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The Royal Navy Submarine Service in WWI

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A Brief Overview of Royal Navy Submarine Service, 1901-1919

 

Underhanded, Unfair, and Damned Un-English
 - First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson

 

Background

Submarines are on their way into World of Warships, and while I personally don’t think they’ll make a positive addition to the gameplay it seems pretty inevitable at this point.

For the initial testing WG have released lines of US, German and Russian submarines, and a Japanese premium submarine model has been shown (I-58, which sank USS Indianapolis). This is, so far as WG goes, fairly logical. The US market is a cash cow of USN veterans, the Russians are the home market and developer favored child, and the Germans had the largest and probably most famous submarine force of WWII, the core game period.

Submarines of Britain, Italy and France are presumably a vague objective for down the road after (and assuming) a full T6, T8 and T10 rollout is successful. It is somewhat of a shame once again that British and Italian submarines are sucking hind teat behind the Russians, especially as to some players who get a lot of their naval history from World of Warships itself, think K-21 is a naval legend, and are confused to discover that HMS Monarch as presented by the game with 3x3 15in guns is neither famous, nor historic.

Genesis of the Silent Service

The Royal Navy was not the first navy to invest in submarine forces, in fact it was one of the latter ones. Submarines started their development as a weapon favoring the overall weaker power in a conflict, able to potentially hold more powerful warships (which Britain had a huge advantage in) at risk, or potentially commerce raid. Having won general superiority at sea with the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, maintaining the largest surface navy and relying on fostering a huge trading network - Britain didn’t just import and export, but with approximately 19m of the 45m tons of steamships in the world in 1914 British flagged was the single biggest player in global trade - from the British strategic perspective submarine improvements could only be a bad thing. They were a weapon for the underdog, and Britain was not that.

Submarines, although first appearing in weird and wonderful forms from the late 1700’s had a long development, and until the late 1800’s were at best of limited real use, and at worst a good way to drown your own naval personnel. The advent of better manufacturing techniques, the use of hydroplanes to maintain depth and internal combustion engines changed the calculus, and the RN began investing in submarines in 1901 with the purchase of American designs, and a license to produce five of the Holland type submarines – developments of designs generated by John Holland, an Irishman who had initially been funded by anti-British Irish revolutionaries. The plan for these five Holland boats (Holland 1 to Holland 5) was to test submarine concepts, in particular as a harbor defense weapon, and potentially test countermeasures too.

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IWM Image Q 41181, Holland No. 3 with HMS Victory in the background. Note the lack of freeboard, proper tower structure and basic periscope with stays

The Holland’s were primitive, but seem to have been useful, and managed to avoid accidentally sinking in service, though they had the issues of unreliable and dangerous petrol engines which would continue to pose problems in several following classes. Following the Holland’s came in logical succession the A, B, C, D and by 1914 some of the first ships of the E class. These submarines were progressively larger and hugely more capable, reflecting a role changing from self-defense of local ports to working off enemy coasts instead. The A’s doubled the Holland displacement. The E’s were at 650t surfaced displacement more than twice the size of the C class, three times the size of an A, and six times larger than the Holland’s of just 12 years earlier. The D and E classes were the first to be equipped with twin screws and diesel rather than petrol engines, with the advantages of being less prone to gas their crews with toxic fumes, or simply explode, and the later types had saddle tanks rather than internal ones, freeing up space. The British can also claim with some grounds to have invented that rather critical piece of submarine equipment – the periscope, which they retrofitted to their first submarines.

 

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IWM Image Q 74792, HMS B2 lost in collision in 1912, larger than the Hollands but still small and vulnerable

While in little over a decade submarine capability had improved by orders of magnitude, the vessels were unproven in combat, and had suffered a distressing accident rate, especially due to collisions, with 3 A’s, a B and 2 C’s lost to collisions, and 2 more A’s simply foundered in the first 10 years. The brand new technology of internal combustion engine submarines built in the 1900’s and 1910’s would not have long to wait to see combat.

World War I

At the outbreak of WWI in September 1914, the Royal Navy had the most numerous submarine force in the world, though 20 of the total were the obsolete A and B classes, and 38 more the semi-obsolescent C class. Nonetheless to an extent the same obsolescence was a factor in other navies, and even the ‘old’ (though the youngest A class was just 6 years old in 1914) boats could at minimum provide useful training for rapidly expanding fleets.

 

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D. K Brown ‘The Grand Fleet’  Comparison of Submarine Strength in September 1914

Royal Navy submarines in WWI served mainly in the North Sea, Baltic and Mediterranean theaters of operations. The first objectives of the fleet were to observe, report on and interdict German naval traffic in the Southern North Sea. The 8th Flotilla of D and E class boats was deployed to Harwich in the South-East of England for this prime purpose, with other flotillas scattered up the English and Scottish East Coast. The typical patrol pattern, rain, shine or storm was a week on station off the German coast, battery charging on the surface at night and spending most of the day submerged, and for patrol after patrol not seeing very much.

The German coast was where the first British combat loss occurred, in October 1914 the new E3 was torpedoed by the German submarine U27 off the Ems estuary on the Dutch-German border, the first submarine-on-submarine kill in history, if an unfortunate record. As the war expanded the vessels would find themselves deployed to the Mediterranean and Baltic, but they were always on patrol in the North Sea.

