Juliett 484 - Lesson Plan

The Russian Sub Museum

A History of Submarines

400 Years of Submarines

1580 - William Bourne, an English innkeeper and scientific dilettante, provided the first published prescription for a submarine. Bourne first offered a lucid description of why a ship floats -- by displacing its weight of water -- and then described a mechanism by which
It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. If any magnitude of body that is in the water . . . having alwaies but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it shall swimme when you would, and sinke when you list....
In other words, decrease the volume to make the boat heavier than the weight of the water it displaces, and it will sink. Make it lighter, by increasing the volume, and it will rise. Bourne wrote of watertight joints of leather and a screw mechanism to wind the volume-changing 'thing' in and out. He described a principle rather than a plan for a submarine, and he offered no illustration.

Bourne's scheme

Some years later, this drawing purported to be Bourne's scheme. This plan featured leather-wrapped pads that one could screw in toward the centerline to create a flooded chamber and screw out to expel the water and seal the opening. Bourne wrote of expanding and contracting structures, however, not flooding chambers, and submarines built in England in 1729 and France in 1863 conformed with his idea exactly.

1623 - Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel, hired in 1603 as "court inventor" for James I of England, built what seems to have been the first working submarine. According to accounts, some of which people who actually saw the submarine may have written, it was a decked-over rowboat propelled by twelve oarsmen and made a submerged journey down the Thames River at a depth of about 15 feet.

Neither credible illustrations of Drebbel's boat nor credible explanations of how it worked exist. Best guess: The vessel was designed to have almost-neutral buoyancy, floating just awash, with a downward-sloping foredeck to act as a sort of diving plane. The boat would be driven under the surface by forward momentum (as are most modern submarines). When the rowers stopped rowing, the craft would slowly rise. Reports that Drebbel's patron, James I, witnessed a demonstration may be true, but those claiming the king took an underwater ride are most unlikely.

1634 - French priest Marin Mersenne theorized that a submarine should be made of copper and cylindrical in shape to better withstand water pressure (which increases about half a pound per square inch for every foot of depth). Such a craft, he maintained, should also bear pointed ends for streamlining and to permit course reversal without having to turn around.

Rotterdam Boat

1653 - The 72-foot-long Rotterdam Boat, designed by a man named De Son (a Frenchman), was probably the first underwater vessel specifically built (by Belgians) to attack an enemy (the English Navy). De Son meant for his almost-submarine - a semi-submerged ram -- to sneak up unobserved and punch a hole in an enemy ship. He boasted that it could cross the English Channel and back in a day, and sink a hundred ships along the way. Propulsion: a spring-driven clockwork device that turned a central paddle wheel. The device was so underpowered, however, that when the boat was finally launched, it went -- literally -- nowhere.

1680 - No evidence exists that Italian Giovanni Borelli ever built a submarine, but this illustration and several variations continue to appear in books and magazines as if it had been a real boat, sometimes erroneously linked with the efforts of Drebbel (1623) or Symons (1729). Borelli did understand the basic principle of volume versus weight (displacement), but he illustrated a totally impractical ballast system in which an operator would increase the boat's weight by allowing a bank of goatskin bags to fill with water, then decrease it by squeezing the water out and enabling the vessel to rise again.

Borelli's boat
Illustration purportedly showing Borelli's boat with its goatskin ballast bags.

1696 - Professor of mathematics Denis Papin built two submarines. He used an air pump to balance internal pressure with external water pressure, thus adjusting buoyancy by controlling the in-and-out flow of water into the hull. Propulsion: sails on the surface, oars underwater. Papin described "certain holes" through which the operator might "touch enemy vessels and ruin them in sundry ways."

Papin's boat
Papin tested the first boat, but his patron lost interest, and the second boat was never finished. Illustrations of this submarine look like a steam kettle (and, it so happens, Papin also invented the pressure cooker). An engraver might have confused the two, or the engravings may have been a joke or Papin's attempt at secrecy.

1729 - English house-carpenter Nathaniel Symons created a one-man expanding/contracting sinking boat (no locomotion) as a sort of public entertainment. Sealed up inside, in front of a crowd of spectators, he cranked the two parts of his telescopic hull together, spent 45 minutes underwater, then expanded the hull, rose to the surface, and passed the hat. One man gave him a coin.

1773 - Wagonmaker J. Day, another Englishman, built a small submarine with detachable ballast: stones hung around the outside with ring bolts that one could release from inside. This worked quite well in shallow water. Encouraged by a professional gambler, Day built a bigger boat and offered spectators the opportunity to place bets on how long he could remain underwater farther out in the harbor.

