Just ninety years ago, on 11 April 1900, the United States purchased HOLLAND (SS-1) from the J. P. Holland Boat Company for $150,000. (This date was designated Submarine Day by a Directive issued by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, in April 1947.) The little egg-shaped craft, formally known as HOLLAND VI, was commissioned on 12 October, Lieutenant Harry H. Caldwell commanding, and the crew consisted of nine brave men in all.
Thus, after France, the United States became the second power to adopt the submarine as a fighting unit of its fleet. Britain, with the greatest navy in the world at the time, launched HM Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 1, built to a similar pattern, a year later on 2 October 1901; and a good many other navies speedily followed along the same underwater path. All must surely acknowledge, on this ninetieth anniversary of the U.S. Submarine Service, the quirky, professorial, shy, prophetic, brilliant but commercially naive little Irish-American John Philip Holland.
Holland was born in a single-story cottage off Castle Street, Liscannor, on the windy Atlantic coast of County Clare, Ireland, on 24 February 1841.
Physically weak and suffering continually from ill health in youth, he saw poverty and disease all round him. Landlords were always ready to evict defaulting tenants from their cottages and strip off the thatch to prevent them coming back. It was a process known as “levelling” and young John saw plenty of it. Levelling symbolized the effect of English rule for him; and Holland believed, like so many of his countrymen, that England was entirely to blame for Ireland’s pitiable condition. All true Irishmen sought some means of throwing off the intolerable yoke which, in Holland’s view, was largely imposed by the background presence of the powerful British Fleet. He was, of course, debating the same problem that had concerned David Bushnell during the American war of Independence.
The Civil War in America and rumblings of war in Europe encouraged submarine plans. Rumours of several reached Holland who concluded that submarines could be Ireland’s answer to England’s might. There were certainly no facilities for building them in his native land. So in 1872 he saiJed from Liverpool, as a steerage passenger, bound for Boston. Amongst his few persona] possessions were drawings of a submarine.
There was plenty of Irish fervour in America to encourage revolutionary designs. The secret Irish societies of the Fenian Brotherhood welcomed Holland’s submarine proposal. It was just what they were looking for — wild enough for the headiest imagination. The Irish World newspaper launched an appeal for funds; and money from Irish-Americans quickly started to roll in.
In 1876 Holland built a 33-inch model and demonstrated it to prospective Fenian supporters at Coney Island. It was enough to convince them that a full-sized ‘Wrecking Boat’ should be buiJt.
Holland’s first proper submarine was 14 feet six inches long and two feet six inches high with a squat turret-like attachment at the top. She was completed at Paterson, NJ, in 1878 at a cost of $4,000 funded by Jacobs & Co. — a code name for the leading Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. On 22 May, the dwarfish boat was winched onto a wagon and drawn, reportedly by “eight pairs of stallions,” to the water’s edge close by the Spruce Street Bridge on the right bank of the Passaic River. When tipped off the wagon, the two-and-a-quarter tons of iron settled rapidly into the water and, in a moment, sank out of sight. Nobody was on board.
Almost certainly, the inventor had calculated the buoyancy for sa]t water. But, the upper reaches of the Passaic River were nearly fresh. It was a trimming mistake of the kind to be repeated quite frequently by some of us down the ages.
Undismayed, Holland hauled up the recalcitrant craft and made adjustments. the two-cylinder gasoline engine no longer worked. Ingenious as ever, however, he adapted the engine to steam power. Steam was passed through a rubber hose from a hired launch alongside: the female end was then forced onto a male connection when Holland was ready to go. Alone in “the Coffin” (as a spectator called it), he dived and then surfaced the cramped vehicle, safely.
Trustees of the Fenian “Skirmishing Fund” were thereby convinced that more money was justified to pursue their “salt water enterprise.” So $20,000 was provided for a warlike submarine for use against the British.
What came to be called the FENIAN RAM started to take shape at the Delamater Ironworks on West 13th Street, New York City on 3 May 1879. Construction was slow. The trouble amongst the Delamater engineers was, according to Holland, the same as he later encountered amongst Staff Officers of the United States Navy: “they were, almost without exception, of English, Welsh or Scottish descent …. ” Holland further complained that “they appeared to know by intuition that the project was absurd” — a reaction not unknown to modem submariners.
