Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate



Frequently, submarine tacticians have favorably influenced the outcome or engagements by means or creative, unexpected tactics. These tactical tricks (or “ploys”) can often be credited to a submariner’s approach to his trade or submarining as a great, complex “game.” And his skill at this “game” is derived in part from his long and enthusiastic participation in all sorts of games (including parches!). It might seem irreverent for a submariner to regard warfare as a “game” — in which a “ploy” previously tried in a football game, for example, lends itself to some tactical variation — but that’s the sort of experience which many or our successful submariners have drawn on.

Submarining is an “art”. And, the use of “gamesmanship”• as part or this art can be developed through a knowledge or “ploys” used in the past, along with an appreciation or how they can be adapted to the present employment or submarines. The “Sneak Attack on Puget Sound” story in April’s submarine Reyiew illustrated how a number or “ploys” used by submariners in WW I and WW II were considered for the tactical problem posed for SEADEVIL, and then creatively mutated to meet the special circumstances involved. Disguising the conning tower or a sub to look like a fishing boat was used by U-9 in WW I so that it could operate in the midst or the Grand Banks fishing fleet under conditions of low visibility — without arousing suspicion. SEADEVIL, on the other hand, used a fishing dory — lashed to its periscope — to allay the suspicion or the patrolling ASW vessels. Another German sub in WW I used a bird on the top or its periscope for disguise. SEADEVIL had to reject the bird idea in favor of hiding the periscope from the eyes of searching destroyers by means of a man’s body or hand. Gunther Prien’s submerged boat, in WW II followed under a merchant ship entering Scapa Flow, the screws of the merchant ship drowoing ~ ~noise 2! Prien’s boat’s propellers. SEADEVIL did the same sort of thing, following under an outboard-driven dory — with the sound of the outboard masking the SEADEVIL’s screws.

“Gamesmanship” is defined by Potter in his book of the same name, as “the art of winning games without actually cheating.” The remembrance of things past had suggested creative solutions to SEADEVIL’s penetration of tt•e defenses protecting Puget Sound Bayl

Thus a review of some of the “ploys” used by submariners in war or in peacetime tactical problems, should be useful for today’s  gamesmen when trying to create their own  tactical variations which would be applicable  to the present circumstances.

A considerable bag of “ploys” have come from violating the principle of being a “silent service”. CREVALLE, for example, having expended all of its torpedoes, nevertheless followed a Japanese convoy to the entrance of a bay where the ships had sought refuge. CREVALLE, then hoping to get another u.s. submarine into position to attack the convoy when it eventually sortied from its haven, broadcast the situation to Headquarters in Perth, Australia. Later this message was repeated from another position off the entrance to the Bay where the convoy lay at anchor. The convoy’s escorts which protectively patrolled the entrance to the Bay, on DFing CREVALLE’s transmissions, called for help because they said they were “being blockaded by enemy submarines”. Thus the convoy remained immobile for at least a day, and until CREVALLE ascertained that no u.s. subs would be diverted from their patrol areas to take over.

A commander of a 3-submarine wolrpack had instructed his boats not to hesitate to use voice communications if they found themselves out in left field arter an attempted attack. SUch radio broadcasts, he felt, would assure that the convoy was zigged away from the DF’d submarine and towards one of the other two boats. When ANGLER round herself out of the area or action after an aborted attack on a Japanese convoy, she opened up with her transmitter with a situation report to the wolf pack commander. As predicted, the large ~ormation of merchantmen zigged back towards the other two boats — putting them into position to go in for submerged attacks.

Similarly, FLASHER’s skipper, the wolf pack commander, advised that his boats should not hesitate to use their radios when in contact with an enemy convoy. “It will scare the hell out o~ the opposition” he reasoned, “and they’ll think that there are more than our three boats to deal with. That way they won’t be peeling o~f escorts to work us over and stay with us after an attack.” They didn’t.

CHEVALLE, on another occasion, was racing on the surface — on a bright sunny afternoon — to work her way ahead of a large convoy o~ ships. From time to time one of the planes would head out towards CHEVALLE, who was running at top speed about fourteen miles from the mass of merchant ships. It looked like the plane was investigating a suspicious surface contact out in our direction, but each time would eventually peel off and head back over the convoy.

Finally, a plane appeared to have zeroed in on CHEVALLE and kept closing. Knowing that a submarine is difficult for a plane to recognize, visually, CHEVALLE’s skipper delayed his command to “dive”. At a range of four miles to the oncoming plane, Captain Walker switched on the signal lamp and began blinking it randomly as though sending a message to the plane. That seemed to convince the plane commander that his contact couldn’t be a sub — because what submarine would ever stay on the surface sending a message to a plane — so the plane was winged over and headed back for the convoy. An hour later CHEVALLE was ahead of the convoy and submerged for an attack.

