top of page
  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

Ungentlemanly conduct in the Baltic

I am now about two thirds of the way through the first draft of my latest and fourth WW1 naval thriller, Where the Baltic Ice is Thin. I have decided to include in my tale an embellished version of the true account of German perfidy in the sinking of the submarine HMS E13 in the neutral waters of Denmark.

E13, under the command or Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Layton, was despatched to the Baltic in August 1915 to assist the Russians intercept German shipments of iron ore from neutral Sweden. To enter the Baltic the submarine had to make the dangerous passage through the very narrow and extremely shallow strait between Malmo and Copenhagen. Despite the navigational difficulties, the submarine had to remain dived to avoid the Danish and German patrols.

Unfortunately, due to a defect in her compass, the submarine ran aground off the island of Saltholm in Danish territorial waters during the early hours of 18 August. At dawn, she was discovered by a Danish torpedo boat and the commanding officer given the customary 24 hours to re-float the submarine and leave Danish waters or to face internment. Within a few hours, a German torpedo boat appeared on the scene, but withdrew to radio for instructions from the German Baltic fleet commander.

Meanwhile, the sailors of E13 worked frantically to lighten their submarine, pumping out tanks and fuel and jettisoning stores. However, it soon became apparent to Layton that his boat was stuck fast and it would not be possible to float her off unaided. He sent his first lieutenant ashore to negotiate with the Danes either for a two or terms for internment. Very shortly afterwards, the German torpedo boat returned in the company of a destroyer. The German admiral had decided that he could not run the risk of allowing another Royal Navy submarine enter the Baltic, such had been their effectiveness already.

Without warning, the German warships opened fire with torpedoes, shell fire and machine guns. The first torpedo struck land due to the heel of the submarine, but quickly the vessel caught fire and Layton ordered his men to abandon ship. Nonetheless, the Germans continued their fire and aimed their machine guns at the survivors in the water. Outraged, the commanding officer of a Danish torpedo boat placed his ship between the men and the Germans. The two German ships then withdrew, but already 14 British sailors were dead and another missing, presumed dead.

The Danish and British press were outraged by this violation of Danish territorial waters and international law. The Royal Navy dead were buried with full military honours. The survivors were interned for the rest of the war, but Layton, who had refused to give his parole, escaped back to Britain with his first lieutenant to continue the war. Germany subsequently issued an apology to Denmark, but the other Royal Navy submarines in the Baltic went on to make her pay for her war crime. My forthcoming book will explain all!

E13 alongside in Copenhagen after the engagement

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page