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The First British Sub Ever To Be Lost At Sea

History tells us that there were to have been six submarines of the Holland type built for the Royal Navy at Barrow. That there were only five and that Vickers Sons and Maxim really got a foothold in the building business is due to one man, Captain Reginald Bacon, the first Inspecting Captain of Submarines.

Like his title, what Captain Bacon did belongs to history. Nevertheless it began the submarine drawing office at Barrow Shipyard and submarines and their propulsion systems have provided work ever since.


Captain Bacon soon decided that the Holland class submarines were too small to be of any practical value. The British Admiralty had been moved from its earlier position of never, ever entertaining the submarine as a weapon of war to one of appreciating that the American lawyer Isaac Rice had something to offer the Royal Navy when he came to England with J D Holland's designs. Captain Bacon wanted new and bigger boats and thus it was that what was intended as Holland 6 emerged as HMS A1.

The Captain had his own ideas and set about drafting them. He wanted a new class with better sea-going qualities so Vickers Sons and Maxim placed a drawing office at Barrow at his disposal and allocated him two ship and two engineering draughtsmen. A Mr A Turney was the chief draughtsman for the boats design and a Mr L G McFarlane was chief draughtsman for the engineering detail.

It was decided to install a 12-cylinder Wolseley engine developing 450 horsepower and driving a single shaft. On trials this produced the speed that had been hoped for - about 11½ knots. A much improved chloride battery powered the boats electric motor and this in turn produced underwater speeds of up to seven knots.

Endurance was improved and the displacement tonnage increased to 165 tons (surfaced) and 180 tons (submerged). Not surprisingly, the length of the boat increased from 63 feet to 100 feet and A1 was given a complement of two officers and nine men.

One of the greatest improvements was the addition of a conning tower projecting some six feet above the deck. This gave a reasonable position from which to navigate on the surface, and a much better housing for the periscope, which had now been recognised as being a vital part of the submarine.

Building Holland 1 had taught a lot of people a great many things. It had for example put Vickers Sons and Maxim in touch with a gentleman named Sir Howard Grubb, a well known scientist of the day and an authority on optics.

Sir Howard designed for Vickers the periscope used in the first Holland's and than enabled a cable to be sent to Isaac Rice in February 1902 reading "Course can be accurately kept by Sir Howard Grubb's periscope." What price the modern SINS (Ship's Inertial Navigation System)?

Clearly Vickers had made another name for themselves. So much so that an Admiralty spokesman said in the House of Commons:

So ably did they deal with this matter that, even before the first Holland submarine was launched they had already evolved and laid down what is known as the A-type.

Actually he was stretching the facts a little but it is interesting to note now that while Barrow was building Holland's the American Navy Department had accepted submarines only with "deep reluctance." The upshot was financial trouble for Electric Boat majority shareholders by the end of 1903.

Vickers had certainly got under way as submarine builders. Altogether 13 A class were launched between 1902 and 1905. They in turn overlapped a new class - the Bs. The last A Class was launched at Barrow on April 18, 1905. B1 was launched on October 25, 1904. Submarines were beginning to get bigger and better.

The ill fated A1
The ill fated A1

A1 was completed in 1902 and was destined to have a brief life. She carried aboard during that life, King Edward VII and HRH the Prince of Wales. Then, during manoeuvres on March 18, 1904, she became the first British Submarine to be lost at sea.

Intent on attacking the Barrow-built cruiser HMS Juno (Home Fleet) off Spit-head the young Captain became so engrossed in his task that he failed to notice the Castle Line steamer Berwick Castle bearing down upon his command. The Berwick Castle hit the conning tower of A1 and the submarine sank immediately. She was recovered a month later but all her crew lost their lives.



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