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Submarine Boats – 

The Beginnings of Underwater Warfare
Richard Compton-Hall: London 1983; Windward Distributors London, 192 pp. illus.

Richard Compton-Hall is the Director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport and the author of several books on the history of Naval Warfare. His style is unique in that it blends factual accuracy and technical descriptions with understated British wit. This alone makes his book a joy to read. The result is that every submariner will finish this book with a feeling of nostalgia and a warm recall of comparable experiences. The reader will also take comfort in the thought that the U.S. Navy Submarine Force is not alone in its problems of dealing with the frustrations of inadequate weapons and the difficulties of improving its lot in the hierarchy of a sluggish bureacracy.

Submarine Boats covers the period of 1900 through World War II. Included are many heretofore unpublished photos and sketches of the earliest submarines of all major countries. The book is well annotated and the citations are precise enough to enable the interested researcher to delve deeply into a great variety of submarine-related subjects such as weapons, power plants, medical problems, training, rescue, and early concepts of how to build submarines.

To the reviewer, the style of Compton-Hall in tracing the history of the submarine makes the book fascinating and sets it apart from the ordinary historical developmental chronology.

Submarine Boats is replete with firsts in the development of the complex systems now required in the modern submarine. And a few examples should serve to give some of the flavor of this book. A first kind of environmental monitoring system was provided for the gasoline driven submarines of the early 1900s. Because gasoline fumes proved highly intoxicating, much inhalation of the fumes made the submariners slap happy, irresponsible and a total hazard to submarine operations. Consequently, three white mice, Compton-Hall relates, were used to give warning of leaking gasoline. See illustration. And they were also invaluable for indicating the presence of chlorine or carbon monoxide gas — by turning their little feet up as they expired. Compton-Hall doesn’t explain why white mice were chosen in preference to brown ones. But they were evidently allowed to run loose as bona fide crew members — which they were, as verified by an account telling of the visit by the Prince of Wales to a submarine in 1904. When the Prince came aboard the A-1, “three white mice were standing by in the engine room ready to die for King and Country”. Being white in color probably gave the mice a better chance of not being ground underfoot by the heavy booted submariners of that day, who according to doctor’s reports were quite torpid after prolonged operations at sea because of the prime malady of all submariners, then, i.e. constipation. Several doctors’ reports included in the book state that due to the totally inadequate toilet facilities on board the submarines, most members of the crew went many days without a bowel movement.

Another first for submarines — an escape from a sunken submarine — “was made a quarter of a century before Holland set about constructing submersible men-of-war”. A Bavarian, Wilhelm Bauer, built two subs at St. Petersburg and made 134 dives with the second before it foundered. But with his first, Le Plongeur Marin (and this name is significant to many WWII submariners who took part in a dive-the-boat routine in French, at their drinking parties. A self-styled Diving Officer would shout, “Plonge, Plonge” while others rattled whiskey and beer bottles to approximate a diving alarm, etc.). But to get back to Compton-Hall’s story about the first escape from a bottomed submarine. “The iron ballast having slipped forward, they (the 3 men in Le Plongeur Marin) went down in a vertical position . . . .  in 18 meters of water. The situation seemed desperate but Bauer ordered the two crewmen (by means of “gestures with a large, serviceable spanner”) to flood the whole interior so that as the water entered it would become equal to the exterior pressure on the hatches which could then be opened. ” Then, Bauer and his two crewmen came up in the first free ascent after using a basically sound method of getting the hatches opened when on the bottom.

The first escape from a u.s. submarine followed by a few weeks the sinking of the A-1, the first British sub to go down — with eleven men aboard. In the u.s. escape experiment, two dogs were ejected through the 18-inch torpedo tube of USS Shark. “It was reported that they swam around on the surface unconcerned”, and a newspaper over-optimistically then published an article headlined “Submarine Boats Safe”. But not until five years later in 1909 did Ensign Kenneth Whiting, USN, Commanding Officer of the Porpoise make the first U.S. human escape. The boat was on the surface when Whiting crawled into a torpedo tube. He had the tube flooded, then, when the bow cap swung upward and open, Whiting pulled himself clear and emerged safely. Compton-Hall says that “the Porpoise’s Log recorded the incident with a single throw away line: ‘Whiting went through torpedo tube. ‘” Also. “Whiting’s experiment was not much acclaimed. He was immediately rebuked by the hierarchy and by the Chairman of Electric Boat Company, Mr. L. Y. Spear who declared flatly that the venture was foolhardy.. because “American submarines were already fitted with means of escape effective in all conceivable circumstances. It was an unwarranted claim.” Bauer’s second submarine, Le Diable-Marin, the Sea Devil, embarked some unusually patriotic Kronstadt musicians to play the Russian National Anthem at the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. The tones, although clearly audible on the surface, were said to be lugubrious in quality” — mournful for good reasons.