Surrounded by ships filled with bettors, Day's associates hung some stones; the boat wallowed awash but would not go under. They hung more stones, and this time the boat sank like a rock. Though no one could prove it, the vessel would have collapsed long before a frantic Day and his men could have released the ballast. All hands were lost.

1776 - Yale graduate David Bushnell ('75) built the first submarine to actually make an attack on an enemy warship. Dubbed the Turtle for its resemblance to a sea turtle floating vertically in the water, the craft was operated by one Sergeant Ezra Lee. The plan was for Lee to be towed close to an enemy ship, open a foot-operated valve to let in enough water to sink, close the valve, and move in under the target. He would do so by cranking two propellers -- one for forward and the other for vertical movement -- by using a foot treadle "like a spinning wheel." He would then drill into the hull to attach a 150-pound keg of gunpowder with a clockwork detonator, crank to get away and operate a foot pump to get the water out of the hull and re-surface.

David Bushnell's Turtle

In early-morning darkness on September 7, 1776, Turtle made an attack on a British ship in New York harbor, probably HMS Eagle. The drill may have hit an iron strap, for it failed to penetrate the hull. (Contrary to most reports, the Eagle of 1776 did not have a copper-sheathed bottom.) Lee became disoriented and soon bobbed to the surface. Though a lookout spotted him, he managed to get away.

1797 - Robert Fulton, a marginal American artist but increasingly successful inventor living in Paris, offered to build the French government a submarine for use against Britain. Fulton called it "a Mechanical Nautilus. A Machine which flatters me with much hope of being Able to Annihilate their Navy." He would build and operate the machine at his own expense and would expect payment for each British ship destroyed. Fulton predicted that "Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden, and so incalculable, the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet [be] rendered useless from the moment of the first terror."

1800 - After protracted delays and several changes in government, Fulton felt encouraged enough to build the submarine he called Nautilus. He made a number of successful dives, reaching depths of 25 feet and on one occasion staying down for as long as six hours, with ventilation on that excursion provided by a tube to the surface.

Nautilus was essentially an elongated Turtle with a larger propeller and a mast and sail for use on the surface. In trials, Nautilus achieved a maximum sustained underwater speed of four knots. Given the rank of rear admiral, Fulton made several attempts to attack English ships, which saw him coming and simply moved out of the way.

His relationship with the French government deteriorated. A new Minister of Marine reportedly said, "Go, sir. Your invention is fine for the Algerians or corsairs, but be advised that France has not yet abandoned the Ocean." Fulton broke up Nautilus and sold the metal for scrap. He proposed but never built an improved version.

Fulton's Nautilus
This most commonly reproduced Nautilus was drawn two years before Fulton built the submarine. Fulton added a deck and made a number of undocumented changes in the finished product. Illustrations that show Nautilus with the hull form and sail rig of a surface sailboat represent the never-built 'improved' version.

Fulton also attached the name 'torpedo' to that maritime weapon we now call a mine. Fulton's torpedoes were meant to be towed into position, either by a submerged boat or a surface rowboat. When the French passed on the Nautilus, he offered to sell torpedoes to the English, demonstrating their utility by sinking an anchored ship with a pair of torpedoes towed into place by a rowboat.

1812 - At least two submarines reportedly operated during the War of 1812. A British admiral called one of them "a Turtle," though assertions that Bushnell himself "returned to the charge" in the War of 1812 are not true. By that time, Bushnell, whose family had not heard from him for more than 25 years, was in his 70s and living under an assumed name in Georgia.

Halsey's boat
This drawing of Halsey's boat depicts a technical Turtle clone, with an "air tube to shove up when at the surface" at the top and a "water cock" and "force pump" at the bottom. The operator has one hand on the tiller, the other on a crank used to turn the propeller and drill bit. A line attaches the 'torpedo' to the drill.

The other submarine survives only in the notebooks of the revolver king Samuel Colt. The notebooks (now in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society) show a design attributed to Silas Clowden Halsey. Colt added the notation "lost in New London harbor in an effort to blow up a British 74." Of this craft, nothing else is known.

1815 - Englishman Thomas Johnstone may (or may not) have participated in Fulton's efforts on behalf of the French and may (or may not) have been hired to build a 100-foot-long submarine to be used in a planned rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on Elba. Whatever the facts of the case, Napoleon died before the (possible) submarine could be finished.

1850 - While the Danish Navy was blockading the German port of Kiel, Prussian army corporal Wilhelm Bauer persuaded a shipbuilder to construct a blockade-breaking submarine based on his design. Bauer called his brainchild Brandtaucher (Incendiary Diver). About the size and shape of a small sperm whale, the boat was made of riveted sheet iron. Two men powered a treadmill to drive a propeller, while a third man steered. The crew controlled buoyancy with ballast tanks and adjusted trim by moving a sliding weight along an iron rod.

