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Dr. Gary Weir, author ofBuildin1 American Submarines 1914-1940, an historian with the Naval Historical Center, has commendably traced the path of U.S. submarine design and construction during the period between the two World Wars. He descnbes the influence of the German U-boat, the debate regarding use of submarines, the relationships between the Navy’s bureaus and private industry, and the development of essential related equipment.

After the war to end aU wan – World War I – congressional appropriations were not being used for military procurement. Future roles and designs for U.S. submarines were in debate. Upon completion of the submarines currently under construc-tion, one or both of the two principal shipbuilders might be forced out of the submarine construction business.

If the Cold War were considered the war to end all wan, the U.S. submarine community today could be compared to the conditions in 1918. Dr. Weir’s work discusses the problems faced after World War I and the improvements precipitating the favorable status of submarine design, force levels and industrial base on the eve of World War n. Based on the initiatives taken during the 20 plus years between the two wars, might we, after the Cold War, not benefit from a review of those initia-tives? The following are some of the highlights of Dr. Weir’s history.

When the U.S. entered World War I, 16 years after its first submarine procurement, our Navy had 96 submarines, compris-ing 14 dillerent classes, delivered or under construction. At that time, Gennan ocean-going U-boat size had increased to almost 1200 tons and 17 knots, while U.S. submarine displace-ments ranged from 2Jj7 to 510 tons with a top surface speed of about 14 knots.

U.S. submarines were purchased from two commercial submarine construction companies – Electric Boat Company (EB) of Groton, cr (using Holland designs) and Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, CI, (Lake designs) or their subsidiary yards.

Great difficulties were endured by the Navy’s technical bureaus in dealing with the two private submarine shipbuilders and, in particular, with EB which dominated the U.S. submarine construction business at the time. As submarine inventors and patent holders, these two shipbuilders presented their designs for the Navy to take or leave. EB lobbied Congress to appro-priate and authorize more submarines than the Navy had requested, enabling EB to get those appropriations, design the submarines and build them to their design. This civilian shipbuilder, therefore, was not only the market leader but the maker of naval submarine policy. However, the shipbuilders also had their difficulties with the government: changing requirements, contentious contract wording, low wartime material priorities, etc. The major difference between the Navy and the shipbuilders was that the Navy expected a quality product within contract price, and the shipbuilder felt required to deliver the product per contract specification, reliable or nol As a result, one of the biggest areas of contention centered on the unreliability of the EB-provided diesel engines built by the New London Ship and Engine Company (NELSECO) — an EB subsidiary.

On the brink of U.S. entry into World War I, the Navy’s technical bureaus, then the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Steam Engineering ventured into the submarine design business. Because of the difficulties in dealing with the two private shipyards, the Navy developed Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as a capable alternative design and construction facility.

In order to mass produce a submarine in 1916, the Navy bureaus, with the help of EB and Lake, designed the 800-ton, 15-knot S class submarine. Fifty were bullt. At about that same time, the Navy gave EB a contract to design the three ship 1100-ton, 20-knot T class. This design reflected the current Navy thinking that the submarine should be able to operate with the battle fleel Both designs emerged at the start of a period of debate and reevaluation within the American subma-rine community sparked by the course of the European war and the performance of the German U-boats. During the inter-war years, the S and T class boats (or rather the problems with their designs) helped the Navy determine the comparative state of American submarine design and construction capability as well as the strategic role of submarines in future conflicts.

After the war, the U.S. and other countries examined the various German U-boats. Of particular interest was the comparison of the German mobilization Ms boat with the (approximately) same sized AmericanS class boat then under construction. In spite of their cramped conditions and terrible habitability, the U-boats exhibited remarkable reliability, and demonstrated technological superiority to the U.S. boats. One of these Ms boats, the U-111, was brought to this country and run through the same acceptance tests as the Lake-built S-2. The Board of Inspection and Survey noted that the Busch-Seizer Diesel in the S-2 was far more reliable than EB’s S-1 NELSECO machinery, but exhibited fuel and lubrication leaks that did not appear in the U-111 diesels manufactured by Machinenfabrik Ausberg-Nurenberg (MAN). Tests showed the German MAN diesels provided 12 percent greater efficiency than the U.S. engines even with the German’s more demanding auxiliaries.

