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Editor’s Note: Captain Bill Maurice wrote this article during his First Qass year at the Naval Academy. It is reprinted here both for its inherent historical interest and for an illustration of how Arctic operations looked to an aspiring submariner of almost 40 years ago. References and footnotes have been deleted for ease of reading.

From Failure to Success

Until the year 1931, the Arctic had been crossed only twice in the history of the world, once by airship and once by airplane. It was in this year that Sir Hubert Wilkins was to attempt to make the crossing beneath the frozen ice pack in a submarine. He failed and it was not until 27 years later that man succeeded in this task.

Why the Arctic

It may be said that the potential profits of any such expedition may be divided into two parts-the scientific and the commercial. Of primary scientific interest was the possibility of establishing permanent meteorological stations for the purpose of seasonal forecasting. Since the Arctic is the critical breeding ground for much of the weather experienced by the Northern latitudes, such explorations were of economic significance to farmers, consumers, umbrella manufacturers, and aviators.

There were great possibilities in the commercial awakening and opening up of some of the lands bordering on the Polar Sea. Siberia has over 20 rivers emptying into the Arctic Ocean, with abundant forests and rich deposits of gold and platinum. Her rich black soils provide probably the best wheat-growing lands anywhere in the world. The submarine could transport these products to New York via the Polar-under ice route-about half the distance of the Canal route.

Of strategic value, the Arctic Ocean is the central area of the earth’s landmasses. Naval operations there will always be of 107 paramount importance. Though unrealized at the time, this area is ideally located for radar pickets on the perimeter of the ice pack and would conceal Polaris-type submarines under the ice with utmost efficiency. A principal arm of our national defense lies in this region.

The History of the Idea

The thought of exploring the Arctic Ocean by submarine actually preceded the attempt by almost 300 years. In 1648 an ancestor of Sir Hubert Wilkins, known in the history of British science as Bishop Wilkins of Chester, penned a work entitled Mathematical Magick. Chapter V of Book II in this volume was headed Toward the Possibility of Framing an Ark for Submarine Navigations. 1he Difficulties and Conveniences of Such a Contrivance. In this chapter, he speaks of such a contrivance being safe “from ice and great frosts, which do so much endanger the passages towards the poles”. In 1869 Jules Vernes Twenty Thousand Lea1p.1es Under the Sea contributed much to later planning. However, it was Simon Lake in 1897 who built the first submarine designed for under-ice work, ARGONAUT. The following is the preamble to his patent on this invention:

This invention relates to submarine vessels, and is particularly designed for navigating in water covered by surface ice, and has for its object. first, to provide a submarine boat with means for engaging the underside of the ice to furnish a sliding contact therewith and to combine with such means for ballasting the boat, in such a manner that the contact between the boat and the bottom of the ice will be reduced to a minimum; second, to provide the boat with a vertically adjustable guide or guides projecting from the boat and adapted to engage the surface of the ice or the water bed and guide the vessel over the uneven surface thereof; third, to provide a traction wheel arranged to engage the undersurface of the ice and means for rotating the said wheel to propel the vessel; fourth, to provide improved means for supplying air to an exhausting it from the interior of the boat and the engine; fifth, to provide means for rendering harmless back explosions of the engine; sixth, to provide novel torpedo mechanism for blasting the ice, blowing up ships, and the like; seventh, to provide means for affording an exit from the boat through the ice; eight, to provide novel means for establishing telephonic communication between the submarine vessel and another vessel or a fixed station, and, lastly, to provide certain other features of invention, hereinafter fully described.

While the United States was occupied with purchasing conventional submarines from Lake for military purposes, there was one who seriously considered this means of conveyance for a more peaceful purpose, that of Arctic explorations. This was Sir George Hubert Wilkins.