Brandtaucher boat
Brandtaucher was recovered in 1887 and is now on display in Dresden, Germany.

On its first appearance, Brandtaucher proved sufficiently threatening to cause the blockading force to move farther out to sea. On a subsequent submerged run, however, the sliding weight slid too far forward, and the vessel plunged to the bottom, getting stuck in mud at 60 feet. Bauer and his two companions could not open the hatch because of the water pressure; they had to wait until a leak had sufficiently filled the interior with seawater that the pressure inside matched that without. After an unimaginable six hours in the claustrophobic darkness, they opened the hatch and were swept to the surface in a bubble of escaping air.

1852 - Indiana shoemaker Lodner D. Phillips built at least two submarines. The first, which he constructed in 1845 at the age of 20, collapsed at a depth of 20 feet.

Steering Submarine Propeller
Phillips earned an 1852 patent for a "Steering Submarine Propeller," whose main innovation was a hand-cranked propeller on a swivel joint that allowed crew to steer the vessel and control up and down movement.

The second achieved hand-cranked underwater speeds of four knots and depths of 100 feet. Phillips offered to sell it to the U.S. Navy, which promptly responded, "No authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat . . . the boats used by the Navy go on - not under - the water." During the Civil War, he again offered his services to the Navy, again without success.

1855 - Wilhelm Bauer built the 52-foot Diable Marin (Sea Devil) for Russia. The submarine made as many as 134 dives, the most spectacular of which celebrated the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. Of the 16 men the boat took underwater, four formed a brass band, whose underwater rendition of the national anthem could be heard clearly by listeners on the surface.

1859 - French designer Brutus de Villeroi built a 33-foot-long treasure-hunting submarine for Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. The target: the wreck of the British warship De Braak, lost near the mouth of the Delaware River in 1780. The method: divers operating out of an airlock. The boat made at least one three-hour dive to 20 feet; no other details are known.

1861 - Early in the Civil War, the Confederate government authorized citizens to operate armed warships as 'privateers.' A New Orleans consortium headed by cotton broker H.L. Hunley gained approval for the operation of Pioneer, a 34-foot-long submarine designed and built by James McClintock. The boat held three persons, one to steer and two to crank the propeller.

Civil War-era submarine
A Civil War-era submarine that was long thought to be Pioneer but is not was discovered and raised in 1878 and is on display at the Louisiana State Museum. Its true origin remains a mystery.

In a March 1862 demonstration on Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, a submerged Pioneer sank a barge with a towed floating torpedo. In April 1862, the U.S. Navy captured New Orleans, and its builders scuttled Pioneer. Soon discovered, the boat was sold for scrap in 1868.

1861 - Villeroi obtained a contract from the U.S. Navy for a larger submarine, the 46-foot-long Alligator. Its original plan for propulsion consisted of 16 oarsmen with hinged, self-feathering oars, but an improved version had a three-foot-diameter, hand-cranked propeller.

The Alligator
The Alligator, with its large, hand-cranked propeller.

The Alligator's primary (and only) weapon was an explosive charge that a diver would set against an enemy hull. Alligator entered service on June 13, 1862, the first submarine in the U.S. Navy. Towed south from Philadelphia for operations in the James River, the boat proved too large to hide and support dives in the relatively shallow water, and it foundered and sank in a storm in 1863.

1862 - Confederate Army officer Captain Francis D. Lee created the low-freeboard steamboat known as David (as in David and Goliath). It could either directly ram an enemy or make use of a spar torpedo, an explosive on the end of a long pole.

Despite its hopeful name, the David met with little success.

The Southern Torpedo Boat Company in Charleston built several as a profit-making venture (anyone who could sink a blockading Union warship could earn substantial bounties).

1863 - Hunley's New Orleans consortium shifted operations to Mobile, Alabama, and built a second, slightly improved submarine, which may have been called American Diver. McClintock spent a lot of time and money trying to replace hand-cranking with some sort of electrical motor, but without success. This submarine sank in rough weather in Mobile Bay; the crew was rescued.

1863 - Hunley's consortium built a third submarine about 40 feet long. Crew: probably nine, eight to crank the propeller and at least one to steer and operate the sea cocks and hand pumps to control water level in the ballast tanks.

The Confederates sent the submarine to Charleston to try to break the Federal blockade. It sank almost immediately, perhaps swamped by the wake of a passing steamer, and some crewmembers were lost. Confederate Commanding General P.G.T. Beauregard became disenchanted, but Horace Hunley persuaded him to allow "one more try" under Hunley's personal supervision. The boat sank again, killing Hunley and the crew.

The boat was found and raised, and two members of the original team who had not been aboard when it sank harassed Beauregard often enough that, after "many refusals and much discussion," he agreed to allow one more attempt, but not as a submarine. Now named CSS H.L. Hunley in honor of her spiritual father, the boat would now bear a spar torpedo and operate awash as a David.

