The Baralong Incident: Decidedly Ungentlemanly Warfare

We drape our wars in a thin layer of respectability, but we are still just bloodthirsty animals at heart.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

War is the most uncivilized of human pursuits. If you think about it, it is mind-boggling we’re still doing it. One nation-state gets cross with another, and the next thing you know we are slaughtering each other’s young folks wholesale. It seems there’s not such a grand gulf between us and the beasts of the fields after all.

We couch the practice underneath a veneer of respectability. Our finest strategists earn advanced degrees in the prosecution of modern war, and our military-industrial complex drives technical innovation on an unrivaled scale. And yet at its heart, the true mission of the military is to simply rip the very life out of other human beings who would, in general, really sooner not be there.

Martial Philosophy

Don’t expect these maniacs to show a great deal of restraint.

If I’m coming across as a pacifist, I’m not. The world is a dangerous place, and our adversaries are frankly insane. Whether it is ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, or the Russians you happen to see over your rifle sights, you’d best be metaphorically ready to pull that trigger. Rest assured were the roles reversed those guys would not be particularly morally encumbered. 

It is, however, essentially impossible to excise emotion from that equation. No matter how civilized we claim to be, the very act of war is an innately barbaric unrestrained thing. It is for this reason I am philosophically opposed to embedded reporters in war zones. War is ugly, horrifying, and bad. Our young studs have enough on their minds without having to fret about their actions being broadcast into living rooms across America. If it is important enough to go to war I think we should just get out of the way and let our warriors take care of business. Turns out I’m not the first guy to feel that way.

Setting the Stage For Baralong

World War 1 was a transformational event in human history. This vast conflict was the planet’s rude introduction to combat on a truly industrial scale. The learning curve was steep.

This is a group of Washington DC society folks who came out for a spirited afternoon watching the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

Previously it was a fairly straightforward thing to fractionate war into combatants and everyone else. On 21 July 1861, droves of civilians showed up with food to spectate during the First Battle of Bull Run. They arrived expecting a gay holiday, initially referring to the ominously pending event as the “Picnic Battle.” 

The end result was more than 4,000 killed and wounded and an irretrievable loss of innocence for all involved. Come World War 1, all pretense of civility was gone. Technology had rendered chivalry and restraint obsolete. 

The U-boat Scourge

In no place was this lamentable reality more starkly manifest than in the burgeoning art of submarine warfare. The concept of the combat submarine was brand spanking new, and the Kaiser’s Navy led the technological charge. Now a warship could approach a target submerged and strike from a position of stealthy advantage. It also became increasingly difficult to differentiate between men of war and transport ships fat with civilians. Sometimes those transport vessels had their staterooms packed with civilians and their holds full of war materiel. The end result was the perfect recipe for tragedy.

The sinking of the Lusitania was World War 1’s Pearl Harbor moment.

That tragedy struck in May of 1915 with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by U-20, a German U-boat. The Lusitania was a passenger liner on its 202d transit across the Atlantic carrying some 1,962 passengers and crew. U-20 centerpunched the fast liner with a single torpedo just beneath the wheelhouse. 

The massive ship sank eighteen minutes later, carrying 1,199 souls to the bottom with her. That number included a great many British women and children as well as 123 Americans. Once word of this attack made the rounds, the sailors of the Royal Navy were disinclined to show much mercy to German U-boat men.

The Rules Change

Propagandists rightly weaponized the Germans’ lack of moral restraint to stir up patriotic fervor and righteous anger.

This bloodlust was fairly institutionalized. In the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, two officers of the Admiralty’s Secret Service branch approached Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert, skipper of the British Q-ship HMS Baralong, saying, “This Lusitania business is shocking. Unofficially, we are telling you…take no prisoners from U-boats.” Herbert took his new directive quite literally.

At this point in the war, the Q-ship was England’s best weapon against U-boat attacks. These heavily armed merchant vessels masqueraded as helpless transports to lure U-boats in close before exposing hidden guns and sending many a submarine to the bottom. Torpedo technology was still in its infancy, so much of a U-boat’s firepower came from its deck guns. U-boats would often approach a target ship via stealth and then surface to prosecute the attack. Q-boats were designed to feed that right back to the Kaiserliche Marine.

Personalities In the Baralong Incident

Godfrey Herbert would have made a splendid old-school corsair commander.

LCDR Herbert was not your typical Royal Navy ship’s Captain. He purportedly encouraged his men to terrorize the countryside in drunken binges while on shore leave. In one sordid incident in Dartmouth, several of his sailors destroyed a local pub and were arrested. Herbert paid their bail personally and then returned to sea as soon as everyone was accounted for. He also inexplicably insisted on his crew calling him “Captain William McBride” to his face.

