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Hitler's Lost Sub
400 Years of Subs
Introduction | 1580-1861 | 1861-1900 |1900-1918
1918-1939 | 1939-1945 | 1945-1972 | 1972-2000

USS Holland
The USS Holland in drydock.
On April 11, the U.S. Navy bought Holland VI for $150,000 and changed her name to the USS Holland. The boat had cost $236,615 to build, but the company viewed it as a loss leader. The Navy ordered another submarine.

Congress held hearings. One admiral testified: "The Holland boats are interesting novelties which appeal to the non-professional mind, which is apt to invest them with remarkable properties they do not possess." However, Admiral George Dewey, the Navy's senior officer, noted that if the Spanish had had two submarines at Manila, he could not have captured and held the city. Besides, he said, "Those craft moving underwater would wear people out." In August, Congress ordered six more Holland submarines.

By October, the British had five Hollands on order but not until senior naval leadership had wrestled with a moral dilemma: They, like many others through the years, believed that covert warfare was basically illegal. Gentlemen fought one another face to face, wearing easily recognizable uniforms. As Rear Admiral A.K. Wilson put it, assuring himself a certain immortality, the submarine was "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English." The government, he wrote, should "treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews." In the end, the Navy agreed to proceed with caution, primarily to "test the value of the submarine as a weapon in the hands of our enemies."

President of France Emil Loubet became the first chief executive to go for a submerged ride. He did so in full formal dress, frock coat and all, aboard the Gustav Zede. Three months later, on maneuvers 300 miles from her base, the Gustav Zede put a practice torpedo into the side of the moving battleship Charles Martel, to the reported "general stupefaction" of those aboard the battleship. Submarines had become so popular in France that the newspaper Le Matin orchestrated a public fund-raising drive to build submarines for the Navy: Francais, launched in 1901 and Algerien, launched in 1902.

The German Navy rebuffed Spanish submarine designer Raimondo Lorenzo D'Equevilley, who was looking for work. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz went on record saying, "The submarine is, at present, of no great value in war at sea. We have no money to waste on experimental vessels." D'Equevilley took his plans to the Krupp Germania shipyard, which built the 40-foot Forelle (Trout) on speculation. Powered only by electricity and, like the French Gymnote, lacking an underway recharging system, Forelle was not a practical warship, though Kaiser Wilhelm II was impressed and his brother, an admiral, even took a ride.

D'Equevilley turned his hand to marketing, publishing a book (in Germany) in which he traced the history of submarines. "As exaggerated as it may sound," he wrote, "who knows whether the appearance of undersea boats may put an end to naval battles?" Krupp worked on a larger, improved design—the Karp class—powered by a gasoline engine on the surface and bearing an onboard battery recharging system. Russia ordered three. The German Navy ordered one, but asked for a kerosene rather than gasoline engine.

On their first fleet maneuvers, the five British Hollands were assigned to defend Portsmouth and managed to 'torpedo' four warships. Of this, Admiral John Arbuthnot (Baron) Fisher, known as 'Jacky' in a profession that cherished nicknames almost as much as tradition, wrote, "It is astounding to me, perfectly astounding, how the very best amongst us fail to realize the vast impending revolution in Naval warfare and Naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish!"

No. 3
The British Holland No. 3, in service from 1902 to 1912.

On a more somber note, a passenger ship accidentally ran over A-1, the first of a new, British-designed class of improved Hollands. The boat sank with the loss of all hands; it was later salvaged and put back in service.

Holland, squeezed out of management and increasingly ignored, resigned from Electric Boat and formed John P. Holland's Submarine Boat Company. He sold plans for two larger, improved submarines, to be built in Japan under the supervision of a Holland associate. One achieved a remarkable underwater speed of 16 knots, about twice that of the five earlier model Hollands in Japan.

Holland solicited business from around the world but quickly discovered that Electric Boat controlled all of his patents, a fact the company made certain all potential customers were aware of. He tried to interest the U.S. Navy in a new, fast hull design; tested in an experimental tank at the Washington Navy Yard, it promised submerged speeds as high as 22 knots. The Navy countered with the opinion that it would be too hazardous for submarines to go faster than six knots underwater.

Electric Boat sued Holland for breach of contract, for unethical conduct, and even for using the name 'Holland.' The courts eventually dismissed the suits, but Holland's business never recovered.

