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During the 1914-18 war German U-boats were rammed, mined, netted, ambushed, decoyed, depth-charged and surprised on the surface-but these events were mostly fortuitous rather than planned. Systematic hunts by destroyers and drifters employing the novel science of ultra-sonics were seldom successful.

In high hopes of underwater discoveries, however, special hydrophones were designed to listen for distinctive submarine noises in the 400-1000 cycles per second (Hz) range. They were non-directional (or omni-directional, if that sounded better) until 1917: Lieutenant Hamilton Harty RNVR (later Sir Hamilton, conductor of the Halle Orchestra) then matched pairs of directional diaphragms and tuned them personally. Significantly, priority for directional equipment was given to the Royal Navy’s submarines, but the 17 (or possibly 19) U-boats which the latter torpedoed were all in plain view on the surface when they met their fate.

Active echo-ranging by ASDIC1 was not seriously considered in Britain until towards the end of the war, although Professor RA Fessenden’s electro-magnetic oscillator, developed for the Submarine Signal Company of America to avoid another TITANIC disaster, detected an iceberg at a range of two miles on 22 April 1914.

Anyone with a musical ear was an asset to researching the vagaries of underwater sound in those days, but Sir Richard Paget deserves immortality. He sensibly reckoned, by 1916, that the key to appropriate hydrophone design was to establish submarine propeller frequencies. Accordingly, he arranged to be suspended by his legs over the side of a boat in the Solent while a submarine circled around him. After a suitable period submerged (and before he actually drowned) this devoted scientist was hauled up humming the notes he had heard, whereupon-safely back to the boat-he related them, by running up the scale, to the standard G sharp which he obtained by tapping his skull with a metal rod.

He duly reported his findings to members of the Board of Invention and Research who conducted their business at the optimistically named Victory House in Cockspur Street, London SW. The BIR was, in fact, the forerunner of all those R&D organisations that have since proliferated-often as not to our considerable cost as taxpayers. Amongst other things the BIR, officially formed on 5 July 1915, was tasked to find an effective solution to the U-boat peril. It never came close to its objective and was disbanded in 1917: its failure was largely due to Prime Minister Squ(ff Balfour’s inept decision, quite possibly made after his customary glass or three, to appoint the irascible and no longer wholly rational seventy-four year old Admiral Lord Fisher as Chairman. Fisher’s outspokenness and cruel criticisms, by no means always based on scientific fact, turned senior officers and distinguished scientists against the BIR which consequently became known as the Board of Intrigue and Revenge.

Section Two of the Board dealt with submarines and wireless telegraphy (W /T)-a combination stemming from the relationship between wireless waves and underwater sound waves. Indeed, Section Two investigated submarine detection methods far in advance of relatively simple acoustics: proposals included the exploration of anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field (which did not bear fruit as MAD for another twenty-six years), thermal variations in seawater caused by the outflow of propulsion plant coolant (i.e. thermal scarring), and sub-surface optical detection methods which did not at the time include blue-green lasers.

No possibility was wholly ignored. Sir Oliver Lodge, the well-known psychic researcher, was on the Board; he investigated remote dousing, but only expenses-not fees-were paid for extrasensory experiments.

Some 14,000 suggestions for dealing with U-boats were submitted by the general public, and more than a few bordered on the bizarre.

For example, Mr Thos. Mills, a rich Australian businessman, was convinced that seagulls were natural anti-submarine detectors and, with these in mind, he importuned the BIR incessantly. His initial letter, dated 27 February 1917, read:

“… a decoy should be used to train the seabirds to locate submarine periscopes. Have a small float containing a dummy periscope; the float to contain a quantity of rough food, say dog or cat’s flesh or any other food that will float on the water. .. . Discharge small quantities every few minutes … if the experiment was tried first near some port, or near where enemy submarines were working, I believe that the birds in about two weeks would be thoroughly trained to fly around a periscope or over the wake of a submarine … ”

Thos. Mills, and other hopefuls who proposed the use of giant magnets to draw U-boats to the surface, were given short shrift. Another idea-to pour green paint on the sea to blind a U-boat commander’s periscope and-here was the brilliance of the scheme-make him think he was still too deep to see, whereupon he would bring the submarine shallower until it was fully exposed, was also rejected. (However, as a last-ditch defense, it is true, even today, that pouring oil or paint into a harbour can be quite effective in blinding midget submarines and swimmers).

