DAVID ARNOLD - When Germany broke the Sussex Pledge

The Channel ferry SS Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by a German submarine in March 1916. Here she is seen in Boulogne harbour.
The Channel ferry SS Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by a German submarine in March 1916. Here she is seen in Boulogne harbour.

America gifting Britain 50 old but seaworthy destroyers at a critical stage of the Battle of the Atlantic late in 1940 did much to enable this country to hold out against Germany until the US itself was propelled into the war in December 1941.

Though America was infamously attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbour and thus at once was at war with that nation, it was Hitler who foolishly decided that Germany should join with Japan and declare war on the USA. With the might of America now on our side, the eventual Allied victory was assured.

Amazingly the Germans in the Great War made a similarly huge miscalculation about the strength of the United States. At the root of it was the “Sussex Pledge” - a promise given by the German Government to the USA in May 1916 in response to US demands relating to neutral shipping. Germany promised to alter their naval policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Instead they agreed that merchant and passenger ships would be searched and subsequently sunk only if they contained contraband or war materials, and then only after safe passage had been provided for the crew and passengers.

The catalyst for the Sussex Pledge was an incident in the English Channel on 24th March 1916 when a German submarine attacked a supposed French minelayer. In fact the vessel was actually a French-flagged civilian passenger steamer called “Sussex”; British-built, she had served on the Newhaven – Dieppe link from 1896 until 1914. Though severely damaged in the forward area by a German torpedo, the ship remained afloat and was towed into Boulogne. At least 50 people were killed in the attack and the wounded included a number of Americans. Outraged US President Woodrow Wilson gave an ultimatum that Germany must cease attacks on civilian vessels, or face severance of diplomatic relations.

The last thing Germany wanted was the US entering the war on the side of her enemies; she responded by making the so-called “Sussex Pledge” on 4th May 1916. The agreement didn’t last long. With Russia to the East in political turmoil and the Tsar’s armies on the ropes, the German High Command convinced themselves that they could beat Britain and France in the West simply through the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare; moreover, they thought they could achieve this long before America was in a position to enter the fray. They got it wrong. The Sussex Pledge was revoked on 1st February 1917. Just over two months later American declared war on Germany.

Returning to the story of those 50 US destroyers it’s interesting to note that one of them was renamed HMS Lewes. Launched in 1918, in her American navy life she was called USS Craven. Part of the deal that secured the transfer of the mothballed warships was the granting of US access to British bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Caribbean and the Bahamas.

The ships were termed “Town Class” destroyers and for some reason it was agreed that they could only be re-named after British towns that had a namesake town in the USA. There is, of course, a Lewes in the county of Sussex, Delaware, so no problems there.

The Craven became HMS Lewes on 23rd October 1940. She departed Halifax, Nova Scotia, a week later and arrived at Belfast on 9th November having taken part en route across the Atlantic in an unsuccessful search for the German raider, Admiral Scheer. It was probably for the better that the two ships didn’t meet; the Scheer was the Kriegsmarine’s most successful surface ship of the war and would have made mincemeat of the largely obsolete Lewes.

In port at Plymouth the ship was damaged in air raids in April 1941. Later she joined the Home Fleet. In November 1942 HMS Lewes fought with E-Boats off Lowestoft. She then went as escort with a convoy bound for the Middle East via South Africa and hunted for U-Boats around the Cape of Good Hope. HMS Lewes was in Australia by the end of the war. Her navy days over, she was scuttled off Sydney on 25th May1946.