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Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 The 1880s

1. In the closing years of the nineteenth century Admiralty policy on the adoption of submarines by the Royal Navy was against investigating or building such vessels. The experiments and progress being made in France and America would have been known and as much information on the various projects was undoubtedly obtained as far as secrecy in those countries would allow. There was considerable criticism of this Admiralty policy in the House of Commons and in the Press, fanned by the glowing, although optimistic, accounts of the performance of foreign submarine boats especially those in France. In spite of the criticism that Great Britain was being left behind and that British naval supremacy was at stake, there was good reason for the apparently negative policy and caution of the Admiralty. In point of fact no submersible torpedo boat and ever more so a submarine which appeared to have a potential for development to an offensive vessel of war existed until about 1900.

2. A resume is given below of projects of interest, which appeared between 1870-1900. There were others not mentioned which had little to offer towards the final development of such boats as the Holland in America and Narval in France, which were really the first types with real naval potential.

3. Passing over his very early attempts at designing and building underwater craft it was in 1875 that the American J P Holland, built his first real submarine, although he had started experiments in the sixties. More will be said of Holland's work later.

In Britain in 1879 the Rev G W Garrett designed a submarine boat which was built by Messrs Cochrane of Birkenhead and named Resurgam. It was 40 feet long of 30 tons displacement and steam propelled using a very large boiler, which had a large water capacity. Running submerged was obtained by 'getting a full head of steam with the aid of the blower before diving. After which it was necessary to shut up the fire-door and chimney and then go on utilising the latent heat evaporating the water contained in the boiler' and so 'run submerged for about 2 miles'. A series of trials starting from December 1879 are stated to have been successful. Later on at Rhyl in Wales her crew of three went ashore for the night and next morning Resurgam had disappeared and was never seen or heard of again. In the 1870's a large number of Russian submarines were built from the designs of Drzewiecki. This Russian inventor introduced the novelty, in at least one of these vessels built at Odessa in 1877, of changing the inclination of the boat for changing depth when underway by a system of sliding weights which were amidships when the boat was horizontal.

Nordenfelt submarine schematic
Nordenfelt submarine schematic

4. In the 1880's pride of place can undoubtedly be given to the Nordenfelt submarines. Torsten Nordenfelt, a Swedish engineer, engaged the Mr Garrett mentioned above as his submarine constructor. Nordenfelt produced four rather outstanding boats considering the standard of design at the time. His first boat of length 64 feet and displacement 60 ton purchased by Greece started to build in 1883 at Stockholm and did trials in September 1885. Two vessels were built for the Turkish Navy at Barrow-in-Furness in 1886 of length 100 feet and displacement 160 tons. The fourth was built also at Barrow in 1887 of length 125 feet and displacement submerged of 245 tons and in the light surface condition of 160 tons. It was purchased by Russia but was lost on passage to Russia. The trials of these boats were stated at the time to have been quite satisfactory and the general opinion was most favourable, but the Nordenfelt was soon forgotten. In actual fact these boats operating near the surface but not wholly submerged were fast and manageable. As submarine boats fully submerged they were a complete failure in having the fault of all submarine boats up to that time, namely a lack of longitudinal stability. All these submarines were propelled by steam using the same principle Garrett had employed in Resurgam.

5. In France, interest in submarines was fostered by the French Minister of Marine Admiral Aube, against considerable opposition. On 12 September 1886, he ordered a very small boat from M Goubet which was built in Paris in 1888, and in the same year (1886) placed an order to build a larger vessel from the plans of M Gustave-Zédé. This boat, the GYMNOTE, 59 feet long of 30 tons displacement, was electrically driven and really the first submarine built for the French Navy. She was first tried in September 1888 but suffered from longitudinal instability. Originally fitted with two stern dip rudders (hydroplanes), experiments were carried out with different types and positions of dip-rudders which were still going on in 1894. She was really an unarmed, experimental craft. In 1890 the GUSTAVE-ZÉDÉ was ordered of length 159 feet and displacement 266 tons and launched at Toulon in June 1893. When first launched it was a distinct failure in almost every respect and it was only after some years, during which many alterations and improvements were made, that she became a serviceable craft. The trouble again was diving and submerged control. Before the GUSTAVE-ZÉDÉ had got over her troubles, the Morse, of length 118 feet and displacement 146 tons, designed by M Romazzotti, was ordered but was not launched until July 1899. One reason for the delay 'was the question whether an oil engine should be fitted for surface navigation'. It was not, and like the previous boats mentioned in this paragraph she was completely electric.

