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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The United States Navy

Thomas P. Magruder
[Rear Admiral, U. S. N.]

published by
Dorrance and Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p83  IV


In modern warfare there lurks, wherever ships may travel, a strong and invisible enemy. It is the submarine. In modern diplomacy there waits, wherever conferences may lead, the same potential force — still strong, still largely invisible. The talk may be of battle­ships and cruisers, of aircraft or of gun elevations, or of armed and distant bases, but deep beneath the surface of it all runs the question: What of the submarine?

Twice within the past five years has this wartime menace of the seas shown its power at peacetime conferences ashore. At the Limitation of Armament Conference in Washington, in 1922, it figured in the results to a far greater degree than was suspected. At the 1927 conference in Geneva it was the force, subtly mysterious and seldom discussed, that prompted the urge for more cruisers. Thus, in the sessions at Washington, Great Britain was strongly in favor of abolishing the submarine as a weapon to be used in warfare. This attitude was dictated by the fact that England's trade routes are extensive and diverge to all points of the compass, and that the more important of them pass close to those continental nations which have great interests in the Mediterranean. France, on the other hand, resolutely opposed any limitation  p84 of the submarine and was success­ful in preventing its abolition.

In the end, the British succeeded in having adopted a provision in the treaty to the effect that submarines should not be used as commerce destroyers after ratification of the treaty by the five contracting powers. This treaty was ratified by all the nations at the conference except France.

Immediately after the conference France undertook a submarine building program that increased gradually from 1922, when she had only 1000 tons under construction, until January 1, 1927, when she had 25,000 tons building. Italy began construction of submarines in 1925. On the first of January, 1926, Italy was building 5000 tons of submarines, and on the first of last Januaryº 12,000 tons. Since cruisers are admirably designed to protect merchant convoys and to combat the submarine, one may now better understand the English desire — expressed at the recent Geneva conference — for a large number of small cruisers rather than a smaller number of large cruisers. Thus, it was the invisible power of the submarine that in part caused the failure of the 1927 conference on naval armament, and this failure in turn was a reaction from the 1922 conference at Washington.

In any discussion of the elements of sea power it is requisite to have a clear idea of the naval terms "strategy" and "tactics." Strategy is that part of the art of warfare that determines, after a well-reasoned consideration of all the elements involved, the time when  p85 and the place where, an offensive shall begin. Decision is based upon a reasoned estimate of the forces involved and their distribution, and the probable course of action by the enemy. Tactics is the art that determines the method of employment of the armed forces available. It was a strategical conception that impelled France to retain the submarine in 1922, and Great Britain to demand the large number of cruisers in 1927.

It is essential for the economic life of Great Britain always to have the trade routes that supply the country with petroleum, food, cotton and similar necessities kept open and immune from attack by an enemy armed with submarines as well as with other craft. This point was accentuated at the Geneva Conference and stress was laid upon the fact that the many cruisers demanded by Great Britain were for defensive purposes. Literally, that is true. As a matter of fact, however, all actions taken by nations in order to win a war are offensive in character. Defending trade routes, for example, is an essential step in getting ready to launch an offensive.

In a general sense everyone is familiar with the submarine. Its war record won it universal recognition and notoriety. Yet certain of its developments, such, for example, as carrying aircraft, shelling armies on the march, participating in the service of supplies, and the like, are less commonly known. With both its record and its possibilities, this chapter will deal.

The modern submarine is neither more nor less than  p86 a diving torpedo boat. Its principal function is to carry the automobile torpedo within striking distance of an enemy. Its value lies in its invisibility, its power to deliver an unseen attack, and the destructiveness of the torpedo. Its weakness is its vulnerability when on the surface and its inability to remain under the surface for long periods of time. Submarines of the present day may be divided into two types. The large cruiser type that can accompany the fleet is usually called a fleet submarine. This type may be employed, as are cruisers, for scouting, operating against the enemy's trade routes, laying mines before enemy ports and harassing an enemy fleet with mines and torpedoes. Undoubtedly vessels of this type will soon be as large as 3000 tons. There is no great technical difficulty in designing submarines that could at the same time carry mines, mount guns of six‑inch calibre and even several aircraft. The United States now has a submarine capable of carrying one small plane.