The RAM was launched in May 1881 and towed across the Hudson River to Jersey City. The three-man, nineteen-ton boat was 31 feet long, six feet broad and was propelled by a Brayton twin-cylinder, double-acting 15 hp engine. The gasoline engine was used both on the surface and submerged. Air was bled from reservoirs when surfacing.
Trials were surprisingly successful. But a passing tug washed water over and down the conning tower during an unauthorized trip by the Engineer, and the RAM sank, but the Engineer escaped — ” a bit pale.” The boat had to be raised and dried out at a cost of $3,000 to the Fenians.
As for a weapon system, Robert Whitehead’s torpedoes were quite well proven, yet there was not any way of discharging them underwater. So Holland devised an underwater gun which fired a six-foot projectile by highpressure air at six hundred pounds per square inch. With the muzzle only three feet six inches below the surface, the shell travelled a dozen feet through the water and then “rose ftfteen feet into the air … striking a pile …. and frightening a fisherman … ”
Unfortunately, Irish impetuosity, “palaver” in barrooms and the refreshments consumed therein made the Fenians impatient A few resolved to take matters into their own hands. Forging Holland’s name on a pass, they towed the craft up Long Island Sound towards New Haven where they made such a hash of things that the Harbourmaster declared her a menace to navigation. Frustrated, they beached the boat and endeavoured, but failed, to sell her to Russia. Holland was furious: “I’ll let her rot on their hands” he said. In fact, the RAM did not rot. She is now alongside craft No. 1 at the Paterson Museum.
That was the end of the “salt water enterprise.” But Holland would never have gotten started without Fenian money. It could be said that our Submarine Services owe their beginnings to what today would be called the IRA – an ironic consideration for at least the Royal Navy.
Holland now turned his attention from Irish problems to the United States Navy – despite the advice offered five years earlier by Captain Edward Simpson of the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, who bitterly remarked that “to put anything through in Washington is uphill work.” Simpson was correct.
There is no doubt that Holland’s ideas about hydrodynamics were right, and far ahead of his time. In particular, he was alone in insisting that a submarine should “not descend and rise on an even keel.” It should be steered down by horizontal planes affixed to the stem — diving and rising like a porpoise.” But only one naval officer, Lieutenant William W. Kimball, was sympathetic.
Holland befriended Kimball at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1883. The young lieutenant was not in a position to do much immediately; but, through him, Holland met Captain Edmund · L Zalinski of the U.S. Army who was anxious to promote a new “dynamite gun.” He thought a submarine boat was the best vehicle in which to mount it. And so the elongated, wooden Zalinski Boat (Holland’s No. IV) was launched in September 1885. Holland embarked on this misguided project against his better judgement. It failed completely and set him back years. Nevertheless, the fiasco provided the inventor with material for a provocative article entitled “Can New York be Bombarded?”
The article, circulated by Kimball, struck a chord somewhere deep inside the Navy Department In 1888, two years after its publication, an open competition for a “submarine Torpedo Boat” was announced. Competing against Nordenfelt, Baker and Tuck, Holland won. But the Navy’s unrealistic requirements for 15 knots on the surface and eight knots submerged — the latter speed for two hours on the battery -could not possibly by mel Indeed, those capabilities were not achieved until the German Type Vll U-boat emerged shortly before World War II. A fresh competition was announced in the following year and again Holland’s design was selected. But then the U.S. Administration changed and the appropriation was shifted to surface vessels.
Holland was now flat broke. Fortunately his old friend Charles A Morris found employment for him in his Dredging Company at the modest wage of $4 a day.