1863 - A group of Northern speculators formed the American Submarine Company to take advantage of a vote in the U.S. Congress to approve the use of privateers. However, when President Abraham Lincoln declined to accept the authority, construction of this consortium's submarine, the Intelligent Whale, languished. The boat was not completed until 1866, long after the war ended. The then ostensible owner, O.S. Halstead, made several efforts to sell it to the government, and the U.S. Navy finally held formal acceptance trials in 1872. The Intelligent Whale failed. Halstead was not present, having been murdered the year before by his mistress's ex-lover.

1863 - The French team of Charles Burn and Simon Bourgeois launched Le Plongeur (The Diver). It was 140 feet long, 20 feet wide, and displaced 400 tons. Power: engines run by 180 pounds-per-square-inch compressed air stored in tanks throughout the boat.

American Diver
Sketch made by McClintock in 1872, which may represent the features of American Diver.

To operate it, crew members filled ballast tanks just enough to achieve neutral buoyancy, then made adjustments with cylinders that they could run in and out of the hull to vary the volume (Bourne's concept). Le Plongeur proved too unstable: A crewmember's movements could send her into radical gyrations.

CSS H.L. Hunley
CSS H.L. Hunley, recovered after a fatal accident and awaiting a "go-no go" decision by Charleston-area commanding General P.G.T. Beauregard

1864 - On February 17, after months of training and operational delays, the spar-torpedo-armed CSS H.L. Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic, which bears the dubious distinction of being the first warship ever sunk by a submarine.

Civil War drawings
These drawings were made sometime after the Civil War from information provided by W.A. Alexander, one of the original builders.

Shortly after the attack, Hunley disappeared with all hands, not to be found until 1995 (by a team led by the author Clive Cussler), about 1,000 yards from the scene of action. With hatches open for desperately needed ventilation, the boat may have become swamped by the wake of a steamer rushing to the aid of the Housatonic. In summer 2000, Hunley was recovered and is now undergoing conservation and study.

1864 - Wilhelm Bauer, a visionary ahead of his time, proposed powering submarines with internal combustion engines. All told, he spent 25 years developing (or at least proposing) submarines on behalf of six nations: Germany, Austria, France, England, Russia, and the United States. His plebeian origins and autocratic style, not to mention his lowly army rank, proved serious handicaps in dealing with the aristocratic brethren who ran most of the navies of the day. Essentially ignored by his native Germany in his lifetime, Bauer became a posthumous hero in the Nazi era.

1867 -English engineer Alfred Whitehead developed a self-propelled mine, which he called the "automobile torpedo." This was the true ancestor of the modern submarine-launched torpedo.

1869 -The U.S. Navy began manufacturing the Whitehead torpedo for use by both surface ships and a new class of vessel: the torpedo boat. This spawned the development of another new class, the torpedo-boat destroyer. Some navies flirted with yet another class, the destroyer of torpedo-boat destroyers. Whatever, surface-launched torpedoes had marginal military effectiveness and found their true home underwater.

1870 - French novelist Jules Verne brought submarines to full public consciousness with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in which the despot Captain Nemo uses his submarine Nautilus to sink, among others, the then fictional USS Abraham Lincoln. Verne's research was impeccable; he even computed the compressibility of seawater -- '0' for most purposes -- to be a factor of .0000436 for each 32 feet of depth.

1870 - The German Frederich Otto Vogel built a submarine but it sank during trials.

1874 - Recent Irish emigre and Patterson, New Jersey schoolteacher John Phillip Holland submitted a submarine design to the Secretary of the Navy, who passed the paperwork to a subordinate.

Holland's first design
Holland's first design: a 15.5-foot-long, one-man boat with a foot-operated treadle to drive the propeller, control the one-cubic-foot ballast tank, and discharge 'used' air.

No one would willingly go underwater in such a craft, that officer suggested, and, even if the idea had merit, he warned Holland, "to put anything through Washington was uphill work."

1878 - Finding sponsorship with the Fenians, a group of Irish revolutionaries seeking a way to harass the British Navy, Holland built a small prototype submarine, Holland No. 1, to test out his theories, including the use of a gasoline engine. The trial was successful enough to encourage building a larger, more warlike boat.

1879 - Anglican Reverend George W. Garrett tested the steam-powered Resurgam, which relied on steam from a boiler for surface operations, steam stored in pressurized tanks for submerged operations. The boat passed initial trials but sank while under tow (it was rediscovered in 1996). Broke but not deterred, Garrett took his ideas to a wealthy Swedish arms manufacturer, Thorsten Nordenfeldt (see 1885).