The second type of submarine, known generally as the first‑line type, is smaller, averaging about 800 tons. Boats of this type are designed to operate near the coast line of their own countries or from bases, to prevent blockades, minor attacks and for other purposes within the limitations of their size and speed. According to the latest information available, the United States has, built and building, 9 fleet submarines and 50 of the smaller or first-line type; Great Britain 13 of the fleet type and 32 of the first line; Japan 23 of the fleet type and 45 of the first line; France 3 of the  p87 fleet type and 42 of the first line; Italy 4 of the fleet type and 18 of the first line. In addition all nations have numbers of small submarines of obsolescent types.

The ratios of the submarines of each type among the five great maritime nations are presented and compared with capital-ship ratios in the table shown on page 94.

Submarines of both these types vary in gun power and in speed. In the comparison of the submarine power of nations, tonnage is not the only factor. A nation with bases along the trade routes of the world may employ the smaller type of submarine as effectively as the larger. A nation, however, that has no bases must rely upon the larger type with a large radius of action.

Let us consider first the fleet submarine — the advanced type known in the United States as the V‑1. It has a tonnage of approximately 2000 and costs about $7,000,000 to build. Its motive power consists of four internal-combustion engines of the Diesel type. Two of these are about 2000‑horse power two‑cycle engines. The others are 1000‑horse power four-cycle engines. When the vessel is submerged, electric motors which derive current from storage batteries take up the task of propelling it, for no internal-combustion can operate under such conditions. The hulls of the vessel are made strong enough to withstand the pressure at a maximum depth of about 200 feet. Within that depth it is possible for them to lie on the bottom indefinitely.  p88 At slow speeds the V‑1 can remain submerged for only about 48 hours. Then it is necessary to come to the surface and recharge the storage batteries. The length of the V‑1 is 300 feet, the beam 27 feet and the draft 15 feet. It boasts a very large cruising radius at 12 knots, or nautical miles an hour, and carries 6 torpedo tubes — 4 in the bow and 2 in the stern — as well as one 5‑inch gun and two machine guns. On the surface its maximum speed is about 20 knots; submerged it is 10 knots. A vessel of this size and type can accompany the battle fleet on the high seas under all conditions of weather.

The habitability of the type when submerged is such that the crew can remain down four days or more without being seriously affected. Within the boat the air is purified by being passed by blowers through saline containers, which dispose of the poisonous carbon dioxide. In addition, there are bottles of oxygen which may be used when it is found necessary to keep the required amount of oxygen in the air. At great depths the pressure is kept normal. Should there be air leaks the pressure is reduced by compressing the air and discharging it overboard.

There is, however, one effect always experienced during submergence. A feeling of drowsiness, a slowing down of mental and physical activity. A most uncomfortable feature is the high temperature within the boats when in tropical waters. Under such conditions the air is kept in circulation by fans, and the mental reaction to this practice gives fairly satisfactory  p89 results. For the further comfort of the personnel, comfortable bunks are provided for the crew and small staterooms for the officers. A cold-storage plant is installed, so fresh provisions may be carried on long cruises. Improvements in the mechanical details have kept pace with the advance in living conditions. The Diesel engines are entirely reliable. Wireless communication has progressed to such an extent that a boat is seldom out of touch with its home base or with the fleet. During the World War orders to and reports from the German U‑boats at sea were transmitted constantly, promptly, and accurately.

A submarine of the V‑1 type carries a captain with the rank of commander, an executive officer, two engineer officers, and others. Its crew of 90 includes engineers, torpedo men, electricians, and men of other ratings to handle the ship, man the guns, and similar details. Officers and men alike must be trained for submarine work. In the United States service this training is given at a large submarine base at New London, Conn. The course includes theoretical as well as practical instruction. In former years service on submarines was decidedly uncomfortable, but now the crews have all conveniences and escape the discomforts that at one time made it difficult to secure volunteers for that service. Enlisted men who serve in submarines received $5 a month increased pay and, in addition, $1 for every day or part of a day the vessel is submerged. As a result of all these advantages and  p90 of freedom from military and other drills, duty on the submersibles is often sought.

