What do Churchill, Torpedoes and the Sound of Music have in common?

April 27th, 2015

The German U-boat campaign had a devastating effect, not only on shipping, but psychologically with the British people. U-boats also throw up some famous names and incredible stories.u-boat 2

On the night of 27 April 1915, 15 miles off the south-eastern tip of Italy, the French ship, Léon Gambetta, was torpedoed twice by Austro-Hungarian submarine U-5. The commander of U-5 was Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp, whose later life was portrayed in The Sound of Music as father of the Von Trapp Family Singers. Incredibly, Georg was married to Agetha Whitehead, mother to his 7 children and granddaughter of English engineer Robert Whitehead, the inventor of the torpedo! Agatha died in 1922 of scarlet fever.

On the same day that Georg Von Trapp’s submarine sank the French ship, Hansard, the official report of proceedings of the House of Commons and House of Lords, records Winston Churchill’s views of submarine activity:

“No special conditions are applied to German submarine prisoners because they fight in submarines; but special conditions are applied to prisoners who have been engaged in wantonly killing non-combatants, neutrals, and women on the high seas. Submarine prisoners taken before 18th February have been treated as any other prisoners in our hands. But we cannot recognise persons who are systematically employed in the sinking of merchant ships and fishing boats, often without warning, and regardless of the loss of life entailed, as on the same footing as honourable soldiers.

Incidents such as the sinking of the “Oriole” by night, without warning, with all her crew, the circumstances attending the sinking of the “Falaba,” and the blowing up by torpedoes of fishing vessels through the agency of German submarines, force us for the future to place all German submarine prisoners taken after 18th February, and for as long as this system of warfare is continued, in a distinct and separate category.

The question is not free from difficulty, because as the crimes committed are entirely unforeseen in international law, no remedy has been prescribed. We cannot tell at present how far it may be possible at the end of the War to bring home the guilt of their actions, directly or indirectly, to individuals; nor in what form reparation of a special character should be exacted from the guilty State. Meanwhile, we consider it just and necessary that the prisoners concerned should be separated from honourable prisoners of war who are free from all reproach.”