Each to his own country: the tale of a German submariner, his English wife and WWI

The Deutschland. This merchant submarine became known for making successful voyages across the Atlantic to the United States, eluding the heavy watch of the Royal Navy and contributing much to the war effort of Germany during the First World War.

Tying the knot does not necessarily bring couples to a political unity. Being loyal to one’s country can at times be stronger than marriage vows.

Kathleen König, born with English roots, was married to Paul, a native German when the First World War broke out. Although she was in Germany, she knew about what she would do then. Kathleen, a mother-of-two, was married to Paul for 13 years. She traveled to Germany to seek medical treatment for one of her sick child. During the outbreak of the war, she told her husband, ” You do not expect me to take sides against my own country?”

After discussing the matter, he agreed to part ways with Kathleen. She then traveled back to Britain where she spent the remainder of the period of the war. Paul, meanwhile, went on to enlist in the German forces. He became a national hero and a recipient of the Iron Cross for having successfully led a series of dangerous missions during the war.

The strange story of their relationship and his war escapades have surfaced in a series of supplements published by The Sunday Telegraph in line with the centenary of the start of the First World War this year. Tony Tubb, 78, in collaboration with a friend, Brian Westbrook, had started piecing together the story of the couple following his discovery of a small, commemorative metal cross which bore the name of Paul and his picture, in a house he rented in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. Tubb said, “It is nice to have found out so much about the story.”

Paul earned the military award for his participation in four daring Atlantic crossings when he served as captain of the world’s first merchant submarine, the Deutschland. The submarine was built with specifications including a wide beam to hold the cargo. It was designed 213 feet long and could go to a top speed of 15 knots on the surface and 7 knots submerged. The submarine was manned by 27 civilian crew and traveled dangerous waters unarmed. It was designed to overcome Germany’s naval blockade imposed against the Royal Navy. It was crucial to resume the trade of high value goods with the United States, which had not yet joined the war among European nations.

Docked in Bremen, it left on June 14, 1916 carrying 750 tonnes of dyes and pharmaceutical chemicals, along with a consignment of mail. It was also said that the vessel also carried gold and a letter from the Kaiser to President Woodrow Wilson. The recorded cargo was said to value around 60 million Reichsmarks.

The submarine arrived in Baltimore four weeks later, on the 9th of June, and created such a ruckus because of the propensity of the propaganda the trip implied to Germany. Despite the heavy guarding of the Royal Navy, the Deutschland slipped past the careful patrol and did what no submarine of that era could do – remain submerged for long periods. The mission was very risky. But despite the success of the mission, the initial victory was put out by the loss of a second merchant submarine, the Bremen. It vanished without trace on one of its maiden voyages. Upon arrival in Baltimore, Paul made a statement that the successful trip had “opened the gates which Great Britain tried to shut up on us and the trade of the world” and predicted “Germany’s victory in this struggle for our existence”.

The city, with its large German population, welcomed the crew warmly and treated them as celebrities. Some of them even chanced upon the White House in one of their many tours. A series of commemorative paperweights were also cast using some of the submarine’s ballast. One of these items was found in Tubb’s rented property in Bexhill-on-Sea many decades later.

The commander and the crew of the German submarine, the Deutschland.

On August 1, the vessel made its way home. This time it was loaded with 348 tonnes of raw rubber. 257 tonnes of these were stored outside the pressurized hull. Aside from rubber, it also carried 341 tonnes of nickel and 93 tonnes of tin. It arrived in Bremen on August 23 where the cargo and the sales of the load contributed much to the war effort of Germany. In October 1916, Paul and his crew again made a trip this time to New London, in Connecticut, carrying valuable goods including gems, securities, and medicinal products. Again, the presence of the submarine in another American port created such an excited and dramatic stir. While the crew were enjoying a show in a cinema, they suddenly received orders from their shipping agents to leave, cutting short their stay and forcing them to leave a week before their due departure.

As the submarine was being towed out to sea, its tugboat, T.A. Scott Jr., rammed killing five of the crew on board. Their departure was delayed for a week while the necessary repairs to the damage was made. It left New London on November 21 carrying load including 6.5 tons of silver bullion. It safely made its way across the Atlantic. The voyages of the submarine were a national success that Paul became a national hero in Germany. He received an Iron Cross 1st Class. He went on to write a book of his exploits. But, when the United States declared to join the war on the side of the Allies, the voyages of the merchant submarine to American soil was halted in April 1917.

The Deutchsland was transformed into a war ship armed with a gun and six torpedoes. It was renamed U-155. At the end of the war, it sunk 42 ships under Paul’s command with a group of mine sweepers.  After the war, he went home to Germany to work for the North German Lloyd shipping company. He was hired as captain of the same company before the war. His wife, Kathleen, remained in London during the war and later on took a job at Manchester High School for Girls in 1918. The couple reunited after the war. They, however, remained based in their native countries. Kathleen would occasionally visit Paul in Germany. Meanwhile, he would also go to Britain to see his wife. She was reported to have been using her maiden name to avoid the tensions after the war.

Paul died in Germany in 1933. After his death, Kathleen was quoted in a newspaper to have said, “Thus, we arranged out lives. It worked out, with an effort at composure.”

Ten years later, Kathleen passed away in Surrey.

The couple first met on an Atlantic crossing. They married in 1901 in Winchester. Paul was then 34 and Kathleen was 23. They were both the children of clergymen. Her father, however, was known to have driven his west London church into the ground which ruined the family’s reputation. After the death of her father, Kathleen’s mother split the family up. Kathleen was adopted by a known author, Mary Eliza Bramston. Even after marrying Paul, Kathleen stayed in Bramston, in Winchester, while her husband was away at sea for long periods. The couple had two children, namely, John Paul who was born in 1902, and Mary Elizabeth who was born in 1910.

Before the war broke out, Kathleen went to Germany to seek the expertise of a specialist doctor and to seek remedy for the illness of one of her children. While there, her husband received orders from the navy. Then, she was only able to see her husband on a few occasions. She relayed their final conversation to a newspaper published during the war when news of her husband’s victories became widespread. She said, “My husband like the man he is recognised that although I might technically be a German by marriage, I am English through and through, and when I said to him, ‘You do not expect me to take sides against my own country?’ he replied, ‘No everyone must stand by their own country in these times. You would not be worth your salt if you did not, stand by mine! On that we parted and I have not seen him since.’”

Their son was a former pupil at Marlborough. He died in 1922. Their daughter pursued an acting career bearing the stage name Ann Muncaster. She was with her father on speaking engagements in the United States before his death. She later on settled in Alresford, near Winchester. She died in 1993 without child.

After the war, the submarine carried on exploits. It was taken to Britain and was bought by an MP, Horatio Bottomly. It went on tours to south and east coast ports. The ship, due to its historical value and the war exploits attached to it, attracted more than 150,000 sightseers.

The Telegraph reports that Bottomly was later on found guilty of charges of fraud. The purchase of the submarine became a subject of a long legal battle. The fate of the submarine was finally decided. Unfortunately, while the ship was being dismantled at a yard in Birkenhead, it had an explosion on board killing five young apprentices. 


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE