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Mr. Merrill is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and is a published author of several books on tire history of undersea technology. He is a retired engineer with lengthy experience at the New London lab of tire Naval Undersea Wat/are Center. He currently lives in Waterford, CT.


From 1874, Naval Institute Proceedings, the journal of the Naval Institute, has provided an independent window dedicated to Navy matters with articles from military professionals and civilian experts. Through the years and especially after the Navy’s April 1900 purchase of HOLLAND submarine, commentaries directed to submarines have appeared in the Proceedings. A bibliography of submarine pieces in the Proceedings from 1903 to 1992 reveals more than 200 hundred articles most with the word submarine in the title. The intention here is to take another look at some of the early essays. In some instances, the authors became persons of note in the years ahead. Historical honesty admits that each essay appearing in the Proceedings contributed to having a record of the Navy’s submarine history.

Perusal of articles, pre-World War II, with an eye toward forethought of submarines and their future comes up a bit short. Submarine technology receives reasonable attention and discussion, but attention to the use of submarines beyond the battle group is sparse. Broad acceptance of the submarine in some quarters appears to have been slow.

Possibly one of the most striking areas regarding the perception of the submarine in the post World War I period is the lack of a broad recognition of the huge success of the German U-boat in World War I in almost depriving England of oil and food with submarine commerce raiding. Perhaps the strong but failed effort in the early 1920s to outlaw submarines internationally was a result of the U boat success. But it seems rare to find consideration of submarine commerce raiding from pro or con viewpoints during the decades between the world wars.

An underlying theme in submarine-related writing in the pre-and post-WWI period is a recurring and broad interest in moving forward with development of a true fleet type submarine. By 1912, the repeated goals always included greater range and endurance, higher speed, and better sea keeping ability. A surface speed of 21 knots and a periscope capability at least 30 feet below the surface were desired.

A passage of twenty years saw the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard commissioning of DOLPHIN (V-7) in 1932 when, ” … the V-7 was actually the first of the fleet-type submarines to be designed for what would later be called patrol operations.” Additionally as, ” … the Navy designed V-7 was approved, this submarine can be seen in retrospect, as the progenitor of the famous U . S . submarines of World War II…

Considering the nine V-class submarines, “As it turned out, the V -1 design marked the last attempt in the US Navy to achieve a true fleet submarine capable of operating with the battleship squadrons. Emphasis was already shifting to other concepts, but the name ” fleet submarine” had become so firmly imbedded that it continued to be used for the next twenty.five years as a synonym for a large submarine. ”

Military Value and Tactics of Modern Submarines Proceedings

December 12, 1912
Chester W. Nimitz Lieutenant USN

During the first part of h is career Nimitz (Passed Midshipman Annapolis Class 1905, Ensign USN 1907 and Fleet Admiral 1944), had significant assignments with the new and burgeoning Navy Submarine Force beginning in 1909. Prior to submarine duty, his early selection to command the destroyer DECATUR as a 22-year old newly minted ensign also portended an interesting career.

In the spring of 1912, after consecutive tours as Commanding Officer on submarines PLUNGER (A- 1 ), SNAPPER (C-5) and NARWHAL (0-1), Nimitz was invited to address the Naval War College on the subject of submarines. This was an unusual honor for a 27-year old lieutenant. On June 20, 1912, he delivered his lecture, “Defensive and Offensive Tactics of Submarines.” The lecture was classified confidential. This article is the unclassified and expanded version of the War College paper.

When Nimitz wrote the essay, the Navy had only twelve years’ experience with submarines. His experience of more than three years commanding submarines is reflected in his writing by the clarity, confidence and technical understanding of the underwater craft. It could be construed that the Proceedings readership gained much from this seventeen-page paper about submarines.

As a proponent of the submarine, his paper included establishing the ability of the submarine to meet the standards of military value communication, mobility, invulnerability and offensive strength. A line of technical reasoning was presented to support the ability of the submarine to meet military needs. Fourteen figures of detailed engineering drawings of a submersible and a submarine were included along with other drawings.

His approach to submarine tactics divided the capabilities into three categories: harbor defense, coast defense, and sea-keeping offensive submarines. This part of the paper included recommendations for submarine disposition on both coasts along with a need for more submarines. A Nimitz biographer, E. B. Potter, observed that at that time, Nimitz along with other naval officers did not recognize the potential of submarines to capitalize on their ability to be commerce raiders. “Like most naval officers of time, he saw the submarine as a defender of harbors and coasts and as auxiliary to the fleet.”

At the time of writing his paper, Nimitz was on assignment to supervise the building of Diesel engines for a Navy tanker, MAUMEE, at the New London Ship and Engine Building Company, Groton, Connecticut. In his paper he made a strong case for the use of Diesel engines in submarines. He discussed the positive attributes of the Diesel (vs. gasoline) and included reliability, case of repair, reduced fuel costs, safety, and removal of the effects of gasoline odor. He furthered his knowledge of Diesels in 1913 when he was sent to study at Diesel engineering plants in Germany and Belgium.

Nimitz’s association with the Navy’s growing submarine community continued. In 1918, he was awarded a Letter of Commendation for meritorious service as Chief of Staff to the Commander of U .S . Atlantic Submarine Fleet. In late 1918, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operation, and as a lieutenant commander was given duty as Senior Member of the recently formed Board for the Standardization of Submarine Design.

Starting in 1913, the British constructed steam driven on-the-surface submarines to reach a speed of 23.5 knots. Six of the eighteen steam submarines were lost due to accidents. In 1917, the General Board of the US Navy favored the use of steam for high-speed propulsion of submarines. Standardization Board members Captain Thomas C. Hart and Nimitz were strongly against submarine steam propulsion and were successful in insuring that future fleet boats would not have steam propulsion.

In the following years until mid-1931, his assignments included command of Submarine Division 14, based at Pearl Harbor, and later command of Submarine Division 20. By 1931, his heavily submarine-oriented duty assignments covered a fair part of 22 years. His 1912 paper in the Proceedings with its clear grasp of what submarines are about was also a strong indicator of the direction of his future career.

Rear Admiral Nimitz was designated Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas (CincPac) in December 1941, an assignment that he held throughout the war. Battleship losses at Pearl Harbor and the small number of aircraft carrier resources limited options for carrying the war to the enemy at sea and ashore at that time. Pre-war plans for submarines emphasized the submarine as a scouting force for the fleet to ambush a carrier, cruiser, or battleship.

Soon after taking command, Nimitz deployed his submarines in a proactive role of 1111restricted warfare against the Japanese merchant fleet. The intention of this action was to distract the Japanese and slow down their offensive. Submarines available in the early stage of the war were hampered by reliability and torpedo problems and, in some situations a somewhat passive approach to engagement. By mid-1943, newer submarines, better torpedo performance, and an aggressive stance turned the tide. U.S. subs not only destroyed the transports Japan needed to survive, they also sank a greater tonnage of Japanese warships than carrier aviation, land-based aircraft, surface warships, or any other allied forces.

The newer fleet submarines available to Nimitz as CincPac were vastly different than the 1912 submarines available at the time of his early paper. The submarine’s ability to meet the standards of military value, communication, mobility, invulnerability and offensive strength, were on display during the WWII Pacific war years. Submarines and comments related to their tactical use in his 1912 Naval Institute paper were not amiss from how the improved submarines of the 1943 era operated in the Pacific. Guerre de course (commerce war) was not an option for consideration by Nimitz in 1912.

The Submarine and the Future

Ensign V. N. Bieg, USN

About the middle of World War I, Ensign Being looks to the future with a submersible in place of a submarine as an offensive weapon used against the battleship. A recommendation is made to consider developing not an improved submarine but a heavily armored submersible to overcome the deficiencies of the submarine. “The present type of submarine must change or rather give way to a new development which is capable of competing on equal terms with the battleship or its modification.”

The new submersible, optimized for surface running and offering no provision for diving, is proffered as the design goal. As a surface craft, the submersible’s reduction in overall weight requirement would allow the use of enhanced heavy armor to provide significant protection in close to the enemy battleship encounters. “No dependence within torpedo and gun range would be placed on invisibility, reliance being placed solely on invulnerability.”

The presentation of this novel way to provide at sea battleship interdiction demonstrates the Proceedings interest in bringing different concepts for the readership to consider.

The Fleet Submarine

Lieutenant (JG) F. A. Daubin, USN

Admiral Daubin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in the class of 1909. He became one of the U.S. Navy’s most experienced submariners. From 1942-44, as ComSubLant in New London, he was directly responsible for the organization and training of the submarine forces that made so great a contribution to the winning of the war in the Pacific.

In view of the success of the German submarines in sinking 487 vessels by February 1916 after 18 months of war, it is interesting to note that the author reasons that the primary role of the submarine must be to destroy or aid in destroying the enemy’s fighting ships while the secondary role might be that of a commerce destroyer.

“If we decide that the role of the submarine in our future wars will be that of a commerce destroyer, a guerilla of the seas, or that it shall be used strictly as a second line of defense, then we could be assured of some success by copying the best class of the foreign submarine, the 800-ton boat with a surface speed of 15-17 knots; submerged speed as high as possible and ability to remain at sea for three weeks would be required.”

Four years later in June 1920, S-1 (SSI05), the first of a new United States class of 51 submarines was launched. The design was a compromise between a coastal defense boat and a full-ledged fleet submarine. Most of the submarines built in the United States prior to the S-1 were of lesser tonnage and shorter in length than Daub in suggested. The S boats’ surface and below surface speeds were marginally faster and met the tonnage requirement. This was not a fleet boat. Interest in Daubin ‘s comments regarding fleet submarines was substantially quoted in the New York Times.

