Ohio Class, Ballistic Missile Nuclear Powered Submarine, USS Kentucky SSBN737

Submarine history, 1580 ΰ 2000:  

By Captain Brayton Harris, USN (Retired)

The first published prescription for a submarine came from the pen of WILLIAM BOURNE, an English innkeeper and scientific dilettante. Bourne first offered a lucid description of why a ship floats – by displacing its weight of water -- and then described a mechanism by which:

"It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. [If] Any magnitude of body that is in the water . . . having alwaies but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it Shall swimme when you would, and sinke when you list . . . ."

In other words, decrease the volume to make the boat heavier than the weight of the water it displaces, and it will sink. Make it lighter, by increasing the volume, and it will rise. He wrote of watertight joints of leather, and a screw mechanism to wind the volume-changing "thing" in and out. Bourne was describing a principle, not a plan for a submarine, and offered no illustration.

early submarines: William Bourne

Some years later, this drawing purported to be Bourne's scheme: leather-wrapped pads which can be screwed in toward the centerline to create a flooded chamber, and screwed out to expel the water and seal the opening.

However, Bourne wrote of expanding and contracting structures, not flooding chambers – and submarines built in England in 1729 and France in 1863 conformed with his idea exactly. 

Dutchman CORNELIUS DREBBEL, hired in 1603 as "court inventor" for James I of England, built what seems to have been the first working submarine. According to accounts, some of which may have been written by people who actually saw the submarine, it was a decked-over rowboat, propelled by twelve oarsmen, which made a submerged journey down the Thames River at a depth of about fifteen feet.

There are no credible illustrations of Drebbel's boat, and no credible explanations of how it worked. Best guess: the boat was designed to have almost-neutral buoyancy, floating just awash, with a downward-sloping foredeck to act as a sort of diving plane. The boat would be driven under the surface by forward momentum . . . just as are most modern submarines. When the rowers stopped rowing, the boat would slowly rise.

Reports that Drebbel's patron, James I, witnessed a demonstration, may be true. Reports that James I took an underwater ride are most unlikely.

French priest MARIN MERSENNE theorized that a submarine should be made of copper, cylindrical in shape to better withstand pressure and with pointed ends both for streamlining and to permit reversing course without having to turn around. Pressure? For every foot of depth, water pressure increases about half a pound per square inch (PSI).

The 72-foot-long "Rotterdam Boat," designed by a Frenchman (named DE SON) was probably the first underwater vessel specifically built (by the Belgians) to attack an enemy (the English Navy). This almost submarine – a semi-submerged ram – was supposed to sneak up unobserved and punch a hole in an enemy ship. The designer boasted that it could cross the English Channel and back in a day, and sink a hundred ships along the way.

early submarines: De Son Rotterdam Boat

The "Rotterdam Boat." Propulsion: a spring-driven clock-work device to turn a central paddle wheel. The device was so underpowered that, when the boat was launched, it went – literally – nowhere. 

There is no evidence that Italian GIOVANNI BORELLI ever built a submarine, but this illustration continues to appear in books and magazines – in several variations – as if were a real boat, sometimes erroneously linked with Drebbel's or Symons's (below) efforts. Borelli did understand the basic principle of volume vs weight (displacement), but he illustrated a totally impractical ballast system by which weight would be increased or diminished by allowing a bank of goat-skin bags to fill with water, then by squeezing the water out to rise again.

Giovanni Borelli early submarine  

DENIS PAPIN, a professor of mathematics built two submarines. He used an air pump to balance internal pressure with external water pressure, thus controlling buoyancy through the in-and-out flow of water into the hull. Propulsion: sails on the surface, oars underwater.

Papin featured "certain holes" through which the operator might "touch enemy vessels and ruin them in sundry ways."

Denis Papin early submarine 

Papin tested his first boat, but his patron lost interest and the second boat was never finished. Illustrations of this submarine look like a steam kettle. Papin was also the inventor of the pressure cooker. An engraver might have confused the two, or this may have been a joke – or Papin's attempt at secrecy.  

English house-carpenter NATHANIEL SYMONS created a one-man expanding/contracting sinking boat – no locomotion – as a sort of public entertainment. Sealed up inside, in front of a crowd of spectators, he cranked the two parts of his telescopic hull together, spent forty-five minutes underwater, then expanded the hull, rose to the surface, and passed the hat. One man gave him a coin.

Wagon-maker J. DAY, another Englishman, built a small submarine with detachable ballast stones, hung around the outside with ring bolts, which could be released from inside. This worked quite well in shallow water. Encouraged by a professional gambler, he built a bigger boat: they would take bets on how long he could remain underwater, further out in the deep-water harbor.

Surrounded by ships filled with bettors, they hung some stones; the boat wallowed awash, but would not go under. They hung some more stones. The boat sank – like a rock – and would have collapsed long before the ballast could be released.

Yale graduate DAVID BUSHNELL (‘75) built the first submarine to actually make an attack on an enemy warship. Dubbed the "Turtle" because it resembled a sea-turtle floating vertically in the water, it was operated by Sergeant Ezra Lee.

The scheme: be towed into the vicinity of the target; open a foot-operated valve to let in enough water to sink, close the valve; move in under the enemy by cranking the two propellers – one for forward and one for vertical movement – turned by foot treadle "like a spinning wheel;" drill into the hull to attach a 150-pound keg of gunpowder with a clockwork detonator; crank to get away; operate a foot-pump to get the water out of the hull and thus re-surface.

In early-morning darkness on September 7, 1776, "Turtle" made an attack on a British ship in New York harbor, probably HMS Eagle. The drill may have hit an iron strap – it would not penetrate the hull. (Contrary to most reports, the Eagle of 1776 had not been fitted with a copper-sheathed bottom.) Lee became disoriented, soon bobbed to the surface and was spotted by a lookout. He managed to get away.

Bushnell's Turtle of 1776

"Turtle," as drawn in 1875 from the best information the artist could gather.
There are several important errors. It shows ballast tanks when there were none; it shows an Archimedes screw (helical) for locomotion instead of the propeller like the "arms of a wind mill" or a "pair of oars"described by Bushnell and others.

It also shows -- but this we may forgive -- the operator wearing a rather foppish late 19th-century outfit.

ROBERT FULTON, a marginal American artist but increasingly successful inventor living in Paris, offered to build a submarine to be used against France's British enemy: "a Mechanical Nautlius. A Machine which flatters me with much hope of being Able to Annihilate their Navy." He would build and operate the machine at his own expense, and would expect payment for each British ship destroyed.

He predicted that, "Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet rendered useless from the moment of the first terror."

After protracted delays and several changes in government, Fulton was encouraged enough to build the submarine he called "Nautilus." He made a number of successful dives, to depths of 25 feet and for times as long as six hours (ventilation provided by a tube to the surface).

"Nautilus" was essentially an elongated "Turtle" with a larger propellor and mast and sail for use on the surface. In trials, "Nautilus" achieved a maximum sustained underwater speed of four knots. Fulton (given the rank of rear admiral) made several attempts to attack English ships – which saw him coming and moved out of the way. Relationships with the French government deteriorated; a new Minister of Marine is reported to have said, "Go, sir. Your invention is fine for the Algerians or corsairs, but be advised that France has not yet abandoned the Ocean."

Fulton broke up "Nautilus" and sold the metal for scrap. He proposed – but, most reports to the contrary, never built – an improved version. The name "Nautilus" was immortalized by Jules Verne in his 1870 novel, "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" and was given to several U. S. Navy boats – including the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the 1954 USS Nautilus.

Robert Fulton Nautilus submarine, an early historic submarine

This most commonly-reproduced "Nautilus" was drawn two years before the submarine was built; Fulton added a deck and made a number of un-documented changes in the finished product. Illustrations which show "Nautilus" with the hull-form and sail rig of a surface sailboat represent the never-buil "improved" version.

Fulton also attached the name "torpedo" to that maritime weapon we now call a mine. Fulton's torpedoes were meant to be towed into position, either by a submerged boat or a surface rowboat. When the French passed on the submarine, he offered so sell torpedoes to the English; he demonstrated their utility by sinking an anchored ship with a torpedo towed into place by a rowboat.

In 1867, English engineer Robert Whitehead developed a self-propelled mine, which he called the "automobile torpedo" -- the true ancestor of the modern submarine-launched torpedo.

There were at least two submarines reported during the War of 1812, to one of which a British admiral attached the by then-generic name "Turtle." There is no truth to the assertion that Bushnell "returned to the charge" in the War of 1812; by that time, Bushnell, whose family had not heard from him for more than 25 years, was in his 70s and living under an assumed name in Georgia.

The other is preserved in the notebooks of Samuel Colt, a design attributed to SILAS CLOWDEN HALSEY: "lost in New London harbor in an effort to blow up a British 74." Of this, nothing else is known.

.Silas Clowden Halsey submarine War of 1812

The drawing shows the operator with one hand on a tiller, the other on a crank to turn the propeller and drill bit. A technical "Turtle" clone: there is a "water cock" and a "force pump" at the bottom of the boat and an "air tube to shove up when at the surface of the water." A "torpedo" is attached by a line to the drill.

Englishman THOMAS JOHNSTONE may – or may not – have participated in Fulton's efforts on behalf of the French and may – or may not – have been hired to build a 100-foot-long submarine to be used in a planned rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on the island of Elba. Whatever the facts of the case – Napoleon died before the (possible) submarine was finished.

The German port of Kiel was under blockade by the Danish Navy, and Prussian army corporal WILHELM BAUER persuaded a shipbuilder to construct his design for a blockade-breaking submarine which he called "Brandtaucher," (Incendiary Diver). The boat was made of riveted sheet iron, about the size and shape of a small sperm whale; propulsion, by a two-man-power treadmill which drove a propeller. A third crewmember steered. Buoyancy was controlled by ballast tanks, and trim was adjusted by moving a sliding weight along an iron rod.
On its first appearance, Brandtaucher was sufficiently threatening to cause the blockading force to move further out to sea. On a subsequent submerged run, the sliding weight slid too far forward and the boat plunged to the bottom, getting stuck in the mud at 60 feet. Water pressure was too great to allow Bauer and his two companions to open the hatch, and, with water seeping in through the damaged hull, they had to wait until incoming water had raised the internal pressure to match that outside. After an unimaginable six hours – in the claustrophobic darkness -- they opened the hatch and were swept aloft in a bubble of escaping air.

early submarine: Wilhelm Bauer Brandtaucher submarine 1850
"Brandtaucher" was recovered in 1887 and is now on display in Dresden.

Indiana shoemaker LODNER D. PHILLIPS built at least two submarines. The first collapsed at a depth of twenty feet. The second achieved hand-cranked underwater speeds of four knots and depths to 100 feet; Phillips offered to sell it to the U. S. Navy. The response: "No authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat . . . the boats used by the Navy go on not under the water."During the Civil War, Phillips again offered his services to the U. S. Navy, again, without success. 

early submarine: Lodner D. Phillips submarine patent

Phillips was granted an 1852 patent for a "Steering Submarine Propller." The innovation: steering, as well as up-and-down movement, was controlled by a hand-cranked propeller on a swivel joint.

WILHELM BAUER built the 52-foot "Diable Marin" (Sea Devil) for Russia; this submarine made as many as 134 dives, the most spectacular of which was in celebration of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. The boat took sixteen men underwater, four of whom made up a brass band whose underwater rendition of the national anthem clearly could be heard by observers on the surface.