The loss of E3 would be far from the last submarine combat loss of the war. U-boats were a risk throughout the war, going on to sink E20 in the Sea of Marmara (near the Dardanelles), E22 off Yarmouth, C34 off the Shetland Islands, and D6 in the English Channel. Other key threats included mines, surface ships and navigational accidents.

U-boats were a prime target for British submarines, in addition to 3 kills by C-class (2 with trawlers), E-class sank five U-boats, the H-class sank two, G-class and the D-class sank two each, and an L-class added another. The total tally was 15, a small, but useful contribution to the 202 German U-boats lost in WWI. Boredom and danger went hand-in-hand when operating in areas with hostile submarines present with the first spot a huge advantage, and little margin for recovering from mistakes.

Spoiler

U-boat kills by RN submarines in WWI, by class.

C24 + trawler sank U-40. C27 + trawler sank U-23. C15 sank UC-65 (3)
D7 sank U-45, D4 sank UB-74 (2)
E16 sank U-6. E34 sank UB-16. E54 sank UC-10 and U-81. E52 sank UC-63 (5)
H5 sank U-51. H4 sank UB-52. (2)
G13 sank UC-43. G2 sank U-78 (2)
L12 sank UB-90 (1)

One noteworthy anti-submarine tactic developed by the RN submarines operating out of Leith, Scotland was to pair a C-class submarine with a fishing trawler as a combined Q-ship. The trawler would substitute a submarine for a net, towing a submerged C-class submarine. If a U-boat approached the submarine would cast-off and attack, in June 1915 the trawler Taranaki was approached by U-40, released C24 – though the line was released from the trawler rather than the submarine, leaving C24 encumbered with 600ft of tow rope and telephone cable dangling from her bow - and saw the German sunk, and that same month Princess Louise unleashed C27 to sink U-23. That tactic was suspended but UC-65 was torpedoed and sunk in a more traditional manner by C15 on 3 November 1917 – demonstrating at least some value in the old petrol driven craft.

The German navy operated a small merchant marine, which the outbreak of war largely confined to port by a British ‘distant blockade’ so U-boats and surface ships were the main targets for British submarines, both offensively off the German and Belgian coasts and defensively off British ports and harbors. The first German ship sunk by a British submarine was the old (1896) aviso (a type of light colonial gunboat) SMS Hela, lost off Heligoland Bight on 14 September 1914 – just 9 days after the German submarine U-21 had claimed the title of first ship sunk with self-propelled (as opposed to ram or mine) torpedoes by sinking cruiser HMS Pathfinder. The Hela was sunk by HMS E9 under the command of Max Horton, who would go on to be C-in-C ‘Western Approaches’ in charge of the Royal Navy’s war in the Atlantic against U-boats from November 1942, one of history's greatest 'poacher turned gamekeeper' moments. E9 had been lying on the bottom in 120ft of water (below her design depth) overnight, at daybreak she rose and sighted a light cruiser less than two miles away. The weather, which had been thick, was clearing, and she immediately attacked. Two torpedoes were fired at a range of about 600 yards, landing one hit and sinking Hela.

 

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IWM Image Q22332, SMS Hela, unfortunate first German loss to a submarine

The Baltic

Although Denmark and Norway remained neutral in WWI, the proximity of Germany to the Kattegat, the fact that the entrance to the sea between Denmark and Sweden is only 15 miles wide at the eastern exit, and the fact that Germany controlled over 300 miles (and increasing as it’s armies beat back the Russians) of the south coast of the Baltic all made the situation perilous, especially for surface ships.

British warships had no hope of forcing a passage into the Baltic Sea. For submarines the challenge looked very inviting, although even for them any attempt was bound to be a risky operation. If some submarines could reach the Baltic… The trouble they might create would give the Germans plenty to think about. A prime target would be the disruption of the vital iron-ore trade between Sweden and Germany. This alone would make the risks of a breakthrough worthwhile. Furthermore, the consternation of the German Navy, which had been using the Baltic Sea in which to exercise units of its High Seas Fleet, on discovering Royal Navy submarines on its doorstep would be an additional incentive for success. The most dangerous part of the passage to the Baltic would come on rounding the Skaw. Mines would be a great hazard. So would sea- and air-patrols. Penetrating the Sound, the narrow channel which separates Sweden and Denmark, would be the biggest test of all. In places the Sound was too shallow for diving, and at the Baltic end of the narrow passage enemy destroyer patrols meant almost certain destruction if discovered. Lieutenant-Commanders Noel Laurence (E1), Max Horton (E9) and Martin Nasmith (E11) were three of the most experienced submarine captains in the Service. Their skill and daring made them a fitting choice to pioneer the Baltic offensive.

Lieutenant-Commander Horton was maneuvering E9 through the Sound when, quite suddenly and not a hundred yards to starboard, a German destroyer loomed out of the darkness. E9’ s bridge party made a silent but hectic dash below. E9 had no sooner dived when there was a thud followed by a loud scraping noise. A quick check on the depth-gauge told the story. They had tried to dive in a mere fourteen feet of water! With pounding hearts they waited for the destroyer to come in for the kill. Nothing happened. It seemed impossible that the Germans could have failed to see E9. But this was in fact the case.

A.S. Evans. Beneath the Waves (Kindle Locations 808-814). Pen & Sword.

