The Admiralty and the Submarine Service

The Admiralty and the Submarine Service

The Admiralty in 1914 was less than enthusiastic about submarines and the role they could play in World War One. The Admiralty placed its faith in dreadnoughts and Britain's traditional naval ships - and this, to a great extent, did not include submarines. The one main dissenting voice to this was Admiral John Fisher - and he resigned his post in 1915 in dispute with Winston Churchill over the Dardanelles campaign.

In August 1914, the Admiralty was steeped in what were really Victorian views as to our naval supremacy within not only Europe but the world. In Queen Victoria's reign this was true -  and what was true then, the Admiralty seemed to believe, had to be true in 1914. If the navy had not been faulted for so many years, why change it?

"The officers of the Navy were, of course, a microcosm of contemporary society; and in that society the privileges of wealth and birth had as yet been little touched by the winds of reform. It is difficult not to feel that the authoritarian attitude and Victorian outlook of many senior officers of the period was a factor in the too slow adaptation of the service to the vast changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution."

S W Roskill "The Strategy of Sea Power"

The submarine and its use was a direct challenge to this system. Rather than greet the submarine as a weapon that would revolutionise naval strategy, the Admiralty viewed the submarine as a weapon that could end the Royal Navy's supremacy. This belief was not new. In 1800, Fulton brought his "Nautilus" submarine to Britain to effectively show it off. William Pitt was impressed but not the Admiralty.

"Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed to encourage a mode of warfare which those who command the sea did not want and which, if successful, would deprive them of it."

Earl Vincent, First Sea Lord

In 1900, George Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, said

"The Admiralty are not prepared to take any steps in regards to submarines, because this vessel is the weapon of the weaker nation. If, however, this vessel can be rendered practical, the nation which possesses it will cease to be weak, and will became really powerful. More than any other nation we should have to fear the attack of submarines."

Whereas this quote gives an indication that Goschen saw that the submarine had potential as a weapon many others in the Admiralty supported the view of the Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy, Rear-Admiral Wilson:

"The submarine is an underhand form of warfare....and a damned un-English weapon."

Younger naval officers, who depended on senior officers for promotion, did not buck against this view. Britain's first submarines were more the result of pressure from the newspapers rather than from inside the Navy itself. France was building up a fleet of submarines and this greatly concerned the media. Public pressure from them led to the building of the Holland and then the A and B class submarines.

From 1910 to 1914, the Admiralty showed little enthusiasm for submarines. In 1912, the War Staff had made the informed judgment that Germany would not use its submarines purely for coastal purposes and that they posed a real threat to Britain's North Sea fleets. Though the point was not lost on Winston Churchill, the Admiralty saw fit to ignore it.

"It was too novel an idea. With the exception of the First Sea Lord (Jackie Fisher), they all scoffed at such heresy and claimed that the staff were raising scares."

A. Marder "From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow"

Some senior politicians seemed to realise that the submarine had enormous potential. Arthur Balfour wrote to Fisher on October 25th, 1910 and stated that "days of the dreadnought are numbered". However, the dreadnoughts seemed to symbolise the Royal Navy's massive strength and it seemed inconceivable that a boat that barely weighed 1000 tonnes (as the impressive E class submarine did submerged) could even threaten something as mighty as a dreadnought with the first, HMS Dreadnought, weighing in a nearly 18,000 tonnes. In one sense, it is easy to see why senior figures in the Admiralty supported this view. The submarine most certainly did not have a track record in warfare -  in fact, it was an unproven weapon of war. The pedigree of large and powerfully armed British warships went back centuries. On June 5th 1914, Admiral Sir Percy Scott wrote to "The Times":

"As the motor vehicle has driven the horse from the road, so will the submarine drive the battleships from the sea."

His comments were immediately seized on by the press and the Admiralty. Scott was described as suffering from "an attack of midsummer madness."

By the start of the war, the Royal Navy did have submarines but the Admiralty dictated how they should be used. Their use initially was to protect Britain's coastline and few in the Admiralty saw them as offensive weapons at the start of the war. The Admiralty also saw submarines as being part of the fleet when it went into battle, though the problems experienced in the North Sea and at Jutland in particular, demonstrated the problems of this. It was the head of the Submarine Service in 1914,  G Keynes, who ordered his submarines into the Heligoland Bight - not the Admiralty.

In 1916, the Admiralty ordered that submarines in the Bight were not to attack German naval ships leaving port. This was an attempt to tempt the German fleet out of harbour for a full-scale battle. However, the blockade had bottled up the German fleet in harbour and there was little evidence that the Germans would have attempted to get out to engage the British - such was the effect off the naval blockade and the fear of British submarines and their potential.