Biography of Wilkins

Wilkins was born in South Australia in 1888, son of a sheepherder and youngest of 13 children. Bad years and drought caused hard times and curtailed his formal schooling, but he continued his education by mail-order catalogs. Meanwhile, he observed how the land became scorched for lack of rain, how the animals died, and how hardworking people were driven to begging because the country was changing into a desert. It was during these years that his thoughts of becoming a polar explorer began to ripen. In order to forecast weather for longer periods one needed to know the conditions in the entire atmosphere. To complete the picture it was particularly necessary to have observations from the polar regions, and hence his desire to become an arctic explorer.

At age 20, Wilkins proposed his life plans for the next 40 years to include the first 20 years traveling in as many different regions as possible, especially the polar areas and during the following 20 years he would employ what he had learned in organizing a network of meteorological stations in the polar regions for their importance in daily and long-range weather forecasting.

Despite the fact that his period of traveling extended long beyond the proposed 20 years, his career was a little short of phenomenal. He was commander of the first airplane to cross the polar region. He was wounded nine times while acting as a front-line correspondent with the Australian Corps in World War I.

As a pilot, his first thought was to explore the polar regions by 109 airplanes. However, frequent conversations .with the famed explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, convinced him that with a submarine it would be possible to go wherever one desired in the Polar Sea, carrying an abundance of excellent scientific equipment and instruments, and with sufficient time and opportunity to perform a series of valuable observations.

Planning the Expedition

In the summer of 1928, Wilkins met Commander Sloan Davenhower, who was Simon Lance’s partner and son of John Davenhower, master of JENNETI’E of De Long’s expedition in the Arctic. Davenhower was a graduate of the Naval Academy in 1907, served on submarines from 1909 until 1912 when he joined the Lake Torpedo Boat Company. Returning from work in the Arctic and Antarctic, Wilkins again met Davenhower in 1930, and brought up the question of finding a submarine suited for use in the ice. Lake, Davenhower, and Wilkins discussed the project at length and were convinced that a submarine for such an expedition should be completely designed and built from the keel up . However, the funds at Wilkins’ disposal were insufficient. At first, it was decided to use the little DEFENDER, privately owned by Lake and Davenhower. With this decision, it might be said that plans were definitely underway for what was to be the spectacular event of the decade-a polar crossing by submarine.

Not completely satisfied, due to the extremely small size of DEFENDER, other possibilities were sought. In accord with the London Agreement, some of the comparatively modem submarines belonging to the Navy were to be destroyed. Among these was 0-12 built by Lake in 1917 and, according to him, suitable for reconstruction at a small cost.

Since Wilkins was not an American citizen, negotiations with the Navy Department were handled by Lace and Davenhower. On June 3, 1930, the 0-12 was transferred to the U.S. Shipping Board which in turn leased it to the firm of Lake and Davenhower for “$1.00 a year on condition that it be put at the disposal of Wilkins for no other than Arctic research work; further, that within five years the ship should be returned to New York for destruction, in compliance with the terms of the London accord.”

0-12 was 175 feet in length, had a beam of 16 feet, 3 inches 110, and surfaced draft of 18 feet, 10 inches. Her displacement was 485 tons surfaced and 566 tons submerged. She had two sets of engines-500 B.H.P. (410 rpm) 6 cyl. 4 cycle Sulzer Diesel engine and two motors-440 H.P. Diehl Mfg. Co., with Cutler-Hammer magnetic controllers.

The vessel had two propellers, immediately beyond which were found the two horizontal rudders used during submersion, and the conventional vertical rudder. Both the screws and elevated rudder extended far over the side of the ship and could thus easily be damaged when in the ice. A submarine with only one propeller would have been preferable, but such a type was not available.

At the economical surfaced speed of 11 knots, she had a maximum operating radius of 7326 miles. At a submerged speed of 8 knots, she could run for more than 40 hours, allowing a maximum underwater radius on one battery charge of about 125 miles. However, it was later pointed out by Harold Sverdrup, the chief scientist aboard, that this submerged radius should never have been proposed since the diesel engines were electrically started and required so much current that they could not be started if the batteries were more than half emptied.

