It is being reported by the Media that the Russians have a ship, the Yantar, capable of severing Britain’s underwater communications cables. There are also concerns that the Russians could use underwater drones to attack the network of cables that carry internet and telephone communications around the world. This all sounds very familiar to students of WW1 naval history.
Within hours of the declaration of war on 4 August 1914, British cable ships, including the CS Alert, operating in the North Sea and Channel were given secret orders by the Admiralty to dredge up and cut all but one of the German telegraphic cables connecting her to the outside world beyond Europe. The one cable left intact was under British control and could be “tapped” to intercept the German diplomatic and military telegrams. This action was part of the Naval War Plan and was designed to render Germany dependent on overseas mail and wireless communications, both of which were susceptible to interception by the Royal Navy. The Naval Intelligence Department set up a special code-breaking section in Room 40 of the Admiralty to decode the German signals and mail traffic; the forerunner of Bletchley Park and today’s GCHQ. These activities are described in my next novel, Now the Darkness Gathers, a tale of pre-WW1 naval espionage and to be published next summer.
Significantly, the Germans were cut off from the Americas for their diplomatic traffic except through the cable under British control. As a result, in 1917, the Royal Navy successfully intercepted and decoded what became known as “The Zimmerman Telegram”, the contents of which, once leaked to the USA, brought the US into the war on the side of Britain. As a result it can be argued that the actions of the CS Alert and her sister cable ships in 1914 were instrumental in helping Britain and her allies win the war against Germany.
The Germans were aware of Britain’s actions and retaliated by attacking Britain’s cables in the Pacific. However, unlike Germany, Britain had control over several cable ships and was able to repair the damage caused. Where is Britain’s mercantile fleet today?