In August of 1915, a German U-boat sank the liner SS Arabic while within 20 miles of the Baralong’s patrol area. The Baralong made haste to the site but failed to recover any survivors. This left Herbert’s crew in a proper state. Meanwhile, about seventy miles away, the German U-boat U-27 had intercepted the British steamer Nicosian. 

Battle is Joined

German Kapitanleutnant Bernd Wegener presided over the destruction of both his ship and his crew.

The skipper of U-27, Kapitanleutnant Bernd Wegener, led a six-man boarding party to search the Nicosian. They discovered war materiel and 250 American mules making the transit over to assist with the war effort. As a result, Wegener ordered the crew off the Nicosian and prepared to sink her with his deck guns.

HMS Baralong arrived at the site of this little nautical dustup intentionally flying an American flag. Under the false guise of neutrality, the Baralong maneuvered within 600 yards of the U-boat, claiming their mission was to rescue survivors. U-27 held fire and assumed a course parallel to the stricken Nicosian. 


LCDR Herbert was an unscrupulous brigand who managed his warship beautifully. He approached the scene of the battle under a flag of truce.

Meanwhile, the Baralong adopted an identical course on the opposite side of the doomed British ship. Once the Nicosian effectively masked the Baralong, Herbert exposed his guns and prepared for surface action. As soon as she cleared the Nicosian, the Baralong opened up with everything she had.

Raw Firepower Trumps Absolutely Everything

These big fast-firing 3-inch guns were devastating against lightly-armored targets.

Baralong was equipped with three big 12-pounder guns. These quick-firing 76mm cannon could fire a blistering 15 rounds per minute. Their withering fusillade overwhelmed the wallowing U-boat in short order. 

Once the engagement was decided, Herbert called for a cease-fire. However, his crew ignored the order, incensed as they were over the recent loss of civilian life to the cowardly U-boats. The Baralong got off 34 rounds for the U-boat’s one. Now thoroughly ventilated, U-27 rolled over and began to sink.

Up until this point, things were sort-of unfolding according to accepted convention, the confusion over the spurious American ensign notwithstanding. However, the Nicosian crew was goading the British sailors from their lifeboats, shouting, “If any of those bastard Huns come up, lads, hit ’em with an oar!”

A Dark Turn

Only those German sailors near the surface made it out of the U-boat before she sank.

Twelve German sailors escaped the stricken U-boat before it slipped under. These were the deck gun crews and those men on duty in the conning tower. They dove into the water and swam for the Nicosian, now occupied solely by the German boarding party. Herbert later claimed at an inquiry that he feared the Germans would scuttle the defenseless civilian vessel. As a result, he ordered his men to gun down the U-boat survivors with small arms. They did so willingly, killing every last one of them as they floundered in the sea.

Herbert then dispatched his 12-man contingent of Royal Marines in a small boat under a Corporal Collins to the Nicosian to root out the surviving Germans. As they departed the Baralong, Herbert publicly ordered them to, “Take no prisoners.” 

It Gets Worse For The Germans

The Germans had taken refuge in the freighter’s engine room. Collins and his Marines cut them down to a man. Some reports had Kapitan Wegener having hidden in a bathroom. The Royal Marines supposedly broke down the door with their rifle butts, and the German officer dove into the water. Collins then purportedly took careful aim with his revolver and shot the German U-boat skipper through the head. 

READ MORE: Alton W. Knappenberger: So, A Bunch of Germans Walk Into a BAR…

The Germans used the Baralong incident for their own propaganda purposes.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the British Admiralty ordered the report suppressed. However, there had been Americans among the Nicosian’s survivors in the lifeboats, and they spoke with newspaper reporters upon their return home. The sordid details of the exchange soon circled the globe.

Not unexpectedly, the Germans had a veritable conniption, threatening a variety of unspecified reprisals. However, the two nations were already at war. This seminal event did, however, drive the German Navy to abandon the accepted Prize Rules wherein some modicum of restraint was shown toward target crews and embrace unrestricted submarine warfare. Countless more subsequently perished as a result.

Damage Control On the Baralong

The HMS Baralong was a fairly nondescript-looking tub at a glance.

To help protect the Baralong and her crew from the Germans should she ever be captured, the ship was renamed HMS Wyandra. The name Baralong was deleted from the Lloyd’s Register, and the vessel was assigned new duties in the Mediterranean. Regardless of their having committed unfettered murder, the crew of the Baralong along with her Captain were awarded a 185-pound bounty for having sunk the German U-Boat U-27. 

It has been said that, in war, the victors write the history. This is undoubtedly true. LCDR Herbert and his crew certainly committed a war crime in machinegunning the helpless survivors of U-27 after crippling their vessel. However, the Germans were sinking ocean liners filled with civilians at the time. As a result, nobody really much cared.

