The Royal Naval Submarine Service 1901-1918
An Overview

The inception of the Royal Navy's Submarine Service in 1901 was not an entirely pacific enterprise, for although interest was initially expressed in procuring just a handful of such vessels for purely experimental purposes it encountered with equal measure acute scepticism and vociferous moral intransigence. The pragmatists quite reasonably questioned the expense and efficacy of employing as warships vessels they deemed to be little more than novelties, and dangerous novelties at that. Traditionalists rejected the entire concept of submarine warfare as furtive and ill-serving the proud traditions of the Royal Navy, then the largest and most powerful naval force in the world. Yet by 1914 the Submarine Service was an integral part of the Royal Navy and had largely satisfied these early critics' concerns.

One can argue that the Royal Navy was driven to adopt the submarine in 1901, no matter how widespread the feelings of doubt or moral indignation among the more hidebound echelons of the Navy, for two major reasons: fear of the unknown and a growing acceptance that the pace of technological progress had at long last allowed for the practical exploitation of the submersible warship. It was also, one can suggest, no coincidence that the submarine was first seriously evaluated by the British during the period of the Boer War of 1899-1902, when Great Britain was censured by the other Great Powers for her actions against the Boers in South Africa, and when she felt most isolated and in need of a Navy strong enough to counter those of France, Russia and, potentially, Germany.

Prior to the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904, the French Navy was widely regarded as being the most likely adversary of the Royal Navy in any future major conflict and was therefore the threat against which British naval policy was primarily geared. (One could suggest that the creation of this 'friendly understanding' between these two historic enemies and then colonial competitors came about at this juncture because, in concert with their Russian ally, the French posed the greatest potential threat to British interests, namely the maintenance of peace and the protection of the Empire.) Throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century the French had demonstrated a keen interest in these new submersible weapons. According to the philosophy of the prevailing Jeune Ecole of the French Navy, submarines supposedly offered a panacea to the otherwise unassailable strength of the British battleship fleet as well as being an economical means to target British merchant shipping with relative impunity. Such ambitions attracted popular support; money was raised by public subscription and at charitable events to help build more of these weapons in the hope of cowing Perfidious Albion, and a plethora of diverse notions for bringing about the perfect submarine were submitted to the Navy by private individuals. In 1888 the Gymnote (Eel) was launched and by 1901 the French Navy had over a dozen operational submarines and twice that number on her order books.

By 1900, Admiralty opinion still persisted in dismissing the submarine as an impractical weapon and felt that such craft were of scant use, aside from acting as intelligent mines for coastal defence and only then best suited to the smaller navies that could afford no better class of warship: the smaller nations of southern Europe and South America had been among the first customers for commercial submarine designs. Nevertheless, unproven though they were, the mere presence of such numbers of submarines in the French Navy prompted increasing intrigue and disquiet in the British; not so much from the actual threat posed by the current generation of French submarines, but because of what they had the potential to become in the future: and the French Navy was already embarking upon an ambitious plan to develop long range submarines that could reach far into the Atlantic. If by some technological breakthrough the French - or any nation for that matter - rendered the submarine a viable weapon, the protection of the Empire and the free movement of British trade that had thus far been guaranteed by the omnipotent Royal Navy could be imperilled. Thus, it was considered vital that the Royal Navy should have at least some understanding as to how these vessels worked and, most importantly, know how to counter them in the event of war.

There was also a growing realisation within the Admiralty that, as a product of others' experience with submersibles and in tandem with improvements made in associated technologies, the submarine had at last become a practical proposition. By the turn of the century the means by which a submarine could power itself whilst submerged, independently re-energise that power and attack shipping had come to fruition. Vast improvements in the efficacy of batteries allowed submarines to run for many hours on electric power whilst submerged, and the coming of the petrol-driven internal combustion engine allowed for an efficient means of powering the submarine whilst on the surface and also converting a portion of that energy to revitalise the aforementioned batteries. The requirement for the independent and safe generation of power aboard submersibles had been a major stumbling block to their acceptance, for up to that point all-electric boats possessed chronically short endurance and were often dependent upon a parent vessel for recharging their batteries, and those steam driven designs favoured by the French were hardly suitable for going to sea, let alone going to war. For many centuries the raison d'être behind building a submersible warship had also been unclear for want of a practical weapon, yet by 1900 the torpedo was already well tried - it had inspired the torpedo boat and consequently the torpedo boat destroyer, and caused great concern to naval tacticians - and was ably suited for installation aboard such vessels. Therefore, proponents of the submarine were, at last, able to rebut their critics with tangible, existing evidence that they now had at hand the basics to create a functional submarine capable of sinking the enemy.