French designer BRUTUS DE VILLEROI built a 33-foot-long treasure-hunting submarine for a Philadelphia financier. The target: the 1780 wreck of the British warship De Braak, lost near the mouth of the Delaware River. The method: divers, operating out of an airlock. The boat made at least one three-hour dive to twenty feet; no other details known.

Early in the Civil War, the Confederate Government authorized citizens to operate armed warships as "privateers." A New Orleans consortium headed by cotton broker HORACE L. HUNLEY was approved for the operation of "Pioneer," a 20-foot long three-man submarine (one to steer, two to crank the propeller) designed and built by JAMES MCCLINTOCK .

In a March 1862 demonstration on Lake Pontchartrain, a submerged "Pioneer" sank a barge with a towed floating torpedo. In April, 1862, the U. S. Navy captured New Orleans, and "Pioneer" was scuttled by its builders. Soon discovered, the boat eventually was sold for scrap in 1868.

Civil War submarine in New Orleans

A Civil War-era submarine -- which was long thought to be "Pioneer," but is not -- was discovered and raised in 1878 and is on display at the Louisiana State Museum. True origin? A mystery.

VILLEROI obtained a contract from the U. S. Navy for a larger submarine: the 46-foot-long "Alligator." Propulsion: originally sixteen oarsmen with hinged, self-feathering oars; improved, a three-foot diameter hand-cranked propeller. Weapon: an explosive charge to be set against an enemy hull by a diver.

"Alligator" was placed in service on June 13, 1862 – the first submarine in the U. S. Navy, all reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Towed South from Philadelphia for operations in the James River, the boat proved to be too large to hide and support divers in the relatively shallow water. It foundered and sank in a storm, 1863, while being towed to a potential operating area off South Carolina.

civil war submarine alligator, first u s navy submarine

Confederate Army officer Captain FRANCIS D. LEE created the low-freeboard steamboat known as a "David" (as in, David versus Goliath). Weapon: a spar torpedo (an explosive the end of a long pole), or directly ram an enemy. Built by the Southern Torpedo Boat Company in Charleston as a profit-making venture (substantial bounties were being offered to anyone who could sink a blockading Union warship), they seemed like a good idea at the time but had little success.

civil war confederate David submersible

Hunley's New Orleans consortium shifted operations to Mobile, Alabama, and built a second, slightly-improved submarine which may have been called "American Diver." McClintock spent some time and money trying to replace hand-cranking with some sort of electrical motor, but without success. This submarine sank in rough weather in Mobile Bay; the crew was rescued.

civil war confederate submarine american diver by McClintok

Sketch made by McClintock in 1872, which may represent the features of "American Diver."

Hunley's consortium built a third, larger, submarine -- about 40 feet long. Crew: possibly nine, eight to crank the propeller and at least one to steer and operate the sea cocks and hand-pumps to control water level in the ballast tanks.

Confederate Civil War submarine Hunley cross section

confederate civil war submarine CSS Hunley

These drawings were made, sometime after the Civil War, from information provided by W. A. Alexander -- one of the original (and suriving) builders. The cross-section (above) clearly shows the tight working space inside.

This submarine was sent to Charleston, to try to break the Federal blockade. Almost immediately, it, too, sank -- possibly twice, swamped by the wake of a passing steamer, with the loss of some crewmembers. Confederate Commanding General P. G. T. Beauregard became disenchanted but Horace Hunley persuaded him to allow "one more try" under his -- Hunley's -- personal supervision. The boat sank again, killing Hunley and the crew.

It was found, and raised -- and two members of the original team who had not been aboard harassed Beauregard often enough that , after "many refusals and much discussion," he agreed to allow one more attempt -- but not as a submarine. The boat -- now named CSS H. L. Hunley in honor of her spiritual father -- was to be armed with a spar torpedo and operate awash, as a David.

 civil war confederate submarine Hunley

CSS H. L. HUNLEY, recovered after a fatal accident and awaiting a "go-no go" decision by Charleston-area commanding General P. G. T. Beauregard, CSA.

A group of Northern speculators formed the American Submarine Company, to take advantage of a vote in the U. S. Congress to approve the use of privateers. However, when President Abraham Lincoln declined to accept the authority, construction of this consortium's submarine – the "Intelligent Whale" – languished. The boat was not completed until 1866, long after the end of the war. The then-ostensible owner, O. S. HALSTEAD, made several efforts over several years to sell it to the government; the U. S. Navy held formal acceptance trials in 1872. The "Intelligent Whale" failed. Halstead was murdered, probably by the jealous ex-lover of his mistress.

civil war submarine Intelligent Whale

"Intelligent Whale" is now an exhibit at the Militia Museum in New Jersey. It should not – under any circumstances – be regarded as a serious contender in the submarine sweepstakes.

A French team of CHARLES BURN and SIMON BOURGEOIS launched "Le Plongeur" (The Diver) – 140 feet long, 20 feet wide, displacing 400 tons. Power: engines run by 180 psi compressed air stored in tanks throughout the boat. Method of operation: fill ballast tanks just enough to achieve neutral buoyancy, then make adjustments with cylinders that could be run in and out of the hull to vary the volume – Bourne's concept. The boat was too unstable; the movement of a crew member could send her into radical gyrations.

On February 17, after months of training and operational delays, the spar-torpedo-armed CSS H. L. Hunley attacked USS Housatonic – which became the first warship ever sunk by a submarine. However, Hunley disappeared with all hands, not to be found until 1995, about 1000 yards from the scene of action. Best speculation on the fate of Hunley: with hatches open for desperately-needed ventilation, the boat was swamped by the wake of a steamer rushing to the aid of Housatonic. Hunley was recovered in the summer of 2000, and is now in the process of conservation and study.

WILHELM BAUER proposed that submarines be powered by a visionary – but not yet practical – internal combustion engine. Overall, he was to spend twenty-five years developing (or at least, proposing) submarines on behalf of six nations – Germany, Austria, England, the United States, Russia, France. His plebeian origin and autocratic style – not to mention his lowly army rank – were a serious handicap in dealing with the aristocratic brethren who ran most of the navies of the day. Essentially ignored by his native Germany in his lifetime, Bauer became a posthumous hero in the Nazi era.

The U. S. Navy began manufacturing, under license, the WHITEHEAD torpedo, for use by surface ships and, especially, a new class: the torpedo boat. This spawned development of another new class, the torpedo boat destroyer. Some navies flirted with yet another class, the destroyer of torpedo boat destroyers. Whatever: surface launched torpedoes had marginal military effectiveness, and found their true home underwater. 

French novelist JULES VERNE brought submarines to full public consciousness with "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." A submarine-wielding despot – Captain Nemo – uses his "Nautilus" to sink, among others, the then-fictional USS Abraham Lincoln. Verne's research was impeccable: he even computed the compressibility of seawater – "0" for most purposes – as .0000436 for each 32-feet of depth.

A submarine built by German FREDERICH OTTO VOGEL sank on trials.

Recent Irish emigre and Patterson, NJ, schoolteacher JOHN PHILLIP HOLLAND submitted a submarine design to the Secretary of the Navy, who passed the paperwork to a subordinate. No one would willingly go underwater in such a craft, that officer suggested, and, even if the idea had merit, he warned Holland, "to put anything through Washington was uphill work."

early submarine: John Holland first submarine design

Holland's first design: a 15.5 foot-long one man boat with a foot-operated treadle to drive not only the propeller, but also to control the one-cubic-foot ballast tank and discharge "used" air.

HOLLAND found sponsorship with the Fenians, a group of Irish revolutionaries, looking for a way to harass the British Navy. He built a small prototype submarine, "Holland No. 1" to test out his theories – including the use of a gasoline engine. The trial was successful enough to encourage building a larger, more warlike, boat.

Anglican Reverend GEORGE W. GARRETT tested the steam-powered "Resurgam:" steam for a boiler for surface operations, steam stored in pressurized tanks for submerged operations. The boat passed initial trials, but sank while under tow (rediscovered in 1996). Out of funds but not undeterred, Garrett took his ideas to a wealthy Swedish arms manufacturer, THORSTEN NORDENFELDT.

HOLLAND launched the "Fenian Ram" – 31 feet long, armed with a ram bow and an air-power cannon. Tests continued for two years, to depths of sixty feet for as long as one hour. Surface and submerged speeds were about the same, 9 knots.
However, the Fenians became increasingly frustrated with Holland's delays, and, faced with some internal legal squabbles, stole their own boat and hid it in a shed in New Haven, CT, where it remained for thirty-five years. Holland had nothing more to do with the Fenians; the boat was eventually donated to the city of Patterson, where it is now on display in West Side Park.

HOLLAND and several investors formed the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, hoping to sell a submarine to the French, then at war in Indochina. The company prototype, dubbed the "Zalinski Boat" after one of the investors, was launched in 1885. Too heavy for the launching ways, the boat smashed into some pilings and was badly damaged. Repaired, she made some token trial runs but the French war had ended and the company went bankrupt.

early submarines: Holland's Zalinski Boat

French designer CLAUDE GOUBET built a battery-operated submarine, too awkward and unstable to be successful. He followed up in 1889 with "Goubet II" – also small, electric, and not effective.

early French submarine: Claude Goubet

American JOSIAH H. L. TUCK demonstrated "Peacemaker" – powered by a chemical (fireless) boiler; 1500 pounds of caustic soda provided five hours endurance. Tuck's inventing days ended when relatives – noting that he had squandered most of a significant fortune – had him committed to an asylum for the insane.

early American submarine: Professor Tuck Peacemaker

"Nordenfeldt I" – 64 feet, armed with one external torpedo tube – was launched. Powered by steam on the surface -- and "accumulated" steam while submerged.
It took as long as twelve hours to generate enough steam for submerged operations and about thirty minutes to dive. Once underwater, sudden changes in speed or direction triggered – in the words of a U. S. Navy intelligence report – "dangerous and eccentric movements."

However, good public relations overcame bad design: Nordenfeldt always demonstrated his boats before a stellar crowd of crowned heads, and Nordenfeldt's submarines were regarded as the world standard.

The Greek Navy took delivery of "Nordenfeldt I" in 1886, and seems to have done nothing with it. Bitter rival Turkish Navy ordered two of the larger "Nordenfeldt II" boats – 100 feet with two torpedo tubes. When a torpedo was fired on a test dive, the first boat tipped backwards and sank, stern first, to the bottom. The second Turkish boat was left unfinished.

early european submarine: Nordenfeldt III

The 1887 "Nordenfeldt III" – 123 feet, rated to a depth of 100 feet and with an advertised surface speed of 14 knots – was sold to Russia, but ran aground en route. The Russians refused to accept delivery; the boat was scrapped.  

The U. S. Navy announced an open competition for a submarine torpedo boat, with a $2 million incentive. The specifications were based on presumed Nordenfeldt-level capabilities and presumed a steam-powerplant of 1000 horsepower.

Bidders included Nordenfeldt, Tuck, and Holland. Holland's design won, but because of contracting complications, the award was withdrawn.

The competition was re-opened a year later, Holland was again the winner – but a new Secretary of the Navy diverted the $2 million to surface ships. Nordenfeldt lost interest in submarines; Tuck went into the asylum; Holland got a job as a draftsman, earning $4 a day.

GUSTAVE ZEDE built "Gymnote" for the French Navy – a 60-foot, battery-powered boat capable of 8 knots on the surface but limited by the lack of any method for recharging the batteries while at sea. Her naval service was largely limited to experimentation. 