E1 and E9 as related above penetrated the Baltic in October 1914, though E11 turned back with mechanical trouble and would ultimately head to the Mediterranean instead. The first two intruders were successfully followed by E8, E13, E18 and E19 in August 1915, but E13 went aground on a Danish mudflat and was lost (interned) en route after being shelled by German torpedo boats. E1 suffered a main engine fracture in June 1915, which for a month left just E9 in operation.

The route through (as illustrated by E13 – a risky choice of name) was fraught with danger, and very shallow in parts, with a six mile long segment too shallow to dive a submarine necessitating a risky surface run, navigation at night by compass and ‘dead reckoning’ was a huge hazard even without German intervention. The boats which made it through took hospitality with their Entente Russian Allies and operated under the command of Russian Admiral von Essen until his untimely death in 1915, operating out of Reval (modern Tallinn, Estonia). Conditions were extremely arduous in the autumn and winter months: “The work was beyond measure strenuous, and demanded endurance almost past bearing. When on the surface the spray froze on the bridge and hands [crew] had to be continually employed keeping the conning-tower hatch free from ice; even so it sometimes became immovable, and return to port was necessary. Periscopes when put out of water were almost immediately cased in ice, bow and stem caps became fixed in like manner, and a more or less prolonged dive into the warmer depths was needed to put them in action again.”  British Staff History.

 

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IWM Image Q 114325, HMS E1 'enjoying' a Russian winter, there is a submarine under the ice, somewhere.

One unusual restriction on their operations was the Baltic sea icing up in the winter, pausing operations from November through March or April when the ice could clear, nonetheless the Baltic flotilla operated successfully for several seasons. The British submarines supplemented the nominally 12 Russian Baltic Fleet submarines

The first physical impacts came in in July 1915 when E9 torpedoed and badly damaged the armored cruiser Prinz Adalbert, knocking her out of action until September. E9’s attack came from just 440 yards, Commander Max Horton was awarded the Order of St. George, Russia’s highest commendation for bravery – though at the time they believed he may have sunk a battleship, rather than damaged a cruiser. The damage inflicted from one hit from two torpedoes fired was considerable, with the ship forced to limp over 200 miles to Kiel, much of it steaming astern:

SMS Prinz Adalbert had been heavily hit, with the torpedo striking the aft part of the broadside torpedo room. Immediately the forward boiler room, the broadside torpedo room, the forward 8.8cm magazine and the central control position, or zentral, filled with water. Later the bow torpedo room, the workshop, the main gangway, 21cm magazine and several smaller compartments also filled with water that leaked through ventilation shafts, speaking tubes and leaky joints. In the forward boiler room and torpedo room two Unteroffiziere and eight men perished. All the command elements and artillery control apparatus failed. The ship had to be steered from the rudder room and all orders for steering had to be relayed over the deck. Soon after, a still-warm visiting card of the torpedo was found embedded in the wooden deck and was taken to the bridge. It was a large piece of an air flask that was marked with the construction details of the torpedo and as it was in English all doubts as to the identity of the assailant were removed. It was most satisfying, however, that although many of Prinz Adalbert’s torpedoes in the broadside room had been torn apart, and guncotton strewn about, none had detonated even though the pistols had been in place.

Gary Staff. Battle on the Seven Seas. Pen & Sword.

 

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IWM Image Q 74846, HMS E9 (pennant 89), first victor and significant Baltic nuisance under Commander Horton

Following E9’s partial success, E8 followed up and sank the unlucky Prinz Adalbert in October 1915, just a month after she returned to service, with a torpedo hit detonating her magazines with heavy loss of life. The fatal attack on Prinz Adalbert came at long range for WWI, it was launched from approximately 1,300 yards against a zig-zagging target doing 15kt, with no assistance from a torpedo aiming computer. The attack by a 660t submarine inflicted the greatest single loss the German Navy suffered in the Baltic.

Adding to the naval impact E1 torpedoed the German battlecruiser Moltke in August 1915, but her hit on the bow inflicted little damage in contrast to the cataclysm which had befallen Prinz Adalbert. The modern German battlecruisers were tough beasts, frequently resisting underwater damage well, especially the smaller 18in submarine torpedoes.

E19 (Commander Cromie) detonated the magazines on a second warship, the cruiser SMS Undine with a torpedo in October 1916, though she sank with fortunately small loss of life. Acting against commerce E19 stopped, boarded and scuttled five Germany-bound or German-owned ore ships in a single day in that same month, though opportunities lessened as convoys and restricted sailings were implemented. E9 added 3 in two days to the tally, with another ship damaged. Restrictions to operations included avoiding working inside Swedish territorial waters, and adherence to ‘cruiser rules’ meaning the submarine had to surface, stop, inspect and then ensure the crew disembarked their victim safely before sinking it.

In 1916 four C-class boats were added to the Baltic force, sailing the long Arctic route and being barged down the Dvina river to Petrograd, but E18 and C32 were lost in during of the campaign, E18 lost without trace and probably mined, and C32 grounded and scuttled after damage.

The war for British submarines in the Baltic wound up with the remaining four E’s and three C’s scuttled following the Russian armistice in April 1918, having relocated to Helsingfors (modern Helsinki, Finland). The British submariners made it home, excepting their CO, Captain Cromie who remained as Naval Attaché at the British Embassy and was murdered by a Russian mob in August 1918. 