Although seagulls were evidently classed as non-combatants, extensive experiments were carried out with anti-submarine sea lions. On 17 May 1917 Admiral SC Colville wrote from the Admiralty to the Flag Captain, Fort Blockhouse at Gosport (the foremost British submarine base, where Rear-Admiral Submarines had his headquarters):


I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that they have approved the series of trials being carried out in the Solent in regard to the capabilities of sea lions in tracking submarines.

2. Rear-Admiral BA Allenby (Ret.) is in charge of these trials, and Their Lordships desire that you will place a submarine at his disposal for trials and furnish it with all necessary facilities for this purpose.

3. Rear-Admiral Allenby’s requirements for the trials are as follows:

  • A stable or shed with water laid on, salt for choice.
  • A suitable launch with small boat in tow, which launch could carry a cage with two animals. The launch should be as noiseless as possible. A suitable cage would require to be built, with a sloping gangway to be fitted for the animals to climb on board, unless the launch has a low gunwhale (3ft).
  • A submarine of any class would suffice to train the animals. Preliminary trials at anchor on the surface, later submerged. There are no data to enable a definite opinion to be expressed as to how long the training with submarines would continue, but a decision might be arrived at, one way or another, in about a fortnight provided weather conditions were favourable.

4. You are requested to report lo the Admiralty by telegraph when this trial would be ready to commence, observing that the sea lions will not be ready before 25111 inst.”

Dr EJ Allen, Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Plymouth, was the physicist appointed as the Board’s representative. He immediately put himself into correspondence with the self-styled Captain Woodward, a trainer of performing sea lions who was said at this time to be investigating the power of these creatures lo hear sound in water. He claimed to have established already that “they could hear quite weak sounds, such as the tinkle of a bell that is put on dogs’ collars, at speeds up to 9 knots, and they could tell the direction.”

Dr Allen studied the structure of the animals’ ears and set himself to compare the listening ability of a sea lion with that of a hydrophone. A good deal of experimental work was continuing with advanced hydrophones at this time; but those which were most sensitive tended to relay their own characteristic frequencies. Sea lions, it was thought, should have better faculties.

Captain Woodward clearly realised that he was on to a good thing. He was only too glad to supply sea lions which were available in very large numbers to the Admiralty. The trials were promptly put in hand and progressed at commendable speed. Ever helpful, Sir Richard Paget (of the G-sharp cranium) devised a muzzle made of wire with a small trap-door in front through which the animal could be fed. This prevented any sea lion so equipped from catching fish and thereby being distracted from its duty.

Several animals were chosen for the experiment, foremost among them being Millicent, Billikin, Queenie and Dorande. The last named was getting on in years, dim-sighted and a little hard of hearing; but short-sightedness made him Jess prone to pursue fish and he was able to work unmuzzled. Unfortunately, though, he was so nearly blind that the trainers had difficulty in teaching him to jump accurately on to the boat from which the trials were directed. But, with plainly spoken commands, he soon managed quite well: ultimately the most reliable worker in the team, he was quite happy to tow a large cigar-shaped float so that his course could be followed by eye from above.

The animals were encouraged to chase the target submarine by rewarding them with herrings, but on one occasion these were bad. The unusual failure of Billikin, during a hot spell, was attributed to this: he was off colour and disinclined to chase submarines for quite a while thereafter.

Conclusions following the ‘trials were vague, but the Board thought that “the sounds made by a submarine at rest or moving slowly are of very feeble intensity and not easily heard by the animals”. Nor was a sea lion’s normal sustained speed (about 5 knots) great enough to overtake a submarine while “passing vessels, as well as fish, proved a serious obstacle to success.”

Such, apparently, was the awe in which Fisher and his Board of Invention and Research was held that 14 years elapsed before the Admiralty ventured to ask how the trials had progressed. It was not until 1931 (by which time, of course, BIR members had long dispersed or passed to their reward) that Their Lordships enquired from Rear Admiral (Submarines) whether any reports and photographs were readily available about the matter at the Submarine Headquarters. They were not.

Nor, sadly, is there any record of how Millicent, Billikin, Queenie and the dedicated deaf Dorande spent their declining years. It can only be hoped that Captain Woodward maintained them in the naval comfort to which they had become accustomed.


1. Most historians, author included, have believed that the acronym ASDIC stood for Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee; but research by Willem Hackmann, discussed in his definitive and recommended work Seek and Strike (HMSO 1984), has revealed no committee of that name. It is more likely, as Hackmann suggests, that it stood for “pertaining to the AntiSubmarine Division” (or “anti-submarine division”-ics), the Admiralty department which had initiated research.


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