HADDO was up off Truk on lifeguard duty as u.s. carrier planes attacked the naval installations on that Pacific stronghold. HADDO was monitoring the attack planes’ quack quack, with the loudspeaker on the bridge broadcasting the pilots• comments as they dropped their bombs, dodged the anti-air flak, and then headed back to their carriers. Throughout the raid, there were Japanese voices on the circuit, trying to jam the pilots• transmissions by flooding the circuit with almost unintelligible noise. In obviously flavored Japanese accents, the Japs tried to imitate Brooklynese comments about baseball games or American slang about “the boys and girls”. At one point, a u.s. pilot was heard. His “May Day” transmission called for help, but where he was ditching was being blanked out by the Japanese voices on the circuit. Frustrated and realizing that something had to be dome, HADDO•s skipper, Frank Lynch, got on the circuit and yelled, “Shut upf This is important!.” The circuit went momentarily quiet and free of the Japanese quack quack. At this the downed pilot was able to get through his position in the water. HADDO was then beaded over to the position and pulled the pilot out of the water as shells from the shore guns on Truk tried to prevent the rescue.

Peacetime exercises are no less satisfying when a good ploy is used. STURGEON was practicing torpedo approaches on an escorted merchant ship. After firing a torpedo, set deep to go under the target, the escorting destroyer headed over towards the general location where the torpedo had been fired from. A quick look through STURGEON’s periscope showed that the destroyer would pass too far away for a shot at him. The Captain thus told the sound man to send over the sonar. “Zig left, you coward.” As expected, the skipper on the destroyer on receiving the message, heeled his “can” over to starboard — presenting an excellent torpedo target as she passed ahead at under 1000 yards in torpedo range.

A communication-deception ploy, as is readily perceived, depends very much on guaging how the enemy thinks and is likely to react. “Know your enemy” is a well recognized dictum for the gamesman. Though this is easy to do in peacetime and with the penalties for wrong guesses of little import, in wartime the whole business is a lot more deadly and the opponent’s way of thinking a lot harder to assess. Thus, peacetime exercises are the place to develop the art of gamesmanship. The risk is low relative to a submariner’s potential career.

An exercise is recalled — an operational readiness exercise for a patrol plane squadron based at Whidbey Island. The exercise called for a submarine to start 300 miles from the coast of the state of Washington and close the coast undetected in order to make a simulated guided missile attack against the air base at Whidbey Island. The VP squadron’s assignment was to prevent such an attack by keeping at least two planes close to where the transiting sub might be at all times. This seemed like an easy job for VP’s — holding a diesel sub down until her batteries were exhausted, far short of the missile launch point. After forty hours of trying to get to the surface for a few minutes of charge and to purify the air in the boat, the skipper of the sub realized that his boat was about exhausted while there were still some 120 miles to go for his missile launch. Recognizing that the VPs were probably tuned in to the umpire’s circuit (though that was illegal), the skipper brought his sub to the surface in the dark of night and headed it away from the coast. The old, •know your enemy” principle was applicable here. Then he had the running lights turned on to make his sub look like a fishing boat and reported on the umpire’s circuit, “Surfaced”. Shortly thereafter he sent the message “Diving”, but stayed on the surface. He guessed that the VPs would take it for granted that the sub had resubmerged because of their close proximity. The skipper didn’t risk a radar sweep because he was sure the planes were close by — somewhere out in the blackness. A battery charge was started. Everyone on the bridge listened intently for the noise of a patrol plane, closing to investigate “the fishing boat.” As expected, the roar of aircraft engines were soon heard close aboard. But no searchlight was turned on by the investigating aircraft to verify its “ship” contact. After circling the sub, the plane flew away to scan another part of the ocean. A second plane was heard. But she also quickly turned away, searching for the sub somewhere else. Both pilots had evidently concluded that their radar contacts were from a lighted fishing boat which they had neglected to plot on their charts. From there on in to the coast and finally simulating a missile attack proved routine -because the VPs were looking for an exhausted diesel boat some 100 miles farther out to sea.

Use of missiles by submarines is a new capability which can seemingly be assured by some new kinds of ploys.

