The vision of a manned submersible exploring the ocean deeps is an old one. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great is reported to have descended into the Aegean Sea in a glass sphere to observe aquatic life. In the early 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a theoretical submarine, as he had for a functioning helicopter. The first realisable submarine schematic, devised by William Bourne in 1578, inspired the Dutch designer Cornelis Drebbel, who in the early 17th century secured the interest and funding of King James I of England to construct a prototype. In 1623, Drebbel’s submersible, using leather goatskin bags to vent water, made its erratic passage along the River Thames from Westminster to Greenwich.
All of these inventions were bold ideas ahead of their time, but the submarine as commonly understood – that is, not a simple bathysphere lowered into the ocean and pulled back up again but a self-propelling undersea vehicle – was mainly a theoretical exercise until the use of David Bushnell’s Turtle submersible by American Revolutionary forces in 1776. The first ‘submarine’ to be deployed in combat, the Turtle used water as ballast and a screw propeller at its rear, both methods still in use today. Although it failed in its attempted missions to attach explosives to the undersides of British warships, the Turtle put down a marker for the future of warfare.
That future arrived in the form of the ‘plunging boat’ Nautilus, widely considered the first practical submarine ever constructed. Designed between 1793 and 1797 for the French First Republic, it was the brainchild of the American engineer Robert Fulton, inventor of the first commercially successful steamboat. Built of copper sheets attached to iron ribs, on which sat two horizontal diving pins to control the angle of descent, the Nautilus was propelled by a hand-cranked screw propeller. In trials at Le Havre harbour in 1801, Fulton took the Nautilus down 7.6m (25 ft) and stayed submerged for an hour.
Like the Turtle, the Nautilus was supposed to attach mines to enemy ships, but it never had the opportunity to achieve its potential. Unfortunately for him, like all inventors ahead of their time, Fulton lacked the technical resources to realise his plans. When Napoleon tired of him, he took his invention to Britain, where it was equally unappreciated, although on Prime Minister Pitt the Younger’s instructions he did produce a new range of sea-based assault weapons, including the first modern torpedoes.
In 1861, the French inventor Brutus de Villeroi, Fulton’s successor in pushing submarine design as far as the technology of his day would allow, tried to persuade US President Abraham Lincoln that the submarine would provide the North with a weapon to win the American Civil War. Lincoln was not impressed but de Villeroi, when a professor of mathematics at Nantes University in the early 1840s, had already made another convert: his young student Jules Verne, who channelled his lessons into the futuristic vision of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), one of the most influential adventure novels of its time.
The first successful use of a submarine in warfare was made by a historically reactionary state fighting a losing battle – the Confederate States of America in 1864. The American Civil War had begun in April 1861, when the Confederacy bombarded Fort Sumter, which stood guard over the South Carolina port of Charleston. Thereafter, Charleston was integral to the struggle between North and South. Needing a means to break the US Navy’s blockade, which was strangling the South’s trade in cotton and its ability to fund its rebellion, the Confederacy turned, in some desperation, to submarines.
In March 1862, a New Orleans consortium headed by Horace L Hunley was granted permission to build a submarine capable of sinking blockade ships. Their first effort was named the Pioneer. The design of the Pioneer was crude: essentially it was a 20ft (6m) iron tube propelled by hand cranks and manually adjusted diving planes that could tow a mine under an enemy ship. Early trials attacking barges showed promise but the lack of ventilation meant that even a small crew could not stay submerged for longer than five minutes without having to come up for air. Efforts to solve this were cut short in April 1862 when Northern forces took New Orleans and the Pioneer was scuttled in Lake Pontchartrain to prevent it falling into their hands.
The next attempt was the CSS Hunley, named after its backer. Constructed from an old steam boiler, the Hunley was 40ft (12m) long, with stern and aft ballast tanks, a hand-cranked propeller, and a small periscope. In its initial trials, the boat sank twice, the second time drowning all aboard, including Hunley. However, with Charleston suffering heavy bombardment and near to collapse, the Southern commander General P G T Beauregard ordered a third attempt be made under the command of Lieutenant George Dixon.
This was more successful. On 17 February 1864, the Hunley submerged in Charleston harbour and made its way at periscope depth to the blockade ship USS Housatonic, ramming a remote-triggered spar torpedo into its hull. It backed off before detonation but, still, the resulting explosion sank the Hunley as well as the Housatonic. Although all the Hunley’s crew were killed, they had made military history as the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in wartime.
The years between the American Civil War and the First World War saw huge advances in submarine technology, due almost entirely to the innovations of the engineer John Philip Holland. In the 1870s, Holland, an Irishman who had emigrated to America, took his ideas about submarine design to the US Navy, but without success. He turned next to the well-heeled American wing of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB), often referred to as the Fenians. Holland’s first attempt at a submarine for the IRB, the Fenian Ram, was hampered by technical problems, but his innovative concepts, including a compressed-air system to launch torpedoes and an on-board toilet, took the submarine far beyond the converted steam boiler of the Hunley era.