Lake's Protector, taken out of the competition and sold to Russia in a desperate bid for cash.
Simon Lake, blocked from competing for submarine contracts, challenged what had become a monopoly business for Electric Boat. He won, and the Navy agreed that the next procurement would be through an open competition. Lake hoped to enter Protector, launched in 1902, as a template for a new class of submarines. For its part, Electric Boat planned to enter Fulton, a company-financed prototype of an 'improved' Holland.

Fulton about to be loaded on a barge to begin its journey to Russia.

Lake was desperately short of cash, however, and grabbed the opportunity to sell Protector to Russia, just then at war with Japan. Thus, as the only entrant, Fulton won the design competition, leading to continued U.S. Navy orders. But within a month, in an amazing display of impartiality, Fulton, too, was en route to new owners in Russia. Impartiality? Only a few months earlier, Electric Boat had received a contract to deliver five Hollands to Japan.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to take a submerged ride, in the A-1 Plunger. (This was not the unfinished steamboat but a later Holland model; the first Plunger became a training target for Navy divers.) Roosevelt was so impressed with the hazards and hardships of the duty that he instituted submarine pay for crew members.

Germany launches U-1, the first U-Boat (for Unterseeboot). This modified Karp was 139 feet long, displaced 239 tons, and had a range of 2,000 miles, a surface speed of 11 knots, and a submerged speed of nine knots. It was joined in 1908 by a twin, U-2. By this time, the French had a submarine force of 60 boats, the British almost as many. Germany finally took notice.

Virtually obsolete by the time she entered service, Seal nonetheless set a depth record of 256 feet in 1914. The Lake Torpedo Boat Company had some World War I contracts but went out of business in 1924.
Simon Lake received his first U.S. Navy contract. An inveterate tinkerer, Lake proved unable to keep his hands off a design even when a boat was nearly finished, and he delivered the first submarine he managed to sell to the U.S. Navy—Seal, laid down in February 1909—over two years late.

The British D-1, 1908-1918. Note the shift from the Holland porpoise-like hull shape to that of a surface ship. Common in all navies of the day, this shift marked an acknowledgment that submarines would spend most of their lives on the surface and as such needed sea-keeping qualities not found in a streamlined 'underwater' hull.

British doctrine held that submarines were then limited to harbor operations. Of course, but the people who wrote the doctrine had not been paying attention. One could ask, Operations in whose harbor? In the annual fleet maneuvers, the first of the new "D" class 'torpedoed' two cruisers as they left port—500 miles from the submarine's home base.

Laurenti G-4
Laurenti G-4, the 26th U.S. submarine, at the Cramp shipyard in Philadelphia one year after launching and one year before commissioning.
The U.S. Navy purchased a set of plans from the Italian designer Cesare Laurenti. It was not a happy move. While the Laurentis had some advanced features, they were difficult to build and awkward in service.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant, Chester Nimitz, who by this time had commanded three U.S. submarines, the obnoxious and dangerous gasoline engine was replaced by diesels, beginning with Nimitz's fourth submarine command, Skipjack.

Nimitz addressed the Naval War College on "Defensive and Offensive Tactics of Submarines." He offered an innovative method for forcing enemy ships to avoid what seemed to be submarine-infested waters and thus sail into a trap: "Drop numerous poles, properly weighted to float upright in the water, and painted to look like a submarine's periscope."

In the annual fleet maneuvers, two British submarines slipped into a theoretically safe fleet anchorage and 'torpedoed' three ships. A staff evaluation warned that enemy submarines might prove a serious menace to the fleet. The Navy Board scoffed.

Germany began to get serious about submarines with the "30s" series—U-31 to U-41. Displacing 685 tons, these diesel-powered boats carried six torpedoes and one 88mm deck gun. They had a maximum range of 7,800 miles at eight knots and boasted a surface speed of 16.4 knots and a submerged speed of 9.7 knots.

On the eve of World War I, the art of submarine warfare was barely a dozen years old, and no nation had submarine-qualified officers serving at the senior staff level. Ancient prejudice against submarines remained. They represented an unethical form of warfare, detractors felt, and they did not fit in the classic, balanced structure of a navy, where battleships were king. No nation had developed any method for detecting submarines or for attacking them if found.

Professional intransigence aside, and thanks largely to the efforts of Admiral 'Jacky' Fisher, Great Britain had the world's largest submarine fleet, though Germany, despite its late start, had the most capable. Here's the tally for 1914:

Great Britain: 74 in service, 31 under construction, 14 projected
France: 62 boats in service, nine under construction
Russia: 48 boats in service, including five Hollands and eight Lakes, the rest from Britain, France, and Germany
Germany: 28 in service, 17 under construction
United States: 30 in service, 10 under construction
Italy: 21 in service, seven under construction
Japan: 13 in service, three under construction
Austria: six in service, two under construction

Excluding Civil War experiences and the exploits of freelance designers and adventurers, the submarine safety record was surprisingly good. The U.S. Navy had one accident, two men killed. The German Navy, one accident with three men killed. Japan and Italy had each lost a submarine, each with a crew of 14. The navies with the most submarines had somewhat greater troubles: Great Britain, eight accidents, 79 killed; France, 11 accidents, 57 killed; Russia, five accidents, 70 killed.

In June, British Admiral Percy Scott wrote letters to the editors of two newspapers. To one, he said "As the motor has driven the horse from the road, so has the submarine driven the battleship from the sea." To the other: "Submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionized naval warfare; no fleet can hide from the aeroplane eye, and the submarine can deliver a deadly attack even in broad daylight." He called for more submarines and no more battleships. He was loudly attacked from all sides, by other senior naval officers, by the government, by the conservative press. In summary, his theory was "a fantastic dream."

By August, Great Britain and Germany were at war.

On September 5, U-21 sank the British cruiser Pathfinder with one torpedo. From weapon launch to sunk took three minutes. Out of a crew of 268, nine survived. A week later, the British had their turn when E.9 sank the German light cruiser Hela with two torpedoes.

Then, in under two hours on September 22, a single, virtually prehistoric German submarine, U-9, sank three British cruisers. A month later, U-17 became the first submarine to sink a merchantman. A month after that, U-18 penetrated the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. Although she did no direct damage and was captured, the effect upon the British Navy was electric. This one small boat forced the most powerful battle fleet in the world to shift to a base on the other side of Scotland. The face of naval warfare was, indeed, changed forever.

The skipper of a British destroyer found himself sitting above a U-boat he could see but not touch. "What we need," a staff officer mused, "is some sort of bomb to drop in the water." Thus began development of the depth charge, which claimed its first victim in March 1916. These depth charges proved largely ineffective unless they exploded quite close to the U-boat—within 15 feet or so. The main benefit was psychological.

The British had set up a naval blockade of Germany, which began to have a telling effect: Germany was not a self-sufficient nation and was heavily dependent upon imported food, fodder, and fertilizer. Germany vowed to mount a counter-blockade, using submarines. However, the German Navy had to wrestle with a serious ethical and legal dilemma. Under international law, a warship could stop and search a merchantman; if found to be carrying contraband cargo for an enemy, a warship's crew could capture and place a "prize crew" aboard her to sail her to an appropriate harbor. Under some circumstances, the warship could sink the merchantman, provided she had first allowed the ship's crew to take to the lifeboats.

A submarine did not carry enough sailors to make up prize crews, so the only option was to sink the merchant ship. For this purpose, submarines were equipped with deck guns. However, if the submarine came to the surface to give fair warning, she herself became vulnerable to attack by ramming, concealed guns, or warships rushing to the rescue.

post-war subs
This post-war photo shows a French boat (left), a German late-model coastal boat UB-133 (middle), and an early model UB-24 (right).

German policy went through several cycles. They played by the rules for a time, but in February, in retaliation for the indiscriminate damage of the blockade, Germany opted for "unrestricted submarine warfare." The legal requirement for "fair notice" was met, at least in theory, by setting specifically designated war zones, within which all vessels were subject to attack without warning.

With only 35 active U-boats, Germany began sinking British merchant ships faster than they could be built, and the Germans got very serious about submarines. They launched several accelerated construction programs. One dubbed the UB class was for smaller, less capable boats that were nonetheless well-suited to operations close to home.

In May, U-20 sank the civilian passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 men, women, and children, including some Americans. Germany did not want to provoke the United States, and under pressure from international public opinion, backed off from further unrestricted submarine attacks—for a while. In February 1916, the Germans resumed unrestricted operations but cancelled them in April after a controversial attack on a civilian ferry boat. Nonetheless, the U-boats were by then taking out about 300,000 tons of shipping a month.