The Fleet Submarine

Lieutenant R. S. Edwards* USN

In the same Proceedings issue as Daubin’s article under the heading Discussion, Lt. R. S. Edwards, a submarine officer and later an admiral, lauded Daubin. “To Lieutenant’s Daubin’s well considered plea for larger submarines I would add the no small advantage of better living conditions on the larger boat… I think more such articles would be welcomed by those who have had no submarine experience to help them form an opinion on the two (submarine) types-the large and the small: but we must know what the argument is about and I suggest that now is the time for the designers to tell us what the fleet submarine will be when it is built.”

The Ideal Submarine

Professional Notes, Submarines

Scientific A merica11 January 13, 1917

With an objective point of view, clear and technical comment by the magazine concurs with the best current Navy opinion regarding submarines and the future at that time. An appropriate quote provides the setting. “A few of our naval men and, alas, the majority of our Congressmen, arc still clinging to the belief in the efficiency of mosquito craft. They believe that a host of 500-ton coast-defense boats of moderate speed and small sea-going power would afford a better defense than a smaller number of boats, twice their size, of greater speed, of wide range of action, of great powers of offense, and capable of going out with the main fleet to tackle the enemy a thousand miles from shore … ”

The article cited Naval Constructor Emory S. Land’s recent testimony before the 1916 House Committee on Naval Affairs, based on his experiences at sea that the ideal boat for the Navy would be one between 750 and 950 tons and 225 to 250 feet in length. Estimated surface speed of from 17 to 19 knots and a submerged goal of 14 knots were mentioned. Additional comment included the success of the German 800-ton submarines and the predominance of comparable submarines of that tonnage in the navies of Austria, England and France. At the time of the House meetings, Russia and Japan were constructing 800-ton submarines. Italy abandoned the 400-to 500-ton type and was building only boats of from 750 to 950 tons.

The Argument for the Submarine Proceedings, October 1919 Professional Notes: Naval Policy

Scientific American, September 6, 1919

This pro-submarine essay acknowledges a previous view held by the magazine that was against the future construction of submarines. Piracy against merchant shipping was the primary basis of the anti-submarine position. A secondary aspect was “supposed tactical inefficiency when employed in legitimate operations against enemy warships.”

Scientific American’s earlier recommendation for international outlawing of submarines brought protests from naval officers, especially from Britain, and a new review of the future of submarines. Additional post-WWI facts about the use of submarines modified the magazine’s attitude, particularly in regard to the efficiency of submarines as warships. This new point of view came from an Allied Service publication that cited German submarines as accounting for more warship losses than any other agency. This information provided a new view of the submarine’s efficiency as a weapon. Submarines accounted for almost one-third of total losses. Mines were second to submarines, with one-fifth of the warship losses. Germany, with 114 WW I mine layer submarines contributed to the losses from mines.

Regarding strategy, the essay observed the successful and effective strategic submarine support of the blockade of the North Sea north and south exits. This took place after the early war loss of the three British destroyers ABOUKIR, CRESSY, and HOGUE by a single submarine in a single attack and quickly brought an end to using a surface ship to close or blockade off the enemy coasts to keep the German Fleet in harbors.

A further acknowledgment of the military value of the submarine was made of its value as a scout. A United States Navy admiral, “who spent the period of the war in Europe and was intimately associated with the naval operations, draws our attention to the demonstrated efficiency of the submarine as a scout, particularly developed during the operations of the war.”16 That the stealth of the submarine makes it less vulnerable to detection and allows ease of observation or blockade was a further note. A closing comment regarding the international outlawing of submarines emphasized the difficulty of the vast oversight resources that would be required to assure compliance to such a law.

Cruise of the American Unter-Seeboot 111

Proceedings March 1957
Admiral F. A. Daubin U.S. Navy (Retired)
In this paper written after his retirement from the Navy in 1948, the Admiral recalls his participation in the post-Armistice German reparations when six U-boats were allotted to the United States. In 1919, Admiral Daubin (as a Lt. Commander) brought the U-111 from Harwich, England to the United States. Naval engineers and submarine specialists and civilian shipbuilders carefully examined the U-boats’ capabilities to learn everything they could about German submarine construction. As a result, the following years were sometimes referred to as the German Years.

German U-boat engineering influenced the post war US submarine designs into the 1940s, including Diesel engines, trim pumps, air compressors, and low-pressure blowers for emptying main ballast tanks, and periscopes. US submarine designs differed from the German in areas that included arrangements for torpedo handling, habitability requirements such as berthing, recreation space, and cold storage.18 This post-war period also witnessed further Navy effort to develop its own submarine construction and design capabilities and break the monopoly of private submarine builders. This began earlier in 1914 and 1915 with submarine construction at the Puget Sound and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yards.’