The successes of the handful of E-class submarines were useful support to the beleaguered Russians, and disrupted German commerce (both with sinkings and by forcing a convoy system to be adopted). The additional threat of the British submarines also imposed operational restrictions on the German Baltic forces which were under-equipped with torpedo boats for anti-submarine protection. They are an excellent illustration of the value of even a small submarine force, if aggressively employed and well trained – and British submarines of the time were excellent on both counts.

The Dardanelles

The Dardanelles are a narrow strait 1-4 miles wide separating the European and Asian parts of what was in WWI the Ottoman Empire. The Dardanelles lead from the eastern Mediterranean (technically the Aegean Sea) to the small Sea of Marmara, which fronts the capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) and another narrow strait, the Bosporus which leads to the Black Sea and access to Southern Russia. If an Entente force could breach the defenses it could them bombard Istanbul, force the Ottoman’s out of the war and allow cargo to flow to and from Russia. The goal was laudable, the methods and generalship employed to attempt it were frightful.

The primary Entente submarine component of the Dardanelles Campaign ran from April to December 1915, with the last E-class leaving the Sea of Marmara on 2 January 1916. The dismal shore campaign commenced with landings on 25 April, and ended with evacuation in December after 300,000 casualties, though offensive action ashore had ceased in August.  

The Dardanelles were defended by rows of mines, many shore batteries and a host of Ottoman small craft to begin with, with defenses later supplemented by fixed anti-submarine nets, aircraft and German U-boats. Geographically the strait is about 42 miles long, significant compared to submerged endurance for a WWI submarine, and is also subject to strong currents. Any submarine reaching the Sea of Marmara would have significant targets to hunt including seaborne trade as the nearest railway to the town of Gallipoli itself was some 50 miles away meaning that most military stores traveled to the front by ship. There would also be Ottoman navy targets including the former German battlecruiser Goeben, renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim.

Before the Dardanelles campaign proper commenced a British submarine, the old B11 under the command of Lt. Holbrook penetrated the minefields and put a torpedo into the ancient pre-pre-Dreadnought Mesudiye which had been built as a central-battery ironclad, a type long defunct by WWI. A single torpedo sank the militarily irrelevant ship, and won Holbrook the Victoria Cross, more for the feat of the long range submerged attack and coolness under fire while retiring than for the impact of the attack.

Following Holbrook’s attack things would only get more difficult. The Musudiye had been moored about 1/3 of the way through the strait, the following Entente submarines would need to penetrate the full 42 mile stretch and enter the Sea of Marmara to have an impact. The first attempt by E15 ended in disaster with the boat aground and nearly captured, requiring strenuous efforts to destroy her. AE2 the sole surviving Australian E left in service made it in, but never out being sunk by a torpedo boat.

 

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Naval-History hosted map of the Sea of Marmara. Submarine interlopers would first have to pass 'The Narrows', the Gallipoli Strait but could then operate on coastal traffic supplying the Ottoman forces forward base at Gallipoli itself. On the north coast repeated attacks were made on Rodosto, Erekli and even Constantinople itself.

The first successes came in May 1915 with E14 under the command of Lt. Commander Boyle making it through the Dardanelles and sinking the transport Gul Djemal in shallow waters, while generally disrupting and delaying traffic carrying reinforcements to the Ottoman front. Perhaps more importantly Boyle and E14 made it back out safely and were able to brief Lt. Commander Nasmith (whose E11 had turned back from trying to make it into the Baltic the year before) on the hazards of mines, nets, currents and patrols. Nasmith made it through and quickly sank a torpedo-gunboat, 2 small sailing ships and a small steamer, the Nagara carrying troops and ammunition. Nasmith was bold attacking and burning a steamer in the port of Rodosto then damaging another one in Constantinople itself causing local consternation. In total during a cruise from May 18 to June 7, E11 claimed a torpedo-gunboat, two ammunition ships, two troopships (Nagara and Panderma), two stores ships and beached and holed a third transport. Lt. Guy D'Oyly-Hughes, E11’s First Lieutenant (who would later find controversy in command of HMS Glorious in WWII) swam ashore to blow up a railway line – pushing a rather hazardous float of 16lb of guncotton ahead of him. While escaping E11 snagged a mine and was forced to tow it for an hour before managing to lose it through some adroit maneuvering. Of note the RN submarines also developed a technique for recovering torpedoes that missed, setting them to float after they ran and then, with the coast clear motoring over to send out a swimmer to defuse and then tow them into a torpedo tube for refueling and re-use.

 

https://media.iwm.org.uk/loris/177/803/super_000000.jpg/full/full/0/default.jpg

IWM Image ART 4372 drawn by from the Bridge of HMS Manica by an Able Seaman Herbert Hillier. HMS Manica was the RN's balloon tender for operating spotting balloons. Text reads: The E14 submarine coming in her crew on deck waving – she has been away 24 days or so.  Has sunk a Turkish transport in the Sea of Marmara and 10 sailing vessels laden with petrol and other stuff for the enemy.We were going out spotting for the Talbot [Eclipse class protected cruiser] and Chatham [Town class cruiser possibly, the 4 funneller in the sketch] over by Kaba Tepe this afternoon to try and knock out a gun or two which have been doing a lot of damage around here.  Probably the one or more that shelled us recently.  Balloon topped up and ready.