The British discovered that torpedoes were routinely running under their targets. They finally realized that the explosive warhead weighed 40 pounds more than the peacetime practice head upon which they had based torpedo depth settings.

Germany created the ultimate World War I U-boat, a true long-range submarine cruiser. Manned by a crew of 56 with room for 20 more, boats of the UA class were 230 feet long, about 1,500 tons, with a speed of 15.3 knots on the surface and a range of 12,630 miles at eight knots. Armament: Twin 150-mm (5.9-inch) deck guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and 19 torpedoes. Forty-seven UA boats were ordered but only nine made it into service before the armistice.

The cargo-carrying submarine Deutschland at New London, Connecticut, in November 1916, during one of her two 'civilian' visits to the United States. Three months later, the Germans had converted her and sent her to war as U-153.
One of the first of the UA class was built as a blockade-breaking civilian cargo submarine operated by the North German Lloyd Line. Deutschland had a cargo capacity of 700 tons (small if compared with surface ships, but equal to that of seven 1990-era C-5A airplanes). She engaged in high-value trans-Atlantic commerce, submerging to avoid British patrols. On her first trip, she carried dyestuff and gemstones to America and nickel, tin, and rubber back to Germany.

Toward the end of the year, the situation in Germany grew desperate. The typical daily food ration was "five slices of bread, half a small cutlet, half a tumbler of milk, two thimblefuls of fat, a few potatoes, and an egg cup of sugar." One German citizen later wrote, "If we were to starve like rats in a trap, then surely it was our sacred right to cut off the enemy's supplies as well."

In February, the German government announced total unrestricted submarine warfare. A note to the U.S. government affirmed that "England is using her naval power for a criminal attempt to force Germany into submission by starvation" and warned that Germany was now compelled to use "all the weapons which are at its disposal." The German government knew that this would most likely bring America into the war but predicted that Britain would be forced to the peace table before American forces could have much effect.

Great Britain had the world's largest merchant fleet, almost half of the world total, but British shipbuilding capacity was only about 650,000 tons a year. By March, U-boats were sinking almost 600,000 tons a month and Great Britain was down to a six-week food supply.

The U.S. entered the war in April.

One time-honored method existed for protecting merchant ships from enemy attack: the convoy, dating back almost to the dawn of ocean commerce. The British Navy resisted, however. Too many ships were coming and going—2,500 a week—and port facilities were already strained; bringing in the glut of a convoy would create chaos. The convoy would also become a huge target for U-boats. Convoying might be all right for military auxiliaries such as troopships, but merchant crews did not have the skills necessary to keep in convoy formation, and many did not speak English. Most merchant ships were fast enough to outrun a U-boat anyway. Perhaps most significant, warships would likely be out looking for the enemy, not herding a bunch of merchantmen. The Navy was trained for offense, not defense, the argument went, to be aggressive, not passive.

The counterarguments: Most of the traffic consisted of small coasters and ferries; only about 140 trans-ocean ships were arriving each week, spread across a number of ports. A U-boat could only make one attack before the escorts would force it to break off and hide; the larger the convoy, the more ships would be home free. Also, a merchantman might outrun one U-boat right into the arms of another. Crews could be trained. The goal was to curtail sinkings, not make naval officers feel good.

By late spring, the situation was grave enough that Navy officials finally agreed to a convoy trial. They never looked back. Of 83,959 ships in convoys from then to the end of the war, U-boats only sank 257. During the same period, U-boats sank 2,616 independent sailers. A convoy's main benefit: It forced the U-boats to attack submerged, which meant they already had to be in attack position if a convoy happened to sail past.

Convoys with air patrol were the safest of all, because the submariners knew that if they carried out an attack, the aircraft could determine their approximate location by tracing back down the visible torpedo track. However, the carrying capacity of most aircraft of the day was too limited for heavy weapons; many could not even carry a radio set.

Germany deployed six UA boats to the east coast of the United States, where they laid mines and sank 174 ships, mostly smaller vessels without radios that could neither be warned nor give warning. The UA boats proved that a submarine could operate 3,000 miles from home base, though they did not have any impact on the movement of troops and supplies to Europe.

Twelve American submarines took up station off Ireland and in the Azores. They had nil effect on the war—providing 80 percent of all trans-Atlantic convoy escorts, the U.S. Navy's primary wartime contribution was anti-submarine patrol—but they learned a lot about wartime operations. One clear lesson: The dive time of the American boats was too slow. For the L-class, it averaged two minutes 23 seconds. A small UB could be fully under in 27 seconds.