1.2 Late 1880's - Late 1890's

6. In February 1896 the French Minister of Marine invited designs for a submarine torpedo boat from 'Frenchmen and foreigners'. A design by M Laubeuf was selected. The Narval was commenced at Cherbourg in 1897 and launched on 26 October 1899 but it was not until certain modifications had been made that it was considered to be in a sufficiently satisfactory condition to run her trials in 1900. She was 111½ feet long, displacement surface 106 tons and submerged 168 tons, was double-hulled, steam driven on the surface and had forward and after hydroplanes. Four Whitehead torpedoes were carried in Drzewiecki, torpedo frames, two each side on the upper deck which could be fired at any angle from 30° to 120° from the bow. The main disadvantages with this boat were that she took at the minimum 15 minutes to dive and that she was most uncomfortable, the crew suffering from excessive exhaustion and nausea. She did have the advantage of separate systems of propulsion for surface and submerged running. In general, reports on the performance Narval were not favourable.

7. However, in spite of these set backs, in a little over a decade the general view in France towards submarines changed from one of opposition to enthusiasm. Admiral Aube had argued that in the naval war of the future France would most certainly act on the defensive - he looked upon the submarine as a defensive weapon. As submarines improved and became a possible and exciting weapon the view of defence turned to one of offence against the enemy, and the 'enemy' was Great Britain. To the French the industrial supremacy of England would always enable that country to keep naval supremacy in surface ships and they hoped the submarine could change the balance. Four further submarines of the Narval Class were launched in 1901. Two submarines, the Francais and Algerien very similar to the Morse were laid down at Cherbourg in 1900 and four vessels of the Fardafet class of about 185 tons displacement in September 1899. The Defence budget for 1901 made provision for a further twenty-three submarines.

8. As mentioned previously, Mr J P Holland in America built his first real submarine Holland No 1 in 1875. It was a one-man boat, 16 feet long, the screw being mechanically propelled by the occupant. His Holland No 2 , constructed in 1877, was only 10 feet long, was double -hulled and the screw operated by a 4-hp petrol engine. He increased the size of Holland No 3 to a length of 31 feet and 19 ton displacement. Finished in 1881, propulsion was by a 15-hp petrol engine which was inefficient and the boat failed as a practical craft for this reason. The boat used water ballast for diving but always retained slight positive buoyancy when submerged. Moreover, she was the first buoyancy submarine to be steered down and up inclines in the vertical plane by horizontal rudder action as she was pushed forward by her motors. This was the all-important feature of this design, which Holland employed in all future boats. Holland Nos. 4 and 5 were experimental craft. No 6 was designed but never built.

9. Although the events leading up to Holland Nos. 7-10 and the final deal between Britain and the US Government for Holland, books have been written at length by many people. They are worth repeating and the following notes have been prepared from the books of Fyfe (1902) and Simon Lake (1918).

10. In 1888 the United States Secretary of the Navy invited proposals for submarine boats. Many designs were sent in. These included two propositions to build by the Cramp Firm, with alternative designs by Nordenfelt and Holland. The important difference between these two designs was in the method of diving. Nordenfelt designed on the principle that when diving and changing depth the boat must always be kept on an even keel and he achieved this by using two vertical screws and bow hydroplanes. These differences are explained in detail in Chapter 18. No contract however was placed before the Administration changed in 1889 and the project lapsed. It was reopened in March 1893 when the US Government made an appropriation of $200,000 for a submarine boat and advertised for inventors to submit designs. The response included a design by Holland and after further delays a contract for a Holland boat was signed in 1895 with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company (formed in 1895). This company later became The Electric Boat Company.

