Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


The following  article retraces the conventional wisdom about the “submarine torpedo-boat” that prevailed 70 years ago. It tells of the shock that the craft caused when it was put to use in a way and with an effectiveness that was not expected and the return to “business as usual” once the war was over.

All   of   the   major   naval    powers   on  the   eve  of the  First World War had their “submarine flotillas.” France. with 76 units. had the most powerful fleet. The Royal Navy had 66 active units Germany had 18 boats at sea and 12 more being readied. Austro-Hungary had eight. Italy 17. Russia 30 and the u.s. Navy’s 28 boats comprised the world’s fourth largest active “underwater” fleet. The typical submarine of 1917 displaced about 500 tons. had a surface speed of 15 knots and submerged speed of a. two to four torpedo tubes and a three or four inch gun. The cruising radius on the surface was only 1.000 to 2,000  nautical  miles.

The submarine of the first decade of the twentieth century was neither designed nor intended to fight underwater. It was a torpedo boat first of all, and a divable vessel secondly. The ability to submerge beneath the waves was viewed mainly as an operational expedient that would – hopefully – allow the tiny vessel to make its final approach to within 1,000 yards of the target surreptitiously and, if detected, make good its escape from its much faster and better armed surface oponent. A  few   far-sighted submarine enthusiasts at the time promoted the idea of the true (all-electric) underwater vessel, but the general consensus among submariners and non-submariners alike was that designs ought to stress operations on the surface first as “submersibles ” and the ability to move underwater as secondly. The advantages of a double-hulled submersible were clearcut :

  • Vision was  better  due  to  high freeboard.
  • The favorable lines of the submersible increased her surface stability and improved her sea-keeping qualities.
  • Habitability was better.
  • Submersibles would be armed more haeavily with additional torpedo tubes located inside the outer hull.
  • The fuel placed between the two hulls, made it possible to carry more fuel and to increase  radius  of  action.
  • Each decade experiences its own debate over the vulnerability and future of the large surface warship. The years before the First World War were no different in that. sense than the 1920’s furor between battleship and bomber proponents.

Admirals and journalists exchanged heated arguments over the cost effectiveness of the all-big-gun battleship, whose era had been inaugurated with the commissioning of H.M.S. DREADNOUGHT in 1906. No one denied that the submarine armed with torpedoess had made the operations of capital vessels more perilous — the issue turned on how perilous, and whether existing defensive measures would stymie the danger of the submarine. The opinion among most submarine proponents was that., if the submarine were lucky enough to get within striking range, one or a few torpedo hits probably would not be fatal. The indifferent results of the Japanese torpedo attacks against Admiral Makaroff’s Imperial Russian squadron in April of 1905, compared with the spectacular efficiency of sea mines, appeared to underscore the submarine’s doubtful value as a torpedo-firing weapon.

Irrespective of the debatable lethality of the torpedo-firing submarine per ~~ there was no disagreement that a battlefleet was too valuable to risk deliberate operations in sea areas known to be within reach of submarines. “Clos~ blockades” of enemy ports and harbors, a favorit~ strategy of the Royal Navy against a Continental enemy, became the first traditional “battle fleet” mission to be ruled as henceforth impractical. Alfred Thayer Mahan had noted, however, that the submarine’s probable use would be “to blockade ports.” Coastal seas and “chokepoints” were the next domains that many observers of the naval scene prior to the First World War believed would also be off-limits to battle fleets — because of submarines.

Raider warfare or guerre de course with the aim of avoiding the enemy’s battle strength and instead attacking his seagoing commerce directly, was a popular alternative among some Continental naval strategists, but they were in a minority. “The sea can no better be kept with submarines than with torpedo-boats, no more than it was formerly kept with fire ships,” insisted a naval writer  in    1908.         “To command   the  sea, fleets are necessary . ” Rear Admiral Fletcher , then the commander-in-chief of the United States Atlantic Fleet, told a congressional commit tee on the eve of the German U-boat onslaught that the submarine was “a weapon of opportunity” that owed most of its success to its novelty. He labeled t he submarine simply another “new and disconcerting weapon” on a par with fire-ships, spar-torpedoes, and automobile torpedoes.” “None of these arms,” the Admiral asserted, “has ever won battles that finally decided the war. ” Instead, the “only thing that weapons of this kind do is to delay or obstruct the movement of the main force of the battleships. But eventually the final clash is decided when the battleships come together.”

Neither side in the First World War was prepared for either the way or the effectiveness to which Germany’s U-boats were put to use. The German naval high command began the conflict by using its submarines in accordance with expected and “legitimate” rules — against the warships of the Royal Navy. The essence of German naval strenth in 1914, like that of its more powerful British enemy, were the battleships of 1:1 e High Seas Fleet and the German admiralty shared the view of its opponents across the North Sea that the issue at sea would be decided in a “decisive fleet battle.” It similarly was agreed that the submarine would be employed mainly as an auxiliary for patrol and reconnaissance on behalf of the battle fleet. Some optimistic thinkers on the German naval staff thought that the U-boat might whittle down British naval strength enough for the High Seas Fleet to sally forth and give battle on even terms.

Those hopes seemed well-founded  initially, especially with the sinking of three older British cruisers on the same day, September 22, 1914. It was then asked, “Why were the ill-fated ships that were known to lack proper underwater protection, permitted to patrol an area known to be frequented by the underwater enemy?” Submarines were not yet thought of as an oceanic threat ; their menace was only perceived when the heavy ships were in exposed anchorages or navigating in confined waters. U-boat attacks on the open sea seems to have been imcomprehensible to many of the Royal Navy’s senior officers.

German  submarine successes against warships declined rapidly thereafter . Unrestricted submarine warfare, “even at the risk of war with America,” was then Germany’s only option for “a victorious conclusion of the war within measurable time.” Thus, U-boats struck with a vengeance on February 1, 1917. During the year, the Allies lost over eight million tons of merchant shipping of which only one-fourth could be replaced by new-construction.

Great Britain was almost brought to her knees by the submarine. As an instrument in battle , or as an instrument to be used against the principal battle units, the submarine had failed almost completely. But the most conspicuous of its disappointments was its total inability to prevent invasion by a power possessing superiority of surface craft. It bad lost the one role universally· assigned to it in pre-war days — that of being a cheap substitute warship of weak navies. The submarine continued to be considered as a mere numerical adjunct to the “essential” measure of sea power the battleships. Battleships remained the sine qua non for the avowed purpose of naval power – command of the sea via a decisive battle. Despite the First World War, considered naval opinion refused to see the submarine for what it really was — not a torpedo boat that periodically vanished beneath the        waves,but  something  that produced a qualitatively different form of warfare. A minority view indicated that, contrary to the judgement of virtually every naval officer before the First World War, the submarine had demonstrated that a war against commerce could influence a naval campaign decisively. A British writer said, “The fact remains that had Germany been as ruthless in building submarines as she was in using them, we should probably have lost the war entirely through her successful warfare against our sea-borne commerce.”

The   defeated enemy, too, had learned its lessons. The   German Admiral, Arno Spindler, summed up the Allied antisubmarine effort prophetically: “As long as submarines exist they will continue to be a threat to those nations which are unconditionally forced to rely upon overseas transportaiton.”

The   early”submarine       boat”     brought     about unparallelled changes in  the conduct and understanding  of   war  at  sea. Indeed,  it may be speculated that, were it not for the near-coincident emergence of another revolutionary weapon — the airplane — surface fleets as they were known for centuries might have disappeared.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League