to 5th November 1916. Northabout to south of Ireland. Sank 3 S.S., 1 sailing vessel. Ran ashore on Danish coast 5th November 1916 and was blown up by crew.

  • S.S. = Steam Ship; S.V. = Sailing Vessel; northabout, Muckle Flugga, Fair I. = around Scotland; Sound, Belts, Kattegat = via North of Denmark to/from German Baltic ports; Bight = to/from German North Sea ports; success = sinking of ships;

See also


  1. Royal Danish Naval Museum (found dead 1/13/2008)
  2. North Sea and English Channel Hunt
  3. National Archives, Kew: HW 7/3, Room 40, History of German Naval Warfare 1914-1918 (Published below - Room 40: German Naval Warfare 1914-1918)


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