1.3 Late 1890s - Early 1900s

11. Lake states that 'this was the first time it was officially recognised in the USA that there might be possibilities in this type of boat', and that 'naval officers (USN) were very sceptical of the practicability of such craft'. From experience up to that time there was every reason for scepticism.

Lake goes on to state that a programme of requirements, made up by the Navy Department, that were in the following order of importance:

  1. Safety
  2. Facility and certainty of action when submerged
  3. Speed when running on the surface
  4. Speed when submerged
  5. Endurance both submerged and on the surface
  6. Offensive power
  7. Stability
  8. Visibility of object to be attacked

12. The boat, ordered in 1895, was the seventh in the series of Holland designs. It started as Holland No 7 and was later named the Plunger and was driven by steam on the surface and electric motor submerged. Launched in August 1897 she was never completed since it was seen to be out of date due to the progress in design over the preceding two years. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company agreed to refund all the money paid to them provided the US Government entered into a contract for a new Holland, this was accepted. The Firm then built Holland No 8, which was not entirely satisfactory. Holland No 9 proved satisfactory on trials and was purchased by the US Government on 11 April 1900 for $150,000. She was formally commissioned on 13 October 1900.

13. USN appropriations for the year ending 30 June 1901 contained a direction to contract for five submarine torpedo boats of the Holland type of the most improved design at a price not exceeding $175,000 each. They were to be similar to the plans and specifications submitted to the Navy Department by the Holland Boat Company on 23 November 1899. The Act also authorised $400,000 towards the equipment and outfit of the new vessels. This Act was approved on 7 June 1900.

14. A contract for the construction of six (not five) submarine torpedo boats, was finally concluded on 25 August 1900. They were given names and called the Adder Class. The first of class Adder was launched in July 1901. There is some confusion about the Holland and USN numbers being used at the time. The Adder Class boats, called submarine torpedo-boats Nos. 3-8, were to Holland No 10 design and this is the design to which Holland Nos. 1-5 were built at Vickers for the RN.

Holland 1
Holland 1

15. As mentioned in Paragraph 1, the view of the Admiralty in the late nineties was against investigating or building submarines. The technical advisers of the Admiralty could not see their way clear to recommend the provision of any submarine vessels of war. Developments had been going on in other countries. In extenuation of this attitude, quite apart from any Naval Staff objections to such vessels, it is a fact that no satisfactory vessel was running before 1900 which had a true potential for service in war, except perhaps as a defensive weapon. The only two boats with any promise were the French Narval which however was in trouble and was not sufficiently satisfactory to go on trials until the end of 1900, and Holland No 9 in America commissioned in October 1900.

16. By 1900 the Admiralty had made no move, but the keen interest being taken in France in under-water warfare was reflected to some extent in this country. Questions were asked in Parliament and on the 6 April 1900 the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Goschen, made a statement on the Admiralty view.

Close attention has been given by the Admiralty to the subject of submarine boats. The submarine boat, even if the practical difficulties attending its use can be overcome, would seem so far as the immediate future is concerned to be eventually a weapon for Maritime powers on the defensive, (this had been Admiral Aube' a view in France) and it is natural that those nations which anticipate holding that position should endeavour to develop it. The question of the best way of meeting its attack is receiving much consideration, and it is in this direction that practical suggestions should be valuable. It seems certain that the reply to this weapon must be looked for in other directions than in building submarine boats our selves, for it is clear that one submarine boat cannot fight another.

1.4 Early 1900's - Early 1910's

17. There were many who disagreed with this policy and it was challenged in the House with attention being called to the additional provision for submarine boats in the French naval programme. The Admiralty and the Government were very secretive about the action they were taking. Even as late as December 1900 a statement was issued to the effect that:

The attention of the Admiralty has been called to the additional provision for submarine boats in the French naval programme and a statement will be made when the estimates are laid before the House.

In actual fact an order was placed with Vickers that same month.

