British Submarines 1900 to 1918

British Submarines 1900 to 1918

British submarines had an inauspicious start in World War One and their development in the years leading up to the war brought many problems. However, together with the natural design developments that occurred with certain technical developments, by 1918 the submarine represented a formidable weapon of war.

In 1900, submarines throughout the world were very crude machines – and those in the British Navy were no exception. However, in just eighteen years the development in them was such that the standard design of 1918 remained very similar to those used at the start of World War Two.

The British Submarine Service was a volunteer branch of the Royal Navy. Those who worked in the early submarines had to both effective and efficient workers and intelligent enough to use machinery that was complex for the time. The Submarine Service was never short of volunteers and the Navy could afford to pick the very best after a thorough selection process. Those volunteers who made it past the selection process then faced a lengthy training programme. Pre-1914, those who joined the Submarine Service saw themselves as an elite force within the Navy and this caused resentment amongst those who worked in surface ships.

“Submariners feel as much superior to the ordinary ‘big-ship’ mattaloe as a high-caste Hindu does to his low-caste brother. To be sent back to general service (the result of inefficiency on a submarine) reacts on them like a nail on a pneumatic tyre.” (W G Carr)

On February 17th, 1864, the Union ship ‘Housatonic’ became the first ship to be sunk by a submarine. By using a spar torpedo, a Confederate submarine also succeeded in destroying itself. However, the principle had been set – that a ship could be sunk by an attack launched from below the water. In 1868, Robert Whitehead perfected the self-propelled torpedo. His design remained relatively the same for a number of years though its dimensions increased as the new century dawned. The first Whitehead torpedo had a range of 700 feet, was driven off an engine powered by compressed air, had a speed of six knots and delivered an explosive head of 18 lbs. By 1914, the German U boats were equipped with torpedoes that had a variable range that depended on the speed the torpedo was set at for its target, a maximum speed of 45 knots and a 400 lbs warhead.

The first British submarine, pictured above, was launched on November 2nd 1902. 

The Admiralty used the American Holland design primarily as no obvious British design was available for their scrutiny. This was the result of the Admiralty not encouraging anybody in Britain to involve themselves in submarine design. The Holland design had a single hull and, though crude, proved to be solid base to work on. At the same time, the French were using double-hulled submarines that gave their submarines much greater buoyancy and stability. Both petrol and electric engines, the former for surface use and the latter for when the submarine was submerged, powered the Holland design. However, the petrol engine was highly unreliable and prone to giving off sparks that were a constant source of danger in the cramped space of a submarine partly powered by petrol. 

Sir John Durston, the Royal Navy’s Engineer-in-Chief, would have nothing to do with the new vessels. His main complaint was that concentrated petrol fumes in a cramped space were a recipe for disaster. He also believed that the Holland class submarines were unseaworthy, as they had no appreciable conning tower that would have boosted their stability. During peacetime, the Holland’s ran on the surface with their entrance/exit hatch open. As the cupola that formed the conning tower was not large there was a grave risk of seawater flooding into the submarine as even calm seawater lapped near to the rim of the hatch.

The Submarine Service’s first Captain – Roger Bacon, invented the submarine’s periscope. Sir Howard Grubb – a well-known Dublin optician, later improved it. The periscope was raised and lowered by the use of a ball and socket joint. This type of periscope remained practically the same throughout World War One – with modifications made to the lenses that gave improved visibility. The introduction of a proper conning tower meant that the periscope could be kept in an upright position where it could be raised and lowered by the use of compressed air. The inside of a Holland submarine was very cramped. The captain stood with his head in a windowed cupola and on each side of his head was a six-inch steering wheel – one for horizontal steering and the other for vertical steering. Using both wheels and giving orders out to the crew must have been demanding in times of calm – let alone when the captain was under pressure. Later designs of the Holland moved the steering wheels elsewhere.

The smaller submarines like the Holland and its successor, the A-class submarine, were restricted to coastal duties because of their size. 

The A-class submarine still used a petrol driven engine for surface movement but it was shielded from all electrical components to reduce the risk of fire. The A-class was larger than the Holland and its engine generated 500 hp and its batteries had twice the capacity of their predecessor. The A-class could run at 11.5 knots on the surface and 7 knots submerged. The engine of the A-class was still a problem and the two most common defects were burnt out plugs and piping that became white hot when the engine was in use. As these pipes were liberally spread throughout the submarines, they were a constant problem. A5 was lost at sea – it was assumed that the explosion was caused by petrol being ignited by a spark. A1 was segregated once when it was in dock as the people there feared that it would explode. Despite these concerns, the A-class proved its value in 1904 when it successfully took part in the Royal Navy’s annual manoeuvres.