A vessel of such characteristics as the V‑1 is designed to accompany the battle fleet at all times and may have various strategic and tactical employment. Scouting, screening the fleet, mine laying, attacking the enemy main fleet during a major engagement, and following a defeated enemy or protecting the retreat of its own ships in case of defeat — these are some of the duties it may perform. Another use may be cruiser warfare against enemy merchant shipping. The cruiser submarine is capable of exercising the right of visit and search in the manner laid down by international law as applicable to surface vessels. It should be remembered, however, that unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant vessels was outlawed by the Washington Conference of the Limitation of Naval Armaments.

The smaller submarines which are not capable of extended cruising are, nevertheless, extremely valuable in the defense of harbors and coasts. Operating from shore bases they can prevent an enemy from seizing a base on their nation's coast or on an outlying island. Failing that, they can make enemy operations from its own base exceedingly difficult and hazardous. The advent of the submarine has furthermore made the close blockade of harbors and coasts a thing of the past. No fleet can remain within a few hundred miles of an enemy harbor without being subjected to submarine attack day and night. In the field of tactics the submarine  p91 has forced the surface ship to steam at high speed and on zigzag courses whenever it is in waters where an attack may be expected. For protection against such submarine activities, capital ships must be screened by a large number of destroyers or cruisers. The best defense against submarines is, however, high speed and zigzagging. When submerged the submarine's speed is slow, and a target proceeding at high speed materially reduces the opportunity for an attack. If, in addition, the target is steering an erratic course, the submarine's chances for success­ful attack are still further minimized.

For defense against the submarine, depth charges dropped from small and fast surface craft, usually destroyers, over the area in which the presence of the submarine is known or suspected, constitute one of the most effective methods developed. The depth charge consists of a large charge of high explosive, fitted to explode automatically at a predetermined depth. If the explosion takes place near the submarine, the latter will be sunk or put out of action.

At the outbreak of the World War the belligerents were not equipped with large sea‑going submarines. Those they had were of about 500 tons and had comparatively short cruising radiuses, poor habitability and unreliable engines. As the war continued, the boats became larger and more habitable, the engines developed in reliability and the cruising radius was increased. German U‑boats crossed the Atlantic and  p92 operated off the Delaware and Chesapeake capes without refueling. Although their active operations on our coast were limited to a few days, they showed the possibilities of the U‑boat cruisers.

At first both the German and allied submarines were used against strictly military objectives. On both sides boats were dispatched to cruise off enemy ports to gain information of enemy movements and to attack enemy vessels when opportunity presented. The first notable success gained by a submarine was the sinking of the British cruisers Hogue, Cressy, and Aboukir by the German submarine U‑9 in September, 1914. These three cruisers were proceeding at slow speed with no protecting small craft when the first was torpedoed without warning. The remaining two stopped to rescue the survivors and became easy targets for the U‑boat. Success­ful attacks by submarines on combatant vessels, however, grew comparatively rare after the opening phases of the war, when proper defensive tactics were developed.

The German submarine was soon used to sink allied commerce and shipping, and continued that offensive, with one or two short interruptions, until the armistice. The losses to allied shipping were enormous. It is generally conceded that had Germany delayed her unrestricted submarine campaign against merchant shipping until she had an adequate number of efficient boats built and in commission, she could have brought such pressure to bear on the British that the war might have ended after the first two years, and with peace  p93 terms highly favorable to Germany. As carried out, the first German efforts were of experimental nature and were done with an inadequate number of boats. Although the losses inflicted on allied shipping were large, they were not effective, and time was given the Allies to devise countermeasures to combat the menace. Anti-submarine methods took many forms. Harbors were protected by the use of steel nets stretched across their entrances. Patrols of small craft were established to attack the submarine by gunfire and by ramming whenever it could be seen on the surface. These vessels were later equipped with hydrophones and depth charges to enable them to follow the submarine by sound and, on locating it, to drop bombs in the vicinity. The patrol vessels, which included drifters, trawlers, and motor launches, were assigned definite areas, which they covered as regularly as was possible.