The superiority of the U-boat Diesel engines and the unreliability of the NELSECO engines in the S and T class submarines caused the Navy to enter the submarine engine business. In an attempt to develop quality engines, the Navy, in the early 20s, sent out inquiries of interest to private industry. The poor response was indicative of the hazard of a limited market without an incentive provided by federal funds for research and development. As a result, the U .S. Navy’s Bureau of Machinery commissioned the New York Navy Yard to develop a U.S. version of the MAN engine. The “Bu-MAN” engine weighed ten percent more than the German engine and, after a comparatively short time of operation, would suffer casualties resulting from cracked engine castings and air compressor failures. However, the Bu-MAN engine problems were less severe than those causing endless casualties in the NELSECO engines. The U.S. had been unable to duplicate the thin section steel castings of the Germans and did not possess a comparable knowledge of torsional vibration.

While the problems of finding a suitably sized, reliable diesel engine continued, the controversy over the submarine’s role and future designs raged at full tilt. The dilemma resulted from the Navy General Board’s specification for submarine surface speed to be about 20 knots to operate with the battle fleet versus the Secretary of the Navy’s (budget driven?) direction that the submarine should be about the size of the S class (800~tons). The naval designers were unable to provide adequate crew and engine space in an BOO~ton boat.

During the years 1921 to 1931, the submarine community could do little but debate the various issues. Any consensus on mission and design would have to please the General Board, the technical bureaus and the Submarine Officers Conference {SOC). The SOC was a group of experienced submarine officers established in 1926 to advise the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy on submarine matters.

As a result of America’s growing responsibilities in the Pacific and a painstaking and detailed analysis of German strategy and design, the many viewpoints on submarine strategy and design gradually became a consensus in the years between 1927 and 1930. The previously accepted wisdom that the submarine functioned most effectively either in coastal defense or when tied directly to the battle fleet was being openly challenged. In 1928, a submarine division commander ques-tioned the advisability of pursuing greater submarine speed at the expense of habitability and submerged performance. He urged naval planners and strategists to allow U.S. submarines to adopt an independent offensive posture. He argued that submarine reliability, improved habitability, and long range endurance would better serve the Navy than speed. This view fit well with a previous SOC recommendation that future submarine design be based on that of the 1175~ton U-135. For the first time in nearly ten years of postwar deliberations, the views of the leading submarine strategists began to coincide with the opinions of the designers on the significant points of mission and displacement requirements.

Following the construction of the 50 S-class boats, the only U.S. submarines built between 1921 and 1927 were the V-1 through V -6 with displacements of 2000 to 2730 tons. In the early 30s, the Bureau of Construction and Repair proposed 1560, 1110 and 1130-ton designs for the V-7 through V-9. An incentive to use lesser weight designs was provided by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which stipulated a limit of 52,700 tons for the U.S. Navy’s total operational submarine tonnage.

These events eventually led to a consensus fleet boat design of about 1500 tons displacement, 15 knots surface speed, 90 days at-sea endurance, and a 12,000 mile range. The only problem with the design was finding a diesel engine with adequate reliability and the requisite horsepower per pound.

During the inter-war years, the MAN Company of Germany exported its superior U-boat diesel engine design worldwide. Companies like Mitsubishi in Japan, Vilanova in Spain, and H . Stinnes in Sweden adopted submarine diesels either built by MAN or based on its design. At one point, Japan was taken to task for violation of the Versailles Peace Accords for importing German technicians as well as the engine.

In February 1931, the U.S. signed an agreement with MAN paying royalties to build their engines in the U.S. This arrange-ment permitted the Navy’s technical bureau to wrest the initiative from the private sector, providing direction to be taken by the Navy and commercial industry in diesel engine research.