1881 - Holland launched the Fenian Ram, 31 feet long and armed with a ram bow and an air-powered cannon. The craft reached speeds of nine knots, depths of 60 feet, and stayed down for as long as an hour during tests, which took up to two years to complete. The Fenians became increasingly frustrated with Holland's delays and, faced with internal legal squabbles, stole their own boat and hid it in a shed in New Haven, Connecticut, there it remained for 35 years. Holland had nothing more to do with the Fenians, and the boat was eventually donated to the city of Patterson, where it is now on display in West Side Park.

1883 - Holland and several investors formed the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, hoping to sell a submarine to the French, then at war in Indochina.

Zalinski Boat
The Zalinski Boat.

The company launched its prototype, dubbed the Zalinski Boat, in 1885, but the vessel proved too heavy for the launching ways and smashed into some pilings. Her damage repaired, she made some token trial runs, but the war ended and the company went bankrupt.

1885 - French designer Claude Goubet built a battery-operated submarine that proved too awkward and unstable to meet with any success. He followed up in 1889 with Goubet II, also small, electric, and ineffective.

Goubet II
The Goubet II.

1885 - American Josiah H.L.Tuck demonstrated Peacemaker. It was powered by a chemical (fireless) boiler, with 1,500 pounds of caustic soda providing five hours of endurance. Tuck's inventing days ended when relatives, angered that he had squandered most of a significant fortune, had him committed to an asylum for the insane.

1885 - Thorsten Nordenfeldt launched Nordenfeldt I - 64 feet long and armed with one external torpedo tube. It took as long as 12 hours to generate enough steam for submerged operations and about 30 minutes to dive. Plus, once underwater, sudden changes in speed or direction triggered, in the words of a U.S. Navy intelligence report, dangerous and eccentric movements."

Good public relations overcame bad design, however. Nordenfeldt always demonstrated his boats before a stellar crowd of crowned heads, and many regarded his submarines as the world standard. The Greek Navy took delivery of Nordenfeldt I in 1886 but seems to have done nothing with it. Its bitter rival, the Turkish Navy, ordered two of the larger Nordenfeldt II boats, each 100 feet long and bearing two torpedo tubes.

Nordenfeldt III
Nordenfeldt sold his 1887 Nordenfeldt III -- 123 feet long, rated to a depth of 100 feet, and boasting an advertised surface speed of 14 knots -- to Russia, but it ran aground en route. The Russians refused to accept delivery, and the boat was scrapped.

When crew on the first boat fired a torpedo on a test dive, however, the boat tipped backwards and sank stern-first to the bottom. The second Turkish boat was left unfinished.

1887 - The U.S. Navy announced an open competition for a submarine torpedo boat, with a $2 million incentive. The Navy based specifications on presumed Nordenfeldt-level capabilities and a steam power plant packing 1,000 horsepower. Bidders included Nordenfeldt, Tuck, and Holland. Holland's design won, but because of contractor-related complications, the Navy withdrew the award.

The Navy reopened the competition a year later, and Holland won again. But a new Secretary of the Navy diverted the $2 million to surface ships. Nordenfeldt lost interest in submarines, Tuck went into the asylum, and Holland got a job as a draftsman, earning $4 a day.

1888 - Gustave Zede assembled Gymnote for the French Navy. A 60-foot, battery-powered boat capable of eight knots on the surface, the submarine was limited by the lack of any method for recharging the batteries while at sea. Her naval service was largely limited to experimentation.

1889 - Spaniard Isaac Peral's Peral successfully fired three Whitehead torpedoes during trials, but internal politics kept the Spanish Navy from pursuing the project.

1893 - With a new administration in office, the U.S. Congress appropriated $200,000 for an "experimental submarine," and the Navy announced a new competition. There were three bidders: Holland, George C. Baker, and Simon Lake. Holland and Lake submitted proposals, but the politically well-connected Baker already had a submarine, which he demonstrated on Lake Michigan.

Simon Lake's scheme
Simon Lake's scheme included a set of wheels by which the boat could run along the bottom. Lake tested this theory in 1894 with a small wooden "test vehicle" financed by relatives and dubbed Argonaut Jr. Public demonstrations subsequently brought in enough money to build a larger boat, Argonaut I (see 1898).

A novel feature: a clutch between the steam engine and an electric motor that allowed the motor to function as a dynamo to recharge the batteries for submerged running. A troubling feature: a pair of amidships-mounted propellers that swiveled up or forward through a clumsy period of transition. When Holland's design once again won, Baker complained to his friends in Washington, apparently causing the whole business to be put on hold.