As observer at the Tactical Wargame Center at Norfolk, I watched two days of nuclear submarines unsuccessfully trying to penetrate the then modern ASW defenses around a large convoy. The enemy submarines were theoretically armed with 60-mile cruise missiles (like HARPOON) but no use was being made of them in the submarines’ attacks against the simulated convoy. The game instructions called for the submarines to optimize their kill of high value ships in the convoy, so they tried to penetrate the ASW screens to get into the convoy and get off their torpedoes. On the last day of the wargame, it was emphasized that the best way to get the important ships might be by first destroying the protective forces which were preventing penetrations into the convoy. To this end, all three of the enemy subs in the game stalked the destroyers they found in line with their planned attack on the convoy. Using convergence zone information, all three got into good positions for their missile-firing. The sub to the south launched a missile attack against a destroyer he judged to be 29 miles off — based on loss of contact when the destroyer moved out or the convergence zone. The attack was assessed as a “kill” of the destroyer. Did the submarine’s skipper then hurry through the hole he’d created in the convoy’s defenses? No, he hurried his boat to the spot or the sinking and then came to periscope depth to ascertain whether there were any aircraft nearby. There weren’t, so he surfaced his sub and quickly launched a rubber life boat with two men in it — armed with Stingers — and resubmerged. (Won’t all of today’s subs carry STINGERS, the way Gene Fluckey and others lashed on to BAZOOKAS in WW II?) This simulated ploy was played out to its bitter end. Eventually a P-3 was assessed as spotting the men in the life boat. Cautiously it closed the boat to find out if the “survivors” needed immediate help. At which, the men in the boat shouldered their Stinger launching tubes and let fly a couple of the heat-seeking missiles. The P-3 was declared “killed” and on went the submarine into the convoy for a cleanup.

Consider what a missile fired at some shore target like a tank farm could do in the way of diverting enemy coastal efforts — if the shelling of an oil tank by a Japanese submarine off Santa Barbara during WW II is any criteria. Perhaps all it takes is an RPV, launched from a sub, that looks like a missile, to cause the same level of concern. Another ploy to be considered?

Today’s complex electronic gadgets also suggest a whole new bag of ploys. A buoy loudly broadcasting the screw noises of a carrier is a means for diverting submarines from the real carrier’s operating area. Why not use such a buoy as a submarine ploy to galvanize a quiet, enemy sub, lying doggo, into some high speed movement -to close the faked target. This should make the enemy submarine far more susceptible to detection by our own patrolling submarines. Enemy ferret satellites should prove just as susceptible to a submarine launched buoy which broadcast a recognizable radar signature of, for example, a carrier’s beacon for its planes to home on. SUch an enemy satellite-detected contact should shortly get nearby enemy submarines moving rapidly towards the ferret-located radar emanation. Also, torpedo-like decoys generating submarine screw noises — already in use — may provide a tactical ploy for breaking contact with pursuing ASW forces.

Another group of ploys involve non-electronic ways of breaking contact with unfriendly ASW forces. Submarines in extremis in WW II ejected all sorts of clothing, bedding, orates etc. from their torpedo tubes to make the enemy think that the sub was fatally damaged. Some boats let go a large amount of oil for the same purpose. One skipper put a big bubble of air in a ballast tank and then suddenly vented the tank. When the bubble hit the surface, the hovering ASW forces apparently believed that it represented the air from a collapsed compartment — and broke off their depth charge attacks. Today•s submariners are likely to use the ploy of a discharged noisy bubble-cloud astern of their submarine to escape behind.

But there are some ploys that have enjoyed a vogue of much use which should probably be discarded. The old, •dummy periscope• is one of them. Discharged from the signal tube, these wooden replicas with a metal radar-reflector on top are old hat. As Dick Laning described his use of this ploy, “I put a few out as decoys, but stayed too close to them, so they picked up my periscope while they were investigating the phony ones”. His experience makes this tactical trick sound like a real loser.

Perhaps the most useful ploys, today, stem from the covert, ubiquitous quality of submarines. A few scattered sightings or contacts on a single submarine can be easily magnified by the enemy into a “force” of submarines — constraining enemy actions. When HARDER in WW II sank four destroyers outside of Tawi Tawi Bay, the Japanese Fleet Commander decided to pull his force out of the Bay because, as he radioed, he was being “blockaded” by a considerable force of submarines. Submarines are like the Scarlet Pimpernel, “they see them here, they see them there, they see them everywhere”. And a good skipper fosters that illusion.

There is one final “ploy” that continues to sober my judgement of enemy submarine capability. We expect to play the torpedo-shooting game. But in a Strikeback exercise, with the sortie time set at 0500, I, as skipper, on returning to my boat at 2300 began having the uneasy feeling that it would be wise to get out of port — right away. There were submarines on the other side, as well. So we got underway at 0100, despite our sortie orders -and commenced a patrol off the harbor entrance. At about 0300, my sound man reported the sound of submarine screws approaching the exit-channel’s sea buoy. Closing the port we’d just vacated with bottom laid mines, didn’t seem cricket, but ob bow clever! Luckily a sense of gamesmanship had saved me the great embarrassment of being out or action at the start of the exercise.

W. J. Ruhe

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League