In 1932, the Bureau of Engineering initiated a competition to develop a light-weight, high speed diesel engine electric drive system. In light of the interest generated by the railroad industry, the Navy could not have timed its competition better. Five companies immediately entered the competition and two others followed. The Winton automobile company, founded by diesel engineer Alexander Winton (and previously absorbed by General Motors (GM) in 1930), produced an engine acceptable to the Navy. The other four immediate entrants, including EB, were unable to produce engines acceptable to the Navy. The late entrants, the Hooven, Owens, Rentschler (HOR) and Fairbanks-Morse (FM) companies, produced engines meeting Navy specifications.

The HOR engine, based on the MAN design, was first installed aboard POMPANO (SS-181). This engine virtually disintegrated due to steel embrittlement. Although the com-pany was able to correct the problem, it is reputed that the HOR engine never gained much stature in the submarine community.

As to the FM engine, Dr. Weir, quoting other authors, incorrectly states, “Fairbanks-Morse adapted its basic design from the German Junkers Jumo aircraft engine, which common-ly appeared in long-range flying boats.” The first FM project officer for submarine engines was Mr. Henry Haase. Mr. Haase recently confirmed that the opposed piston engine design developed by FM for submarine and railroad application was the result of an original design by the FM designer, Heinrich Schneider.*

By 1938, after solving most of the difficulties with materials and welding techniques, the U.S. Navy had three suppliers of reliable submarine engines. As. mentioned, the HOR was the least popular of the diesels. Also, some wartime commanding officers complained that their OM-Winton engines generated too much smoke. The FM engine gained the best reputation.

Subsequent to World War II, there was an effort to employ higher speed FM and GM diesels in the TANG {SS-563) class submarines. As. some of us can relate, the GM pancake engines had lots of problems and bad to be replaced by lower speed FMs. For the nuclear submarines, the U.S. Navy settled on smaller, lower speed GM and FM (now owned by Colt Indus-tries) diesels to provide auxiliary power.

During the dry period in submarine construction between 1921 and 1931, EB was able to stay in business by building everything from pleasure boats to machinery. The market for commercial shipbuilding skills and related technology provided most private contractors with their only means of surviving the virtual absence of government business after the Great War.

Plagued by financial difficulties, the Lake Company went out of business in 1913, but remobilized in 1915. After the war, the Secretary of the Navy tried to get from Congress enough submarine construction funds to keep the two private yards in business and in competition. This he was unable to do. So, in spite of producing some of the U.S. Navy’s best and most reliable submarines to date (primarily due to its Busch-Seizer diesel engines), in a time of few contracts, Lake was caught between the power of EB and the Navy’s development of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. As a result, the Lake company folded permanently in 1924.

With the exception of the diesel engine problem and the shipyards, Dr. Weir spends little time discussing other areas of From 1934 to 1936, my father, then a lieutenant with a Masters degree In Diesel Engineering, was the first Resident Inspector of Naval Material at Falrbank5-Morsc. I remember his stories of the first engine fuU load tests, the baling wire, etc. but do not recall him saying anything about modifying aircraft engines. My family and the Haasea (currently in their SO’a and living In York, PA) have kept In touch since our days together In Beloit,¬†submarine technology and the industrial base, for which the survival and development during the inter-war period was crucial. He fails to compare U.S. capability with Germany or other countries in these important submarine technology areas, but points out that the naval authorities used the modest appropriations available after the war to improve the Navy’s design and construction capability at Portsmouth and to advance private-sector submarine research and development. The commercial vendors were involved in the development and manufacture of electric drive motors, storage batteries, peri-scopes, gyroscopes, fire control, and auxiliaries (such as air compressors, ventilation, etc.).

Commercially built storage batteries have always posed problems for U.S. submarines. In 1916, the E-2 (SS-25) fitted with batteries supplied by the Edison Storage Battery Company experienced a series of Hydrogen induced battery case explo-sions. The Exide and Gould companies later provided much more reliable storage batteries for the S, T and V classes. However, battery casing deterioration remained a problem throughout the pre-1940 period.

