Submarines

The History of Submarines

In the year 2000, the American submarine force will celebrate the first century of service by highly skilled people in some of the most technologically advanced vessels ever built. The past 100 years have witnessed the evolution of a force that mastered submersible warfare, introduced nuclear propulsion to create the true submarine, and for decades patrolled the deep ocean front line; the hottest part of an otherwise Cold War.

Submarines in War

The U.S. Navy’s involvement with the submarine dates form 1888 when the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R) sponsored a design competition that brought John Holland a naval contract to build the experimental Plunger. As the new century dawned, prominent American naval leaders like Admiral George Dewey called the submarine a real threat to international surface forces, leading the Navy to acquire its first submarine in 1900. Overcoming competition from fellow American inventor, Simon Lake, Holland sold his newest model, Holland VI, to the Navy for $160,000 on April 11. This 64-ton submarine commissioned as USS Holland, or SS-1, on October 12 of the same year, was equipped with an Otto-type gasoline engine for surface running and electric motors for submerged operations.
Due to the volatility of gasoline, American submersible designs soon followed the French practice, adopting the diesel engine in 1909 with the Electric Boat Company’s F class (SS-20 through 23), built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Combining the influence of diesel propulsion with the submersible designs of Holland and Lake, American submersibles took a familiar configuration through American entry into the Great War. Submarines of the E, H, K, L, M, N, O, and R classes and ranged in displacement form 287 to 510 tons, with the fastest boats displaying a top surface speed of barely 14 knots on diesel power.
During World War I the U.S. Navy separated these submersibles into two groups according to mission. “Boats” of the N and O classes, as well as some of the E type, patrolled American coasts and harbors following a defensive strategy.
Other submarines drew assignments that sent them to hostile European waters after 1917. Some K-, L-, O-, and E-class boats conducted offensive, open-sea operations from the Azores and Bantry Bay in Ireland. They supported the Allied effort to maintain open sea lanes along the European coast and in the approaches to the British Isles.
The Nay Department’s plans for these vessels reflected the prevailing surface warfare thinking, which perceived the submersible as a type of destroyer or torpedo boat that should operate with the battle fleet. Thus the first foray into submarine design by the Bureau of Steam Engineering produced the faster 15-knot, 800 ton, S-class submarine in 1916 with the assistance of Electric Boat received a commission to design the three boats of the 20-knowt T, or AA class, with a normal displacement of 1107 tons. On paper these characteristics, adopted during the First World War, brought the Navy one step closer to the “fleet submarine”, a submersible that could keep the pace with the battle fleet.

Shaping an Identity

The German U-boats of the 1914-1918 conflict gave the American officers and designers reason for pause. Physically durable, powered by very reliable diesels, technically blessed with the very long sea legs, they provided the paradigm for American interwar development. At the same time, the 1916 vintage American S-class proved a virtual clinic for basic design mistakes, burdened with the difficult metallurgical problems and very unreliable diesels.
While Rear Admirals Harry Yarnell and Samuel Robinson, successive interwar chiefs of the Bureau of Engineering, worked to remedy the technical flaws with solutions form European and American engineering practice, the community of submarine officers struggled with a problem even more fundamental than propulsion. How should the Navy use submarines? What was their proper strategic role? During the interwar period influential officers like Captains Thomas Hart and Yates Stirling Jr., Admirals Henry Wiley and Frank Schofield, and the innovative commander Thomas Withers debated these issues with the German paradigm in mind. Unfortunately, this model did not offer easy direction. While the German commercial warfare strategy and independent patrol tactics had great effect on the war effort of the Entente and its allies, incidents like the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania painted this style of warfare with a dark brush, suggesting immorality when