Lacking a ready design of their own and unwilling to have any prototype vessels purchased from abroad, the Admiralty secured a licence from the Electric Boat Company in the United States to build improved versions of the Holland Class boats at a British shipyard, ostensibly for purposes of general evaluation and to enable the Fleet to conduct realistic anti-submarine practice. From 1901-3 five such vessels were completed and their performance was eagerly monitored.

These craft had many deficiencies, not least being their small size and low freeboard, so the Admiralty instructed Vickers to build a larger, modernised version of this class with a pronounced conning tower to obviate the risk of the submarine being swamped when travelling on the surface in rough seas. This, the first truly British-built submarine, developed into the A-Class - for until the 1920s each submarine was referred to by a respective batch and boat number rather than a name - of thirteen vessels built between 1903-5 and becoming the first submarine squadron to enter Royal Navy service. Eleven further vessels of an improved design known as the B-Class were constructed between 1905-6, and no less than thirty-eight vessels of a subsequent, further improved design, the C-Class, were built between 1906-10.

The Submarine Service was most fortunate, since during these early years they had the utmost support of the head of the Navy, Admiral John Fisher, First Sea Lord (1904-10). He railed against the more hidebound elements within the Navy for failing to comprehend the implications that submarines would have on future naval strategy to such an extent that the vessels were disparagingly referred to as 'Fisher's Toys'. Later, during the years that immediately preceded the outbreak of World War One, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was equally entranced with these new weapons. Even Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, who had earlier called for submariners to be treated as pirates during wartime and hung when caught - and was not the archetypal conservative as often portrayed, having developed several innovative communications systems whilst a young officer in the 1860s - had suffered a total change of heart and when himself in office lent them his support.

A key reason behind this gradual acceptance of the submarine was not only the increasingly reliable and potent designs coming into service with each new class of vessel, but from the keenness, ability and confidence engendered by their young commanding officers during their participation in numerous pre-war naval exercises.

Nevertheless, although by virtue of their numbers they were an established part of the Fleet List, until 1910 submarine design focused on small, lightly armed craft geared around their intended coastal defence duties - although the following year three small C-Class submarines successfully undertook an epic voyage to join the China Station at Hong Kong - and this put a cap on their full potential. The safety record of these early boats was also unenviable: three A-Class submarines and one from each of the B-Class and the C-Class were lost in collisions and there was accidental fatalities aboard the other boats, most notably explosions or asphyxiation brought about by badly ventilated fumes emanating from the petrol engines. Although few still called for their abandonment - and the Public became enamoured with these new vessels as further symbolism of British naval supremacy and also marvelled at the bravery of their crews - it led many to continue to maintain that these vessels would be of very little use in any war.

A change of direction and purpose for the Submarine Service came about with the building of the D-Class 'Overseas' submarines during 1910-12. Virtually twice as large as a C-Class submarine and with a crew of twenty-five men, with engines running on far less volatile diesel fuel, three torpedo tubes and some carrying in addition a deck gun, they were designed for extended patrolling in enemy waters. They were followed by fifty-eight - including the two operated by the Royal Australian Navy - of the still larger, more sophisticated, E-Class, built between 1912-16 and forming the backbone of the wartime submarine fleet. It can be argued that a key consideration behind the introduction of these larger vessels first became evident with the Admiralty War Orders of 1912, which for the first time, in recognition of the growing threat posed by mines and torpedoes, no longer endorsed the previous policy of using battleships and cruisers to conduct the close blockade of an enemy coastline in the event of war. It was apparent that destroyers and other more expendable surface vessels would be too vulnerable to both the weather and the enemy fleet to undertake this task, yet the submarine could sit off an enemy coastline without being seen and submerge to escape both enemy interference and inclement weather. The submarine's ability to conduct the far more effective yet far more dangerous task of waiting off a hostile coastline arguably impressed upon the Admiralty the need for further such vessels.

In August 1914 the submarine fleet numbered almost seventy vessels, although by this time the A-Class - and shortly afterwards the B-Class and earlier vessels of the C-Class - were relegated to training duties. Although subject to much pre-war planning, no one from Churchill downwards was fully aware of either the true capabilities of the submarine, nor how they would be best utilised in war.