E11 was relieved by the second trip of E14, promoted Commander Boyle returning to the Sea of Marmara on 10 June, and by E12, a newcomer which had to physically force herself through a net to get in. The two boats repeated the mischief, with activities ranging from plain torpedoing of worthwhile targets, to having the First Lieutenant swim over to less valuable targets to burn them. Between them the pair sank four steamers and 21 sailing vessels, a mixture of dhows, zebecs and brigantines. There was less and less shipping to be found, so E7’s trip in June included shooting up trains running along the coast, but on her second attempt was snagged and after a 12 hour struggle and with bombs being lowered on top of her, she was forced to surface and scuttle. For their exploits both Nasmith and Boyle of E14 and E11 were awarded the VC, with the whole crew of E14 being awarded the DSM.

After making it into the Marmara, E20 had the great misfortune of being betrayed by documents captured from the French submarine Turquoise whose captain failed to destroy his boat or details of a rendezvous, allowing UB-14 to attend in her stead, with tragic consequences for the unsuspecting E20. E20 was also noteworthy in being lost while mounting a one-off 6in howitzer, intended for shore bombardment. The French submarine force had a bad time in the Dardanelles, losing two boats, Joule and Mariotte on the way in, before Turquoise went aground and was captured on the way out having achieved little.

The last significant act in the intense period of the Dardanelles for the submarines was E11 on her 3rd patrol sinking the Barbaros Hayreddin (sometimes translated as Barbarousse Haireddine) the former SMS Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm, a pre-Dreadnought. A single torpedo sank the old battleship, a design of similar displacement to a post-WWI Treaty Cruiser (10,000t) and with very poor compartmentalization. British officers added that ‘Turkish fatalism’ and not even bothering to close bulkheads may have contributed. That 3rd, 29-day cruise also polished off 8 small steamers and 23 sailing ships.

 

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IWM image Q 13746. Commander Nasmith and his crew, submarine E11.

The postscript to the Dardanelles came in January 1918 when an attempt to attack the battlecruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim was made by E14, under a new commander, Geoffrey White. The German/Ottoman battlecruiser had been mined and limped back to ground on Nagara Point, just east of the narrowest part of the Dardanelles. The British submarine just missed the former-Goeben which had been sufficiently repaired to make it back to Constantinople. E14 made a go of attacking another ship as related below:

Geoffrey White fired a torpedo at a Turkish ship. Only eleven seconds after the torpedo had left its tube there was a huge explosion just forward of E14: either the torpedo had detonated prematurely or a depth-charge had exploded just ahead. The explosion sprung open the forward torpedo hatch. Water flooded in. When taken to the surface E14 was met by a fierce barrage of gunfire. A survivor of the ordeal had this to say: ‘The captain was the first one up on deck, and then the navigator. I followed to connect up the upper steering gear. We found the spindle to be shot in half. Orders were given to steer from below. We ran the gauntlet for half an hour, only a few shots hitting us … The captain, seeing it was hopeless, ran towards the shore. His last words were “We are in the hands of God”, and only a few seconds later I looked for him and saw his body, mangled by shellfire, roll into the water and go under. The last shell hit the starboard saddle tank, killing all I believe. By this time the submarine was close to the shore. Soon afterwards she sank, some survivors being picked up by the Turks.’

A.S. Evans. Beneath the Waves. Pen & Sword.

Lt. Commander White would be the second captain of E14 to win the VC for this attempt, though in his case posthumously.

The Workhorse RN WWI Submarine, the E-Class

As related above, in the Dardanelles and Baltic, and early war in the North Sea the E class bore the brunt of the work, and the brunt of the hazards. They are an interesting submarine to consider, coming after a train of improvements, but before some particularly odd beasts. The E-class was the first purpose designed ‘overseas’ submarine, but it was a general improvement over the D-class (8 ships commissioning 1909-1912). Considered a successful design, the E’s would become the most numerous class in British service with a total of 58 boats commissioned, although split into 3 batches with some significant changes between them. The first 20 were ordered before the war, and 38 more in November 1914. For context 58 submarines is one of the largest WWI classes but is significantly outstripped by the largest single German program, the UB III class (89 commissioned) and dwarfed by the WWII production of about 700 Type VII boats.

Jane’s Fighting Ships of WWII notes that the E’s “Performed splendid work during War, and proved most satisfactory. Heavy losses sustained by this class are an index to the arduous work they performed”. Which seems a fair statement, and losses were certainly heavy with 21 boats lost during WWI. The first groups suffered particularly badly, with the 10 boats of the E1 group suffering 6 sunk, and 2 lost scuttled in the Baltic, unable to escape the fall of Russia.

The E class were described very positively by D. K. Brown in ‘The Grand Fleet’ as

… possibly the best British submarine design of all time and among the best in the world at the outbreak of war. The design began as a slightly improved ‘D’ but as usual the number of changes grew. It was feared that the ‘Ds’ were already too long to manoeuvre for a bow shot and as a result the ‘Es’ were given a pair of beam tubes. There was a single bow tube in the first eight boats after which a second was fitted and they had a single stern tube, all tubes being 18in. More powerful engines and motors were fitted increasing speed both on the surface and submerged at the expense of further increases in size and cost, which rose to up to £101,900 in the first six [note, the cost of a contemporary 1912 destroyer ranged from ~£90,000 to £110,000].