Spaniard ISAAC PERAL's "Peral" successfully fired three Whitehead torpedoes while on trials, but internal politics kept the Spanish Navy from pursuing the project. 

With a new Administration in office, the U. S. Congress appropriated $200,000 for an "experimental submarine" and the Navy announced a new competition. There were three bidders: Holland, GEORGE C. BAKER, and SIMON LAKE.

Holland and Lake submitted proposals; the politically well- connected Baker actually had a submarine, which he was demonstrating on Lake Michigan. A novel feature: a clutch between the steam engine and an electric motor allowed the motor to function as a dynamo, to recharge the batteries for submerged running. A troubling feature: a pair of amidships-mounted propellers that swivelled up or forward, through a clumsy period of transition.

When Holland's design once again won the competition, Baker complained to his friends in Washington. The whole business seems to have been put on "hold."

Simon Lake first submarine design

The scheme that Simon Lake submitted included a set of wheels by which the boat could run along the bottom. He tested this theory in 1894 with small wooden "test vehicle" dubbed "Argonaut Jr." and financed by relatives. Public demonstrations brought in enough money to build a larger boat, "Argonaut I." See photo, below.

Holland took a leaf from the Nordenfeldt playbook – in this case, good public relations to overcome political intransigence – and let it be known that he was entertaining offers from foreign navies. On March 3, the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was awarded $200,000 to build an 85-foot, 15 knot, steam-powered submarine to be called "Plunger."

Holland was only somewhat pleased – he didn't like the imposition of a steam engine, as well some changes the Navy insisted upon: the Navy knew what it wanted, but didn't know what it was doing. Congress was thrilled, and immediately authorized two more submarines of the Plunger type at $175,000 each.

Simon Lake submarine Argonaut

Simon Lake's prominently-wheeled "Argonaut I" – coincidentally under construction in the same graving dock as Holland's "Plunger." This boat used a gasoline engine for both surface and submerged running (drawing air from the surface through breathing tubes),

Holland's steam-powered submarine 1897 Plunger

"Plunger," launched in 1897, failed before ever leaving the dock. The temperature in the fireroom reached 137 degrees at only 2/3 rated output. As one of Holland's employees was later to testify, "They forced us to put steam in the "Plunger" against Mr. Holland's advice. When we . . . put the steam on, we found it was so hot we could not live in her." (In what must be an unwitting irony, the first U. S. Navy submarine with built-in air conditioning was the 1935 SS-179, "Plunger.")

Even before "Plunger" had failed, Holland began construction of a new, smaller (54 feet), slower (7 knots), gasoline-powered boat, "Holland VI." Armament: one dynamite gun (air-launched 222-pound projectile with seven loads) and a Whitehead torpedo (three loads). Crew: six men. Habitability: included a toilet, to support operations as long as forty hours. Holland began a series of public demonstrations.
New York Times, May 17, 1897: ". . . the Holland, the little cigar-sharped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Nixon's shipyard this morning,"

The impending Spanish-American War intruded on Holland's efforts to sell his new boat to the Navy, although Theodore Roosevelt – at the time, Assistant Secretary of the Navy – told his boss, "I think that the Holland submarine boat should be purchased." The war begun, Holland offered to go to Cuba and sink the Spanish fleet –if, upon being successful, the Navy would buy his boat. The Navy properly was horrified at the thought of a private citizen using a private warship to sink foreign ships; times had changed since Bushnell and "Turtle" and the days of the privateers.

In September, SIMON LAKE'S 36-foot "Argonaut I" made an open-ocean passage from Norfolk, VA, to Sandy Hook, NJ, prompting Jules Verne to send Lake a cable: "The conspicuous success of submarine navigation in the United States will push on under-water navigation all over the world . . . . The next war may be largely a contest between submarine boats."

By November, with the war ended, the Navy held an "official" trial of "Holland VI." There were some problems; Holland did not have enough money to fix them, so he joined forces with another manufacturer to form the Electric Boat Company. He was designated Chief Engineer.

first US submarine Holland

Holland VI, as pictured in the December, 1898 Scientific American.

The French fielded the 148-foot, 266-ton "Gustav Zede" – named for the recently-deceased designer. On maneuvers, the submarine "torpedoed" an anchored battleship, to the consternation of some, and pride among other, French naval officers.

The success of "Zede" prompted an international competition for a submarine with a surface range of 100 miles and a submerged range of 10 miles. There were twenty-nine entries; the winner was MAXIME LAUBEUF'S "Narval," 188-feet, 136-tons, which began life with steam power that soon enough was switched to a diesel engine.

French submarine Gustav Zede

A modified "Holland VI" passed the Navy trials; the company made a formal offer to sell the boat to the Navy, and moved it down from New York to Washington, DC to enhance the PR effort with some demonstrations for members of Congress.

Simon Lake's "Argonaut I" was enlarged, improved, and redesignated "Argonaut II."

On April 11, the U. S. Navy bought "Holland VI" for $150,000 and changed the name to USS Holland. The boat had cost $236,615 to build, but the company viewed it as a loss-leader. The Navy ordered another submarine.

Congress held hearings. One admiral testified: "The Holland boats are interesting novelties which appeal to the non-professional mind, which is apt to invest them with remarkable properties they do not possess." However, Admiral George Dewey – the senior officer of the Navy – noted that if the Spanish had had two submarines at Manila, he could not have captured and held the city. Besides, he said, "Those craft moving underwater would wear people out." In August, Congress ordered six more Holland submarines.

first US submarine USS Holland

USS Holland in drydock.

By October, the British had five Hollands on order, but not until senior naval leadership had wrestled with a moral dilemma: they, like many others through the years, believed that covert warfare was, basically, illegal. Gentlemen fought each other face to face, wearing easily recognized uniforms. The Navy agreed to proceed with caution, primarily to "test the value of the submarine as a weapon in the hands of our enemies."

However; Rear Admiral A. K. Wilson assured himself of a certain immortality by declaring that the submarine was "underhand, unfair, and damned UnEnglish." The government, he wrote, should "treat all submarines as pirates in wartime . . . and hang all crews."

President of France Emil Loubet became the first chief executive to go for a submerged ride, aboard "Gustav Zede." He did so in full formal dress, frock coat an all. Three months later, on maneuvers three hundred miles from her base, "Zede" put a practice torpedo into the side of the moving battleship "Charles Martel" to the reported "general stupefaction" of those aboard the battleship.

Submarines had become so popular in France that the newspaper Le Matin had launched a public fund-raising drive to build submarines for the Navy: "Francais" launched in 1901 and "Algerien" launched in 1902.

Spanish submarine designer RAIMONDO LORENZO D'EQUEVILLEY, looking for work, was rebuffed by the German Navy; Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was on record, "The submarine is, at present, of no great value in war at sea. We have no money to waste on experimental vessels." D'Equevilley took his plans to the Krupp Germania shipyard, which built the 40-foot "Forelle" (Trout) on speculation. Powered only by electricity and without an underway recharging system, – like the French "Gymnote" – "Forelle" was not a practical warship. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II was impressed and his brother, an admiral, took a ride.

D'Equevilley turned his hand to marketing, publishing a book (in Germany) in which he traced the history of submarines. "As exaggerated as it may sound," he wrote, "who knows whether the appearance of undersea boats may put an end to naval battles." Krupp worked on a larger, improved design – the "Karp" class – powered by gasoline engine on the surface, with an onboard battery recharging system. Russia ordered three. The German Navy ordered one, but asked for a kerosene rather than gasoline engine.

On their first fleet maneuvers, the five British Hollands were assigned to defend Portsmouth – and managed to "torpedo" four warships. Of this, Admiral John Arbuthnot (Baron) Fisher – known as "Jacky" in a profession which cherished nicknames almost as much as tradition – wrote, "It is astounding to me, perfectly astounding, how the very best amongst us fail to realize the vast impending revolution in Naval warfare and Naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish!"

On a more somber note: "A-1" – first of a brand-new British designed class of improved Hollands – was run over by an unwitting passenger ship, and sank with the loss of all hands. "A-1" was salvaged and put back in service.

British submarine Holland No. 3

The British Holland "No. 3," in service from 1902 to 1912.

Holland, squeezed out of management and increasingly ignored, resigned from Electric Boat and formed John P. Holland's Submarine Boat Company. He sold plans for two larger, improved submarines, to be built in Japan under the supervision of a Holland associate; one achieved a remarkable underwater speed of 16 knots, about twice that of the five earlier model Hollands in Japan.

Holland solicited business from around the world, but quickly discovered that all of his patents were controlled by Electric Boat – a fact of which the company made certain that all potential customers were aware. He tried to interest the U. S. Navy in a new, fast hull design; tested in an experimental tank at the Washington navy Yard, it promised submerged speeds as high as 22 knots. The Navy offered the opinion that it would be too hazardous for submarines to go faster than 6 knots underwater.

He was sued by Electric Boat for breach of contract, for unethical conduct, and even for using the name "Holland." The suits were eventually dismissed by the courts, but Holland's business never recovered.

Simon Lake, blocked from competing for submarine contracts, challenged what had become a monopoly business for Electric Boat. He won, and the Navy agreed that the next procurement would be through an open competition. Lake planned to enter "Protector," launched in 1902, as a template for a new class of submarines. Electric Boat planned to enter "Fulton," a company-financed prototype of an "improved" Holland.

However, Lake was desperately short of cash, and grabbed the opportunity to sell "Protector" to Russia, just then at war with Japan (and took orders for five more). Thus, as the only entrant, "Fulton" won the design competition, leading to continued orders from the U. S. Navy – but within a month, in an amazing display of impartiality, "Fulton," too, was en route to new owners in Russia. Impartiality? Only a few months earlier, Electric Boat had received a contract to deliver five Hollands to Japan.

Simon Lake submarine Protector

Lake's "Protector," taken out of the competition and sold to Russia in a desperate bid for cash.

John Holland submarine Fulton

"Fulton," about to be loaded on a barge to begin its journey to Russia.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first U. S. president to take a submerged ride – in the A-1 "Plunger" (not the unfinished steamboat, but a later Holland model. The first "Plunger" became a training target for Navy divers). He was so impressed with the hazards and hardships of the duty that he instituted submarine pay for crew members.

U-1, the first German "U-Boat" (for unterzeeboot), was launched. This modified "Karp" was 139 feet long, displaced 239 tons, had a surface speed of 11 knots, a submerged speed of 9 knots, and a range of two thousand miles. It was joined in 1908 by a twin, U-2. By this time, the French had a submarine force of sixty boats, the British almost as many. Germany finally took notice.

Simon Lake received his first U. S. Navy contract. However, Simon Lake was an inveterate tinkerer, unable to keep his hands off a design even when a boat was almost finished. The first submarine he managed to sell to the U. S. Navy – "Seal," laid down in February 1909 – was delivered two years, five months and fifteen days late.

Simon Lake submarine Seal

Virtually obsolete by the time she entered service, Simon Lake's "Seal" nonetheless set a depth record, 256 feet, in 1914. The Lake Torpedo Boat Company had some World War I contracts, but went out of business in 1924.

British doctrine held that submarines were limited to harbor operations; of course, but the people who wrote the doctrine had not been paying attention. The question could be, operations in whose harbor? In the annual fleet maneuvers, the first of the new "D" class "torpedoed" two cruisers as they left port – 500 miles from the submarine's home base.