1895 - Taking a leaf from the Nordenfeldt playbook -- in this case, good public relations to overcome political intransigence -- Holland let it be known that he was entertaining offers from foreign navies. His tactic may have succeeded, for on March 3, the U.S. Navy awarded the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company $200,000 to build an 85-foot, 15-knot, steam-powered submarine called Plunger.

Holland was only somewhat pleased. He didn't like the imposition of a steam engine as well some changes the Navy insisted upon. Congress was thrilled with the prospect, however, and immediately authorized two more submarines of the Plunger type at $175,000 apiece.

Plunger, launched in 1897, failed before ever leaving the dock. The temperature in the fireroom reached 137F at only two-thirds rated output. As one of Holland's employees later testified, "They forced us to put steam in the Plunger against Mr. Holland's advice. When we . . . put the steam on, we found it was so hot we could not live in her." In what must be an unwitting irony, the first U.S. Navy submarine with built-in air conditioning was the 1935 Plunger, SS-179.

1897 - Even before Plunger had failed, Holland began construction of a smaller (54 feet), slower (7 knots), gasoline-powered boat, Holland VI. Armament: one dynamite gun (air-launched, 222-pound projectile with seven loads) and a Whitehead torpedo (three loads). Crew: six men. Habitability: included a toilet to support operations as long as 40 hours. Holland began a series of public demonstrations.

The New York Times, May 17, 1897: "The Holland, the little cigar-shaped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Nixon's shipyard this morning."

1898 - The impending Spanish-American War intruded on Holland's efforts to sell his new boat to the Navy, although Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, told his boss, "I think that the Holland submarine boat should be purchased." The war begun, Holland offered to go to Cuba and sink the Spanish fleet - on the condition, if he proved successful, that the Navy buy his boat. The Navy was properly horrified at the thought of a private citizen using a private warship to sink foreign ships; times had changed since Bushnell and Turtle and the days of the privateers.

Argonaut I
Simon Lake's prominently wheeled Argonaut I, coincidentally under construction in the same dock as Holland's Plunger. This boat used a gasoline engine for both surface and submerged running, drawing air from the surface through breathing tubes.

In September, Simon Lake's 36-foot Argonaut I made an open-ocean passage from Norfolk, Virginia, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, prompting Jules Verne to send Lake a cable: "The conspicuous success of submarine navigation in the United States will push on underwater navigation all over the world ... The next war may be largely a contest between submarine boats."

Holland VI
Holland VI, as pictured in the December 1898 issue of Scientific American.

By November, with the war ended, the Navy held an 'official' trial of Holland VI. Some problems existed, but Holland did not have enough money to fix them. So he joined forces with a wealthy industrialist to form the Electric Boat Company. He was designated Chief Engineer.

1898 - The French fielded the 148-foot, 266-ton Gustav Zede, named for the recently deceased designer. On maneuvers, the submarine 'torpedoed' an anchored battleship to the consternation of some, and pride among other, French naval officers. The boat's success prompted an international competition for a submarine with a surface range of 100 miles and a submerged range of 10 miles. The winner (out of 29 entries) was Maxime Laubeuf's 188-foot, 136-ton Narval, which began life with a steam engine but soon switched to a diesel engine.

1899 - After a modified Holland VI passed the Navy trials, the company made a formal offer to sell the boat to the Navy and moved it down from New York to Washington, D.C. to enhance the public relations effort with some demonstrations for members of Congress. Meanwhile, Simon Lake's Argonaut I was enlarged, improved, and redesignated as Argonaut II.

Holland VI

1900 - 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.

1900 - 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."

1901 - 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.

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.

1904 - 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!"

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.

1904 - 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.

1904 - 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.

Lake's Protector, taken out of the competition and sold to Russia in a desperate bid for cash.

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.

1905 - 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 crewmembers.

1906 - 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.

1909 - 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.

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.

1910 - 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.

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.

1911 - 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.

1911 -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.

1912 - 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."

1912 - 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.

1912 - 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.

1914 - 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.

1914 - 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, and 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.

1914 - 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.

1915 - 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. 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.

1915 - 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 ferryboat. Nonetheless, the U-boats were by then taking out about 300,000 tons of shipping a month.

1915 - 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.

1916 - 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.

1916 - 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."

1917 - 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.

1917 - 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 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.

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 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 sailors. 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.

1917 - 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.

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.

1917 - '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.

1917 - 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.

1917 - 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 160F and in the engine room 90F (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.

1918 - 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, which apparently stands for nothing in particular, but 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.

1918 - 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? Perhaps this is better regarded as 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.

1919 - UC-97 became probably the only German submarine sunk within the continental United States. One of five U-boats turned over to the U.S. Navy for post-war study, she toured the Great Lakes as part of a Victory Bond drive, then was sunk (on purpose) in Lake Michigan a few miles east of Chicago. Post-war, the U.S. Navy began applying lessons learned, from operations and from a study of the captured U-boats, toward new submarine designs. Whereas the operating areas for the European powers were primarily close to home, the chief operating area for the U.S. Navy was the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the Navy needed a boat with good sea-keeping qualities, exceptional range, high reliability, and a reasonable level of habitability.