The ‘C’ and ‘D’ class boats had a collision bulkhead, well forward, but the rest of the boat was open. One reason for this was that controls and valves were usually operated locally and in a small, undivided boat the captain could control the operators and see what they were doing. The ‘E’ class had two bulkheads dividing the boat into three.

Brown, David K. The Grand Fleet: Warship Design and Development 1906-1922 (p. 198). Pen & Sword Books.

A saddle (sometimes called ‘wing’) tank submarine design is one with the ballast tanks attached external to the pressure hull on each side. Earlier submarines had the ballast tanks internal, greatly reducing available volume, already at a premium. The E’s were only the second class of British submarine to move to what would be a standard twin-screw propulsion arrangement, with a single rudder, and to fit wireless. The new (for the British) feature of beam tubes ran perpendicular to the hull with one pointing to port and the other to starboard, another first was the addition of watertight bulkheads dividing the boat into 3 main compartments with collision bulkheads fore and aft – though the odds of survival with even a single compartment flooded were poor. The submarine’s conning tower was amidships, and a casing ran down most of the length of the hull.

 

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IWM Mod 89 (model) a cuttaway of a later E-class submarine. Key features include twin bow, beam and broadside torpedo tubes. The large volume of the batteries under the deck is apparent, she is shown with wireless masts raised. The cramped size for 30 men is almost unimaginable.

Diving depth at the time was surprisingly not a major design consideration as ASW was so ineffectual the time that diving deep to evade was not even a concept, so a designed 100ft submergence limit was considered plenty, though in service boats would occasionally surpass that – and survive.

The main shortcoming overall of the E-class design was in the diesel engines which had poor power-to-weight ratios for their size and class, limiting top speed and endurance. The Vickers diesel engines also produced excessive smoke when running, a major giveaway to any observant enemy.  They would also (as designed) miss out on opportunities for making mischief due to the lack of a gun, with a lot of merchant targets undeserving of a torpedo.

Given a designed role of observation and attacking warships it’s unsurprising that the submarines would not mount a gun, but in the event of WWI unexpected roles meant that attacks on merchant ships were more likely, and a gun to deal with small, shallow draft merchant ships was increasingly useful, or in the case of the Dardanelles even trains, troop formations and other shore targets was a useful addition.

An E11 dispatch from the Sea of Marmara illustrates this surely unforeseen use of submarine gunnery:

August 7th 1915

-          1130 a.m. Observed troops on road leading toward Gallipoli. Rose to surface and opened fire, several shots dropping well among them, causing them to scatter. Observed column approaching along same road. Range of the road now being known from our position, dropped several shells among them. Column took cover in open order.
     The British Submarine Service by John Bower.

The 12lb guns fitted would largely end up abaft the conning tower as it was less susceptible to sea spray than a forward position.

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E-class submarine description, summary from compiled sources including Friedman's British Submarines, D. K. Brown's The Grand Fleet, Jane's Fighting Ships and Navypedia.

The primary weapon of the submarine was the 18in torpedo, which through WWI was primarily the Mk. VIII. The Mk. VIII could run to either 4,000 yards at 29kt or 2,500 yards at the high speed 35kt setting and carried a warhead of just 320lb of TNT. The small size did limit the warhead compared to the contemporary 21in weapons with over 500lb of TNT, but the range was generally sufficient given that 2,000 yards was considered far at the time. The torpedoes did fail to detonate an unfortunate percentage of the time including dud hits on U-boats from K7 and J5, and possibly suffered some premature detonations.  All torpedoes of WWI era were state of the art weapons, using basic mechanical systems and feedbacks to run straight, at a set depth and explode when wanted to but not before.

New Submarines and the Later War

The E class as the  newest submarine at the start of the war, and with an emergency mass early war order would carry the brunt of the fighting, winning 3 of the 5 submarine Victoria Crosses with the other two awarded to older boats. The Baltic and Dardanelles were perhaps ‘highlights’ of the early to mid war, and certainly more varied than the interminable North Sea patrols which continued from the first day to the last of the war.

 

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IWM ART 3065, HMS M1, just missed service in WWI - just as well as I really don't want to talk about it!

Supporting the older British designs a relative explosion of types would supplement the RN’s submarine service, including both a raft of British designs and some significant, though delayed import of H class coastal submarines from the USA, via assembly in Canada (and straining neutrality along the way). The H’s would serve varied careers and even last into WWII as training submarines. The key follow up classes included the G class, similar in size, armament and role to the E but different in construction and slower to build which made them less attractive. The L’s were also ‘overseas’ submarines improved in every way, but late to the war.

 

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The other numerous war-built class were the huge and very unusual K class submarines. The K’s followed the J’s as being ‘Fleet’ submarines, designed to work with the Grand Fleet directly, head out at very high speed, get between a retreating German High Seas Fleet and its home bases and attack it with torpedoes. To do this, steam rather than diesel propulsion was used, but technologically it was a step too far. The opportunities were never really there, the concept too difficult and the K class suffered a series of calamities, three of 14 were lost in collisions during the war, two more foundered during tests, and post war another one. They achieved nothing in service.

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IWM Image Q 69713, HMS K3, before much needed bow modifications. Note a battery of 3 guns at deck level and 2 funnels for the steam engines on the large superstructure.