Holland’s new designs finally bore fruit when the US Navy, beginning to wake up to the potential of the submarine for coastal defence and covert attack missions, held the first of three separate competitions (1887, 1888, and 1893) for the best and most efficient submarine design. Holland won all three, but funding was held up by sceptics and political infighting. Finally, in 1895, the John P Holland Torpedo Boat Company was awarded a contract to build a version of Holland’s newest design for a 54ft (16.5m) vessel that could dive safely to 100ft (30m).
There was still considerable resistance to authorising money for more than one submarine, but the Congressional hearings convened to examine the matter were swayed by the testimony of Captain Alfred T Mahan, the American naval officer and historian, whose book, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 (published in 1892), was widely regarded as the definitive work on grand naval strategy. Mahan was concerned that the US Navy, which had shrunk considerably since the Civil War, was tiny in comparison with those of rivals such as Britain, Germany, and France, and needed something to redress the balance. Holland’s money was voted through after Mahan observed, ‘In our present unprotected position, the risk of losing the money by virtue of the boat’s being a failure is more than counterbalanced by the great protection the boat would be if a substantial success.’
Mahan had the insight to see that Holland had developed a fully functioning submarine that ticked all the boxes for its successful use: a firm outer hull and an even firmer inner hull to protect the crew from the immense water pressure as it dived deeper; reliable ballast and trim tanks to control buoyancy and keep its weight perfectly balanced; rudder controls and diving planes to control its rise and descent. To these, Holland added an internal combustion engine for running on the surface and charging batteries, and a crude Electro-Dynamic electric motor for submerged operations. His prototype, Holland VI, could attain a speed of 6 knots when surfaced and 5.5 knots when submerged.
Launched in 1897, Holland VI provided the basis for submarine design through the first half of the 20th century. Even so, it still used an unreliable petrol engine, could not stay submerged for very long without running out of oxygen, and was notorious for containing a toilet that often overflowed back into the boat. These things would improve over time. It entered service with the US Navy in 1900 as USS Holland, and was subsequently given the number SS1, the US Navy’s first submarine.
The British Royal Navy, aware that America and France were investing in this new technology, promptly hired Holland’s company, now renamed the Electric Boat Company, to build five submarines. As a result, the Royal Navy’s first submarine, the 63ft (19m) HMS Holland 1, was launched in October 1901. By 1910, Britain had 61 Holland-type submarines. In 1904, France pulled ahead with the Aigrette, the first submarine to use a diesel engine on the surface and an electric engine below. Diesel engines burned oil instead of gas and so produced fewer toxic fumes, but were useless underwater because they needed air for combustion, hence the need for electric battery propulsion as well. The Aigrette’s design was immediately copied by the US Navy’s new Skipjack-class submarines, one of which, the E-1, became the first American submarine to cross the Atlantic under her own power.
Under its new emperor, Wilhelm II, Germany was desperate to create an overseas empire to rival the UK’s, so it did not fail to notice what its rivals were doing. In 1906, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz commissioned the first Unterseeboot (‘undersea boat’), or U-boat. By 1914, Germany possessed 29 U-boats versus Britain’s 77, but unlike Britain’s submarines, Germany’s were nearly all powered by diesel engines. This meant they could travel more than 5,000 nautical miles (9,260km) from base and dive deeper than other submarines. They were the first genuine stealth technology, a threat that Britain’s naval strategists completely failed to foresee. Even the forward-thinking First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher, saw submarines as mainly coastal defence weapons. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had a sharper vision: in his short story ‘Danger! A Remarkable Story of England at War’, written before the outbreak of the First World War, he correctly predicted Germany’s U-boat strategy by suggesting that the fictional country of Norland (that is, Germany) would be able to defeat the UK by using its submarine fleet to blockade British ports.
Conan Doyle’s concern was soon vindicated. On 15 September 1914, less than two months after the outbreak of war, U-boat U-21, submerged off the Firth of Forth, torpedoed the British cruiser Pathfinder, hitting its main magazine and igniting a massive explosion. Of the 268 crew, only 12 survived. On 22 September, even worse followed when the U-9 torpedoed three British cruisers in rapid succession. Sixteen hundred British sailors died in this one engagement, more than were lost by Admiral Nelson in all of his battles combined.
The British were further humiliated on 23 November when a lone U-boat, U-18, appeared in the middle of Scapa Flow in Orkney, the main anchorage of the Grand Fleet. Luckily for the British, the fleet was at sea and U-18 was rammed by two coastal defence ships, but the fact that a U-boat with the capacity to destroy its prize dreadnoughts could so easily penetrate its inner sanctum was a profound blow to Royal Navy morale.
There was little in the way of defence against submarine attack. In 1914, what would come to be known as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) had not yet been formulated. Sonar was more than a decade away. Hydrophones to detect submarine propeller noise were not deployed until 1916, depth charges (high explosives sealed in barrels and set to detonate at different depths) until 1917. Without these resources, the British could deploy only mines and nets, and extra gunnery on battleships to deter U-boats on the surface.