That’s a bit of the flavor of this book which is great fun to read because Compton-Hall’s writings embody the best of dry British humor with the early history of “the boats” providing a vast reservoir of anecdotes.

But some of the stories which Compton-Hall relates are apparently selected to make important points relative to today’s submarine world -lessons which might be learned from history. It is as though he is saying that in the perception of the past lies the future of submarines. He quotes RAdm. Charles 0 ‘Neill, USN, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in 1900 as saying: “The only use of the Holland is to discharge torpedoes and no weapon is more erratic.” Then Compton-Hall notes that “there are plenty of submariners even today who would gloomily agree with the tenor of his remark. Underwater weapons, until the advent of ballistic missiles, always lagged well astern of the vehicles that carried them, simply because designers consistently devised submarines and then decided what torpedoes they would carry rather then selecting a complete weapon-system and building the best underwater vehicle to accomodate it. Compton-Hall philosophizes that it wasn’t the torpedo mechanisms that justified Admiral O’Neill’s remarks as much as it was “a lack of adequate fire-control and discharge arrangements” — which were apt “to upset a torpedo’s depth keeping device as well as pushing it off course when it left the tubes”. To which one might wonder why swim-out versus hydraulic ejection is being debated in today’s environment.

In summary, the reviewer would like to use the author’s last paragraph in the hope that the U.S. Navy’s 1985 budget justifications can utilize the prophecy of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy, Adm. Sir Jackie Fisher, of Edwardian days: “My beloved submarines are not only going to make it damned hot for the enemy . . . .  but they are going to bring the income tax down to three pence on the pound.”

In many ways this book appears to be a labor of love on the part of a dyed-in-the-wool submariner who evidently sees in the many early happenings in “the boats” valuable lessons which might be applied to the problems in today’s submarine service. As such, Compton-Hall’s book is particularly worthwhile reading.


The Submariner’s World 1

Edited By Commander P. R. Compton-Hall MBE RN (Retired): Published in Great Britain by Kenneth Mason, The old harbourmaster’s, Ensworth, Hampshire.

The editor of this book, Commander Compton-Hall, RN (Ret.), has made many official visits to the United States and also served a two year tour of duty at the DEVGROUP in New London. He is, therefore, a familiar figure to many u.s. submariners. The book he has put together is an interesting effort to provide a thumbnail sketch of the role submarines play in many of the navies of the world. His book particularly emphasizes, as the title suggests, life aboard these ships. While admirably achieving the goals which Compton-Hall has evidently set, by necessity the scope of the many aspects of submarining examined is limited.

Extremely well qualified contributors have provided the major sections of this book, ranging from analyses of the submarines of the British, American, Soviet, and Netherlands navies, to descriptions of submarine weapons, equipment (such as persicopes), escape procedures, new developments, old experiments, and many other diversified topics. But perhaps the most interesting profiles are those provided of the life aboard submarines. Though these sketches have been written about mainly British submariners and apparently by officers of the Royal Navy, it is easy to see that submariners the world over have similar reactions to this demanding way-of-life.

Spliced among the many articles relating to submarine matters are anecdotes related by Comdr. Compton-Hall — so he is a most important and major contributor to his own book. His stories are about the British enlisted men who man the Royal Navy submarines and are related using their cockney language where appropriate. While showing the best of British wit, at the same time these anecdotes show the intense loyalty and dedication of the ratings to their submarine duties along with their unpolished but polite respect for their officers. One can easily real! ze from these stories why the enlisted men play a major role in making the British submarine service an elite one.

The articles on ASW highlight the importance of submariners understanding the threat they might face in war — and possibly even in peacetime operations. Submarine life is so affected by the possible ASW response that might be encountered -with its consequences — that “the submariner’s worldM is only truly appreciated if the menace of ASW is recognized for its impact on the individual submariner.

The idea of a submarine aircraft carrier and the article dealing with experiments in the early ’60s on submarine propulsion systems using gas turbines show the wide diversity — if not a hodgepodge -of submarine interests collected in this book. It’s like the Submarine Review— but in an annual edition.

I found most intriguing the sections of the book that examined the role of diesel-electric submarines. The author provides a clear and concise rationale for their continuing development by the British Navy. In the process, he describes the new type 2400 patrol-class submarine that the British are building. And this description raises nostalgia in anyone who served in diesels. Perhaps this book provides the answer as to why the U.S. can rely on our allies to carry out some important shallow water operations using their conventional submarines.

THE SUBMARINER’S WORLD 1 is an extremely interesting book for all readers who are drawn to the study of these weapons of war. It is particularly useful for those people who are interested in receiving a rapid course in just what it means to be a submariner. At the same time it is a fascinating book for the old hands.

This is apparently the first of a series of such publications since Compton-Hall suggests that a SUBMARINER’S WORLD 2 should be due about two years after this book — presenting an updated review of submarine matters.


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