The A-class developed into the B-class. Roger Bacon had wanted to put a small-calibre gun on the deck of the B-class but he did not receive support to do this from the First Sea Lord, Lord Walter Kerr. The First Sea Lord had never given his full support to the Submarine Service and he refused to give his permission for Bacon to do this. There has been speculation as to why Kerr was anti-submarines, especially as the “Daily Express” had as early as 1902, informed its readers about the submarines “tremendous possibilities in warfare.” Kerr was very much a surface fleet man. It is possible that he saw the submarine as an underhand weapon that should not have been associated with the Royal Navy; it could simply be that submarines had yet to be tried and tested in war and that their designs were still relatively crude – hence his lack of enthusiasm.

The B-class was fitted with adjustable horizontal rudders at the bow end of the boat. These greatly assisted the submarines ability to dive. Stern horizontal rudders levelled off the submarine underwater. The sceptics believed that the B-class was too big to operate effectively. They were wrong as its increased size gave it a more regular depth line and it handled better than its smaller predecessors. A larger boat could also have a larger engine that increased the boat’s radius of action. The D-class submarines could stay underwater for 12 hours. The larger boats could also carry a larger crew that did not get as exhausted on a long voyage as a shift system could be used.

The D-class was Britain’s first overseas submarine. A to C-class submarines had been restricted to coastal duties only. The D-class also had two other major improvements – a diesel engine rather than a petrol one and the ability to carry more torpedoes. The D-class had a saddle-tank hull which meant that its ballast tanks were on the outside of the submarine. This gave the submarine greater buoyancy and more space for the crew in side as ballast tanks in A to C-class submarines had been effectively part of the submarine’s actual hull. The D-class took only one minute to generate full power when the engine was started from cold – this greatly increased its diving speed.

The E-class submarines were very similar to the D-class but they were fitted with a twelve-pounder gun and had additional torpedo tubes. The E-class was the main submarine used by the Submarine Service in World War One and it saw action in the Atlantic, Baltic, Dardanelles and the North Sea. In all fifty-eight were built. Such was the success of the E-class design that the L-class that was used in World War Two was near enough a carbon-copy of the E-class only bigger in all dimensions.

More revolutionary designs occurred during the war itself. They were usually the result of the Admiralty’s fear that Germany was producing bigger, faster and more heavily armed submarines. The reservations that the Admiralty had pre-1914 were not obvious as the war progressed. In an amazing piece of forethought, the Admiralty gave its backing to the development of a hunter-submarine killer R-class submarine. This was faster underwater than on the surface. The fifteen knots that the R-class achieved underwater was not equalled until 1945. However, the R-class was launched towards the end of World War One and never had the chance to show what it was capable of doing in combat as there were so few U boats at sea – twelve in total from September to November 1918. The R-class was the only submarine designed by any nation from 1914 to 1918 with the sole purpose of anti-submarine work.

However, not everything the Admiralty pushed through was a success. The K and M-class submarines were, in the words of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, a “balls-up”. In this case, the Admiralty tried to make a submarine do what it quite clearly was not capable of doing!

The M-class submarines were fitted with a 12 inches Mark XI gun. This was simply put onto a K-class submarine’s hull. The theory, fine on paper, was that the M-class submarine should semi-surface, fire its gun at a large target and dive quickly using the extra weight of the Mark XI gun at the front of the hull. Whereas a torpedo could be avoided by a ship, a shell would have been impossible to avoid. The gun was set to fire automatically and was controlled from the periscope. Therefore, the diving submarine did not have to wait for any firing crew to return inside. There was only one problem – to reload the gun, you had to surface and on the surface the M-class would have made a large and inviting target.

Several points were against the M-class. The submarines rarely had a stable enough platform to fire the gun accurately and a ship hit above the waterline had a much greater chance of survivaal than a ship holed below the waterline.

The Admiralty also experimented with launching small reconnaissance planes from submarines. They were encouraged when two Baby Sopwith floatplanes were launched from E-22. The M-class was targeted as plane carriers and mini hangers had to be built onto the submarines. Though the idea was proved in practice, the idea literally never got of the ground and it was dropped before the end of World War One.

During the war, Britain also purchased submarines from abroad. Italian and French submarines were bought but they could not cope with the conditions of the North Sea and were sold back to their makers at a considerable loss to the British.

MLA Citation/Reference

"British Submarines 1900 to 1918". 2014. Web.

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