British World War I submarine D-1

The British D-1, 1908-1918. Note the marked shift from the Holland porpoise-like hull shape to that of a surface ship – a shift common in all navies of the day. It was an acknowledgment that submarines would spend most of their lives on the surface and needed sea-keeping qualities not found in a streamlined "underwater" hull.

The U. S. Navy purchased a set of plans from the Italian designer Laurenti. It was not a happy move. While the Laurentis had some advanced features, they were difficult to build and awkward in service.

USS G-4 submarine Laurenti design

Laurenti G-4, the 26th U. S. submarine, at the Cramp shipyard in Philadelphia one year after launching, one year before commissioning

Thanks in large part to the efforts of a 26-year old Navy lieutenant, Chester Nimitz – who by this time had commanded three U. S. submarines – the obnoxious and dangerous gasoline engine was replaced by diesels, beginning with Nimitz' fourth submarine command, "Skipjack."

Lieutenant Nimitz addressed the Naval War College on "Defensive and Offensive tactics of Submarines." A highlight: he offered an innovative method for forcing enemy ships into submarine-patrolled waters: "drop numerous poles, properly weighted to float upright in the water, and painted to look like a submarine's periscope."

In the annual fleet maneuvers, two British submarines slipped into a theoretically-safe fleet anchorage and "torpedoed" three ships. A staff evaluation warned that enemy submarines might prove a serious menace to the fleet. The Navy Board scoffed.

Germany began to get serious about submarines with the "30s" series – U-31 to U-41. These diesel-powered boats displaced 685 tons, carried six torpedoes and one 88mm deck gun, had a surface speed of 16.4 knots, submerged 9.7 knots – and a maximum range of 7,800 miles at 8 knots.

On the eve of World War I, the art of submarine warfare was barely a dozen years old, and no nation had submarine-qualified officers serving at the senior staff level. Ancient prejudice against submarines remained: they represented an unethical form of warfare, and they did not "fit" in the classic, balanced structure of a navy – where battleships were king. No nation had developed any method for detecting submarines, or attacking them if found.

Global scorecard: professional intransigence aside, and thanks largely to the efforts of Admiral Fisher, Great Britain had the world's largest submarine fleet; Germany, with a late start, had the most capable.

Great Britain: seventy-four in service, thirty-one under construction, fourteen projected.

France: sixty-two boats in service, nine under construction.

Russia, forty-eight boats (five Hollands and eight Lakes, the rest from Britain, France and Germany).

Germany: twenty-eight in service, seventeen under construction.

United States, thirty in service, ten under construction; Italy, twenty-one in service, seven under construction; Japan, thirteen and three; Austria, six and two.

Excluding freelance designers, adventurers and Civil War experience, the submarine safety record was surprisingly good. The U. S. Navy had one accident, two men killed. The German Navy, one accident with three men killed. Japan and Italy had each lost a submarine, each with a crew of fourteen. At the other end of the scale, Great Britain: eight accidents, seventy-nine killed; France, eleven accidents, fifty-seven killed; Russia, five accidents, seventy killed.

In June, British Admiral Percy Scott wrote letters to the editors of two newspapers. In one, he said "as the motor has driven the horse from the road, so has the submarine driven the battleship from the sea." In the other: "Submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionized naval warfare; no fleet can hide from the aeroplane eye, and the submarine can deliver a deadly attack even in broad daylight." He called for more submarines, and no more battleships.

He was loudly attacked from all sides, both by other senior naval officers, by the government, and by the conservative press. In summary: his theory was "a fantastic dream."

By August, Great Britain and Germany were at war.

On September 5, U-21 sank the British cruiser "Pathfinder" with one torpedo. From weapon launch to sunk took three minutes. There were nine survivors of a crew of 268. A week later, the British had their turn when E.9 sank the German light cruiser "Hela" with two torpedoes.

Then, on September 22, 1914, one virtually prehistoric German submarine, U-9, sank three British cruisers. On the same day. Within slightly more than 90 minutes. A month later, U-17 became the first submarine to sink a merchantman. A month after that, U-18 penetrated the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow; although she did no direct damage and was captured, the effect upon the British Navy was electric: this one small boat forced the most powerful battle fleet in the world to shift to a base on the other side of Scotland.

The face of naval warfare was, indeed, changed forever.

The skipper of a British destroyer found himself sitting above a U-boat he could see, but not touch. "What we need," a staff officer mused, "is some sort of bomb to drop in the water." Thus began development of the depth charge, which claimed its first victim in March 1916. However, overall, these depth charges were not very effective unless exploding quite close to the U-boat; say, about the length of your living room. The main benefit was psychological.

The British blockade began to have a telling effect, and Germany vowed to mount a counter-blockade, using submarines. However, the German Navy had to wrestle with a serious ethical and legal dilemma. Under international law, a warship could stop and search a merchantman; if found to be carrying contraband cargo for an enemy, the ship could be captured and a "prize crew" set aboard to sail her to an appropriate harbor. Under some circumstances, the ship could be sunk, provided that the crew had been allowed to take to the lifeboats first.

A submarine did not carry enough sailors to make up prize crews, so the only option was to sink the merchant ship. For this purpose, submarines were equipped with deck guns. However, if the submarine came to the surface to give fair warning, she herself became vulnerable to attack (by ramming, by concealed guns, by warships rushing to the rescue).

German policy went through several cycles: play by the rules for a time, but in February, in retaliation for the indiscriminate damage of the blockade, she opted for "unrestricted submarine warfare." The legal requirement for "fair notice" was met, at least in theory, by setting specifically-designated war zones, within which all vessels were subject to attack without warning.

With only 35 active U-boats, Germany began sinking British merchant ships faster than they could be built, and got very serious about submarines. Several accelerated construction programs were launched; one was for smaller, less capable boats which were nonetheless well-suited to operations close to home. These were dubbed the UB-Class..

In this post-war photo, a French boat is on the left. Next, a German late-model coastal boat UB-133, and an early model UB-24.  

In May, U-20 sank the civilian passenger liner "Lusitania," killing 1198 men, women and children. Germany did not want to provoke the United States, and under pressure of international public opinion, backed off – for a while. In February 1916, unrestricted operations were resumed, but were cancelled in April after a controversial attack on a civilian ferry boat. Nonetheless, the U-boats were by then taking out about 300,000 tons of shipping a month.

The British discovered that torpedoes were routinely running under their targets; they finally realized that the explosive warhead weighed forty pounds more than the peacetime practice head upon which torpedo depth settings had been based. They were not the only nation – and this was not the only war – in which serious problems with the design and operation of torpedoes would impede progress. See below.

Germany created the ultimate World War I U-boat: a true long-range submarine cruiser. Boats of the UA class were 230 feet long, about 1500 tons with a speed of 15.3 knots on the surface, and a range of 12,630 miles at 8 knots. Armament: Twin 150 mm (5.9 inch) deck guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, nineteen torpedoes, manned by a crew of 56 with room for twenty more.

Forty-seven UA boats were ordered, but only nine made it into service before the November 1918 armistice.

One of the first of the UA-class was built as a blockade-breaking civilian cargo submarine operated by the North German Lloyd Line. "Deutschland" had a cargo capacity of 700 tons (small if compared with surface ships, but equal to that of seven 1990-era C-5A airplanes). She engaged in high-value trans-Atlantic commerce, submerging to avoid British patrols; on her first trip, she carried dyestuff and gemstones to America, nickel, tin and rubber (much of it stored outside the pressure hull) back to Germany.

The cargo-carrying submarine "Deutschland" at New London, CT, in November, 1916, on one of her two "civilian" visits to the United States; three months later she had been converted and sent to war as U-153.

Toward the end of the year, the situation in Germany was getting desperate. The typical daily food ration was "five slices of bread, half a small cutlet, half a tumbler of milk, two thimblefuls of fat, a few potatoes, and an egg cup of sugar."

"If we were to starve like rats in a trap," wrote one German citizen, "then surely it was our sacred right to cut off the enemy's supplies as well."

In February, the German government announced total unrestricted submarine warfare. A note to the U. S. government affirmed that "England is using her naval power for a criminal attempt to force Germany into submission by starvation," and warned that Germany was now compelled to use "all the weapons which are at its disposal." The German government knew that this would most likely bring America into the war, but predicted that Britain would be forced to the peace table before American forces could have much effect.

Also in February, in one of those strange parallels in which history occasionally delights, another Housatonic was sunk by an enemy submarine – in this case, an American merchantman; the attacker survived.

Great Britain had the worlds largest merchant fleet, almost half of the world total, but British shipbuilding capacity was only about 650,000 tons a year. By March, U-boats were sinking almost 600,000 tons a month and Great Britain was down to a six-week food supply.

The U. S. entered the war in April.

There was one time-honored method for protecting merchant ships from enemy attack: convoy, dating back almost to the dawn of ocean commerce. However, the British Navy resisted: there were too many ships coming and going, 2500 a week, and port facilities were already strained; bringing in the glut of a convoy would create chaos. The convoy would become a huge target for the U-boats. Convoy might be all right for military auxiliaries such as troopships, but merchant crews did not have the skills necessary to keep in convoy formation, and many did not speak English. Most merchant ships were fast enough to outrun a U-boat. Besides, and perhaps most significant, warships should be out looking for the enemy, not herding bunch of merchantmen. The Navy was trained for offense, not defense. To be aggressive, not passive.

The counter arguments: most of the traffic was made up of small coasters and ferries; there were only about 140 trans-ocean ships arriving each week, spread across a number of ports. A U-boat could only make one attack before the escorts would force it to break off and hide – the larger the convoy, the more ships home free. A merchant might outrun one U-boat – right into the arms of another. Crews could be trained. The goal was to curtail sinkings, not make naval officers feel good.

By late spring, the situation was grave enough that the Navy finally agreed to a trial of convoy. And never looked back. Of 83,959 ships in convoys from then to the end of the war, only 257 were sunk by U-boats. During the same period, 2,616 independent sailers were sunk. The main benefit of convoy: it forced the U-boats to attack, submerged, which meant that they already had to be in attack position if a convoy happened to sail past.

Convoys with air patrol were the safest of all – because the submariners knew that, even if they carried out an attack, the aircraft could determine their approximate location by tracing back down the visible torpedo track. However, the carrying capacity of most aircraft of the day was too limited for heavy weapons. Many could not even carry a radio set.

Six UA boats were deployed to the East Coast of the United States, where they laid mines and sank 174 ships – mostly smaller vessels without radios which could neither be warned or give warning. The UA- boats proved that a submarine could operate 3000 miles from home base, but did not have any impact on the movement of troops and supplies to Europe.

Twelve American submarines took up station off Ireland and in the Azores. They had nil effect on the war, but learned a lot about wartime operations. (The primary wartime contribution of the U. S. Navy was anti-submarine patrol – providing 80 percent of all trans-Atlantic convoy escorts.) One clear lesson: the dive time of the American boats was too slow; for the L-class, it averaged 2 minutes 23 seconds. A small UB could be fully under in 27 seconds.

Most navies adopted an alpha-numeric system for identifying submarines, referring to the class and the series within the class: A-1, L-5, and so forth. The U. S. Navy added names to some (but not all); in the 1920s, the scheme had reached S-51 (the 162nd U. S. submarine). Thenceforth, a different system was followed: U. S. submarines carried a hull number and name (usually that of some sea creature), i.e. SS-163, "Barracuda." The British system: A.5, E.6. Germany did not differentiate class, only type: all hull numbers began with U-, with type distinctions such as UA, UB, UC.