Another method was the employment of so‑called Q or mystery ships — vessels disguised as merchantmen, rigged up to be unsinkable and carrying concealed guns. Such vessels proceeded to submarine-infested waters and invited attack. If the submarine was not too cautious and came to the surface to accomplish its work of destruction, the Q ship threw off its disguise and opened fire. Several German submarines were sunk by this method, but its effectiveness waned as U‑boats became familiar with the practice and ceased to expose themselves.

 p94  Table showing submarine and capital-ship ratios

Japan France Italy
Actual ratios, fleet submarines:


3.75 5.00 7.67 2.21 1.25

Number of vessels

3.46 5.00 8.84 1.15 1.54

Capital-ship ratio

5.00 5.00 3.00 1.67 1.67
Actual ratios, submarines, first‑line:


7.63 5.00 6.36 8.30 2.49

Number of vessels

7.81 5.00 7.03 6.56 2.81

Capital-ship ratio

5.00 5.00 3.00 1.67 1.67

Thousands of mines were laid in the North Sea to hinder U‑boat activities and in an attempt to keep them at their bases. The northern barrage stretched across the North Sea from Norway to the Scottish Islands. An additional barrage was laid across the Dover Strait, and this, together with nets and patrols, soon made the passage of the strait by submarine difficult and dangerous.​a

The most effective of all the anti-submarine measures adopted by the Allies was the convoy system. Under this system merchantmen were assembled in groups and sailed under convoy of men-of‑war. The convoys were given definite routes to follow, and these routes were changed at irregular intervals. If enemy submarines were reported along the track of a particular convoy, the course of the convoy would be changed by radio. The convoy system was so success­ful that at the time of the Armistice submarine  p95 sinkings were markedly decreasing and the submarine cruiser was no longer considered a grave menace.

Although destruction of commerce early became the governing mission of the German submarine, some continued to carry out operations more military in nature. In August, 1915, for example, the U‑24 bombarded a benzine factory near Harrington, on the west coast of England, and caused it to blow up. The U‑38, in 1916, after sinking the English submarine tender Kangaroo and the French gunboat Surprise, engaged the fortifications at Funchal, Madeira. On the Fourth of July, 1917, a U‑boat bombarded the town of Ponta Delgada, Azores. This attack was frustrated by the U. S. carrier Orion, which fired on the U‑boat and caused it to retire. In 1917 German submarines on several occasions joined in engagement between the Tripolitans and Italians. Officers, munitions, and weapons were transported back and forth from the forces engaged in North Africa, several boats being converted for that purpose. Two other special missions carried out by the U‑boats were the cruise of the U‑53 to the United States — Newport, R. I., — and of the U‑19, which landed Sir Roger Casement, leader of the Irish Nationalists, on the coast of Ireland in the Tralee Bight. The U‑53 was out 42 days and cruised 7750 nautical miles without replenishing fuel or lubricating oil.

On all their cruises the German boats were subject to constant attack by all the various anti-submarine facilities of the Allies from the time they sailed from  p96 their home ports until their return. Their losses were heavy, amounting to 199, which included 6 boats interned and 15 blown up when bases were abandoned.

The experience of the UC‑26 illustrates what the U‑boat could expect at any time. This vessel was returning from a success­ful cruise near Le Havre and Cherbourg when it was rammed by an English destroyer at night off Calais. The ships were so close when they sighted each other that the ramming tactics of the destroyer could not be avoided by the submarine. The submarine sank immediately in about 140 feet of water, the entire forward part of the boat being flooded. Depth charges exploding near the sunken boat extinguished the electric lights. After all efforts to raise the boat by blowing tanks had failed, the crew assembled in the central operating compartment, which was still free of water. Then, as a last resort, high-pressure air was admitted to the conning tower to equalize the pressure inside the boat with the pressure of the water outside, and thus permit the opening of the hatch. As expected, the hatch was blown open and several men near it were blown out of the boat. None of these survived. The only men saved — a reserve officer and a machinist's mate — did not leave the boat until the pressure had fallen somewhat and equalized. They were unconscious when they reached the surface, but recovered quickly and were picked up by a destroyer.