18. The 1901/02 Navy Estimates published on 1 March 1901 contained the following statement:

Five submarine vessels, invented by Mr Holland, have been ordered, the first of which should be delivered next autumn. What the future value of these boats may be in naval warfare can only be a matter of conjecture. The experiments with these boats will assist the Admiralty in assessing their true value. The question of their employment must be studied and all developments in their mechanism carefully watched by this country.

This brought protest in the House that 'having refused to say a word for many years about submarine boats we now find the Admiralty launching out into quite a little fleet of them'. In fact the sanction of the House had not been obtained. 'That one boat would have been enough to experiment with, at the outside two' and that 'if submarines were all that was claimed for them it would render unnecessary the £9 million which was then being expended on new battleships'.

19. Later on it was explained in the House that when the decision to construct submarine boats was reached. Only one type was available for purchase, that the rights to build boats of this type were in the hands of one firm, and that it was therefore necessary to entrust the work to that firm. The only type available was of course the American Holland, it being out of the question to approach France, and Messrs Vickers, Sons and Maxim had the sole European rights for building the boats patented by Mr Holland.

20. Mr Rice, the President of the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, had visited this country and negotiated with the British Government for the sale of five boats of the Holland type then building in America. It is understood that he obtained the order without any Admiralty official having inspected a submarine of this type. Mr Rice obtained permission for the contract to build in this country to be given to Messrs Vickers, Sons and Maxim, the Holland Boat Company sharing profits with Vickers.

By ordering boats from the Holland Boat Company the Admiralty had the advantage of the experimental work carried out in America. It is understood the Company gave a guarantee that any further improvements made in the United States during the continuance of the agreement would be given to the Admiralty through Vickers. This was extremely important because we were starting to build to plans and specifications of a new design of a novel and sophisticated boat, the first of which had only just been laid down in America and a type about which our designers and builders had had no previous experience.

21. Judging everything in retrospect, it may be that the Admiralty 'wait and see' policy paid off and it is doubtful whether we would have advanced much faster than we eventually did by conducting our own experiments in submarine boats with the attendant frustrations and cost. We appeared to have lost little in the race. The first The first RN Holland boat was laid down in February 1901, launched in October 1901 and did her sea trials in April 1902, some months before the Adder went on trials In America. By the time the B Class arrived in 1906 there were reports that they 'are equal to any foreign submarines afloat'. It is interesting that Sweden placed an order for its first submarine in 1902, the German Navy in 1905 and Italy also in 1905.


22. The first RN Holland boats were of the single hull type built to the American design although changes were made during building. The success of these boats resulted in a steady programme of submarine construction. The A Class, B Class and C Class were progressive developments of the Holland design prepared by Vickers acting on instructions from the Admiralty. All these boats were for coastal defensive work and had a limited range. The introduction of the diesel engine in the D Class improved the surface endurance and brought in a more ambitious role. From D1 onwards until 1911 the designs were prepared by the Admiralty and developed by Vickers under Admiralty instructions. The D Class was a major change to a saddle tank type of construction followed by a similarly constructed E Class, designed in particular to accommodate broadside torpedo tubes.

1.5 Early 1910's - Mid 1910's

23. From the beginning of our interest in submarines in 1900, Vickers had shown great enterprise and the firm must take much of the credit for the great advance made in British submarine design and building in those early years. In consequence of that enterprise they held a contract which practically gave them a monopoly to build submarines in Great Britain. This contract was valuable when requirements were small and secrecy was considered essential. Its terms however debarred the Admiralty from ordering vessels of Admiralty design, which involved Holland patents, from any commercial firm other than Vickers. This restriction was intolerable when it was evident that Vickers would be unable to meet our future requirements, they were also getting seriously behind hand in their current orders. Two years notice was necessary to terminate the contract and this was given on 31 March 1911.

24. The above statement is based on available Admiralty records but it would appear that the contract mentioned is not the original one made in 1900. Vickers had severed connection with the Holland Boat Company during the building of the Holland boats and as far as can be ascertained no Holland patents were used in the design of the A Class and following classes. It looks as though the original contract between the Admiralty, the Holland Boat Company and Vickers was scrapped and another made between the Admiralty and Vickers. This giving the latter sole right to construct, in this country, submarines in which they had taken a part in designing or developing the building drawings, except that construction in HM Dockyards was allowed. So far Chatham Dockyard had received orders for ten submarines.

