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Sea devils: Pioneer submariners


The British Admiralty was initially snooty about submarines. Its battleships had ruled the world’s oceans for centuries, each in its pomp and glory the personification of empire. Submarines were seen as small, scruffy and silly. Admiralty grandees wanted them swatted as an irritant. One said submarines were ‘underhand, unfair and damned un-English.’ Another wanted captured foreign submariners hanged as pirates. Commanders and crews were the wrong sort and their game too sly. It just wasn’t cricket.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the first to envisage submersibles. His diagrams presaged four hundred years of madcap invention and a torrent of bizarre contraptions from underwater rowing boats to steam-driven submarines with folding chimneys, clockwork submarines to another with wheels to trundle along the seabed. While most designers were oddballs, some were thought deranged. Relatives committed one to a lunatic asylum on learning he had spent the family fortune on submarines.

Progress quickened in the mid nineteenth-century when the developed world grew molten with invention. French naval architect Henri Dupuy de Lome (1816-85) had a fanciful notion about a submarine fleet being built to ferry platoons of soldiers to invade Britain. He had learned about steam and iron ships as a young man while studying in the maritime hub of Bristol. While there he made a careful appraisal of the construction of Brunel’s stellar SS Great Britain. It was a useful spying trip.

Mancunian vicar, the Rev. George Garrett, built the steam-driven Resurgam, Latin for ‘I shall Rise Again.’ It didn’t. Resurgam was 45 feet long, steam-driven, with a crew of three. The Admiralty deigned an interest and asked to inspect it at the Portsmouth Navy base on the south coast. In 1880 Garrett set sail from Liverpool. Engine problems had him pull in at Rhyl on the Welsh coast. After repairs he set off again, pulled by a steam yacht. But the yacht broke down, the tow rope snapped and Resurgam sank. Garrett survived, becoming embroiled with Sir Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), inventor of the Maxim machine gun and the ubiquitous mouse-trap.

Steam submarines trailed giveaway smoke, negating the submarine’s greatest strength: its stealth. Interiors were scorching. Crews complained they were parboiled. Petrol engines ousted steam. Petrol was later superseded by long-range and less explosive diesel units. Cumbersome banks of bulky batteries provided underwater propulsion.

At the turn of the twentieth-century the American Navy, swiftly aped by the Royal Navy, acquired the designs of a former Irish monk and Republican John Philip Holland. An unlikely looking revolutionary in bowler hat and wing collar, eyes lost behind heavily pebbled lens, John Holland wanted to rid the seas of the Royal Navy. He left County Clare for America. His first submarine was financed by the Fenian republican movement. It was followed by his Holland’s, the prototype for British submarines in the First World War.

From the Holland’s of 1900 to the war in 1914 Britain developed several submarine classes. The D and E class were deployed with success during the conflict. Britain’s submariners in the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Baltic and the Sea of Marmora won five VCs, Britain’s highest military decoration.

The road to the E-class had been perilous. Calamity hit the A-class. They blew up, some sank, one was accidentally rammed to the bottom. The toll in lives was heavy. In 1914 A-7 went down in Whitsand Bay, Cornwall. Thirteen died. It took hours to find her and the Navy tried for a month to raise her before leaving her where she lay.

Early submarines were dangerous, cramped and claustrophobic. They were stiflingly hot, dripping with damp, hellishly noisy, fume-filled and insanitary. As a leading Admiralty engineer said in 1901, nobody ever went down in a submarine for their health.

They reeked of petrol, batteries, stagnant water, sweat, terror and bodies. Crews had no washing facilities or lavatory. They shared a bucket. One commander used to surface and conduct his toilet perched on the stern rail, until a German Zeppelin airship appeared and bombed him. There were no bunks. Crews slept among torpedoes and other paraphernalia. Some submariners were locked in a bread oven for 24 hours to see if anybody suffocated. They didn’t. But there was a high migraine count. Reginald Bacon, the droll ‘father’ of the submarine service, later an eminent Admiral, said the worst thing about the confinement was that one detainee was a flute player and had taken his instrument in with him.

When submariners dived they didn’t know where they’d surface; or if. The periscope, created by Dubliner Howard Grubb – and modified by Bacon – transformed the submarine, enabling it to see without having to break cover.

The development of the torpedo in the 1860s, by British engineer Robert Whitehead, and the act of marrying it to the submarine, created one of the world’s deadliest weapons but torpedoes were unreliable. During the First World War, commander Martin Nasmith had been known to swim after an unexploded torpedo, neutralize it in the water – as best he could – before swimming alongside it while chaperoning it back to his boat so he could use it again. Torpedoes were expensive and especially valuable in that boats accommodated so few.

In both world wars U-boats brought Britain to the lip of catastrophe. Several incidents wreaked global opprobrium, including the sinking of the British passenger steamer Falaba, torpedoed off Milford Haven in March 1915. Falaba’s passengers were getting into lifeboats, knowing the surfaced U-boat intended to sink the vessel. Instead of waiting for them to depart, the U-boat fired a torpedo into the ship’s side beneath a crowded lifeboat being lowered to the sea. Lifeboat and occupants were blown to smithereens.

On May 7 1915, U-20 torpedoed the liner Lusitania killing 1198 people. Some were Americans. It was one of the reasons the US joined in the conflict.

Though it had taken some four hundred years for the submarine to develop from da Vinci to Holland, its presence was secured in the First World War. By the Second World War, twenty one years later, it had become cardinal to victory for Britain and her allies.  

By John Swinfield

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