A third competition was announced in 1893. Capital ships, advocated by Captain Alfred T. Mahan, would be needed for outward American expansion, but submarines appeared to be the answer for coastal protection. Holland once more won with the design for his fifth boat, and an appropriation of $200,000, passed by Congress on 3 March 1893, enabled him to establish the John P. Holland Boat Company. The contract for the 5th boat was finally signed on 13 March 1895. William T. Malster at Baltimore — already building Simon Lake’s ARGONAUT as a private experimental venture — undertook to construct Holland’s steam-driven PLUNGER. The PLUNGER, 80 feet long and displacing 168 tons submerged, had a huge Mosher boiler amidships which made the submarine much larger than Holland wanted.
The PLUNGER (no relation to SS-2 of the same name which came later) was launched in 1897 but Holland had no faith in her. His fears were justified: trials were never completed.
The PLUNGER’s failure cost the Holland Boat Company dearly. But the inventor was thankfully able to turn his full attention to HOLLAND VI. As Lt.Col Alan H. Burgoyne MP remarked later in his classical history: “Of this vessel perhaps more has been heard than of any other ship or boat in the world. She is the prototype of the latest submarine ordered by Great Britain and the American Government and is also, without doubt, the commencement of the ‘really successful’ submarine.”
The sixth Holland boat displaced 63.3 tons on the surface and 74 tons submerged. It was almost the ideal shape with a length-to-breadth ratio of 5.25. A 45 bhp Otto gasoline engine drove the boat at close to eight knots on the surface; and the battery supplied power for a maximum S knots submerged. In addition to a single 18-inch torpedo tube forward – with two reload torpedoes — HOLLAND VI had an inclined “Dynamite” or Pneumatic gun above the torpedo tube forward and initially one aft as well.
Appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day, Thursday 17 March 1898, HOLLAND VI made her first successful dive off Staten Island; and ten days later the Navy Department sent observers to witness formal trials. Captain John Lowe, USN, Chief Engineer of the Navy, was well pleased. His opinion carried weight.
Kimball, now a Commander, was present on at least one submerged run. Two years earlier, anticipating the success of Holland’s latest boat, he had made his famous boast before the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs: “Give me six Holland boats, the officers and crew to be selected by me, and I will pledge my life to stand off the entire British Squadron ten miles off Sandy Hook without any aid from a Aeet.”
On 10 April 1898, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long: ” … I think that the Holland Submarine Boat should be purchased … I don’t think that in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip … ” Roosevelt was, of course, referring to Spain’s declaration of war against the United States over Cuba. Holland himself declared his willingness to take the HOLLAND VI to Santiago and sink the Spanish Aeet if it were still there. The offer was not taken up.
The Navy Department sought to criticize everything it could, after its purchase of the HOLLAND VI; while the naval personnel who replaced Holland’s team were slow and inept. It is difficult to understand how the Navy expected untrained men to put the submarine through her paces and arrive at sound conclusions. However, some of the modifications they demanded were sensible; the after Dynamite gun was removed as redundant; controls were improved; and very handy small trimming tanks were added.
Meanwhile, the Electric Boat Company, with Isaac Rice as President, had absorbed the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. The Rice empire rapidly expanded at the expense of Holland’s personal influence and fortune. The Irish inventor was no match for the acumen of American businessmen like Isaac Rice. Holland, who died in August 1914, just eight days after the declaration of war, never reaped the financial rewards due to his genius.
Whether he foresaw the devastation that submarines -specifically German U-boats — would cause in the First Great War is problematical. He envisaged his invention in a quite different light, as evidenced by his declaration to Clara Barton, first President of the American Red Cross. The 78-year old lady went out for a trip in HOLLAND VI which the inventor thought would give her pleasure. It did not. At the end of the day, which was cold and rainy, she sharply reprimanded Holland for developing “a dreadful weapon of war.” He reiterated that, on the contrary, he saw the submarine “as a deterrent to war;” but he failed to pacify her — and it would be a very long time before its deterrent value was recognized. In fact, even today, the role of “ordinary” non-missile submarines in deterrence is poorly understood by politicians.
Kimball, Morris, Lowe, Theodore Roosevelt and others played important parts in the submarine story. But, with St. Patrick’s Day just past, let us remember that the submarine as we know it today was an Irish invention. Eireann gu brath. Those of us with forebears in the Emerald Isle will take a shillelagh to anyone who says otherwise!