The problem of recharging the batteries while under the ice pack is most interesting. There are throughout the ice pack leads or polynyas which are nothing more than openings or holes in the ice. Wilkins’ experience of 15,000 miles of Arctic flying and 5000 miles of walking off the ice had shown many patches of water five to ten miles apart even in winter. It was believed that a conventional submarine could surface within these clear areas. If not, a telescoped breather apparatus would admit the necessary air through drilled holes in the ice. There was also a five-day supply of air onboard for the crew in case of emergency.

The reconstruction period took place primarily at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from June of 1930 until January of 1931, at which time the vessel was towed to the Mathis Shipyard in Camden for finishing touches. At a total refitting cost of $200,000 the following special features were incorporated in her design for this Arctic expedition:

1. Heavily reinforced bow
2. Collapsible bowsprit
3. Diving compartment and airlock
4. Special bow lights protected by heavy glass
5. Telescopic conning tower and iceborer
6. Observation chamber and escape lock
7. Sled deck
8. Jackknife periscope
9. Emergency air drills 10. Pneumatically controlled guide wheel and arm
11. Special propeller guards.

Of particular importance, though later found to be inoperable, were the three ice drills, two of which were to be capable of drilling through ice 100 feet thick. These were to provide induction air for the diesel and an exhaust line in case of emergency. The third drive was to be capable of drilling a hole two feet in diameter through ice 13 feet thick to allow members of the crew
to exit the boat.

In the forward end of the old torpedo room was installed a new diving compartment and airlock. By bringing the air pressure up in this compartment equal to the water pressure outside, the hatch could be opened allowing the diver to emerge and return. Soundings were to be taken and specimens collected and observed in this compartment.

The refitting completed, Davenhower announced: “The ship is seaworthy.” 0 -12 was then rechristened by Lady Wilkins on March 24, 1931, with a rather distinguished name to be long remembered in the annals of history.

“Ship, I name you NAUTILUS. Go on your wonderful adventure. In your heart is a sacred treasure. Bring that treasure safely back to me.” Among those present was Jean Jules Verne, the grandson of Jules Verne.

Scientific Undertakings

“The principle aim of an explorer today must be to thrill and amuse his public; scientific work in order to be carried on at all must be made secondary to the showy side of an expedition.” The spectacular was evident. However, scientific results were the goal; the submarine the means.

In planning and supporting the scientific program, Lincoln Ellsworth was appointed Director of Scientific Research. Though he did not actually accompany the Wilkins’ expedition, he was to rendezvous with it at the North Pole as navigator of the Graf Zeppelin’s 8000 mile Arctic flight headed by Doctor Hugo Eckener.

The purpose of the expedition was to carry out a geophysical investigation on a route between Spitsbergen and the Bering Sea. In reporting on this purpose before the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science in June of 1930, Wilkins suggested the following areas of investigation:

1. Meteorology as to the advisability of weather stations between 75 N and 80 N and between 50 Wand 170 W determined by upper air as well as surface observations
2. Measurements of gravity by Meinesz gravity apparatus
3. Hydrography by sonic and mechanical depth finders
4. Oceanography with respect to currents, ocean bottom, and water temperatures
5. TerrestriaJ magnetism
6. Ice distribution by photographs from balloons
7. Radio and television broadcasting experiments.

It was later decided to conduct spectrographic investigations of light penetrating through the ice and seawater. Biological material, as well as marine inhabitants of the Arctic Sea, were also to be collected for further investigations. As will be pointed out later, all of these scientific experiments were conducted, allowing the expedition to be termed “successful” despite the fact that the North Pole was never attained.

The Voyage

On the 4’th of June 1931, NAUTILUS put to sea to make the crossing from New York to Plymouth, England, where additional scientific equipment was to be installed. However, on 13 June, a cylinder on the starboard engine cracked, rendering that engine useless, and on 14 June her port motor became disabled. She was forced to send for assistance before her batteries were completely

exhausted. The helpless vessel was subsequently rescued and towed 1000 miles to Cobb, Ireland by USS WYOMING. WYOMING had aboard 975 midshipmen from the Naval Academy, bound for Copenhagen on their annual cruise.