U.S. Navy L-class boats
U.S. Navy L-class boats, stationed in English waters in 1917. The prominent "AL" identifier was to avoid confusion with boats of the British L class.

Most navies adopted an alphanumeric system for identifying submarines, referring to the class and the series within the class: A-1, L-5, and so forth. The U.S. Navy added names to some but not all; in the 1920s, the scheme had reached S-51 (the 162nd U.S. submarine). Thenceforth, America followed a different system: U.S. submarines carried a hull number and name, usually that of a sea creature, i.e., Barracuda, SS-163. The British system: A.5, E.6. Germany did not differentiate class, only type: All hull numbers began with U-, with type distinctions such as UA, UB, UC.

The American troopship Louisville in full-dress pattern camouflage. For the record, not a single soldier was killed by U-boat attack while being transported (always in convoy) across either the Atlantic Ocean or the English Channel.
'Pattern' camouflage was designed to confuse a U-boat's visual fire-control systems, making it difficult to judge range, size, speed, and course. This practice continued into World War II, when more sophisticated systems were introduced. Submarines themselves employed more natural schemes of camouflage to blend in with operating conditions: white for arctic waters and different shades of gray for various parts of the world. Eventually, all navies adopted some version of the U.S. Navy's "haze gray" for surface ships, black for submarines.

Radio intercepts were one vulnerability that the Allies constantly exploited and the Germans never fully appreciated. The Germans knew their transmissions could be overheard and U-boat locations pinpointed by direction finders, but they didn't seem to care. They assumed the U-boats would be long gone before any attackers could arrive on the scene. They didn't realize that by knowing where the U-boats were operating, the Allies often could re-route convoys out of harm's way.

Great Britain introduced the steam-powered K-class. At 338 feet long and 1,883 tons, they were three times the size of any other in the fleet. The British built these huge boats in response to intelligence reports that Germany was building a 22-knot submarine. The reports were in error.

So were the K-boats. They took 11 minutes to dive, when temperatures in the boiler room reached 160°F and in the engine room 90°F (although, since the engines were not running, no one needed to be in those spaces while submerged). Naval planners were not concerned about the excessive dive time; they assumed that the submarine crews would see the masts of approaching ships well before the enemy could spot them. Naval planners seem not to have noticed the addition of the airplane and airship to the equation.

The development of submarine-locating devices began early in the war with hydrophones (underwater directional microphones) to listen for the sound of propellers, and, too late to be of much use in this war, an echo-ranging system. The British dubbed the latter ASDIC, after the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee, the committee formed to counter the German U-boat campaign. It is now known universally as sonar, which stands for "SOund NAvigation and Ranging." By sending out an audible 'ping' and measuring the echo return, a sonar operator can determine the range and bearing of a submarine.

By summer, much of Germany was in rebellion, and the government began to move toward armistice. In October, the surface navy refused to go to sea for one last suicidal battle, but the U-boat navy remained loyal. U-135 even remained on alert to attack a renegade German battleship. Final kill: UB-50 sank the British battleship Britannia two days before the November 11 armistice.

Germany started the war with 26 operational boats and added 390. At war's end, 171 new boats were in the water and another 148 were under construction. Wartime losses: 173. Mines took out at least 48; depth charges claimed 30; gunfire, 20; ramming, 19; accident, 19; unknown, 19; submarines, 17; aircraft, 1.

In the meantime, U-boats had sunk more than 4,000 ships comprising more than 11 million tons—fully one-fourth of the world's total supply. In essence, unrestricted submarine warfare almost won the war for Germany, yet at the same time Germany lost the war because of unrestricted submarine warfare. A paradox? No, a matter of timing. If the U.S. had not entered the war in 1917, Germany likely would have been able to force a peace agreement. But the U-boat operations directly and specifically brought America into the conflict.

Virulent wartime propaganda to the contrary, only one verified U-boat atrocity occurred during the war: U-86's sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle, and the skipper's attempt to hide the evidence by machine-gunning all survivors in the water. (He missed a few.) Post-war, he fled the country to avoid a 1921 war-crimes trial; two of his officers were tried and convicted as accessories. They did not remain too long in jail, however, somehow managing to 'escape' their German guards within a few months.

Continue: 1918-1939

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