1943 - 1977: Amphion Class
On the morning of 7th December 1941, the US Fleet suffered more damage in one hour than during the whole of the First World War, when Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbour - the United States largest naval base - and the airfields which were an essential part of its defences. The attack lasted from 7.55am to 9.15am, and initiated the Pacific Ocean as one of the wars major battlegrounds.
This distant theatre of war heralded a change in British submarine policy. As none of the existing submarines had adequate range, a new class representing the only new submarine design produced by the Royal Navy during the Second World War - was adopted, which had a much greater range and increased surface speed. The opportunity was also taken to introduce major technical advances, of which the most important was an all-welded hull.
These new A Class submarines were basically an enlargement of the T Class, with a construction that was simple, fast and so arranged as to utilize many of the materials set aside for the T boats. The A Class, perhaps the most successful of all traditional types of pre-nuclear submarine, were fitted with an effective air-conditioning system: air warning radar which could function at periscope depth: a high flared bow for excellent sea performance: formidable armament of ten 21-inch torpedo tubes, and had an appreciably reduced underwater noise level.
Forty-six A boats were ordered under the 1943 Programme and the first-of-class. Amphion was laid down at Vickers on 14th November 1943 and launched on 31st August 1944. Only Amphion and Astute, also Barrow-built, were completed before the end of the war, but neither were involved in any hostilities. With the conclusion of the war imminent 30 of the 46 ordered boats were cancelled of the 16 that remained. Vickers constructed ten.
A Class submarines were over 280 feet long and displaced 1385 tons (surfaced). Their two Admiralty diesels developed 4300hp, which gave a surface speed of 18.5 knots. The submerged speed was 8 knots, produced by two English Electric motors generating 1250hp. The radius of action of the A Class was 500 miles on the surface at 11 knots and up to 90 miles submerged at 3 knots.
The heavy armament consisted of six 21-inch bow tubes (two external) and four 21-inch stern tubes (two external) - with 20 torpedoes carried. The class were also fitted with one 4-inch gun forward of the conning tower, one 20mm Oerlikon cannon and three portable 0.303-inch machine-guns.
As the final act was being played in the theatre of war, it is interesting to recall the words Sir Winston Churchill used to express to the submarine branch of the Royal Navy the nation's gratitude for the difficulties and dangers it faced during the Second World War:
Of all the branches of men in the Forces there is none that shows more devotion and faces greater perils than the submariner. Great deeds are done in the air and on the land; nevertheless nothing surpasses your exploits'.
After the war, the A Class, and other submarines, were fitted with a Snort (Schnorkel) mast, which was a device by which air could be taken into a submarine so that it could continue to use its diesel engines when submerged. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the system the Vickers-built HMS Andrew completed a record 15-day, 2500-mile submerged passage from Bermuda to England. She surfaced in the English Channel on the eve of the Coronation in 1953, just in time for the feat to be reported in the same news bulletin as the first ascent of Mount Everest.
In the spring of 1951, as if to remind submariners of the hazardous nature of their profession, disaster again struck the Royal Navy Submarine Service. Leaving Portsmouth on a training cruise on 16th April, HMS Affray dived at 9pm in the extreme western part of the English Channel. She vanished with all her crew plus 23 submarine officers under training and some Royal Marine Commandos - a total of 75 men. The importance of effecting a quick rescue was hampered by the fact that the Commander's brief was very wide-ranging.
Alas, Affray remained undiscovered until late-June, when an underwater television camera searching north of Guernsey found her in 278 feet of water. Pictures revealed her snort mast was snapped off, but no explanation was ever given as to why she had sunk, why nobody escaped or why she was never salvaged. HMS Affray has the unfortunate honour of being the last Royal Navy submarine to be lost.
Between 1955 and 1960, A boats were streamlined. The two external torpedo tubes forward and aft were also removed, leaving a total of six. See the article Diesel Submarines 1948 - 1958 for details of the alterations to this class following WWII.
From 1967 on, these fine submarines were progressively scrapped. In 1972, HMS Aeneas was hired by Vickers for successful trials of SLAM (Submarine Launched Anti-aircraft Missile) a four-barrel cluster of guided missiles having high lethality against low-flying aircraft.
As the Barrow-built HMS Andrew awaited disposal in 1977, the end of an era was signalled - she was the oldest submarine in service, the last to carry a deck gun and the last submarine designed during the Second World War to he still at sea.
During the war, in addition to vessels built for the Admiralty, Vickers also constructed four submarines for the Turkish Navy. The 687-ton boats were, however, acquired by the Royal Navy, and temporarily commissioned as P611, P612, P614 and P615. Similar to the S Class, but with a weaker armament, they were a sensible addition to the Fleet, and served mainly in the Atlantic - where P615 was torpedoed by a U-Boat in 1943. After the war, the three survivors were returned to Turkey, and remained in service until 1957.
As the world moved into a new era of peace, Barrow's contribution to the national war effort makes a fascinating catalogue. To quote from 'A Century of Shipbuilding', by Tom Clark:
A cursory check has made it four aircraft carriers, three cruisers, ten destroyers, ten cargo ships, eleven landing craft and ninety-nine submarines! An amazing total of 137 vessels, built in less than six years. The majority of the submarines were handed over in the four years of 1941 to 1944, and the peak rate of production was reached in 1942 when an average of over two boats per month was achieved.