Wire Rope – The Secret Weapon of World War One
By Don Sayenga, published in the Nov 2018 issue of Wire Rope News & Sling Technology magazine
When World War One began in 1914, the German Navy realized their cruisers and battleships were no match for the Royal Navy. The British had twice as many big fighting ships as any other nation. Beginning with the launch of their modern battleship Dreadnought in 1906, “Britannia rule the waves” became much more than a popular patriotic song. The development of little short-range military aircraft had just begun. The only other available form of naval warfare was an attack from beneath the waves, so the Germans concentrated on building the world’s largest fleet of submarines. This in turn caused creation of an anti-submarine weapon by the U S Navy in a program with a lid on it so tight that no one outside a small group of naval employees ever knew about it.
On May 7, 1915 the Cunard passenger liner S S Lusitania, one of the largest, fastest ships afloat, was sunk as it neared the end of its transatlantic voyage from New York to Liverpool. More than 1000 civilian passengers drowned, including many women and children, some of whom were American citizens. It had been hit by a single torpedo launched from the German submarine U-20. The huge vessel, which was much larger than any of the British battleships, went down in less than 20 minutes. This was a sharp contrast with the 1912 accidental sinking of the R M S Titanic when an iceberg punched a hole in the hull but the ship was still afloat two hours later.
According to the on-line Encyclopedia Britannica, the small German torpedo caused an internal explosion of a cargo of ammunition (being sent covertly to the UK) which blew open the hull. Although Cunard was a British company and the USA was officially neutral, both sides used the incident for propaganda. Woodrow Wilson was the U S President in the middle of his first term. In his campaign slogan for his second term bragged “he kept us out of war” but he was under heavy pressure from warmongers to get American armed forces into the European fighting. Wilson was re-elected by a very narrow margin in 1916. The British use of unarmed passenger ships to carry supplies from America caused the German navy in February 1917 to announce a new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean. Two months later Wilson caved and yielded to the warmongers. He addressed a special joint session of Congress, citing (among other things) the German submarines. He asked for a declaration of war against Germany. He was supported by significant public sentiment because of the submarine threat. Also, the British announced they had intercepted and deciphered the “Zimmerman telegram” when a German diplomat urged Mexico to declare war against the USA with the intent to regain California, Nevada, Utah, plus parts of Arizona and New Mexico, which had been annexed by the USA in 1848 at the end of the Mexican American War.
A Hasty Jump Start For Military Intervention
The USA was poorly prepared to get involved. To create an army, Congress had to authorize conscription of young men via the Selective Service Act of 1917. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948) was named to take charge of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The first units of the AEF were transported to France in the summer of 1917. Pershing insisted they would remain unified as an American army and not be used as trench replacements for the British and French. At that time Admiral William S. Sims (1846-1937) was the primary strategist for the United States Navy. He had been advocating modernization of the Navy’s weapons for many years. America’s declaration of war on April 6 freed him to implement a few of his most innovative new concepts under a cloak of secrecy.
One of the most effective weapons applied against entrenched groups of soldiers was known as an artillery barrage. Hundreds of cannons fired shells simultaneously into an enemy-held area without aiming at any specific target. Sims reasoned the equivalent of an artillery barrage would be something like the strings of floating mines used to protect harbors. If there could be some existing techniques to position large numbers of such mines deep under water, it would have the effect of a barrage to halt submarines. After the war, the U S Navy’s Captain Reginald Belknap (who was placed in charge of running the secret program) said:
“Reducing a new invention to practice in a few months is no small problem, especially when it is a mine to be planted much deeper, and over bottom 100 fathoms deeper than ever before – yet this had to be done to meet the enemy’s submarine campaign, the most serious menace to the cause of America…”
Admiral Sims had conceived a weapon which didn’t actually exist. It was to be a round steel ball with an anchor point and fuses pointing outward in all directions. Inside the ball they poured 300 pounds of molten TNT. Attached to the bottom of the ball was a self-acting device which could be programmed to release a plummet line to measure a specific depth below the surface, combined with a longer, stronger line that would allow the device to continue sinking below the mine to rest on the sea bottom as an anchor. A factory near the Norfolk VA naval base was converted to manufacture the weapons.