1919 - Japan, emboldened by its surprise victory over the Russian colossus in 1905 and its successful role in providing escort services in World War I, began planning for an eventual showdown with the nation they viewed as their major and logical adversary: the United States. As one of the World War I allies, Japan received seven of the surrendered U-boats but went a bit beyond mere 'examination.' Japan imported some 800 German technicians, engineers, and naval officers to teach them how to design and build submarines.

1919 - The British converted several unfinished K-boats from steam to diesel power. They fitted one, designated M.1, with a 12-inch naval rifle.

The British M.1, with its enormous 12-inch gun.

In theory, crewmembers could fire the gun while the boat was submerged; in practice, the submarine had to surface after each shot to reload the gun. M.1 sank after a collision in 1925. The British turned another, designated M.2, into a submarine aircraft carrier. M.2 sank when someone opened the hangar door by mistake while the boat was still partially submerged.

1919 - The Treaty of Versailles blocked the German Navy from having submarines and limited the number of officers to 1,500. One of those officers was U-boat skipper Karl Donitz. He was assigned as commanding officer of a torpedo boat - a submarine on the surface, if you will. He began developing submarine tactics for the next war.

In secret, Germany acquired a Dutch shipbuilding company that designed submarines ostensibly for sale to international customers but that also were prototypes for the next class of German U-boats. In fact, it would be German crews that conducted sea trials in 1931 for three boats sold to the Finnish Navy.

1923 - Most major navies have tried to use submarines as aircraft carriers, though never with much success. The S-1, the105th U.S. submarine, was equipped with an on-deck hangar and the Martin MS-1 seaplane.

The S-1, with a fully assembled MS-1 seaplane on deck.

Wishful thinking: Crew had to disassemble the MS-1 to fit it in the hangar and had to reassemble it before flight, forcing the submarine to remain exposed for too long. In addition, launching and recovery proved virtually impossible in the open ocean.

1925 - The British tested the 3,000-ton X.1, which came armed with four 5.2-inch guns and six 21-inch torpedo tubes. This was an attempt to build an underwater cruiser. It was not successful and was scrapped.

1925 - A steamer rammed the U.S. submarine S-51, which sank in 130 feet of water. Two years later, a Coast Guard cutter rammed S-4. Neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard had any means at their disposal to rescue survivors, and all hands were lost. These accidents led to the development of the McCann submarine rescue chamber, and an increase in the submarine hazardous duty pay instituted by Roosevelt in 1905.

submarine rescue chamber
The McCann submarine rescue chamber.

1927 - Another Nautilus, the 168th American submarine, laid down in 1927, was another effort to put big guns on submarines -- in this case, twin six-inch guns. Nautilus offered at least one improvement over the British and French efforts - gunners could train and aim the guns independently -- but the shells were too heavy for safe handling, and the V-class boat proved too cumbersome for operations as an attack submarine. The Navy converted Nautilus into a seaplane filling station and amphibious support ship for World War II.

1931 - Not to be outdone by the British or Americans, France fielded Surcouf, at 361 feet and 3,304 tons the world's largest submarine until World War II. Armed with twin 8-inch guns and an airplane, Surcouf disappeared in 1942, probably after a collision with a merchantman.

1932 - The U.S. Navy opened a competition for the development of a lightweight diesel engine more suitable to submarines than any currently in production. While the number of engines that the Navy might purchase for submarines was too small to justify the investment, engine manufacturers understood that a large commercial market waited in the wings: the railroad.

1932 - Japanese submarine designers moved out from under the shadow of the Germans and, on their own, focused on three basic classes: the I-boats, most of them about the size of the German U-cruisers; the RO coastal boats, roughly the size of the German Type VII (see 1935) but not as capable; and the HA series of midget submarines, in many variations.

The Japanese were more serious about submarine aircraft carriers than any other navy: They built their first, the 2,243-ton, 320-foot I-5, in 1932. It was equipped with one floatplane. In the next 12 years, they built 28 more, in ever-increasing sizes.

1932 - The German government approved the clandestine construction of 16 new U-boats.

1935 - On March 16, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler renounced the Treaty of Versailles. A few weeks later, the first of a new series of U-boat, U-1, entered service.

1935 - Captain Donitz defined his fundamental concepts for the next conflict: "Tonnage War" and "Wolf Pack." The first replicated World War I experience: Sink ships faster than they can be replaced, for a long enough period, and you could strangle an island nation like Britain. The second: Teams of seven or eight boats attack on the surface at night, submerge to escape, resurface and speed ahead to get in position for the next night's attack. The U-boats' 15-knot surface speed was almost twice that of an average convoy and equal to that of most anti-submarine escorts.