Throughout the course of the War, most submarines were tasked with implementing the economic blockade of the Central Powers' coastlines, predominantly a task concerned with patrolling the North Sea, but also in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Given that the Royal Navy had established mastery of the seas within the first months of the War and driven the Germans' merchant fleet from the oceans, and since the warships of the German surface fleet rarely left the safety of their harbours to challenge the British for control of the surrounding waters, the majority of these patrols passed by without sight nor sound of the enemy.

Submarines also acted as piquets for the Fleet, providing reconnaissance to allow the Royal Navy to intercept any hostile units leaving harbour: for example, the Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1914 was brought about because a submarine had transmitted a sighting report to waiting surface units. However, the Type 10 transmitters carried aboard submarines during the early part of the War only had a range of 30-40 miles and often had to be supplemented with relay ships carrying more powerful sets in order for their message to reach base. Yet such synchronicity between vessels was not always easy to enforce, leading to messages being delayed or else going unheard. Carrier pigeons, carried by submarines operating at extreme ranges, were hardly a perfect solution to this problem and although submarines latterly received far more powerful sets able to convey messages over many hundreds of miles, these suffered badly from the rigours of the sea. Additionally, many submarines would have to wait until dark in order to surface to transmit without being spotted - save perhaps by direction finding equipment then employed by the Germans - and this further delayed the arrival of important news; and it was not unknown for submarines to transmit erroneous reports based upon mistaken identity or incorrect supposition that caused great excitement and confusion.

Minelaying was another vital part of the Blockade, and submarines would be tasked to create minefields off enemy harbours and at naturally occurring bottlenecks along the coast of Denmark and Germany. These missions were fraught with danger, for a submarine would very often have to negotiate an enemy minefield before entering often shallow and heavily patrolled waters, where they could easily be rammed or depth charged by the enemy. So dangerous and so important were these missions that the Admiralty swore to decorate any man who survived eight such missions, although most submariners were fully aware that few who undertook that number of mine laying missions would be alive to receive a medal.

The German U-boats' success in attacking Allied merchant shipping led to the use of British submarines as anti-submarine platforms, with the aim of sinking the U-boats whilst they were on the surface, travelling between Germany and the Atlantic. In 1915 a tactic known as The Tethered Goat was introduced, whereby a British submarine would remain submerged beneath a trawler fleet, connected to one of the vessels by a covert telephone link. Trawlers were a favoured target of U-boats, if only as a means of obtaining fresh food whilst on patrol, and they would surface rather than waste a precious torpedo on such insignificant vessels and instead sink them with explosives or their deck guns. Once an enemy was spotted, the British submarine was informed and it would attempt to sink the surfaced U-boat. This worked on several occasions, but was obviously not a long-term strategy since the Germans soon got wise to this arguably underhand and morally dubious tactic.

More usually when hunting U-boats, a submarine would merely hope to chance across one in the open ocean, although as the War progressed the Germans became far more cautious and would rather trade speed for safety by also remaining submerged during daylight hours. To the amazing chance of actually encountering a surfaced U-boat would have to be added further good luck; namely that the U-boat was within range of the torpedoes - usually anywhere up to five thousand yards, running a relatively constant course, and lastly that she did not notice the oncoming torpedo until it was too late, for otherwise a rapid change of speed and course or diving would scupper the attack. Again, successes were made and towards the end of the War the British introduced the R-Class, combining good underwater speed with endurance and specifically intended to counter other submarines.

The War precipitated the creation of other new classes of submarine that would be able to undertake a host of different tasks. The most notable were the seventeen-strong K-Class steam-driven submarines built during 1916-18, designed from the outset to be able to accompany battleships and cruisers into action - and for this reason they were powered by steam, then the only achievable means of creating such high speeds - and then submerge and attack the enemy with torpedoes during a general action. Capable of a surfaced speed of twenty-five knots, with several four-inch guns, eight torpedo tubes and a coal-fired galley and bridge structure located on their upper casing, these were as near to submersible destroyers as one could imagine. Nevertheless, their speed and surface handling was deemed insufficient to allow them to accompany the Fleet and it was belatedly realised (once again) that operating a mixed company of surfaced submarines and surface warships, especially when security demanded the dousing of navigation lights, was inherently dangerous: such submarines were extremely vulnerable to both collisions - and many happened - and being deliberately rammed in cases of mistaken identity, for the view taken by the Royal Navy being that unless positively identifiable as friendly, all submarines were to be sunk on sight. Thus, it was that the K-Class were stripped of their very raison d'être and they were deemed unsuited and grossly over-complicated for simple patrolling operations; indeed, so complex was their diving procedure, which had to ensure that any one of dozens of apertures from the funnels downward were closed, that it invited the occasional submarine fatality. Despite this, the planners advocating such fleet submarines had yet another chance with the J-Class, of seven vessels built during 1916-17. This time conventionally powered by diesel-electric engines, these huge vessels were underpowered and were soon relegated to the role of over-sized patrol submarines, before being gifted to the Royal Australian Navy for a very short service life patrolling the Pacific.