25. To bring other firms into the building programme before the Vickers contract ended in 1913, it was necessary to build to designs and building drawings with which Vickers had not been associated. No other firm in this country had any experience of submarines and the preparation of building drawings for them and this more or less meant building to foreign designs either in this country or abroad. At the same time, circa 1910, there was a feeling amongst submarine officers that although the latest RN submarines were good in many ways, they were not the last word in submarine design. In particular they had in mind the 'double-hull' submarines adopted by a number of foreign navies notably to the designs of Laubeuf in France and Laurent in Italy. Lake in America had also introduced controlled free flooding superstructures in his designs. The important point in all these double-hull designs was the much greater reserve of buoyancy, which could be obtained than in single hull boats.

26. The result was a number of submarines built in this country to foreign designs. The S Class (three vessels) - an Italian design by Laurenti for the Italian Government were in the 1911/12 and 1913/14 programmes and built by Scotts. The W Class (four vessels), a French design by M Laubeuf, were in the 1912/13 and 1913/14 programmes and built by Armstrong Whitworth . They were double-hull designs, however, all these vessels had been sold to the Italian Government by the end of August 1916. The only other foreign design actually used for the RN was the Swordfish, a design by Laurenti of a steam driven submarine, ordered from and developed by Scotts in August 1913. She was not completed until July 1916 and had a very short life as a submarine.

S2 under construction at Scott Lithgow's
S2 under construction at Scott Lithgow's

27. The Submarine Committee of 1912 laid down requirements for overseas and coastal types of submarines based on double-hull construction. From the requirements for the coastal type Vickers designed and built the V Class of four vessels, the first of which was laid down in November 1912, and the Admiralty designed the F Class of three vessels, F1 being laid down in December 1913, Chatham being the lead Yard. The overseas type requirements produced the Nautilus design from Vickers, which was laid down in March 1913, and the Swordfish mentioned in paragraph 26 above followed in August 1913.

28. When, at the end of 1913 it was discovered that the German Navy had devoted nearly the whole of the money available to overseas vessels of double-hull type of approximately E boat displacement, the Admiralty prepared the G design of about E Class displacement and speed. The first of this class of fourteen boats was ordered from Chatham in July 1914.

29. In November 1914 the War Emergency Programme spread the new construction programme to many yards, which had not previously built submarines. A programme of thirty-eight E Class brought in Beardmore (although that Yard was already building two submarines under sub-contract from Vickers), Fairfield, John Brown, Swan Hunter, Palmers, Cammell Laird, Yarrow, Denny, Thornycroft and J S White. The last two firms had been given an F boat earlier in the year.

A contract was also placed with the Bethlehem Steel Works of America for twenty boats of the H type then being used by the USN, 'ten to be delivered during the war and ten afterwards'. The first ten were built by Vickers, Montreal and were all delivered by June 1915. Only four boats of the second ten were sent to this country much later in 1918.

30. The 1912 Submarine Committee had asked for a speed of 20 knots in the overseas type submarines, but it was known that this could not be expected in the Nautilus or Swordfish. When late in 1914 a report was received, later to prove false, that the Germans had some submarines with a surface speed of 22 knots, Lord Fisher determined to build some with higher speed. The result was the J Class but the speed had to be restricted to 19.5 knots because steam propulsion was rejected and diesels had to be used. Six of the class were ordered in January 1915 all from HM Dockyards.

1.6 Mid 1910's - 1930's

31. In the spring of 1915 the demand was made for submarines to accompany the Fleet with a speed of 24 knots. This speed could only be achieved by using steam propulsion and this was accepted, although only a few months previously rejected for the J Class. The result was the K Class, the first boats being ordered in June 1915 from Vickers. By the time they were completed, the first in September 1916, they never had an opportunity to test themselves as a tactical unit of war with the Fleet. So far as keeping up with the big ships and taking up tactical position they were an unqualified success. In a way this class was unlucky, the sinking of K13 on trials was a most unfortunate occurrence.

Although embarrassing for the shipbuilder, this rare photograph of K4 gives a good impression of the size, and a seldom seen view of a K Class Submarine
Although embarrassing for the shipbuilder, this rare photograph of K4 gives a good impression of the size, and a seldom seen view of a K Class Submarine

When raised and renumbered K22 she was in an even worse disaster when ten K boats put to sea with the Grand Fleet in January 1918. During the night the helm of K22 jammed and she collided with K14, the two boats locked together and in a series of collisions with other submarines in company K17 and K4 sank with all hands and four other submarines were damaged.

32. K26, which started to build in June 1918, was based on the earlier K Class with the object of incorporating the lessons learnt in the latter and with a greatly improved torpedo armament.

33. Before the last four vessels of the K Class to be ordered, K18-21, had a chance to commence building it was decided to substitute four M Class vessels instead. The idea of this class was basically of a monitor submarine and the 12-inch gun fitted governed the Admiralty design. M1 was completed in April 1918. Then came the question of her future employment. There were now no targets for her, the enemy had not initiated anything bold in submarine policy and it was not good policy to give him a lead in such a weapon. These boats were never used for the purpose intended. M4 was never completed and M1 was lost in 1925. In the late 1920's M2 was converted to a submersible seaplane carrier and M3 to an experimental minelayer.


34. By the beginning of 1916 the design of the E boats was six years old and it was time for a replacement. The L Class submarine was therefore designed by the Admiralty based on the E Class and incorporating the lessons learnt from war experience. The first orders were placed in February 1916 and in all thirty-four vessels of the class were ordered that year, of this number four were cancelled and three broken up before completion after the end of the war.

35. Within two months of placing the final order for twenty-five L Class vessels in December 1916, orders were placed for five L50 Class submarines. This class of patrol submarines was based on the L Class, modified to increase the bow torpedo armament from four to six 21inch tubes with the deletion of beam tubes and to increase the gun armament from one to two 4-inch guns. A total of twenty-five L50 Class submarines were ordered but many were cancelled.

36. The only other type designed and built during the war was the R Class to meet the special phase of the anti-submarine campaign, which involved submarine versus submarine. To overcome the difficulty of approaching enemy submarines unnoticed the object was to give a submarine a high-submerged speed, which might enable her to overtake and sink the enemy. The submerged speed achieved was 15 knots. The first boat completed in June 1918 but only two others were commissioned before the war ended.

37. The immediate post war years was a period of run down of the submarine force. Many of the boats were old and worn out, and the strength of the submarine fleet had to return to peacetime standards. In addition, the Washington Conference soon began, with implications of reduction and limitation in the size and numbers of all classes of warships.

38. The first post-war design was the X1, a cruiser-submarine in the 1921/22 estimates, an idea, which the 1915 Submarine Committee had considered feasible. She was laid down in November 1921 and when completed in September 1925 was the largest submarine in the world. The reason for a submarine of this size at that time is difficult to understand and there was much opposition to her by the time she was finished. She had considerable trouble with engines and spent most of her time in Dockyard hands until scrapped in 1937.

39. In March 1924 the overseas patrol submarine Oberon was laid down and in 1925 the Naval Staff considered the future vessels of this type. The outcome was the Odin Class, Parthian Class and Rainbow Class. The Naval Staff had investigated the question of minelayers in 1920 and designs had been prepared by DNC followed by various conferences held between 1923-5. The overseas patrol boats however took preference and the minelayers were delayed. M3 was converted as a trial and eventually the Porpoise Class evolved. The minelayer was in fact given second place to a Fleet submarine, the prototype Thames being laid down in January 1931. The policy during the period 1919-30 is discussed in detail in Chapter 12.

40. The Swordfish, Triton and Unity Classes were designed and built in the period between 1930 and the beginning of World War II, but the last two classes do not come within the scope of these records.



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Chapter 2: Standard Particulars of Submarines