The British fleet had two main roles in the war:
- Transporting troops/supplies across the Channel to France.
- Defending British shores.
There was only one major sea battle, the Battle of Jutland - 31 May to 1 June, 1916 and both Britain and Germany claimed victory.
- Germany's claim: Britain lost 14 ships compared to Germany's 11.
- Britain's claim: Germany retreated and did not venture from it's ports for the duration of the war, leaving Britain's fleet in control of the seas.
In February 1915, Germany had developed a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that any British ship was an enemy. U-boats (submarines) were new, and unlike other ships which gave warnings before attacking, the nature of U-boats were underwater, surprise attacks.
The British Liner Lusitania was sunk in 1915 and there was an outcry from America (128 of the passengers that died were American). The USA threatened to enter the war if Germany did not call of unrestricted warfare, and so Germany was forced to submit.
In 1917, though, with many more U-boats ready, Germany decided to renew their policy. Britain was in trouble. Their cargo loses rose from 386,000 tonnes in January to 881,000 tonnes by April. The British navy had to take action, or Britain would be starved into submission.
- Depth charges were developed to fight submarines.
- Britain introduced armed convoys. All merchant ships had to travel in groups with guarded warships with depth charges.
- Q ships - warships disguised as merchant ships - were sent out to confuse the Germans.
- Mines and submarine nets were placed down in the Dover Straits, meaning Germany had to waste time and fuel by travelling around Scotland.
- Britain received important supplies, including food, from the USA.
- Their methods were successful, as more and more German U-boats were destroyed. With rationing introduced to Britain in 1918, food levels never fell as critical as when Unrestricted Submarine Warfare had first been introduced.
- British ships eventually blockaded Germany meaning they gradually ran short of food which helped many German people want peace.
This video looks at Blockades, U-Boats and the sinking of the Lusitania
Germany's attempt to knock Britain out had not only failed, but also had a knock-on effect. Because they went against the USA's wishes, on April 6, 1917, America entered the war on Britain's side. This tipped the balance at the Western Front, and was a big factor in Germany's downfall on 11 November 1918.