Many hazardous experiences fell to the lot of the seamen who served the Allies in submarines. Contrary  p97 to the general opinion held by the experts before the war, submarines did fight submarines. During hostilities the work of these boats of the Allies was veiled in secrecy, but for numbers engaged it showed as high a percentage of German submarines sunk as did any of the other methods in use.

Regular patrols were kept up by these boats in the Heligoland Bight, the Irish Sea, and off the western entrance to the English Channel. When the United States entered the war one of her first contributions was to send available submarines to augment the allied sea forces. One division arrived in the Azores in the fall of 1917 and operated in that area until the Armistice. Two more divisions were sent to Ireland the following winter and operated with the British.

Life on board the patrolling allied submarines meant hardship and constant strain. Submarines look much alike, so all surface craft had orders to shoot first and question later when a submersible was encountered. Although the Allies' boats were outfitted with recognition signals, there was seldom time to use them before shells or depth charges began to fall. The submarine was everybody's enemy and its only safety lay in keeping out of sight at all times.

On patrol the usual procedure of the Allies' submarines was to cruise submerged during daylight and come to the surface during the hours of darkness to recharge storage batteries. In North Sea latitudes this meant that during the summer months the boats remained submerged about eighteen hours. Contacts  p98 with enemy submarines were frequent. In some cases gun actions took place between the hostile craft; in others ramming tactics were attempted. As a rule the torpedo was the weapon used. When it hit, the result was never in doubt.

One incident, a daring attack in the Weser River by a British submarine, had an amusing aftermath. The commanding officer decided to investigate the German coast without waiting for orders from superior officers. He proceeded to the eastward, diving to avoid destroyers and patrol vessels, until he arrived at the Weser. Here he sighted a large U‑boat on the surface, just in from a success­ful cruise. His torpedo hit amid­ships. Immediately after sinking the U‑boat the British ship was attacked by destroyers and, to escape, went to the bottom and lay there through the day. Depth bombs were dropped and sweeping was resorted to in the effort to destroy it. At one time a sweep wire was heard to scrape its whole length. The boat weathered all these attacks and returned safely to port. The commander was reprimanded for leaving his patrol billet without order. A year later he was decorated for that same act.

The case of a British submarine which was attacked by three United States destroyers illustrates what the submersible on patrol could expect from friends. Diving in a rough sea, the submarine's conning tower broke surface and was sighted by destroyers, which opened fire with guns and then attacked with depth charges. The submarine dived to 200 feet, when the  p99 first depth charge exploded and jammed the after diving rudders hard up. Four more heavy explosions shook the boat and, as it could no longer be controlled, the tanks were blown and it rose to the surface the destroyers opened a heavy fire. One shot struck the hull just abaft the conning tower before the submarine could make its identity known. The destroyers were commended for the efficiency of their attack.

British submarines were active also in the Dardanelles and in the Sea of Marmora and did great damage to Turkish shipping. Forcing the straits was an extremely hazardous undertaking and five boats thus engaged were lost. One was sunk by a U‑boat off Constantinople, one was caught in the submarine nets at Chanak, two were sunk while entering the Dardanelles, and one was sunk by gun fire in the Marmora. Several times boats dived into the harbor at Constantinople and torpedoed vessels alongside the dock. Water traffic was entirely disrupted during these raids and large numbers of vessels were sunk, including the Turkish battle­ship Messidiyeh. On one occasion two British submarines shelled troops on the march along a road near the shore. Several columns and a transport train were dispersed with great casualties.