The irony is that British submarines did not really have the potential to sink  battleships as their armour was simply too great. When HMS Marlborough was hit by a German torpedo at Jutland, she continued to participate in the battle and got back to harbour. In the Dardanelles, when the "Messudieh" was sunk by a British submarine, the Admiralty's propaganda machine went into overdrive about the sinking of a Turkish battleship. In fact, by 1915, the "Messudieh" had been relegated to coastal duties and was an old ship that simply could not have withstood a torpedo hit. The Admiralty made great play out of this event by a weapon that they had never shown great faith in. However, no one knew that submarines had yet to develop sufficient hitting power at the time and few were willing to take the risk.

The Admiralty was frequently at odds with politicians who saw the potential of submarines. Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill were two senior politicians who backed the Submarine Service. However by 1914, Balfour was effectively in the political wilderness when the war started as he had lost his position as head of the Conservative Party to Bonar-Law in 1911. During the war, he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 and Foreign Secretary from 1916 to 1919. Winston Churchill suffered from the stigma attached to the overwhelming failure of his Gallipoli venture. However, he did use his clout to ensure that the Royal Navy got  20 E-class submarines that had to be built within nine months.

The one person in the Admiralty who saw the potential for submarines was John Fisher. As First Sea Lord, Fisher had introduced a number of major reforms into the Navy in 1905 and he had made enemies as a result. He had said that "submarines will be the battleships of the future". Such a comment did not go down well with the majority at the Admiralty. Many men in the Admiralty had been huge supporters of the dreadnoughts and with vast sums of money spent on them, had to support them. They certainly could not support Fisher's view regarding submarines. In 1909, Fisher had written of the Admiralty:

"There is a great deal of truth in Haldane's contention that the weak point in our national armour just now is not the material and personnel of the Navy but the Board of the Admiralty."

The Submarine Service was well aware of the antipathy of the Admiralty towards them. There were made to feel outsiders in Britain's Senior Service and that what they did was underhand.

"Our traditional naval conduct was of no avail. We went about feeling as though we were being kicked in the back without being able to retaliate."

Admiral Hall, ex-captain in the Submarine Service

Officers from surface ships referred to the Submarine Service as "The Trade".

"Before the war it was a term of opprobrium coined by the pukka Navy to describe officers who looked more like plumbers' assistants while on duty than spic-and-span Naval officers."

W. Carr "Hells Angels of the Deep"

The relationship between surface fleet and submarines did not improve during the war. In fact, it arguably got worse. With the exception of Jutland, the surface fleets did not do a great deal in terms of fighting. What the hierarchy of the Navy wanted was another Trafalgar to show to the world the power of the British Navy. It never got one. In fact, the Royal Navy was doing a devastating job by blockading the German navy in harbour and strangling Germany's sea bourne trade. But such an achievement did not have clout and it did not fit in with the romantic image of the all-conquering British sailor. However, the media did latch onto the heroics of the Submarine Service which won two Victoria Crosses during the war. The media made out the submarine crews to be heroes (which they undoubtedly were) but this did even more to rile those officers in the surface fleets.

The USA Naval Proceedings of 1917 contains an entry that aptly summarised the status of the Submarine Service held within the Royal Navy during the war:

"Rank has always been denied the submarine. Probably the worst feature of submarine service occurs when a submarine is obliged to go to a naval yard for an overhaul without its tender. The crew is assigned berths or billets on board the receiving ship and they immediately chaff under receiving ship's discipline. The character of their work keeps them in dungarees all day. When they return to their receiving ship they feel the implied, though not always expressed, hostilities of petty officers and officers towards them for being dirty themselves and for dirtying decks and paintwork." 

Even after the war, the Admiralty showed its hostilities to the Submarine Service. Its most famous submarine commander, Max Horton, had a face a naval committee in 1920 that investigated whether he had broken international law in the Baltic during the war. In fact, not one non-combatant had lost their life in the Baltic in the war but this seemed to have by-passed the Admiralty. Horton was a national hero who had pushed into the limelight the Submarine Service and gained media attention. This was probably his 'crime'.

As early as 1904, Admiral John Fisher had written:

"The submarine will prevent any fleet remaining at sea is astounding to me how the very best amongst us fail to recognise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish."

There were many in the Admiralty who did not share his views.

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Admiralty and the Submarine Service". 2014. Web.

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