Shown here, U.S. Navy L-class boats, stationed in English waters in 1917. The prominent "AL" identifier was to avoid confusion with boats of the British L class. 

"Pattern" camouflage was designed to confuse a U-boat's visual fire-control systems – making it difficult to judge range, size, speed, and course. This practice continued into World War II, when more sophisticated systems were introduced.

Submarines themselves employed more natural schemes of camouflage, typically to blend in with operating conditions: white for arctic waters, different shades of gray for different parts of the world. Eventually, all navies adopted some version of the U. S. Navy's "haze gray" for surface ships, black for submarines.

The American troopship Louisville in full-dress. For the record, not one soldier was killed by U-boat while being transported – always in convoy – either across the Atlantic or across the English Channel.

One vulnerability constantly exploited by the Allies and not fully appreciated by the Germans: radio intercepts. The Germans knew their transmissions could be overheard and U-boat locations pin-pointed by direction finders, but didn't seem to care: they assumed the U-boats would be long gone before any attackers could arrive on the scene. They didn't realize that by knowing where the U-boats were operating, the Allies often could re-route convoys out of harm's way.

Great Britain introduced the steam-powered K-CLASS. These huge boats – at 338 feet and 1883 tons, three times the size of any other in the fleet – were built in response to intelligence reports that Germany was building a 22-knot submarine. The reports were in error.

So were the K-boats. They took eleven minutes to dive; temperatures in the boiler room then reached 160 degrees F, and in the engine room, 90 degrees F, although, since the engines were not running, no one needed to be in those spaces while submerged. Naval planners were not concerned about the excessive dive time – they assumed that the submarine crews would see the masts of approaching ships well before the enemy could spot them.

Naval planners seem not to have noticed the introduction of the airplane and airship to the equation.

The development of submarine-locating devices began early in the war with hydrophones (a directional microphone in the water) to listen for the sounds of propellers, and, too late to be of much use in this war, an echo-ranging system (the British dubbed it ASDIC – which apparently stands for nothing in particular – but now known universally as SONAR, which stands for "Sound Navigation and Ranging.") By sending out an audible "ping" and measuring the echo return, an operator can determine the range and bearing of a submarine.  

By summer, much of Germany was in rebellion, and the government began to move toward armistice. In October, the surface navy refused to go to sea for one last suicidal battle. The U-boat navy remained loyal; U-135 was even on alert to attack a renegade German battleship. Last kill: UB-50 sank the British battleship Britannia two days before the November 11 armistice.

SCORECARD: Germany started the war with 26 operational boats and added 390. At war's end, 171 new boats were in the water and another 148 were under construction. Wartime losses: 173. Mines took out at least 48; depth charges claimed 30; gunfire, 20; ramming 19; submarines 17; accident, 19; unknown, 19; aircraft 1.

In the meantime, U-boats had sunk more than 4,000 ships, more than 11 million tons – fully one-fourth of the world's total supply. In essence, unrestricted submarine warfare almost won the war for Germany. But Germany lost the war – because of unrestricted submarine warfare.

A paradox? No, a matter of timing. If the U. S. had not entered the war in 1917, Germany likely would have been able to force a peace agreement. But the U-boat operations directly and specifically brought America into the conflict.

Virulent wartime propaganda to the contrary, there was only one verified U-boat atrocity during the war: the sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle by U-86 and the skipper's attempt to hide the evidence by machine-gunning the survivors in the water. He missed a few. Post-war, he fled the country to avoid a 1921 war crimes trial; two of his officers were tried and convicted as accessories. They did not remain too long in jail, somehow managing to "escape" their German guards within a few months.  

UC-97 became perhaps the only German submarine to be sunk within the continental United States. One of five U-boats turned over to the U. S. Navy for post-war study, she toured the Great Lakes as part of a Victory Bond drive, and was sunk (on purpose) in Lake Michigan a few miles east of Chicago.

Post-war, the U. S. Navy began applying lessons-learned – from operations and from a study of the captured U-boats – toward new submarine designs. Whereas the operating areas for the European powers were primarily close to home, the primary operating area for the U. S. Navy was the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the Navy needed a boat with good sea-keeping qualities, exceptional range, high reliability, and a reasonable level of habitability. 

Japan, emboldened by their surprise victory over the Russian colossus in 1905 and their successful role in providing escort services in World War I, began planning for an eventual showdown with the nation they viewed as their major and logical adversary: the United States. As one of the World War I allies, Japan received seven of the surrendered U-boats but went a bit beyond mere "examination." Japan imported some 800 German technicians, engineers and naval officers to teach them how to design and build submarines.

Several unfinished K-boats were converted from steam to diesel power. One, designated M.1, was fitted with a 12-inch naval rifle. In theory, the gun could be fired while submerged; in practice, the boat had to surface after each shot to reload the gun. M.1 sank after a collision in 1925.

Another, designated M.2, was turned into a submarine aircraft carrier. M.2 sank when the hangar door was opened by mistake while the boat was still partially submerged.  

The big gun gone underwater: the British M.1.

The Treaty of Versailles blocked the German Navy from submarines, and limited the number of officers to 1500. One of those was U-boat-skipper Karl Doenitz. He was assigned as commanding officer of a torpedo boat – a submarine on the surface, if you will. He began developing submarine tactics for the next war.

In secret, Germany acquired a Dutch shipbuilding company which designed submarines ostensibly for sale to international customers but which also were prototypes for the next class of German U-boats. In fact, 1931 sea trials for three boats sold to the Finnish Navy were conducted by German crews.

Most major navies have tried to use submarines as aircraft carriers – never with much success. Here, S-1 (the 105th U. S. submarine) was equipped with an on-deck hangar and the Martin MS-1 seaplane. Wishful thinking; the MS-1 had to be disassembled to fit in the hangar and put together again before flight, forcing the submarine to remain exposed for too long. In addition, launching and recovery were virtually impossible in the open ocean.

British tested the 3,000 ton X.1. armed with four 5.2 inch guns and six 21-inch torpedo tubes. This was an attempt to build an underwater cruiser. It was not successful, and was scrapped.

U. S. submarine S-51 was rammed by a steamer and sunk in 130 feet of water.

Two years later, S-4 was rammed by a Cost Guard cutter. There was no way that any survivors might have been rescued, and these accidents led to the development of the McCann submarine rescue chamber – and an increase in the submarine hazardous duty pay instituted by T. Roosevelt in 1905.

Another "Nautilus" – the 168th American submarine, laid down in 1927 – was another effort at putting big guns on submarines; in this case, twin 6-inch. "Nautilus" offered at least one improvement of the British and French efforts: these guns could independently be trained and aimed. However, the shells were too heavy for safe handling and the V-class boat was too cumbersome for operations as an attack submarine. "Nautilus" was converted into a seaplane filling station and amphibious support ship for World War II.

Not to be outdone by the British or the Americans, France fielded "Surcouf" – 361 feet, 3,304 tons – the world's largest submarine until World War II. Armed with twin 8-inch guns and an airplane. "Surcouf" disappeared in 1942, probably after collision with a merchantman. 

U. S. Navy opened a competition for the development of a light-weight diesel engine, more suitable to submarines than any currently in production. While the number of engines which might be purchased for submarines was too small to justify the investment, there was a large commercial market waiting in the wings: the railroad.

Japanese submarine designers moved out from under the shadow of the Germans, and, on their own, focused on three basic classes: the I-boats, most of them about the same size as the German U-cruisers; the RO coastal boats, about the same size as the German Type VII (see below) but not as capable; and the HA-series of midget submarines, in many variations.

The Japanese were more serious about submarine aircraft carriers than any other navy: they built their first, the 2,243 ton, 320-foot I-5, in 1932. It was equipped with one floatplane. In the next 12 years, they built 28 more, in ever-increasing sizes.

The German government approved the clandestine construction of sixteen new U-boats.  

March 16, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler renounced the Treaty of Versailles. A few weeks later, the first of a new series, U-1, entered service.


Captain Doenitz defined his fundamental concepts for the next conflict: "Tonnage War" and "Wolf Pack." The first replicated World War I experience – sink ships faster than they could be replaced, for a long enough period, and you could strangle an island nation like Britain.

The second – teams of seven or eight boats, attacking on the surface, at night; submerge to escape; re-surface and speed ahead to get in position for the next night's attack. The 15-knot surface speed of the U-boats was almost twice that of an average convoy, and equal to that of most anti-submarine escorts.

As with World War I, Germany developed several classes of U-boat: typical were the coastal boats (Type II), long range boats (Type IX), and jack-of-all-trades boats (Type VII), which became the mainstay of the fleet: more than 700 completed – in six variations, A through F – by the end of the war. Typical displacement (surface) about 760 tons, length 220 feet, range 8,700 miles with a functional endurance of seven or eight weeks without refueling. Dive time: 20 seconds to a maximum safe depth of 650 feet.

A Type VIIC U-boat – the mainstay of the German World War II submarine fleet – being welcomed on return from war patrol.

An experimental 140-foot, 213 ton Japanese HA boat topped 21 knots – submerged. The Japanese also developed the world's most effective torpedo: the "Long Lance. " The MK95 submarine version had a 900 pound warhead, wakeless oxygen-fueled turbine, range five miles at 49 knots. Contemporary U. S. Navy torpedoes had half the warhead and half the range – when they were working. See below.

While on sea trials, the brand-new
U. S. Navy SS-192 "Squalus" sank in 240 feet of water; an incompletely-closed valve caused flooding in the engine room. Twenty-six men were killed in the flooded section; there were thirty-three survivors. All were safely brought to the surface in four round-trips of the McCann submarine rescue chamber.

"Squalus" was salvaged, renamed "Sailfish," and served to the end of World War II.

Salvage operations above "Squalus," with two heavy-lift pontoons about to be sunk and lashed to the hull.

Ten days after the "Squalus" disaster, a junior officer opened the inner door of a flooded torpedo tube and inadvertently sank the British submarine "Thetis." A few men got out through an escape hatch; ninety-nine were lost.

The British developed an on-board escape system, whereby sailors waiting their turn to go out through a pressure-modulated airlock (and chest-deep in water) would be able to breath through individual oxygen masks, permanently stored in the fore and aft torpedo rooms.

The British also developed positive interlocks to prevent a recurrence, salvaged the boat and put it back in service, renamed "Thunderbolt." She was lost in combat in 1943. 

At the beginning of the year, Hitler told Doenitz that he was planning for a war six years in the future; accordingly, Doenitz developed plans for the construction of a U-boat fleet of 300 Type VII boats. This would allow 100 on station, 100 in transit and 100 in training or under repair. However, Germany moved into Czechoslovakia in March and Poland in September. On the 3rd, the British issued an ultimatum: get out of Poland. You have two hours to make up your mind. The Germans did not respond. World War II began.

Germany then had 57 U-boats in service, only 38 of which could be considered "sea-going." For the time being, it would be enough.

The U-boat war started under "prize rules." But not for long. On the first day, U-30 sank the liner "Athenia" without warning; 122 of 1,100 passengers were killed, including 28 Americans. To their credit, the German High Command was stunned, although they tried to pretend that the sinking was caused by a time bomb planted by the British to inflame public opinion against Germany. As late as January 1940, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was ordering his staff "to continue running the "Athenia" propaganda . . . bearing in mind the fundamental principle of all propaganda, i.e. the repetition of effective arguments." The German public did not learn the true story until after the war.