Even in times of piping peace the hazards met by submarine crews have often led to disaster. The Japanese submarine 43, of 700 tons, was sunk off Sasebo by a cruiser. The boat was located and salvage undertaken. Telephonic communication was established  p100 with the men alive in the submarine. The first message received, at 4.20 P.M., was:

"Having felt that the boat collided, asked the commanding room for an order. Not having received any reply, stopped the motors. Those in engine room retreated to the motor room on hearing colliding sound. About 2 P.M. an explosion was heard and all lights went out and the boat inclined to port about 50°. Sea water is running in. Oil from tank also. Oh, how agonizing it is. Please do something as quick as possible. Again water is rushing in from engine room. Please do something to prevent this. Motor on port side is now under water."

The survivors at this time were eighteen, commanded by Lieutenant Ogawa. At 4.27 word was received: "Breathing is difficult. It is just like when climbing up a hill, running."

The story continues; at 4.45: "There are six air purifiers and they are distributed one to every three men and they are sucking them by turns. It is pitch dark and this is greatly handicapping us."

An hour later: "If floating dock is here will you not tow us to shallow water? Arrangement for emptying of main tank is ready, but as valve of commanding room is not open, please open it at once."

Then Lieutenant Ogawa came to the phone and said, "I make this report to the commanding officer: Men are making their utmost efforts, obeying orders well, calmly attending to their assigned duties. Please report this fact to the authorities. Water is now washing  p101 our feet, but we are working hard through the dark. Please do your bet to save us. Carbon gas is becoming thick, and breathing is difficult."

At 6.40: "Is there any chance of our being raised during today? Is it day or night? What time can it be? What efforts are you making above? Breathing is ever becoming more difficult and we are slowly letting air out of the reservoirs."

Next came the report: "One man has just dropped; now two more."

At 7.30, suddenly, in a strong voice "Banzai!" was heard three times, and the words, "Hurry, hurry," came faintly through the telephone.

At 8.10, Lieutenant Ogawa, between gasps for breath, managed to say: "As regards my personal matters, I have nothing to say. I have made up my mind; please do not worry. Please do your best for the country — please, please."

At 8.45 someone called, "Hurry, hurry," three times. All was over.

In our own service we have lost four submarines — the F‑4, S‑5, S‑51, and S‑4.

The F‑4 was lost off Honolulu with all hands. Later this boat was raised. The cause of the loss was never determined. The S‑5 went down in shallow water off the Delaware capes. The boat was newly commissioned and was training the crew in diving. On a dive a valve in a ventilating pipe was not closed and the boat was flooded. Water-tight doors were closed and the crew assembled in the after part of the  p102 boat. Fortunately the water was shallow, and by blowing out ballast the stern was brought above water. The men in the boat drifted a hole through the hull. A stick with a shirt tied to it was stuck through the hole. The distress signal was seen by a passing steamer, the Alanthus. Later came a second steamer, the George W. Goethals. Using a ratchet drill, the two chief engineers of temple ships, after many hours of difficult work, drilled a hole in the plating and all hands were saved after an imprisonment of 37 hours.

The S‑51 was sunk off Block Island by a steamer. There were only three survivors. The S‑51 was proceeding on the surface at night-time with all navigational lights burning. The S‑4 was sunk by the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding, December, 1927, with the loss of all hands.​b

Extraordinary as some of these experiences may seem, they were no more thrilling than those which marked the earliest days of the submarine. For submarine warfare has a far longer history than is commonly suspected. According to Herodotus, during the invasion of Greece by Xerxes, a Greek diver cast off the cables from the Persian ships during a storm and caused them to be driven ashore and wrecked.​c In the sixteenth century, divers were used by the Turks during the siege of Malta. The first authentic submarine war vessel, however, was invented by David Bushnell, a student at Yale, during the Revolutionary War. He conceived the idea of destroying the British men-of‑war blockading the American coast by exploding  p103 a charge of gunpowder, contained in a water-tight magazine, beneath their bottoms. To accomplish this he built, in 1776, a boat capable of containing an operator and sufficient air to supply him for 30 minutes. Provision was made also for the admission and ejection of water ballast. The oars were constructed on the principle of the screw. The torpedo consisted of two pieces of oak timber hollowed out and containing 150 pounds of powder. This was attached by rope to a screw, intended to be fastened into the planking of the vessel attacked. It was to be fired by a flintlock operated by clockwork. Although efforts to use the boat effectively failed, many of the principles incorporated in its construction can be recognized in more modern designs. The improvements were due to progress in engineering.