All the pointers indicated that submarines were most effective - and importantly kept most safe - when operating independently of any direct control. This was advocated in a confidential summary of the lessons learnt during World War One, prepared shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, which mentioned that submarine commanders were often hamstrung by late, incorrect or unachievable instructions being constantly imposed on them from shore.

There was also room for the sublime. In the first year of the war British submarines made bold forays deep into enemy waters. Max Horton and others made the icy shallow waters of the Baltic their hunting ground throughout late 1914 and other British submarines, some brought overland by train from north Russia to the Baltic, were based at Russian ports until the October Revolution. Many other submarines sneaked past Turkish defences off Gallipoli and entered the Sea of Mamara, lying between the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, and attacked enemy shipping and shore facilities. Most famously, Martin Nasmith and the crew of submarine E11 crept into Constantinople harbour and watched the ancient city through their periscope before retiring - and almost attacking a visiting American cruiser lying there at anchor. During the course of several patrols during 1915, E11 sank warships, troopships and small craft with torpedoes, guns and explosives. They evaded being seen from shore by lashing a captured dhow to their landward side whilst they proceeded on the surface; a false periscope was fashioned to confuse any attacker trying to ram them; spent torpedoes were re-used since the crew swam out to them, disarmed them and pushed them back into the torpedo tubes; they engaged in rifle and gun duels with the Turkish soldiers and shoreline railways and the First Lieutenant swam ashore on a makeshift raft with a revolver and explosives to sabotage viaducts. It was truly on a scale not seen outside of a Boys' Own adventure serial.

Elsewhere, in the North Sea one submarine sent packing an anti-submarine zeppelin after holing its rudder with the first shot from their deck gun after having raced back to the surface to engage it. A nocturnal encounter with a surfaced U-boat led to the British sailors being engaged in a hot pursuit, all the time from the conning tower firing their rifles at the fleeing enemy submarine in an action that killed the German commander; and elderly C-Class boats were packed with explosives and piloted into Zeebrugge during the famous raid of 1918, their crews escaping in motor boats under a hail of rifle fire.

Yet for most submariners their war service was a seemingly interminable succession of physically and mentally punishing patrols conducted in the cold waters of the North Sea. Poor food, poor conditions and the constant threat of death from enemy action or accident were their lot; conditions tempered only by a tremendous spirit of camaraderie, including a far less hidebound adherence to the formal hierarchy existing between officers and men in General Service, and pride in a job well done and a few extra shillings in their pocket for each day spent at sea.

One third of all British submariners who served in World War One lost their lives; a higher percentage than almost every other service engaged in the Great War for Civilisation. Most submarines simply vanished whilst on patrol and their remains are still unaccounted for; most falling victim to mines, others to U-boats that were themselves destroyed before their kill could be announced. Despite the appalling casualty figure and the expansion of the Submarine Service during the War, all submariners were volunteers and, most significantly, despite the lowering of medical and attitudinal standards across the board as the War consumed even more the Nation's manhood, barely fifty-percent of applicants to the Submarine Service were successful and this fuelled the justifiable belief that they were an elite.

Following the War the British Government, deeply concerned by the impact German submarines had had upon the war effort, sought to abolish such weapons, even if it meant eliminating that part of the Royal Navy which had achieved so much and won so many accolades during 1914-18: hardly justifiable thanks to such men. Fortunately, such naïve aspirations were never realised and despite lean years during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Navy was preoccupied with Imperial Defence, a role hardly fitting the submarine except in the Pacific against an increasingly frosty and militarised Japan, the Submarine Service survived to achieve even greater feats during World War Two.

Based upon a Master of Arts degree original research dissertation and focussing on the selection, training and lives at sea as experienced by British submariners during World War One, 'A Precarious Existence: British Submariners in World War One', by Richard Mackay, Periscope Publishing, 2003, priced at £12.99, is available direct from the Publisher, high street bookshops and many other outlets across Europe and North America. (ISBN 1904381170)

Copyright September, 2004, Richard Mackay

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