The entire voyage, until NAUTILUS finally reached Spitsbergen, was plagued by mechanical failures primarily because the engines had been idle for five years. Doubtless, Commander Davenhower had this possibility in mind since he kept well on the track of Atlantic shipping and was in frequent communication with other ships. During the crossing, the submarine’s periscope and bridge were washed away by high seas so that at times she was running completely blind. Among others in the series of over-whelming delays were several breakdowns in Iron Mike, an automatic steering gear developed by the Sperry Company.

Ports of call were Davenport, England for repairs and Bergen, Norway to take aboard scientific equipment and men who would be in this work-Mr. Harold Sverdrup, Dr. Bernhard Villinger and Mr. Floyd Soule. Sverdrup was to take the meteorological and oceanographic observation; Villinger would take the gravimeter measurements, make the collection of plankton, assist in the chemical-oceanographic analyses and the spectrographic determinations of light under the ice; Soule would make the magnetic observations, supervise the echo soundings and some of the chemicaloceanographical investigations.

Approximately one month behind schedule, on August 5, NAUTILUS departed Bergen, and a week later, on 12 August, having paused briefly at Tromso and Skyervoy, the Arctic submarine was at last on her way. The one-month delay was critical since the perimeter of the ice pack extends rapidly to the lower latitudes as summer wanes in late August. Heavy pack ice was encountered on 19 August and on the 2Q1b, amidst temperatures below 0 degrees C inside and out, the deck was made clear for diving. However, much difficulty was experienced with the ice drills and it was not until 21 August that again the word was passed: known with the radio mast, ready for diving.” For Wilkins, it was a very tense moment. He had banked everything on proving that a submarine could be used successfully probing under the Arctic ice.

It was at this moment that all hope for reaching the Pole was lost. In making the last-minute check, Davenhower had gone aft to check the propellers and the rudder. There was no diving rudder aft.

Unable to dive, with the propellers dangerously exposed to the moving ice and the hull already leaking due to an earlier collision with an ice floe, an ordinary man would have made the decision to return to Norway and abandon the expedition for the year 1931. However, Wilkins did not for a moment consider turning back before he had accomplished some of those objectives which were yet possible. The next two weeks were devoted to a thorough testing of all scientific equipment on board as well as putting to trial most of the mechanical apparatus specifically designed for under-ice work. The boat was rigged for diving, the bow sub-merged to a downward angle of 10 to 15 degrees and nudged under the ice to a distance of approximately three-fourths of the length of the boat. The ice drill was tried but was found to be completely useless. The diving chamber was also used on several occasions and proved very satisfactory.

Radio communication was cut off for six days from 29 August until 8 September when moisture in the air spoiled the coils of the transmitter. When communication was re-established, rescue parties had been formed, as the hope of survival was slight. On September 4th, William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers had an exclusive on reporting the expedition’s progress, sent a telegram urging Wilkins to return to safety. But Wilkins’ reply was: “We shall continue as long as we are able to perform anything positive.” On September 71b, when all had been done that was possible with the inadequate means at his disposal, the decision was made to return home.

NAUTILUS returned to Spitsbergen on 9 September. She was badly battered, leaking at two points, dented and scarred, with the drill mechanisms shattered, part of the ice runners crumpled, a permanent list of thirty degrees, damaged propellers, periscope, and wireless masts, and with only a few spots of paint remaining on the entire hull.

After much deliberation, permission was finally granted by the U.S. Shipping Board, and the Arctic submarine was scuttled in the Bergen Fiord near Hellen at 200 fathoms on the 2ot11 of November 1931.

Scientific Results

The measurements of the pull of gravity by Villinger were of great importance to Geodesy, the study of the earth’s form, since previously no reliable work had been presented on the gravity in the upper Arctic region. Accurate calculations as to the oblateness of the earth at the Pole were then possible by comparing the pull of gravity at the Pole with that at the Equator.