These crude ASW tactics were simply not enough against U-boats seeking to disrupt merchant shipping destined for the UK in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Even before its land-based campaign ground to a halt in the trenches of the Western Front, the long-term prospect for the war looked increasingly bleak for the British. Only the use of Q-ships – named after their home port of Queenstown (now Cobh) on Ireland’s south coast – offered a means of taking the fight to the U-boats. A Q-ship was disguised to resemble an easy target such as a lone tramp steamer traversing a region where U-boats were known to operate. They were designed to trick a U-boat into surfacing to attack its target with its deck guns, thus conserving its limited store of torpedoes. Once the U-boat had surfaced, hidden panels on the hull of the Q-ship would drop to reveal its own formidable deck guns, which would then open fire on the exposed submarine.
Despite its neutrality, America found itself embroiled in the escalating U-boat campaign. In April 1915, following Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare (USW) against any ships that might be thought to contain supplies for the UK, the German Embassy in Washington, DC, placed 50 notices in American newspapers warning that all civilians travelling in an ‘exclusion zone’ around Great Britain and Ireland did so at their own risk.
On 7 May 1915, U-boat U-20 torpedoed the passenger liner RMS Lusitania 11 nautical miles (20km) off the coast of Ireland, inside Germany’s declared exclusion zone. No direct warning to the target had been given. The liner sank quickly, with 1,198 of the 1,962 complement drowned. One hundred and twenty-four of the dead were American civilians. Germany justified the sinking by pointing out that the Lusitania was officially registered as an armed merchant cruiser and was carrying rifle munitions destined for the UK, and therefore was a legitimate target.
The sinking of the Lusitania did not propel America into the war. A large anti-war movement, based partly on socialist anti-imperialism and partly on American isolationism, forced the Democratic president Woodrow Wilson to imply that if he were re-elected in 1916 he would keep the US out of the conflict. His election slogan, ‘He Kept Us Out of War’, was instrumental in his victory (few noticed the past tense). However, since the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had become the major market for American goods and for loans at interest, with J P Morgan acting as a financial agent for the Allies with the US government. With Britain in debt to Morgan for $400 million, American finance had a direct vested interest in a British victory.
On 4 February 1917, Germany reopened USW against any and all ships, including civilian and merchant shipping, that might be carrying munitions or other resources to Britain. The final straw for America came with the sinking of the RMS Laconia. The 18,000-ton Cunard ocean liner, which had been commandeered by the British government, was torpedoed by SM U-50 six nautical miles (11km) northwest by west of Fastnet while returning from the United States to England. Although casualties were relatively light (12 of the nearly 300 people on board were killed), a first-hand account by a Chicago Tribune reporter of the deaths of an American mother and daughter led to strident demands for the US to declare war on Germany. Three weeks later, it did so.
From 1914 to 1917, the UK government feared that food and other essential supplies would be so disrupted by the U-boats that Britain would have to surrender. The German U-boat fleet, already formidable, was enhanced by a number of ‘cruiser submarines’, extremely large submarines with large cannons on their hulls, able to stay at sea for extended periods. Although these were limited in number – Germany had only three of the new Type U-139 and seven converted merchant submarines – they were each armed with two 15cm (5.9in) guns and patrolled areas far distant from their North Sea bases.
In the end, Britain survived only because it started to move its merchant ships in heavily protected naval convoys. This cut its losses by 90 per cent (although even then the cruiser submarines wrought havoc on the convoys). That, and the arrival of large American land forces in 1918, led to Allied victory, but the extent to which Britain had narrowly avoided defeat was not acknowledged for many years. Already, it had become clear, the submarine had changed the face of warfare forever. •
Kipling on submarine warfare
In 1915, the English writer Rudyard Kipling was asked by the Daily Telegraph to produce a series of patriotic articles on the less regarded parts of the Royal Navy, including coastal patrol boats and submarines. Titled ‘The Fringes of the Fleet’, each article was prefaced by a poem created for the series. The article ‘Submarines’ was accompanied by the short poem ‘Tin Fish’, with its memorable opening stanza:
The ships destroy us above
And ensnare us beneath,
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of Death.
In 1916, the articles were reproduced in the book Sea Warfare, with an entirely new section on submarines titled ‘Tales of the Trade’, prefaced by a new poem, ‘The Trade’. Kipling’s major work on submarine warfare, ‘The Trade’ granted First World War-era submarines a brief level of cultural acknowledgement:
They bear, in place of classic names,
Letters and numbers on their skin.
They play their grisly blindfold games
In little boxes made of tin.
Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,
Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,
Or where the Baltic ice is thin.
That is the custom of ‘The Trade’.
Kipling, who had a deep regard for all of the armed forces, even suggested that submarine crews did not receive enough recognition for the vital role they played in the war effort:
Their feats, their fortunes and their fames
Are hidden from their nearest kin;
No eager public backs or blames
No journal prints the yarns they spin
(The Censor would not let it in!)
When they return from run or raid
Unheard they work, unseen they win
That is the custom of ‘The Trade’.
This is an edited extract from Sub Culture: the many lives of the submarine by John Medhurst, published by Reaktion Books, £16, available now in hardback.