Manufacturing The Mines And The Self-Acting Anchors
Recently, Rik Paulsen, formerly President and CEO of Paulsen Wire Rope, brought to my attention a booklet published after the war by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company at Trenton, NJ. Rik said it was the “first time I have ever seen wire rope get the credit that it deserved in war efforts.” The Roeblings had experienced two big fires that were thought to be the work of saboteurs. Apparently when Belknap’s report appeared in a national magazine, the cooperation of American wire rope producers and other manufacturers in the top secret program was minimized. The Roebling family wanted to make sure their customers and the rest of the public knew the whole story. They explained: “The whole amazing episode…was hidden from general knowledge…by the ‘smokescreen’ of secrecy which is traditional in the Navy”
Belknap’s description of how the mines and anchors were created in great haste and secrecy seems to obviously omit naming all the factories that cooperated because there were simply too many involved to name everyone:
“The terms ‘impossible’ and ‘foolish’ were freely applied to the scheme. Contracts for 100,000 mines would have to be let, and tens of millions more spent outright, both here and in Great Britain, based on test of the mine only by parts, since a complete new mine did not yet exist… the undertaking had the unqualified approval of everyone in authority, from the President down. Secrecy, as well as haste, necessitated dividing the construction of the mine among 500 contractors and subcontractors. Parts manufactured in different places were sent to a third place for joining, and all were finally sent to Norfolk, Virginia, whence they were shipped to Scotland, where the mines would be assembled complete…”
In January 1917, the U.S. Government had asked the American Iron and Steel Institute to form a committee to make decisions about the handling and distribution of wire rope. The chairman was Karl Roebling and the other two members were Frank Baackes of American Steel and Wire in Trenton, and John Broderick of Broderick & Bascom in St. Louis, MO. Beginning in May 1917, all government requirements for wire rope of any kind were passed through this committee for allotment to the ropemakers. Baackes headed a sub-committee to make all the allotments and assure the smaller ropemakers who did not draw their own wire were guaranteed adequate wire from the wire mills. When the big requirement for the anchor devices came, the industry was prepared to cope with it. In a similar way, the automobile industry coped with making the ball-like mine casing spheres.
Making The Wire Ropes
Captain Belknap placed a naval officer at every wire rope factory to oversee and confer regarding the status of production. The entire American ropemaking industry was involved. The level of secrecy was so high, everyone assumed the ropes were needed by the surface fleet. The full quantity manufactured for the subsurface mine barrage alone was over 80 million feet. Here’s how that production was allocated:
- John A Roebling’s Sons, Trenton, NJ 27,363,200 feet
- American Steel & Wire, Worcester, MA 14,000.000 feet
- A. Leschen & Sons, St Louis, MO 10, 503,000 feet
- Broderick & Bascom Rope, St Louis, MO 4,241,380 feet
- Hazard Manufacturing, Wilkes-Barre, PA 3,975,950 feet
- Macomber & Whyte Rope, Kenosha, WI 3.919,900 feet
- Williamsport Wire Rope, Williamsport, PA 2,982,600 feet
- Waterbury Co., Brooklyn, NY 2,818,200 feet
- Wright Wire Co., Worcester, MA 1,391,520 feet
All of the work of attachments to the anchor device spools was done in Trenton by AS&W and Roebling Sons. They mounted the plummet lines on special spools after cutting them to a specific short length, dipping them in fish oil and connecting them in a way that when they made a sudden stop at the specified depth they wouldn’t tear loose.
There were 125,000 spools and the rate of production sometimes was as high as 4,000 per day. Also, at the Roebling factory they attached 500,000 sockets and hooks, often as many as 6,000 per day, and spliced a large number of four-leg lifting slings that were used to handle the mines. Because the program was constantly changing and evolving many ingenious decisions were made without having any plan to guide the workers or the Naval personnel.
In 1917 there were only two American companies making aircraft cable. When a transportation difficulty arose interrupting production at one of the two factories, the other had to step up their own production to supply 80% of the needed amount so as to continue meeting the schedule. All of the work and the changes were done without any experimentation. The government relied entirely upon the experience of the American ropemakers. The ability to cut accurate lengths for placement on the spools was a very important asset. The Navy presumed the factories would be good at it, and they were right. Despite the burden of secrecy, the effort moved forward so rapidly the strategists on Admiral Sims staff began thinking about a smaller but equally important plan. Italy was an ally of Britain and France, but the Ottoman Empire on the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea was a German ally. Sealing off the Adriatic with a mine barrage was suggested as the next project.
Activating The Submerged North Sea Barrage
At the beginning of the war, the German navy’s fleet of unterzee boats (known as U-Boats) was the largest and most technically advanced submarine fleet of any nation. Because of their ability to attack without exposing themselves, Admiral Sims’ secret wire rope plan would confront those vessels in their own hidden environment. But it was very essential to keep the whole plan under wraps until it was completely in place. A wise decision was made to ship the spheres to Europe before installing any detonators. All of the various parts were accumulated at Norfolk, VA. From there a squadron of very small transatlantic steamers carried the parts to Scotland where they were assembled to be loaded on American mine layers. One of these 24 small ships, the “Lake Moor”, was sunk by a U-boat en route, and her crew of 41 perished, but this was the only loss of human life during the transfer. The steamers also carried fuel, fruit and vegetables to mask their purpose and sustain the American assembly team entirely from the USA.
Perhaps the most risky decision was to load all of the spheres with yellow TNT explosive while they were still in the USA. TNT was the most widely used military explosive. It is relatively insensitive to shocks, solid at room temperature, and melts into a thick liquid at about 175°F (80°C) which allows it to be poured into metal containers such as the spheres. The heating kettles used for melting emitted noxious vapors which were very dangerous during the hot summer weather. One sailor died, and others were sickened from breathing the fumes at the melting location in a building near Norfolk. Despite the tragedy of his death, secrecy was maintained.
The transfer and positioning of the mines in the North Sea used a multiple zigzag pattern stretching from the Orkney Islands to the vicinity of Stavanger fjord in Norway. Starting in February 1917, several steamers departed Norfolk every eight days. Early in July before the first system of minefields was halfway completed, intelligence reports were received alleging a few U-boats already had been destroyed by the barrier. By the end of September 1917 the estimated count was up to ten, but there was no real way of verifying this because everything happened under water – all sunken subs went straight to the bottom taking their entire crew with them.
On January 8, 1918 President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of U.S. Congress proposing a diplomatic way to stop the fighting in Europe. His well-researched message, known as “Fourteen Points” was welcomed by the Ottoman Empire. It caused fighting to stop in places like Bulgaria and Turkey but the German government required longer to consider what would happen if an armistice was declared. Although Wilson got the Nobel Prize for his speech, a few days later Britain’s prime minister Lloyd George announced British aims for a halt in the fighting and in May the Germans launched an attack defeating the British in Picardy. Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who was in charge of the French military, took over as the supreme Allied commander and began to outline terms the Germans would have to follow. His list of harsh conditions said the blockade would remain in place and the German navy would be required to turn over 160 U-boats to the Allies who would then disarm them in neutral ports.
Obviously, Foch had no count of the subs actually possessed by the Germans but his strongly-worded approach made it clear he was seeking a total German naval and military surrender, not merely a temporary halt of the fighting. Living conditions in Germany were pretty bad in 1918. There was a flu epidemic and a Marxist revolution causing chaos. A new government was formed and fighting was terminated in October 1918. In the final summary, the Germans admitted 23 U-boats were destroyed by the underwater barrage of the North Sea.
When it was all over in November 1918, the American and British navies had to quickly get all of those subsurface mines out of the ocean. This was no small task. The barrage minefield contained 70,263 mines arranged in rows for a distance of 230 miles. At several places the barrage field was 25 miles wide. Capt. Belknap knew it was going to be a very hazardous process so he chose to reveal details of the secret program to the American public in March 1919. The task of sweeping and exploding the mines lasted all summer that year. It was pronounced completed on September 30, 1919.
It would be inappropriate for me to minimize the scary tales of the minesweeping but the U.S. Navy did publish a 150-page book in 1919, telling the whole story in detail. It is filled with photographs, providing all the names and actions of the minesweepers. A special naval force headed by Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss had to be created for the purpose. Because the sweeping of a minefield like this one never had been attempted, the methods they improvised and used were mostly devised while the sweeping was in progress. The story is now in the public domain.
When I was researching this article it was quite obvious the part played by the American wire rope industry was not emphasized by the U.S. Navy. Perhaps this is due to wire rope being used everywhere in naval affairs, making it easy to take the product for granted. The omission was noticed immediately by the Roebling Sons company who had a very active publishing program. In 1920 they issued a little book Wire Roping The German Submarine which they mailed to all their customers. This booklet gives a very complete background and is remarkable because it also gives ample credit to the other wire rope companies with whom Roebling competed. Karl Roebling was President of Roebling Sons at the time of publication. His uncle Washington Roebling, age 82, was the oldest male member of the family.
In May 1921, Karl Roebling, age 48, died suddenly and unexpectedly. His uncle Washington had to step back into participation with the business. The Roebling archives now contain a copy of the little book with a marginal note on the flyleaf in Washington’s hand writing: “I never saw this book until 1926 WAR”. Perhaps it is another indication of how the Navy totally concealed the program. Today the Roebling trade name is owned by the Williamsport company, one of the competitors they acknowledged in 1920.
- Captain Belknap’s full explanation of the secret program was published in the weekly Scientific American, Vol 120, No 11 and No. 12, March 15 and March 22, 1919
- The little book issued by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Wire-Roping the German Submarine: The Barrage That Stopped the U-Boat, is now in the public domain.
- Sweeping The North Sea Mine Barrage published by the U.S. Navy is in the public domain and available on-line thanks to the New York Public Library: