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Training Submariners: The Early Days

By Barrie Downer

The process of Submarine Officer selection and Training is described the book The Story of Our Submarines by Klaxon published by William Blackwood and Sons in 1919, in Chapter 1, Pages 2, 3 & 4. Although written after WWI had finished the Officer selection procedure had probably been in place long since. Before the days of HMS Dolphin & Fort Blockhouse the Officers would have been appointed to HMS Thames or HMS Mercury at Portsmouth and some to HMS Forth at Devonport.

NOTE: The following extract is adapted from the My Gosport website.

HMS Dolphin, Fort Blockhouse, Submarine School

The humble beginnings of the Submarine School appear to go back to 1905, when rudimentary submarine training started in a group of three huts at Fort Blockhouse. The Admiralty had acquired Fort Blockhouse from the Army in 1904 and it became the home for a submarine flotilla from that date. Prior to the take-over of Fort Blockhouse from the Army (the Corps of Mining Engineers) the Depot Ship for the Submarine Flotilla had been restricted to the upper reaches of Portsmouth harbour.

The establishment name HMS Dolphin came from the 929-ton composite screwed sloop HMS Dolphin that was berthed at Fort Blockhouse from 1906. The Royal Naval Submarine School slowly evolved, becoming part of an independent submarine command, HMS Dolphin(incorporating Fort Blockhouse), in 1912.

Klaxon goes on to say:

Before I get on to the War itself, I want to give a short description of the entry and training of our personnel both before and after the War began.

In peace time an Officer who wished to join the Submarine Service had first to receive a recommendation from his own Captain. He then had to produce either a first-class certificate for his Torpedo examination for Lieutenant, or, if he had not that qualification, a certificate from the TorpedoLieutenant of his ship to the effect that he showed special zeal in that branch of his duties. If his name was accepted it was placed at the bottom of the candidates' list, and in due time, after an interval which varied from year to year, he was appointed to Fort Blockhouse, the Submarine Depot at Gosport. There the batch of new Officers were medically examined, and (the standard being high) the unfit were weeded out and returned to their ships.

For the next three months he went through a course of practical submarine instruction, his training period terminating in examinations which provided another obstacle, the meshes of which prevented certain candidates from proceeding further.

The Officers of the class were then sent as "third hands" to different boats to await vacancies as First Lieutenants. After two to four years as First Lieutenant (the time varied with the number of new boats built), an Officer obtained command of an A boat (of 204 tons), from which he rose by seniority to larger and more powerful commands.

The Men entered in much the same way, being recommended, of first-class character and of excellent physical standard. They went through a less comprehensive training course, but had the same weeding out to undergo, so that as far as possible the "duds" were got rid of before they had cost the country much in useless teaching.

In wartime it has not been possible to spare the time for the full instructional courses, but the courses continued, although much shortened. The shortage of personnel in the Navy generally cut down the field from which volunteers were drawn, but in spite of this the Submarine Service was able to keep up its voluntary entry, and to continue to retain its standard by drafting back those who were by nature or capabilities unfit for such work. The submarine sailor is a picked man and is the admiration of his Officers. There is a 'Democracy of Things Real' in the boats which is a very fine kind of Democracy.

Both men and officers in a submarine know that each man's life is held in the hand of any one of them, who by carelessness or ignorance may make their ship into a common coffin; all ranks live close together, and when the occasion arises, go to their deaths in the same way. The Fear of Death is a great leveller, and in submarines an officer or a man's competency for his job is the only real standard by which he is judged.

And from pages 14 & 15 of Klaxon's book we see how crew training was conducted in a building yard:

Here (is) an account of a typical trial of a new boat, using an E boat of the early 1916 vintage as an illustration.

The boat I would use as an illustration was in 1915 very new indeed. She was just a standard E boat, with war-taught improvements and additions, and with a war-taught complement of officers and a half taught complement of men. For a month the men had been given a queer but useful course of instruction by being taken by their First Lieutenant at "Diving Stations," in a disused shed in the building firm's premises. On the walls and floor names and rough sketches of most of the important valves and wheels of the boat herself had been chalked, and though the men laughed and swore at the make-believe, they had learnt a good deal of their drill and the probable sequence of diving orders, without the work of the builders of the E boat being interfered with.

Except in the dinner hour, or during the infrequent holidays, no drill could be carried out aboard owing to the crowds of men working there. Overtime had been continuously worked, and nothing could be allowed to interfere with the firm's sacred "date", the day on which the Admiralty had been promised delivery.'

A Submariners Life