In April 1918 a submarine played a key part in the raid on Zeebrugge in Belgium, which was being used by the Germans as a base for U-boats. The old submarine C3 was stuffed with explosives rammed under the viaduct connecting to the Mole (pier) extending around the harbor and exploded to cut off German troops from reinforcing the end of the structure where British parties were landing to neutralize gun batteries. The submariners manning her had manually guide the floating bomb into position, then leave the ship under fire, rowing away after their motor boat propeller was fouled and disabled, making it just 200m before the explosion blew a gap in the structure. The attack was in some ways similar to the WWII raid on St. Nazaire, and the captain of C3, Lt. Sandford won the last submarine VC of the war.  

 

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IWM Image Q 67726, the aftermath of the C3's explosion under the viaduct. The attack separated the shore (left) from the Mole (right) where RN and Royal Marines were attacking shore batteries.

The last few years in the North Sea didn’t have much scope for opportunity, but the RN’s submarines, spending cumulatively years on station off the coast did land hits on three battleships, a battlecruiser and a cruiser in 1916-1918, E23 landed a hit on Westfalen in August 1916, and critically reported the fleet position by wireless, in an engagement in which both the German and British navies only engaged with submarines, the British losing two light cruisers. In November that year the J1, one of the new diesel powered and planned to be ‘Fleet’ submarines encountered a German battleship squadron and managed to hit both Konig class battleships Grosser Kurfurst and Kronprinz with a single salvo – the J’s had moved from the 1 or 2 bow tubes of the E’s to 4 tubes, while keeping beam weapons. The last major hit would be on Moltke in 1918, with E42 inflicting the damage on one of the rare German sailings. In all 4 cases the overall damage done was slight (4 months in dock for Moltke), but disruption and dock time would result. All the while submarine attrition from mines, torpedo boats and accidents kept the work dirty, difficult and dangerous.

Summary

The British submarine force started WWI with the largest single force, and commissioned about 100 more submarines in 1914-1918. The losses were heavy, 61 boats were lost, including 7 submarines scuttled in the Baltic without crew losses and a C-class submarine blown up attacking the Mole at Zeebrugge.

The impact of the submarine service is difficult to measure, while a lot of sources take tonnage sunk as a major metric of success, but the British force had a pretty small range of targets to attack, Germany was successfully blockaded on the surface at range. Baltic and Dardanelle traffic was relatively small.

The totals for British sinkings are sometimes given as 54 warships and 274 other vessels, significant but slght and including a lot of small ships. In addition there are numerous ships damaged and put out of action, J1’s pair of torpedo hits temporarily deprived Germany of 1/3 her most modern superdreadnoughts. There are significant resource effects and inconveniences, ranging from disrupting troops marching down the Gallipoli peninsula, to inhibiting training in the Baltic and tying down anti-submarine forces. Simply forcing implementation of a convoy system reduces overall carrying capacity as merchants waste time in port waiting for convoys to assemble, and then move at the speed of the slowest ship.

Overall the British made a significant investment in submarines and for overall impact came second behind the larger, and more target-rich German force. The British certainly performed far better than any other Entente power underwater, not least thanks to a coterie of well trained, aggressive crews and commanders including Nasmith, Boyle and Horton.

 

I am planning to look at WWII in a similar way, so stay tuned for that.
- mofton

Edited by mofton
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It's weird how often we pass up WWI sub warfare when in truth it was of great importance. German subs sunk almost 5000 ships during WWI with a gross registered tonnage approaching 13 million. The greatest sub aces were during WWI too. The resumption of unrestricted naval warfare in 1917 almost brought Britain to it's knees at some point.

Thank you for the interesting writeup, as I didn't have much knowledge of RN subs during WWI, especially around the Dardanelles region. I guess someone had to have some success considering the overall disaster that was the Gallipoli campaign.

A question if you don't mind. I know that during the Russian Civil War, most Western Powers, UK included, provided support to the White Russians. Is there any info on sub operations during that time on the side of UK?

Nevertheless, looking forward to the next one!

Edited by warheart1992

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2 hours ago, mofton said:

the Germans had the largest and probably most famous submarine force of WWII, the core game period.

I do believe the USN had the most famous submarine service of WW2, although I will concede the Germans fielded more boats then we did. I base this on the fact that the American subs won their war, and the German subs lost theirs.

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13 hours ago, Umikami said:

I do believe the USN had the most famous submarine service of WW2, although I will concede the Germans fielded more boats then we did. I base this on the fact that the American subs won their war, and the German subs lost theirs.

Perhaps, but the German submarine campaign against Allied shipping is a lot more famous than the American one on Japanese shipping.  

In part, that may be because there is a lot of American surface effort to consider, in relation to the Pacific Campaign, with the German surface effort falling away after Bismarck. It could also relate to the German technical innovation late in the war that had a substantial impact on submarines afterwards.   

Of course, this might just be the European perspective on things, as the German campaign is much more relevant to most nations in Europe than the American one. 

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6 hours ago, mr3awsome said:

Perhaps, but the German submarine campaign against Allied shipping is a lot more famous than the American one on Japanese shipping.  

To who? Probably not to the Americans after Pearl Harbor and the losses during the Solomon's campaign, and certainly not to the Japanese.