Robert Fulton, in 1801, built a submarine in Paris for Napoleon. Although he demonstrated its ability to remain submerged at a depth of 23 feet for one hour, French officials rejected the craft because they felt such form of warfare was immoral. England, too, declined to purchase his craft, and although the United States showed some interest, nothing came of it.

The next step in the story of the submarine occurred during the Civil War when, in an effort to break the Union blockade, the Confederates developed a submersible, known as the David because of its diminutive dimensions. The first David was a cargo-shaped vessel of boiler iron, 54 feet long, with a beam and  p104 a depth of 6 feet. It was equipped with ballast tanks which when filled with water submerged the boat until only some ten feet of her superstructure remained above water. An ordinary steam boiler provided steam for a marine engine connected directly to the propeller by a shaft. When trimmed down to the awash condition it resembled a large floating plank with a projecting funnel, which could be lowered into the boat. A torpedo consisting of a case, 10 inches in diameter, 32 inches long, and containing 134 pounds of gunpowder, was carried on the end of a projecting spar and formed the offensive weapon. The torpedo was fitted with a chemical fuse which exploded the charge on coming in contact with the side of an enemy ship.

The David type cost many lives and sank at least five times before it accomplished anything. Finally a David, propelled manually by a crew of eight men, torpedoed and sank the Federal corvette Housatonic at Charleston in February, 1864. The attacker went down with its victim and all aboard were lost.

The First Navy Submarine

John Philip Holland, an Irish-American teacher, conceived and brought to success the practical and efficient boat of today. Holland built and tried out his first boat in 1875. It was a one‑man craft with a length of only 10 feet, but it was practical. The adequacy  p105 of the air supply was demonstrated when its inventor remained totally submerged in his craft for 24 hours. Later he built a larger vessel, called the Fenian Ram. It was 30 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, and had a displacement of 17 tons. In spite of many defects this boat was a success in its ability to maneuver on the surface and to submerge, and it aroused wide interest.​d During this period the Navy Department took no official cognizance of Holland's experiments, although naval officers studied their outcome closely.

Years later the Holland company, after further development, built a boat which, as the Holland, was purchased by the Government in 1900 and became the first submarine in regular commission in the United States Navy.

The Holland was 53 feet long and 10¼ feet in diameter, tapering from amid­ships to the bow and the stern. Her displacement was 75 tons. She was driven by a 50‑horse power gasoline engine on the surface and by electric storage batteries when submerged. Her armament consisted of one bow tube for firing an 18‑inch automobile torpedo. The ballast tanks were designed to hold sufficient water to sink the boat to the awash condition. When awash there still was a slight amount of buoyancy. To submerge, the motors were started ahead and the boat was steered beneath the surface by diving rudders. If the motors were stopped while the boat was submerged, she would automatically rise to the surface due to a reserve of  p106 buoyancy. The method of diving a submarine has not changed. A modern boat is still handled as was the Holland.

All the essentials necessary to make the submarine a formidable engine of destructive warfare were contained in the Holland except one — the periscope. In order to see a target and to direct the torpedo the submarine was forced to expose itself on the surface. This defect was obviated by the invention of the periscope, a slender tube projecting upward from the hull, which, by a system of lenses and projecting mirrors, enables a man at the eyepiece inside the submarine to see what is taking place at the surface while the boat itself remains submerged and invisible. From the Holland the submarine has progressed steadily until such types as the V‑1 have been evolved to engage in naval warfare as we know it today.

Much has been said of the effect of the submarine on naval warfare of the future. What of it? Its greatest admirers have envisaged this subsurface craft as relegating the battle­ship and the cruiser to the limbo of useless and forgotten things. But like many prophecies such statements overshoot their mark. On the advent of any new engine of warfare there have always been strong protestations that the invention would revolutionize warfare; that previous weapons would become obsolete and should be discarded immediately. As a matter of fact, all engines of destruction have different characteristics as to range, accuracy, and destructive power, and new inventions  p107 usually have been a modification of the relative importance of the three elements of the weapon. There is, for example, nothing at the present time to equal the 16‑inch gun in the combination of range and accuracy and destructive power it represents. The torpedo launched from a destroyer has only one‑fourth the range of the gun, and its accuracy is less, but its destructive power is far greater. The destructive power of a torpedo from a submarine is the same as that of the torpedo from a destroyer; the range, however, is greatly decreased and so is the accuracy.