Toward the end of September, the High Command authorized "seizure or sinking without exception" for merchant ships trying to radio for help when ordered to stop. A week later, U-boats were instructed to sink without warning any ship sailing without lights. The commanders were instructed to enter a note in the log that the sinking was "due to possible confusion with a warship or auxiliary cruiser."

By November, all pretense had been withdrawn with Standing Order No. 154: "Rescue no one and take no one aboard . . . Care only for your own boat and strive to achieve the next success as soon as possible! We must be hard in this war." 

Dr. Ross Gunn of the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory suggested that "fission chambers" using an isotope of uranium, U-235, could be used to power submarines. In a "Saturday Evening Post" article a year later, a science writer noted that one pound of U-235 has the equivalent energy of 5 million pounds of coal: "A five pound lump of only 10 to 50 percent purity would be sufficient to drive ocean liners and submarines back and forth across the seven seas without refueling for months." 

German scientist Helmuth Walter demonstrated a prototype for the first true submarine – a boat which in theory could operate submerged for an indefinite period, unlimited by battery capacity or the need for atmospheric oxygen. V.80 was powered by the decomposition of highly-concentrated (95 percent) hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, known as Perhydrol. In essence: when the chemical breaks down, it releases superheated steam to drive a turbine, along with oxygen to support conventional combustion or for respiration by the crew.

The hull-shape of V.80 was optimized for submerged operations, and the boat indeed demonstrated exceptional speed – 28 knots submerged. It also demonstrated exceptionally high fuel consumption, 25 times that of a diesel engine, at exceptional cost. According to one source, one 6.5 hour trial run consumed $200,000 dollars worth of Perhydrol.

The design showed great promise. However, Hitler thought his war was won, and plans for the production of a series of Walter boats were put in limbo.

The 1943 experimental 250-ton Type Wa-201 Walter boat, U-792, which hit 25 knots, submerged, on sea trials.

Research continued. Perhaps eight, in several variations, 250 and 300 tons, were put into service, 1943-44 

The Type Wa-201 Walter boat, U-793, here partially dismantled at the end of the war.

Collapsible hydrogen peroxide storage bags being removed from the 300-ton Type XVIIB Walter boat U-1407 after the war. With the type of storage outside th pressure hull, fuel could be consumed without appreciable change in trim – seawater simply replaced the depleted volume.

U. S. Navy ran depth-charge tests against an operational submarine (for most of the test, moored underwater without crew). They found that 300 pounds of TNT was not very effective; the explosive charge was doubled to 600 pounds.

In June, France signed an armistice with Germany, and soon three French bases gave U-boats more convenient access to the open ocean. The eighteen months between July 1940 and December 1941 were known, to the German submarine force, as "the happy time." The score seemed limited only by endurance and weapons loading.

U-boat operations were directed by long-range radio from fleet headquarters in Germany. The Germans assumed that the traffic would be intercepted, but didn't care, they were encoding all messages. However, even coded intercepts were useful; many individual boats could be identified by their unique radio signature. Even if a firm position could not be established, an analyst could determine when a boat should be headed home along one of several reasonably predictable routes.

Italy joined Germany in June, bringing 105 submarines to the Mediterranean theater. They do not seem to have had much impact.

In ramping up in anticipation of war – or, put more delicately, considering the at-the-time overwhelming public support for continued neutrality, as a "just in case" prudent measure – U. S. submarine production jumped from six or seven a year through the mid-1930s to seventy-one for FY1941.

The Navy settled on SS-212, "Gato," laid down in October, 1940, as the template: 312 feet, 1,825 tons, range 11,400 miles, 24 torpedoes. Over time, improvements were made including a thicker pressure hull beginning with the otherwise more or less identical SS-285, "Balao."

A typical World War II U.S. submarine, the "thick skin" SS-364, "Hammerhead." Wisconsin's Manitowoc Shipyard developed this sideways technique to accommodate launching a boat into a narrow river.

On August 17th, Hitler formally declared a total blockade of the British Isles. Desperate to acquire more escorts, British Prime Minster Winston Churchill struck a deal with U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt: a loan of 50 over-age World War I American destroyers in exchange for long-term leases for base facilities in Newfoundland, Bermuda, British Guiana, and the West Indies. 

The first Wolf Pack went into operation in September. Where, in World War I, the simple fact of "convoy" kept the U-boats at bay, the Wolf Pack tactic (attack at night, rush ahead to the next rendezvous) set up a series of long-running battles. Early in the war, escorts were lacking and escort coordination was minimal. Often, they had not even talked with each other – let alone trained together – before meeting up in mid-ocean.

One example: On October 16, one U-boat spotted a convoy of 35 ships and called in the rest of his pack, six more boats. Another joined the next day. After three days, 17 of those ships had been sunk, two other convoys had been intercepted and 21 more ships sunk, without a single U-boat loss. The score would have been higher, but most of the submarines had fired all of their torpedoes and had to go home to re-load.  

At the end of the year, a German Naval Staff study noted the "accomplishments" of the U-boats, but called for the building of more battleships, taking shipyard resources away from submarine construction. At the time, a handful of operational U-boats (often, not more than ten at a time) were sinking twice as many ships at the surface fleet

To enhance morale – among civilians and sailors alike – a book of fiction and a feature movie showed Wilhelm Bauer battling bureaucracy and professional intransigence to reach the forefront of heroes: "Corporal Wilhelm Bauer, the first man who dove into the twilight." See 1850, above. 

By December, newly-perfected aircraft-mounted radar could pick up a surface-running U–boat at seven miles. Not a great distance, but farther than the eye could see at night. It was a start.

America's role as a "neutral" was somewhat fuzzy: there was a steady stream of supplies flowing by convoy across the Atlantic, and for much of the journey, protected by U. S. Navy resources. After several U-boat attacks – sinking an American merchantman in May and a U. S. destroyer on October 30, with the loss of 115 sailors -- public opinion (which had been about 70 percent in favor of continued neutrality) began to shift.

The code-breaking effort dubbed "Ultra" cracked the German Navy code; beginning in June – and, depending on whether new codes had been implemented -- the Allies could read much of the U-boat radio traffic off-and-on throughout the rest of the war. 

In August, U-570 became the first – the only – submarine ever captured by an aircraft; under attack, she was forced to the surface and surrendered. An escort ship soon arrived and took over. U-570 was thus transferred to the Royal navy, where, re-designated as "Graph," she served until being wrecked off the west coast of Scotland in March, 1944. 

In August, Adolph Hitler demonstrated a constitutional inability to keep hands off and let his commanders run the war. Against all advice, in a misguided effort to protect his supply lines to North Africa, he ordered a shift of submarines from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. (Misguided? How, indeed, could a submarine protect a surface ship against the principal threat, which was air attack?) This soon led to an order to a shift of all operational boats from the Atlantic theater – at a time when there were Atlantic targets aplenty, and good weather in which to enjoy them. The "Happy Time" soon came to an end. 

Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7. There were 25 I-boats assigned on station around the islands. They did not see any American warships. Five HA-midgets attempted to penetrate the harbor before the air attack began; they achieved nothing but their own destruction. One became the first casualty of the Pacific war, sunk by the destroyer "Ward" as a unauthorized interloper in the offshore defensive sea area – before the air attack had begun. The destroyer sent a flash message to headquarters; headquarters thought it might be a false alarm.

The battle fleet was seriously damaged, but in time all ships were back in service except for two obsolete battleships: "Arizona," sunk at her mornings, and "Oklahoma," which sank while under tow back to the west coast for repairs.

The major effects of the attack: to coalesce American public opinion as never before, and to force the U. S. Navy to abandon an ingrained fascination with battleships and shift the burden to the new-generation warships, the aircraft carrier and the submarine.

At that time, the U. S. Navy had 111 submarines in commission – 60 in the Atlantic, 51 in the Pacific. Many were barely capable. "Gato" was commissioned at the end of the month; it would be several years before a fully-capable submarine force was in place.

With the approval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U. S. Navy implemented unrestricted submarine warfare that same day. To salve the conscience of those who had for so long deplored German practice, all Japanese shipping was defined as being in the service of the military, and thus need not be considered as "merchant vessels." 

Submarine pioneer Admiral Chester Nimitz assumed command of the U. S. Pacific Fleet on December 31, 1941 – on board the only available undamaged warship, the submarine "Grayling." The aircraft carriers were at sea.

Japan began construction of the 5,223-ton I-400 class of submarine aircraft carrier, each of which carried three dive-bomber seaplanes. Designed for attacks against the Panama Canal and the West Coast of the United States. Twelve were planned; only two were built, and did not see any useful service.

Japanese submarines also made some attacks on the West Coast, lobbing shells at Santa Monica, California, and Astoria, Oregon. The attacks had minor effect, although Radio Tokyo gloated, "Americans know that the submarine shelling of the Pacific coast was a warning to the nation that the paradise created by George Washington is on the verge of destruction."  

Doenitz had hoped to send a blitzkrieg of U-boats against the East Coast of America, but Hitler, fearful of an Allied invasion of Norway, forced him to keep most of his assets closer to home. Nonetheless, he managed to get five long-range cruisers into position in January – where they found the whole coastline lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve: no blackouts, all navigational aids aiding, all ships sailing with full navigational lights. It was high tourist season in Miami and the war was 3000 miles away; the northward-flowing Gulf Stream just a few miles offshore kept southward-bound ships close inshore, nicely silhouetted against a glowing Florida skyline. The score for two and a half months in American coastal waters: 98 ships. Coastal communities did not go under blackout until April.

The "Battle of the Atlantic" began in July, and continued for eleven months; the U-boats scored some 712 merchant victims. Ships were being sunk at more than twice the replacement rate, and new U-boats were joining the fleet at a rate of about one a day. Also in July, the Germans began deployment of a mid-ocean filling station. The Type XIV boat had a capacity for 700 tons of fuel and other supplies, rather than armaments. Dubbed the "Milk Cow," one could keep a dozen Type VII at sea for another month, or five Type IX for two months.

On September 13, in what may be the most spectacular – albeit unplanned – submarine event of all time, the Japanese I-19 launched a spread of six torpedoes at the aircraft carrier "Wasp." Three hit, sinking the ship. The others continued running for twelve miles, into another task group, where one caused fatal damage to the destroyer "O'Brien" and other send the battleship "North Carolina" to the shipyard for two months. The sixth cruised on, into the unknown.

Technological advances such as improved radar, the radar altimeter, the aircraft searchlight, and effective air-dropped depth charges began to enter the force. Before long, aircraft were accounting for 50 percent of all U-boat sinkings.  

By the end of the year, with the U-boat fleet clearly in trouble, Hitler authorized the design of a fully combat-capable Walter-cycle 1,600 ton U-boat, designated Type XVIII. Two prototypes were ordered. However, it was soon obvious that there was not enough time – or money – to turn this dream into reality. The design was converted into a conventionally-powered submarine – diesel on the surface, batteries for submerged running – and the rather large space intended for storage of the Perhydrol was given over to an extra-large bank of batteries.

Two classes were ordered: the 1,600-ton Type XXI, and a coastal version, the 230-ton XXIII. Type XXI had only half the range of the comparable Type IX, could manage bursts of 17 knots underwater (compared with 7 knots), dive to almost 1,000 feet (300 feet deeper), and remain totally submerged at economical creep speed for 11 days. With a sophisticated fire control system the Type XXI could launch an attack from a depth of 150 feet.