The expedition also investigated the theory of isostasy, i.e., the theory that the floating equilibrium of the earth’s crust is attained by gravity forces from the Polar area.

A new type of apparatus was built in Holland from the design of Professor Vening Meinesz fur these gravity measurements onboard NAUTILUS. The curves of three pendulums were photographically registered and from the oscillation period, the weight element was determined. Despite the fact that measurements could only be undertaken when the submarine did not roll or pitch, eight uninterrupted readings of one-half hour or more were taken.

By means of fathometer observations, three submerged mountain ranges were discovered 500 to 600 fathoms below the ice floes, with valleys 2000 fathoms deep, between Greenland and Spitsbergen.

It was also found that the Arctic Sea consisted of four temperature gradients; a cold layer on the surface, a warm layer caused by currents from the Atlantic Ocean, another cold layer, and still another warm layer which is heated by the earth’s surface.

For chemical, meteorological, and oceanographical observations the vessel was stopped about every 30 miles at 10 different stations. Bottom samples were obtained, but they yielded only information as to the type of bottom deposit in that area.

The instruments lowered through the diving chamber could be seen 80 feet below sea level. Water samples and plankton were collected at depths up to 2000 fathoms.


After 1931 there were several published accounts of further Polar explorations by submarine, but the Second World War snuffed out the only one planned by Wilkins. Accompanied by his wife, Lady Wilkins, he was to make a second attempt, in 1938, in an air-conditioned submarine being built in England, completely equipped with a newly designed ice drill. The war in Europe, however, postponed indefinitely this expedition.

In 1938 Russia planned a submarine voyage similar to Wilkins’ to explore the Arctic area to determine the possibilities of establishing an airline to the United States over this route. This also was delayed by the threat and finally the outbreak of war.

Though most of the information is classified, Naval operations were conducted in the Arctic area in 1946 and there are accounts of several fleet-type boats sailing a few miles under the ice pack and returning.

At exactly 11: 15 PM (EDT), August 3, 1958, the summit was attained. NAUTILUS (SSN 571) passed under the North Pole. Thirty-six hours later she emerged from under the ice in the North Atlantic that has entered off Alaska’s Northern coast. The Arctic had been crossed once again-this time by submarine.

The vain attempt of the first NAUTILUS expedition in 1931 was far from a final defeat but rather a necessary stepping stone to success. One participant observed that “The future will show if anyone will cross the Polar Sea in a new and better submarine. I believe it can be done.”

The future has shown that the Polar Sea could be crossed by a New and better submarine”. However, some of those features which enabled NAUTILUS (SSN 571) to accomplish this feat were no doubt unknown to the author of these words. Little did he realize that a boat completely independent of the atmosphere was necessary for this work. Rather than be dependent upon a gyrocompass which was untried in the higher latitudes, an inertial navigator would provide the means of navigation for piercing the Pole. There were no ice drills or inverted sled runners aboard and above all, the source of power was a nuclear reactor.

Hardly aware of the impending danger, NAUTILUS of 1931 may well have been his grave. The mysterious disappearance of the diving rudder was actually a fortunate misfortune. The leads of such a size to accommodate a surfaced boat were not, as believed, within the necessary radius of operation. The ice drills failed completely and certainly, the gyrocompass would have become erratic in latitudes higher than the 83 degrees to which they penetrated. They would undoubtedly have been caught in the phenomenon of longitude roulette.

Further, the living conditions onboard the nuclear NAUTILUS were greatly improved over those of Wilkins•’ boat. While in 1931 the crew was experiencing below freezing weather within a moist damp boat, where drinking water was non-existent, those aboard the 571 were warm and relaxed in a controlled environment with all the comforts of home. In addition, the modem NAUTILUS was faster, able to dive deeper, and carry more scientific equipment. Television became her seeing eye, viewing the formation of the underside of the ice while she was in the true medium-under the sea.

So it is that man has conquered the undersea Polar passage though not without failures, the foundations of success. “If you succeed, go on; if you don’t succeed, go on.”

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