Underwater warfare came of age on 15 September 1914, when Germany’s U-21 became the first submarine to sink a ship with a self-propelled torpedo. The U-boat’s devastating surprise attack, off the Firth of Forth, sank the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder in just six minutes, with the loss of all but 12 of its 268 crew members.
Seven days later, even worse was to follow when another German submarine, U-9, torpedoed three more Royal Navy cruisers in rapid succession in the southern North Sea. In one morning, around 1,600 British sailors lost their lives, provoking public outcry and shaking confidence in a Royal Navy that seemed completely to have failed to anticipate this game-changing new threat.
But if the early days of the First World War introduced the submarine as a sleekly effective and terrifyingly modern weapon of war – the first genuine stealth technology – the craft’s journey up to that point had not always been plain sailing.
This week on The Past, and in the new issue of Military History Matters, John Medhurst takes a deep-dive into the history of the submarine in warfare – from the unrealised visions of Leonardo da Vinci and the unlikely-sounding experiments of King James I, via the brilliant pioneering efforts of 18th- and 19th-century maritime engineers such as Robert Fulton and John Philip Holland, to the deadly technological advances ushered in by the Industrial Age.
Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been searching the archives for more about submarine warfare: we analysed how the Royal Navy eventually came to defeat the Kaiser’s U-boats in the first ‘Battle of the Atlantic’; we looked more deeply at the career of John Philip Holland, the ‘father of the modern submarine’; we immersed ourselves in knowledge at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire; and we even studied the devastating use of ramming as a naval tactic, from ancient times to the Second World War.
And finally, if all that leaves you longing for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around submarines in history and culture. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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