Type XXIII had twice the submerged speed and five times the underwater endurance of the small pre-war Type II. However, combat effectiveness was severely limited: two torpedoes, no reloads. All other submarine construction was quickly phased out in favor of Type XXI and Type XXIII.  

Hoping to hide existing U-boats from the increasingly devastating air patrols, Germany perfected an idea that had been kicking around for a long time: use of a breathing tube to allow running on diesel power just below the surface, thus also keeping the batteries fully charged. They dubbed it the "snorkel." It was not a perfect solution: the tube could break if the boat was going too fast; the ball-float at the top would close if a wave passed over, thus shifting engine suction to the interior of the boat and occasionally popping a few eardrums. The snorkel also left a visible wake, and returned a pretty good radar blip. But it helped.

The Germans underestimated the industrial capacity of the United States. The prediction against which "Tonnage War" was by then being waged was that the 1943 ship-production of Great Britain and the U. S. together would be less than 8 million tons. The U. S. alone launched more than double that figure.

The Germans also underestimated the ability of the Allies to develop and implement highly-effective anti submarine weapons and tactics. During the year, the U. S. Navy established anti-submarine "Hunter-Killer" groups, centered on the small, "Jeep" carrier. Long-range aircraft, such as the B-24 adapted for anti-submarine efforts, went into service. Among other efforts, they put an end to the "Milk Cow." The rendezvous were too easy to spot by air patrol. Of nine Type XIV in service in June, 1943, seven had been sunk by August.

Also operational: the "hedgehog" – so-called because the array of twenty-four 65-pound projectiles looked like the bristles of a porcupine. Launched 230 yards in front of the surface warship, the projectiles would cover a 100-foot circle, and explode on contact. The wepaon proved to be highly effective.

By the end of May, 1943, the Germans had clearly lost the Battle of the Atlantic. In that month alone, 41 U-boats were sunk – 25 percent of current operational strength. Things got worse: in the last four months of the year, almost 5,000 ships sailed in Atlantic convoys; nine were lost. Sixty-two U-boats were destroyed.  

In June, a Hunter-Killer group became the first American force to capture an enemy warship on the high seas since the War of 1812. The Type IX boat, U-505, was forced to the surface by depth charges; quick action by a boarding party saved the boat from being scuttled by the crew. U-505 is now a permanent exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. In a small quirk of fate, it is only several dozen miles from the wreckage of the World War I UC-97.  

The captured U-505 and the American jeep carrier, "Guadalcanal."

In a reprise of the "Deutschland" efforts of World War I to move high-priority cargo through the blockade, the Japanese cargo-carrying I-52 (356 feet long, cruising range of 27,000 miles at 12 knots) was sent from Indonesia with a cargo of ruber, tin, opium, quinine, tungsten, molybdenum and 2 metric tons of gold bullion, bound for Nazi-occupied France.

Allied radio intercepts had pin-pointed a mid-ocean rendezvous with U-530, to transfer a coast pilot, a radar technician and some new radar equipment to assist I-52 in running the Allied gauntlet. Sunk on June 23, 1944, by an aircraft from the jeep-carrier USS BOGUE, I-52 was discovered in May, 1995 -- lying under 17,000 feet of water. 


The American verison of code-breaking, dubbed the "Pacific Ultra," allowed the fleet to plot Japanese merchant convoys in advance – no need for long open-ocean hunting expeditions. U. S. submarine production was scaled back radically early in the year – the already-existing submarine force was running out of targets. With perhaps 140 submarines operating in the Pacific, the U. S. Navy submarines sank more than 600 Japanese ships, 2.7 million tons – more than for the years 1941, 1942 and 1943 combined.

As the targets disappeared, many submarines were assigned to picket duty to rescue downed aviators making B-29 raids on Japan, or anyone else who happened along. A total of 540 were hauled aboard – including the youngest pilot in the U. S. Navy, Lt(jg) George Bush.  

Japan fielded the "Kaiten" suicide torpedo, incorporating elements of the 24-inch, 40-knot version of the "Long Lance" with a control compartment into which the pilot was locked. Range: not more than five hours, no matter what. "Kaiten" were carried into battle by I-class submarines; the record is ambiguous. A fairly large number of "Kaiten" were sent into action; one American tanker and a small landing ship were sunk, perhaps also a destroyer escort, and two transports were damaged. 

One model of the "Kaiten" sucide torpedo

Germany, also pursuing weapons of desperation, developed a two-man, two-torpedo midget submarine, the "Seehund." Thirty-nine feet long, fifteen tons, "Seehund" could dive to 165 feet with a surface range of 120 miles at 8 knots, or 250 miles at 5 knots; submerged, 20 miles at 5 knots, 60 miles at 3 knots. At least 268 had been built and were ready for service when the war ended in May, 1945.

To minimize the effect of Allied bombing, the late-war Type XXI boats were built in virtually complete sections at scattered locations, and transported by barge to assembly yards.

Note the "figure 8" cross section of the pressure hull. The lower section was initially intended for storage of hydrogen peroxide for a Walter powerplant; it became, instead, the compartment for the enlarged battery capacity that gave these boats the nickname "Electroboot."

The largest ship ever sunk by a submarine: the brand-new aircraft carrier "Shinano," 71,890 tons, November 28, by the U. S. submarine "Archerfish."

The first Type XXIII went on war patrol in February. By the end of the European war – May 7 – six were in service, 53 were in the water, and 900 were under construction or on order.

The first Type XXI, U-2511, left Hamburg on war patrol on April 30; when she returned home to surrender, 30 Type XXI were in shakedown and training, 121 were in the water and another 1000 were under construction or on order.

U-3008, one of only two Type XXI U-boats to make a wartime patrol – albeit brief, as the war ended en route.

For some, the war ended too soon. With more hope than sense, Germany had more than 1,900 Type XXI and Type XXIII under construction or on order on the last day of the European war.

Germany's largest U-boat, the 1,700 ton Type XB minelayer U-234 – was at sea when the war ended, and surrendered in mid-ocean to an American destroyer escort. Her original destination had been Japan; her cargo included two complete ME-262 jet fighters (disassembled in crates, but with complete technical data) and 550 kilograms of Uranium 235 (or Uranium oxide -- sources differ), packed in lead containers. The reason the uranium was being sent to Japan has never been determined – or, at least, revealed.


GERMANY U-boats claimed 14.4 million tons, but Germany lost 821 U-boats. Allied aircraft were responsible for (or directly involved in) the loss of 433; surface ships, 252; mines, 34; accidents 45, submarines 25 (only one of which happened when both hunter and victim were submerged); unknown, 15, scuttled by their own crews, 14; interned in neutral ports, 2; sunk by shore battery, 1.

UNITED STATES: American submarines sank at least 1300 Japanese ships, 5.3 million tons, including one battleship, eight carriers, eleven cruisers and 180 smaller warships. The U. S. Navy lost 52 boats; 22 percent of the submarine personnel who went on patrol did not return. It was the highest casualty rate of any branch of service– but not as high as that of the German submarine force, which lost an astonishing 630 men out of every 1,000 who served in the U-boat fleet.

SOVIET RUSSIA: The Soviets started the war with the largest submarine fleet: 218. They added 54 and lost 109. They did not have much impact on the course of the war. However, S-13 was credited with the single greatest disaster in maritime history: the 1945 sinking of the German liner "Wilhelm Gustloff," engaged in an effort to get German soldiers out of the path of the advancing Red Army. There may have been more than 8,000 troops and civilians aboard; fewer than 1,000 were rescued.

JAPAN: Japanese submarines had great success early in the war, especially in the Indian Ocean area. However, the tide of battle began to turn with the Allied invasion of Guadalcanal in August, 1942, and Japanese submarines were pulled off combat duty and assigned to carry vital supplies to beleaguered troops or to pull troops out of failing campaigns. The Japanese built submarine landing ships; the Japanese Army built twenty eight cargo submarines.

Japanese submarines scored a few important victories – the carriers "Yorktown" and "Wasp," and the last American surface warship sunk, the cruiser "Indianapolis" in late July, 1945; overall, however, they sank only about one-fifth as many ships as did the American submarine force.

On the last day of the Pacific war, Japan had only 33 submarines in commission (excluding midgets), seven of which were in the training command. Except for the midgets, the submarine force had become irrelevant.  

With more desperation than hope, the Japanese launched a massive building program of suicide and midget submarines. Here, eighty-four midgets, of four different designs, are huddled in drydock, October, 1945.

Just as with WWI, there was only one verified German submarine atrocity. In March, 1944, a U-boat commander, on his first combat mission, ordered his crew to kill all survivors of "Peleos" and try to pulverize all floating wreckage with hand-grenades. His motive: to hide the sinking from patrolling aircraft and thus conceal his own presence in the area. He, and two of his officers (who claimed they were only "following orders") were convicted and executed.

Karl Doenitz, who started the war as commander of submarines, became Navy Chief of Staff in January, 1943, and ended the war as Hitler's chosen successor as Chief of State – even though he had never been a member of the Nazi Party. Hitler committed suicide on April 30; Doenitz assumed command on May 1 – and issued "cease fire" orders on May 3.

The 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal brought Doenitz up on charges, especially for "breeches of the international law of submarine warfare" for authorizing and encouraging unrestricted operations. The best witness in his defense: U. S. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who acknowledged that the United States Navy had authorized unrestricted operations against Japan, throughout the Pacific ocean area, from the first days of the war.

Nonetheless, Doenitz was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for being "fully prepared to wage war" – a specious charge, in the eyes of most observers; any military force should always be thus prepared. Most observers believed that he was being tried as a stand-in for the unavailable Adolph Hitler.  

The U. S. Navy took two Type XXI and a handful of Japanese boats for study, and applied some lessons-learned to a fleet upgrade dubbed "Greater Underwater Propulsive Power" (GUPPY).

Fifty-two boats were modified: snorkels were added, guns removed, the superstructures streamlined, and battery-power greatly increased. Another nineteen boats received some improvements. The net result: greatly increased underwater speed and endurance.

Dr. Philip Abelson proposed a marriage of the Walter hull form with a nuclear power plant. The Navy detailed eight engineers to the home of the Atomic Bomb, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to see what might be developed. 

Testing some newly-discovered peculiarities concerning the transmission of sound in the open ocean, a U. S. submarine was able to detect a destroyer at a distance of 105 miles and hear depth-charges exploding 600 miles away. This, and other research, led to the development of a deep-ocean array of hydrophones called SOSUS. One of the earliest installations could detect a snorkeling submarine at 500 miles.

The U. S. Navy began experimenting with submarine-launched missiles, starting with a copy of the German V-1 buzz bomb.

Loon was tracked by radar and command-controlled from the submarine. However, erection of the launching ramp and preparation of the missile kept the submarine on the surface for five minutes; therefore, a hand-off control system was developed, whereby another submarine, 80 miles downrange, could take over for the last 55 miles of missile flight.

The Soviet Union moved to regain status as operator of the world's largest submarine fleet: over the following eight years, they built 235 "Whiskey" class, using the Type XXI as a template. 

"Pickerel" ran from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor – twenty-one days, 5,194 miles, on snorkel.  

One of the officers detailed to Oak Ridge in 1946 assumed control of the Navy nuclear propulsion program (and kept control, until finally retired in 1982). Captain Rickover was a submariner and an engineer, with a passion for safety and an obsession for control. He was brilliant, and difficult – and made nuclear power a reality, not just in submarines, but in many major surface warships as well.

