This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

First World War: Sea

At the outbreak of the First World War Great Britain was the world’s greatest naval power. It was a supremacy supported by a huge heavy engineering industry, but one challenged by the ambitions of imperial Germany and her rapidly expanding navy.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey following the bombardment by the German navy
Ruins of Whitby Abbey following the bombardment by the German navy (AL0976/015/01)

Throughout the war both sides used their naval might to blockade each other to prevent vital supplies of food and raw materials getting through. German U-boats hunted in English coastal waters, threatening supplies of both raw material and food.

Along England’s east coast, German warships bombarded a number of towns and also hit Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle (both now English Heritage properties).

In January 1917 Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, in which vessels were torpedoed without warning. As well as Allied warships, many fishing vessels and neutral merchant vessels were sunk. By April, the Allies were suffering appalling losses from U-Boats. An average of 167 merchant ships were being sunk every month, and Britain was near starvation.

Historic England is engaged on two major projects – one to identify submarine wrecks, both German and British; the other to locate the wrecks of merchant and other vessels in the North Sea.

First World War Centenary logo
The steam ship SS Magic, carrying mail bound for Liverpool, escorted by a British airship
The steam ship SS Magic carrying mail bound for Liverpool, escorted by a British airship. Airships were used in coastal waters to protect shipping and convoys against German U-Boats and surface raiders. © Tony O'Mahoney
Was this page helpful?