All U.S. submarine periscopes, from the beginning, have been built and designed by commercial companies. The initial fixed position, fixed power periscopes were manufactured by the Bausch and Lomb Optical, Keuffel and Esser, and General Ordnance companies. In 1916, Dr. Frederick L G. Kollmorgen, an optical designer for K&E, formed his own company and, in conjunction with Eastern Optical Company, manufactured the first moveable, adjustable sets of periscope optics. Due to the superiority of its optical set employing the better French optical glass, Kollmorgen was awarded a contract for the periscope optics for 23 of the S class submarines under construction. To do so, the government had to financially help Kollmorgen with plant expansion and payroll.* Further, the Government had to modify EB’s S boat contract to designate periscopes as govern-ment furnished material. This contract modification caused EB to lose the material pass-through profit for which EB sued but never collected This information was verified by the grandson of Dr. Kollmorgen, Captain Frederick J. Kollmorgen, USN(RcL), wbo is known to many of the Most of the other submarine technologies: sonar, weapons, communications and habitability were improved through the direction of the various naval bureaus and laboratories — e.g., Naval Experimental Station, New London, Cf; Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, RI; Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC; Engineering Experiment Station, Annapolis, MD. The Navy’s becoming the coordinator and catalyst in submarine design and construction during the 1914-1940 period proved to be one of its most important decisions.

Considering today’s environment following the Cold War, what lessons can be learned and questions asked from Dr. Weir’s history?

  • First Lesson: At the end of World War I, the Germans possessed a clear lead in submarine technology but, due to financial need, squandered it in the inter-war period.

Question: At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and CIS lead in submarine propulsion and quieting technology. What will become of the CIS technology? What does this country intend to do with its technology?

  • Second Lesson: At the end of World War I. there were two U.S. commercial shipyards in the submarine design and construction business, but, with the post-war reduction in submarine orders, one of these yards was forced to go under by a stronger business position of the other private company and by the Navy’s development and support of a naval shipyard to provide design direction and construction competition to the private yards.

Question: At the end of the Cold War, there are two U.S. commercial shipyards in the submarine design and construc-tion business. However, with the exception of the nuclear plant, the Navy has essentially abdicated its design capability to the private yards. Orders for future submarines and ships have dropped and it is unlikely that both private shipyards can be kept in the submarine construction business. There is the .concern that the few submarine orders will not be enough to sustain critical vendors which, due to the sophisti-cated technology of today’s submarines, number in the hundreds. What does this country intend to do to maintain the industrial base to be able to design and build subma-rines?

  • Third Lesson: At the end of World War I. there was controversy regarding submarines missions for which the submarine was to be designed: mission requirements and displacement limitations did not match the country’s technol-ogy capabilities. Luckily, improvements in diesel engine technology plus accord between the strategists and designers were achieved in time to mass produce a submarine designed for the intended missions and flexible enough to accommo-date some unforeseen missions. In only two calendar years since 1917 have U.S. attack submarine force levels been allowed to drop below 50 submarines.

Question: At the end of the Cold War. there is controversy regarding missions for U.S. submarines in the future. Each mission may dictate a submarine design different from that which resulted from the Cold War. Budgetary limitations will affect what type of submarine can be appropriated. Can this country’s submarine strategists, designers and budget overseers achieve accord in time to prevent attack submarine force levels from dropping below the number required to support future missions?

To prevent repeating mistakes of the past, the similarities descn’bed in BuildinK American Submarines 1914-1940 with today’s submarine debates make Dr. Weir’s 117 page disserta-tion mandatory reading by the submarine strategists, designers and budgeteers.


TIME-LIFE Books has recently released a submarine oriented book entitled Bunten of the Deep, which has some excellent photographs and a number of easy-to-follow explanations of basic submarine principles. This book could be of great assistance in efforts to help the public understand submarines.

For information on the book, call 1-800-621-7026

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