He also well-understood the role of the Congress in procurement decisions; his friends on Capitol Hill ensured Rickover's professional standing by assisting in a series of promotions, eventually to the four-star rank of admiral. 

"Tang," the first of the post-war U. S. submarines, set an American depth record, 713 feet. 

The next generation sub-launched missile was "Regulus I," able to carry a 3,000 pound nuclear warhead for five hundred miles.

The missile hangar on "Grayback," SSG-574, could house two "Regulus I" missiles and was integrated into the hull. When "Regulus" was overtaken by later developments, the hangar became a compartment for clandestine amphibious assault troops.

The U. S. Navy began operation of a fast-submarine test bed, the 203-foot "Albacore." The hull form was similar to that of an airship; the boat went through five experimental configurations; in the first, she demonstrated underwater speeds of 26 knots.

The successful hull-form was applied to the last class of U. S. diesel boats, "Barbel," 1959, (shown here) and to the "Skipjack" nuclear class, 1959.


Testing completed, "Albacore" was retired to a public park near Portsmouth, NH -- towed in along a ditch dug for the purpose, which was then filled in. These photos -- courtesy of Robert Marble -- show "Albacore" in place, but not yet dressed for company.

The first nuclear-powered submarine went to sea: the 323-foot, 3,674-ton "Nautilus." Surface speed 18 knots, 23 knots submerged. On her shakedown cruise, she steamed 1,381 miles from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico – submerged all the way at an average speed of 15 knots. She was so fast that, on her first exercise with an ASW force, she outran the homing torpedoes.

Note the use of the term, "steamed." The nuclear plant finally made a steam-powered submarine practical: the reactor generates heat that turns water into steam to drive the turbine. Two different reactor configurations were proposed: one used pressurized water to transfer heat from the reactor to the steam plant, the other used a liquid sodium potassium alloy.

Rickover built one of each; the first was installed in "Nautilus," the other in the second nuclear boat, "Seawolf," where it proved to be difficult to maintain and not as effective as the "Nautilus" plant. It was replaced a few years later.  

The Walter hull-form ancestry is clearly shown in this 1985 post-retirement photo (while "Nautilus" was being taken to a memorial berth at Groton, Connecticut).

The U. S. Navy experimented with various propulsion systems, including so-called "closed circuit" engines that did not require access to atmospheric oxygen. However, development of the nuclear power-plant tended to put other technologies on the shelf – at least, in the United States. The development of closed-circuit systems has continued, especially in some European navies seeking a lower-cost alternative to nuclear power.

The 49-foot-long X-1 tested a closed-circuit diesel-hydrogen peroxide plant, which exploded in May 1957 and was removed.

Based on hard experience with the Japanese "kamikaze" suicide aircraft, the U. S. Navy developed a prototype nuclear-powered radar-picket submarine. At 447 feet and 5,963 tons, "Triton" was the largest U. S. submarine to date, but by the time she was in commission, in 1959, advances in airborne detection systems had rendered her intended mission unnecessary. She became the first nuclear boat to be retired, 1969. 

The German V-2 rocket became the U.S. Air Force "Jupiter" missile; although exceeding large, at least one scheme was proposed to mount four V-2s in a submarine. However, timely development of the "Polaris" missile permitted sixteen on a boat.

The V-2 -- a 46-foot long, 5.5 foot diameter (12 feet across the fins),12.46-ton missile fueled by liquid oxygen and alcohol – on a submarine? Well, no.

The A-1 "Polaris" – solid-fuel, compact (28 feet and 4.6 feet), range 1,200 miles – was ready for deployment by 1960. An A-2 version, 1,500 miles, entered service in 1962, followed a year later by the 2,500 mile A-3, all of which could fit in the same launch tubes. Here, tube hatches open on "Sam Rayburn," SSBN-635 – one of 41 U. S. ballistic missile submarines built between 1960 and 1968. 

The Soviet Union fielded their first nuclear powered submarine. They gained a head start by following, stealing from, and copying, the Americans. Five years into their program, the Soviets had 24 nuclear boats in three classes, all with the same reactor.

Unfortunately – for submarine crews – the Soviets had copied what they saw, but apparently did not understand the underlying problems which could be associated with the use of nuclear power. There are rumors that entire crews of early Soviet boats may later have died from radiation poisoning. 

The first submarine to utilize the potential of both the nuclear powerplant and the high-speed "Albacore" hull was "Skipjack" – officially rated at 29 knots, submerged.  

"Triton" completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe: 36,014 miles in eighty-four days. 

"Triton," SSN 586

The U. S. Navy has lost two nuclear submarines, to accident. The first was "Thresher," on April 10, 1963. After two years in commission, the boat had just come out of a shipyard availability and was on sea trials when something went wrong – perhaps the rupture of a section of piping, no one knows for certain. "Thresher" sank in some 8,300 feet, taking 128 crew members with her. The boat had an operational depth of 1,300 feet – more than any other U. S. submarine class to that date – but clearly the hull would have passed "crush depth" well before hitting bottom.

At least two things came out of this accident. The first: the entire design was scoured, looking for any possible defects; they were corrected in all boats of the class then under construction.

The second: in recognition of the fact that the U. S. had no viable method for rescuing trapped submariners at any depth below a few hundred feet. Thus was developed the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), to assist any submarine that bottomed short of crush depth.  

The DSRV is air-transportable, able to mate with and remove crew from U. S. submarines to a depth of at least 5,000 feet. Two were built; neither has ever been needed.

The accident also spurred the adoption of an individual escape suit, the "Steinke Hood," designed and tested in 1961 by a junior officer, Harris Steinke. While this would have been of little use to "Thresher" crew, it has been demonstrated to an open-ocean depth of 318 feet.

"Albacore" was reported to have set an underwater speed record of 33 knots, although the "official" speed is posted as 25 knots.  

The second U. S. nuclear submarine lost: USS SCORPION (SSN-589), possibly the victim of one of her own torpedoes, May 22. The accident may have been monitored by the then-secret SOSUS sound arrays planted on the ocean bottom.  

A Soviet "November" class nuclear submarine surprised the U. S. Navy by keeping up with a 31-knot high-speed task force led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier "Enterprise."


Spooked by the "November" surprise, the U. S. Navy developed a new class of fast attack boats, "Los Angeles." The class had some teething problems, but the 62 boats in the class demonstrated respectable performance, with submerged speed in excess of 30 knots.

The C-3 missile, "Poseidon," with multiple independently-targeted warheads, went to sea.

Development was underway on the next generation submarine-launched ballistic missile, "Trident," C-4. With twice the range of the C-3, a C-4 equipped submarine could launch at the most logical targets in the Cold War world while sitting in New York harbor. The United States would no longer be required to maintain overseas submarine bases in Scotland, Spain, and Guam; in truth, those bases were closed when the C-4 became operational. The C-4 missile first flew in January, 1977.

The C-4 did pose some problems for the people who design submarines. Too large to fit in any extant sub design, "Trident" required a new, very large class of submarine: "Ohio," 560 feet long, 42 feet wide, 16,674 tons.

USS OHIO, SSBN 726. Eighteen have been built. The first entered service in 1981.

The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempted to raise a Soviet GOLF-class Soviet diesel-powered boat, K-129 (which sank in 1968) -- under cover of a deep-ocean mineral recovery effort using a ship built for the purpose, the "Glomar Explorer." In the event -- code name "Project Jennifer" -- the sub apparently broke apart and the back half fell back to the bottom.

During the Falklands War, two British ASW carriers, more than a dozen other surface warships, five submarines (four of them nuclear) and a gaggle of patrolling aircraft were occupied – almost paralyzed – in protecting the force against two badly maintained, poorly manned Argentine submarines – one, a post-World War II Guppy and the other an eight-year old German boat that, in the end, had nil effect upon the war. The predictions of Fulton – and Admiral Dewey – as valid as ever.

However – be not deceived by this comic-opera vignette: the submarine war, on the other side, was deadly serious business. The British submarine "Conqueror" sank the World War II-vintage Argentine cruiser "Belgrano" (ex- USS Phoenix) with two World War II-vintage torpedoes; 368 sailors were killed. 

Planning began for the next-generation American attack submarine: "Seawolf," SSN-21. The hull number was adjusted – the next in the series would have been 774 – to celebrate "Seawolf" as the "submarine of the 21st Century." Size: 353 feet, 40 foot diameter, 8,000 tons – and with the most sophisticated systems imaginable. Top speed: probably in excess of 35 knots.

According to one program manager, when underway at quiet speed, "Seawolf" would be as quiet as a "Los Angeles" boat sitting at the pier. Quiet speed may be in excess of 20 knots.  

On October 6, a Soviet YANKEE-Class nuclear-powered missile boat, K-291 sanks in Atlantic, 680 miles northeast of Bermuda, from an explosion in a missile tube.

Soviet submarine "Komsomolets" sank in the Norwegian sea. Most of the crew were able to abandon ship; 34 of them died – from hypothermia, heart failure or drowning while waiting for rescue in the frigid waters.

This accident prompted the Russians to develop individual escape-survival suits (designated SSP), rated to a depth of 328 feet, and led the U. S. Navy to adopt the Mark 10 British-designed Submarine Escape Immersion Module (SEIE). This provides individual full-body thermal protection, and has been tested to 600 feet.   

Shown below: photos of Russian submarines during the Summer of 1994. Top: a Delta III-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile boat; below, a Victor III-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. 

"Seawolf" joins the fleet.

USS SEAWOLF, SSN-21, on sea trials, 1996.

In preparation for development of the next submarine class ("Virginia"), the U. S. Navy elected to create a one-fourth scale, unmanned, submarine, to test new and emerging technologies before they are committed to full-scale ships. Designated the Large Scale Vehicle (LSV) 2 and named after a species of trout, "Cutthroat," the 111-foot boat is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in the Spring of 2001.

The U.S. Navy is testing "Avenger," a 65-ft mini-sub with a closed-cycle engine powered by diesel fuel and liquid oxygen. Intended for use by the SEALs -- the Navy's clandestine amphibious assault teams -- "Avenger" can carry 18 troops and a crew of 6.  

The Russian missile attack submarine "Kursk" K-141 sank while on maneuvers in the Barents Sea. Placed in service in 1995, the 510-foot Oscar II-class "Kursk" had a surface displacement of 14,700 tons and speed in excess of 30 knots. On August 12, the sound of at least two explosions were picked up by The Norwegian Seismic Service and five other ships operating in the area – including two American and one British submarine shadowing the exercises. The actual cause of the accident is unknown, although "Kursk" had radioed for permission to launch an exercise torpedo about an hour and a half earlier.

"Kursk" went down in about 350 feet of water with 118 men. Although the boat was equipped with several escape systems – including individual escape-survival suits – none were used. Efforts to reach "Kursk" were hampered by weather, but upon inspection, authorities determined that there probably had not been any survivors. Initial reports of tapping from inside may have been accurate -- we now know that there were at least twenty-three survivors . . . for a time.

"Kursk" was subsequently raised (except for the immediate bow section, which may contain hair-trigger ordnance) and is being studied.

In this year of the "official" 100th Anniversary of the submarine – dating from the purchase of "Holland" by the U. S. Navy – some 47 nations operate more than 700 submarines, almost three hundred of them nuclear powered. New designs are being pursued in the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Japan.

The submarine appears to be in the best of international health.

This completes the history of the military submarines, and we now have a pretty good picture of the background. I guess that by now you are pretty keen on getting your model started, right? Well, let’s turn on to just that.

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