The Admiralty’s American Ally

During the earliest phase of World War I, writes Robert Hessen, an enterprising American industrialist helped to turn the tide of naval warfare.

At the outbreak of the World War in 1914, the navies of the two major antagonists were unequal in strength.

Great Britain’s fleet was supreme on the high seas; her battleships (the famed ‘dreadnoughts’) and her cruisers were larger and more numerous than those of Germany.

But Germany’s fleet was superior under water; she possessed a rapidly growing number of submarines (or U-boats), which could sink British merchant ships or military vessels without having to surface.

The danger to Great Britain from Germany’s U-boats was not confined to the sinking of her cruisers - three were sunk in succession by a lone U-boat on September 22nd, 1914. An even greater menace was the possibility that former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had named in 1913:

‘What is to prevent the Germans sealing up every port, military or commercial, round our whole coast - and this whatever our superiority in battleships and cruisers might be?’

In October 1914, in belated recognition of these dangers, the Admiralty searched for someone who could build submarines for Britain’s defence. The man they turned to was Charles M. Schwab, head of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in America.

Few men had risen faster in the ranks of American industry.

Born in 1862 in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, Schwab took his first job in the steel industry in 1879 as a dollar-a-day labourer. He soon distinguished himself as a young man of uncommon initiative and leadership ability.

In 1897, when he was 35, Andrew Carnegie named him President of the Carnegie Steel Company; and, in 1901, J.P. Morgan selected him for the Presidency of America’s first billion-dollar enterprise, the new United States Steel Corporation.

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