Of course, destroyers and submarines, firing at the extreme range of the torpedo and at a target of a column of battle­ships 2 or 3 miles long, have a chance for success. However, from a study of naval warfare in the World War, and particularly of the Battle of Jutland, the accuracy of the torpedo may be said to be small. The submarine, when submerged, is invisible and thereby may approach the enemy without being sighted. Yet at the same time the enemy is invisible from the submarine, so that the submarine has always great difficulty in obtaining a position wherein it may success­fully attack a surface vessel. Particularly is this true if the surface vessel steams at high speed and changes the course frequently and irregularly, both as to angle and time — or, as it is called, "zigzags." One need only study the operations of the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow to see that with proper precaution and protection, a fleet may  p108 proceed when and where it wishes in spite of enemy submarines.

The use of the submarine during World War developed to such an extent that had it been possible to make it a weapon superior to the battle­ship, unquestionably that would have been demonstrated. The fact that the submarine is not effective against the battle­ship is due primarily to the tactical limitations which compel it to approach close to its prospective victim and to attain a certain position before firing its torpedo.

Accompanying destroyers will invariably protect the battle­ship by forcing the submarine to submerge when it attempts to gain this position. It is easy for a destroyer to keep the submarine submerged by means of depth charges, even if it does not succeed in damaging or destroying the submersible.

At the present time battle­ships are, and probably will remain, the central force from which other elements of naval warfare radiate. A fleet of battle­ships, accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, may proceed to any destination without serious threat from any dissimilar force. And in this connection, it must be remembered, the history of naval warfare would teach that when naval campaigns are fought between the forces of two powers, one with battle­ships and the other without, the power with the battle­ships, under present‑day conditions and as far as one can envisage the future, will gain the mastery of the sea.

Advocates of new weapons almost invariably become  p109 so enthusiastic over the possibilities of the particular one they champion that judgment is warped and false conclusions are deduced. Some admirers of the submarine — and among these may be noted distinguished officers of ability and experience — say that the day of the battle­ship is over. This is precisely the same situation that was discussed 40 years ago, at the time of the perfection of the automobile torpedo and its installation upon small, fast boats. From the fundamental principles of strategy and tactics, it may be safely asserted, however, that it will be very many years before the modern battle­ship is no longer the backbone of the fleet.

The submarine has its functions in war, and these are most important. At times, even, they may be indispensable. But the vessel is neither invincible nor invulnerable. It figures anew in the constant struggle between the offensive and the defensive. With the advent of increased gun power the thickness of armor was increased. Against the threat of the torpedo came measures to destroy vessels carrying the torpedo; and battle­ships are protected from torpedoes by false sides, or blisters. The threat of the submarine has been met by small fast vessels carrying guns and depth charges. So will it go in the future. In the center of these controversies always there is a rallying point, and that, in naval warfare, is and will continue to be the first battle­ship.​e

Thayer's Notes:

a The Northern Mine Barrage is covered in fair detail in George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, pp504‑506.

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b Some details are given in C. S. Alden and R. Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, p329.

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c The incident is that of Scyllias or Scyllis, and most of what is said here is not found in Herodotus, but in another ancient author altogether. For full details as well as other Graeco-Roman diving information, then the progress of undersea diving over the centuries since, see the short but interesting training pamphlet by the Royal Canadian Navy's Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic), The History of Diving.

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d The Fenian Ram was preserved, and is on display at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ. A page on it, with two photographs, can be read at Historic Naval Ships Association.

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e The last battle­ship in the United States Navy was decommissioned in 1992. As of writing (2014) no navy in the world has a battle­ship.

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Page updated: 31 Aug 17