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  • Frank May 9, 2024, 10:11 am

    Thank you, Will. I really enjoy your historical pieces. Sin entered this world with death close on its heels. It will remain so until the New Heaven and Earth.

  • James May 6, 2024, 12:25 pm

    Another interesting historical event Doc,(may I call you Doc, Doc?) Thanks for sharing.

    I personally blame the Kaiser and his actions that led to the first World War as the reason I was not born on and raised on a cattle ranch in Lincoln County New Mexico.

    Cause and effect.

  • Steve May 6, 2024, 11:29 am

    Was the 185 pound bounty per person or split amongst the sailors?

  • dragonslayer May 6, 2024, 9:00 am

    The Lusitania was carrying munitions from US to Britain. The Germans took out ads warning that it would be targeted. The use of civilians as human shields, sometimes effective, often not, has a long history in warfare.

  • Joey May 6, 2024, 8:40 am

    I would have to disagree with Author Will Dabbs take on WW1 being the catalyst for loss of civility in warfare. While it was a truly industrialized war, you could call the Indian wars and the American Cicil War industrialized war. The world saw significant steps in weaponry during this time, as well as strategy. I equate strategy with ruthlessness, boils down to about the same. Men killing fellow mem, women and children. Makes no sense. I uphold the Second Amendment and would not hesitate in defending the one’s I care about, but to go looking for someone to kill is a bit beyond my scope of understanding. Guns and Roses said it best, what’s so civil about war, anyway.
    We could end warfare if we proclaimed wars are to be fought by country leaders and politicians. Keep our sons and daughters out of it.

  • Steven Reed May 6, 2024, 8:24 am

    Dr. Dabbs does it again. I am a great fan of his short historical pieces on events and personalities.

  • Mark N. May 4, 2024, 9:08 pm

    I doubt there is a country, empire, kingdom, etc. that did not engage in unrestricted warfare. The Chinese were famous for it in the Empire Period, and the Spartans took no prisoners. Athenian Greeks were said to have punished rebellious provincial islands by “cutting off all those who pee against the wall and enslaving the w=men and children.” (Of course, slavery was ubiquitous.) The Romans were ignobly blood thirsty. And the Americans on one side of the Civil War or the Indian Wars engaged in various slaughters and depravities. I have always believed that we are genetically programmed to violence, as without the will to engage in unimaginable violence against competing groups (and various predators) we would not have made it out of Africa. We have long lists of war criminals, but few in actual custody or facing execution.

    • Kane May 8, 2024, 9:14 am

      A little known aspect of WWII was the British sea and air raid on the French Naval Base along the coast of Algiers on July 3, 1940. The attack on “Mers El-Kebir” was very similiar to Pearl Harbor where 1297 French Service members were killed, Pearl Harbor 2403 US service members and 68 civilians were killed. The surprise attack was intended to destroy the French Navy in North Africa just as the Pacific Fleet was tagetted at Pearl Harbor.

      While vanquished Germans were on trial in Allied court rooms throughout Germany the US under Eisenhower and the vengeful French ran death camps for German DEF’s since POW protections were no longer honored in the closing days of WWII. Eisenhower’s death camps included German civilians and the death toll is an aspect of historical dispute but over a year for after the war. During the Eisenhower Presidency, the US violated the Nuremberg Principles were violated over and over again and “crimes against humanity” was for the other guy.

      The Eastern Europeans “liberated” by the Soviets suffered a worse fate, particularly the females where rape of any one from age “8 to 80” occured 10’s of millions of times by a Army with modern weapons and medieval practises. These were Armies that “saved” the world. I have come to believe that most people only care that they are “on the side that’s winning” and do NOT care about the details unless they are told to care.

  • Will Drider May 4, 2024, 6:45 pm

    Another geat article from Will Dabbs! Though this story may come across as an outlier, it most certainly is not. Was “Remember the Alamo” a war cry to only do the minimum needed to win! Lol. There have been numerous equivalents throught history and even the Pope’s mandated war cry for the Crusaders of “Deus Hoc Vult” is known. War is Hell and people are called upon to do horrific things all well within the Laws of War and occasionally some actions are doumented that exceed limits agreed upon by polite bureaucrats unsoiled by combat or personal loss there from. Hollywood war flicks more often then not include a scene or two denoting “personal paybacks” for lost friends or enemy atrocities big and small.
    We’re now in a time where troops are Courts Martialed for having their picture taken with a dead enemy combatant but when a bunch of journalists or a dad/family gets waxed by OUR drones: Gov denies, then says oops/sorry when the hard evidence surfaces.
    Now there’s Killer Kamikaze drones (RUS/UKR) that chase down soldiers who have tossed down their weapons blow them up. Most drones don’t take POWs.

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