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2 hours ago, Umikami said:

To who? Probably not to the Americans after Pearl Harbor and the losses during the Solomon's campaign, and certainly not to the Japanese.

8 hours ago, mr3awsome said:

Of course, this might just be the European perspective on things, as the German campaign is much more relevant to most nations in Europe than the American one. 

 

On 11/21/2020 at 9:50 PM, warheart1992 said:

A question if you don't mind. I know that during the Russian Civil War, most Western Powers, UK included, provided support to the White Russians. Is there any info on sub operations during that time on the side of UK?

There was some, though I can't recall the details off the top of my head.  

What do I recall is that there was an interesting and unintended consequence of it. The submarine L-55 was lost during operations. Eventually, in the mid 1920s, the Russians found her, thanks to fishing nets snagging on protruding parts of her. They raised her, refurbished her and used her for training. 

She also served as a valuable lesson for the Soviet Submarine designers, as most of the Tsarist work had been lost, leaving them with next to nothing. There is a limit to how useful she could be, of course, and eventually IvS became more influential, as well as Italian practice (including from books picked up in a bookshop!). 

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During WW 1 the Royal Navy was quite innovative with submarines.  They made a number of good advancements like the first high speed underwater boats, the R class:

British_WWI_Submarine_HMS_R3.JPG

These could do 14 knots submerged.  That's pretty good for 1917 - 18...

But once the war ended, between the Admiralty and hide bound bureaucrats they quickly put an end to all that 'nonsense' and the RN's submarine force dwindled to a number of staid conventional designs with little or no innovation involved.

 

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On 11/21/2020 at 1:50 PM, warheart1992 said:

A question if you don't mind. I know that during the Russian Civil War, most Western Powers, UK included, provided support to the White Russians. Is there any info on sub operations during that time on the side of UK?

I don't have much more than @mr3awsome, L55 is probably the biggest single incident.

The British did deploy a flotilla of E and L class submarines in 1919, based on the submarine depot ship HMS Lucia (a captured German). Here's a picture of her at another time with a brood of L class - and I think Hood in the background.

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It seems they had a small area to work in and limited success. The L55 was commanded by the former executive officer of Max Horton's E9, so a not inexperienced officer. Unfortunately he seems to have been overconfident, or simply unlucky and it's not clear if the boat was mined or hit by a towed charge.

Though more than half a century has passed since the loss of L55, very little has emerged concerning the actual sinking. However, it is known that L55 had been patrolling between Caporski Bay and Bjorka Bay, where the British Naval Force had an advanced base. The report of the back-up submarine states that Soviet ships were observed approaching this submarine, which then dived. Shortly afterwards L55 was seen to be enveloped in a cloud of black smoke just as an explosion was heard, from which it was wrongly inferred that L55 had struck a mine. On 6 June, two days after the sinking, a Bolshevist communiqué announced that a submarine which had attacked their ships as they were leaving the Gulf of Caporski had been sunk. The ships concerned were the destroyers Gavril and Azard.

A.S. Evans. Beneath the Waves. Pen & Sword.

The Soviets announced raising the boat in August 1928, and the British bodies were sent back to the UK on the merchant ship Truro and then cruiser Champion.

On 11/21/2020 at 3:15 PM, Umikami said:

I do believe the USN had the most famous submarine service of WW2, although I will concede the Germans fielded more boats then we did. I base this on the fact that the American subs won their war, and the German subs lost theirs.

I guess fame is subjective, and I'm not American.

Success is not necessarily strongly connected to fame, for instance the Arizona was far from successful, and the Charge of the Light Brigade most famous for being a disaster.

Either way, the German and US subs are famous, which is more perhaps doesn't matter and they're logical early-inclusion lines.

 

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On 11/22/2020 at 2:30 PM, Umikami said:

To who? Probably not to the Americans after Pearl Harbor and the losses during the Solomon's campaign, and certainly not to the Japanese.

For one, to me. I knew about the Battle of the Atlantic long before I did the efforts of the American subs in the Pacific because my home country played a major role in it. ASDIC was partly developed and tested in Canada in order to help combat the U-Boat menace, ships were sunk in the St. Lawrence in full view of small towns, Halifax was a major point on the Atlantic convoy route, and Canadian ships like the HMCS Sackville were often the only thing keeping the Liberty Ships from being sent to Davy Jones' Locker.

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12 hours ago, 1Sherman said:

For one, to me. I knew about the Battle of the Atlantic long before I did the efforts of the American subs in the Pacific because my home country played a major role in it. ASDIC was partly developed and tested in Canada in order to help combat the U-Boat menace, ships were sunk in the St. Lawrence in full view of small towns, Halifax was a major point on the Atlantic convoy route, and Canadian ships like the HMCS Sackville were often the only thing keeping the Liberty Ships from being sent to Davy Jones' Locker.

In 1945 the United States had a population of 140 million people; Canada had a population of 12 million people. Now, since we were talking about which submarine war was the better known, which country do you think counts the most?

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49 minutes ago, Umikami said:

In 1945 the United States had a population of 140 million people; Canada had a population of 12 million people. Now, since we were talking about which submarine war was the better known, which country do you think counts the most?

Americans participated in the Battle of the Atlantic as well. Liberty Ships were designed by an American and built in the States, American ships and planes helped to escort the convoys, and cities like Boston were where most of the convoys originated before joining up with the escort ships at Halifax.

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