After the War, a submarine section was established in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Lt. Cmdr. Daubin became the assistant to the section captain, Chief of Section. In the submarine section, there was awareness of the limits of submarines in meeting the requirements to be a dynamic part of the battle fleet. One item considered were submarines cruising at the end of a towline. The Diesel engines and other features of the proven German submarines led to pursuing a request to obtain a German submarine as war reparation. Normal channels were not used. Shortly after discussions with Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo there was a Presidential approval of the request for six German submarines.

In his 1948 remembrance, Daubin noted that in the chitchat of the Navy Department in 1919 “Submarines were not in the picture of the future.” A prescient quote in the essay by the Submarine Section Captain summarizes a view of the status of the submarine and the direction needed to pursue for future acceptance. “Well if they are not outlawed by international agreement,” he commented, “they will be but a berth for adventuresome officers wanting an early command, unless submarines become sea-going and reliable enough to accompany the fleet. For as long as they cruise part of time at the after end of a tow line, the fleet will not consider their destructive power in war.”

Thirteen years later, in June 1932, the previously mentioned DOLPHIN was commissioned. It was a large vessel, a fleet submarine with high endurance and speed to support the battle fleet or independently range up to 16,000 miles at 7 knots.

Submarine Capabilities and Limitations Proceedings August 1925

Lieutenant Wilder D. Baker, U.S. Navy

An early quote in Baker’s essay makes a point that even after twenty-four years of U.S. Navy submarines “it was not until after the World War (I), that much thought was given to their [submarines’] capabilities as, prior to then, no one ever heard of much else than their limitations. During the war, submarines made a name for themselves, not enviable but well known and thoroughly feared.”19 From the time of the initial purchase of HOLLAND until the Armistice signing in early November 1918, the US Navy commissioned 80 submarines. It is somewhat difficult to grasp how there would be a lack of awareness. However, such a lack could be restrictive with regard to identity and fiscal support for the needs of the submarine community to increase the submarines standing in the naval service at large.

Baker’s writing reaches out to the Navy community and brings the current status of the submarine, then to the attention of those outside the submarine community in a logical way, and addressing how the submarine would function in a patrolling, screening, or scouting Navy assignment.

A recent 2007 chronicle of the Battle for Japan 1944-45 provides a relevant comment for Baker’s 1925 essay. In February 1944, the U.S. Navy’s submarine operational textbook Current Doctrine was extensively rewritten. “Doctrine’s foreword asserted grudgingly: ‘during probable long periods before fleet action occurs, submarines may usefully be employed in the following tasks: (a) Patrol (including commerce destruction) (b) Scouting (c) Screening … ‘ Full acceptance of the effectiveness of commerce destruction as a powerful submarine capability in the Pacific began in earnest in 1944. Acceptance can be elusive.

Baker’s essay, a mid-1920 perspective, creates awareness for the Navy with regard to the operational roles of the submarine. His eight-page paper has a submarine operational viewpoint highlighting the underwater vessel’s capabilities and limitations. In some instances, he uses detailed technical operational considerations to make the reader understand the demands of having a vessel operate in three dimensions in a wartime scenario.

After establishing the necessary engineering complexity of the submarine and the requirement to operate both on the surface and below, Baker comments “All these things have contributed to make a new type of ship which the service at large understands but vaguely.” His goal is to have the submarine better understood. In particular, he stresses the importance of improving the crew’s living and working conditions as a significant goal in designing a submarine, noting, ” … the submarine crowded, shorthanded, with consequent hard watches, poorly ventilated and tremendously active in a seaway” to support his design comment.

End Comment

Assessing submarine historical documents is demanding from the limited viewpoint of a current reader due to a lack of knowledge of the context under which the articles were written. A 2111 Century reader may lack an adequate perspective of the technical, fiscal, political and other factors at play during the writing, in some cases almost 100 years ago. However, the original thoughts, ideas and recommendations by those who were bold enough to present their ideas arc well worth consideration.

Noting wrong or incorrect judgments made in the past brings to mind the present. Today, the question of what is missing in regard to current thinking and planning and what unnoticed problems or directions to explore might be neglected not by choice but perhaps by lack of oversight, initiative, and creativity. Comments have been made that progress may be encouraged by overcoming conventional wisdom and bureaucratic obstacles.

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, President of the Naval War College, made observations appropriate to the above paragraph in his speech to the Naval War College 1921 graduates. The speech appeared in the March 1922 Proceedings with the title “Military Conservatism.” In his paper, the admiral points out the dangers of military conservatism and strongly supports the important need for Navy leaders to counter conservatism with intellectual honesty and logical thinking to eliminate or at least minimize the impact of conservatism on the Navy’s future.

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