Type VIIC U-boat
A German band welcomes a Type VIIC U-boat, the mainstay of the German World War II submarine fleet, returning from a war patrol.

As in World War I, Germany developed several classes of U-boat. Typical were the coastal boats (Type II), long-range boats (Type IX), and jack-of-all-trades boats (Type VII), which became the mainstay of the fleet, with more than 700 completed in six variations (A through F) by the end of the war. Typical displacement at the surface: about 760 tons. Length: 220 feet. Range: 8,700 miles, with a functional endurance of seven or eight weeks without refueling. Dive time: Twenty seconds, with a maximum safe depth of 650 feet.

1938 - An experimental 140-foot, 213-ton Japanese HA boat topped 21 knots - submerged. The Japanese also developed the world's most effective torpedo, the Long Lance. The MK95 submarine version had a 900-pound warhead, a wakeless oxygen-fueled turbine, and a range of five miles at 49 knots. Contemporary U.S. Navy torpedoes had half the warhead and half the range -- when they were working (see 1941, torpedo 'design' issues).

1939 - While on sea trials, the spanking new U.S. Navy Squalus, SS-192, sank in 240 feet of water when an incompletely closed valve caused flooding in the engine room. Twenty-six men were killed in the flooded section; thirty-three men survived. All were safely brought to the surface in four round-trips using the McCann submarine rescue chamber. Salvaged and renamed Sailfish, the boat served to the end of World War II.

1939 - Ten days after the Squalus disaster, a junior officer opened the inner door of a flooded torpedo tube and inadvertently sank the British submarine Thetis. A few men got out through an escape hatch, but 99 were lost.

The British subsequently developed an on-board escape system, whereby sailors waiting their turn to go out through a pressure-modulated airlock would be able to breathe through individual oxygen masks permanently stored in the fore and aft torpedo rooms. The British also developed positive interlocks to prevent a recurrence, salvaged the Thetis and put it back in service renamed Thunderbolt. She was lost in combat in 1943.

1939 - When Hitler told Donitz early in the year that he was planning for a war six years in the future, Donitz developed plans for the construction of a U-boat fleet of 300 Type VII boats. This would allow for 100 on station, 100 in transit, and 100 in training or under repair. However, Germany moved into Czechoslovakia in March and invaded Poland on September 1. On the 3rd, the British issued an ultimatum: Get out of Poland. You have two hours to make up your mind. The Germans did not respond. World War II began. Germany then had 57 U-boats in service, only 38 of which could be considered 'seagoing.' For the time being, it would be enough.

1939 - The U-boat war started under "prize rules," but that policy did not last long. On the very first day, U-30 sank the liner Athenia without warning, and 122 of 1,100 passengers perished, including 28 Americans. The German High Command tried to pretend that the sinking was caused by a time bomb planted by the British to inflame public opinion against Germany. As late as January 1940, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was ordering his staff "to continue running the Athenia propaganda ... bearing in mind the fundamental principle of all propaganda, i.e., the repetition of effective arguments." The German public did not learn the true story until after the war.

Toward the end of September, the High Command authorized "seizure or sinking without exception" for merchant ships trying to radio for help when ordered to stop. A week later, U-boats received the order to sink without warning any ship sailing without lights, with commanders instructed to enter a note in the log that the sinking was "due to possible confusion with a warship or auxiliary cruiser."

By November, the Germans had withdrawn all pretense with Standing Order No. 154: "Rescue no one and take no one aboard . . . Care only for your own boat and strive to achieve the next success as soon as possible! We must be hard in this war."

1939 - Dr. Ross Gunn of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory suggested that "fission chambers" using an isotope of uranium, U-235, could power submarines. In a Saturday Evening Post article a year later, a science writer noted that one pound of U-235 has the equivalent energy of five million pounds of coal: "A five-pound lump of only 10 to 50 percent purity would be sufficient to drive ocean liners and submarines back and forth across the seven seas without refueling for months."

1940 - German scientist Helmuth Walter demonstrated a prototype for the first true submarine, a boat that in theory could operate submerged for an indefinite period, unlimited by battery capacity or the need for atmospheric oxygen. V.80 gained its power from the decomposition of highly concentrated (95 percent) hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, known as Perhydrol. In essence, when the chemical breaks down, it releases superheated steam to drive a turbine along with oxygen to support conventional combustion for additional power or for crew respiration.

The experimental 1943 250-ton Type Wa-201 Walter boat, U-793, here partially dismantled at the end of the war.

V.80's designer optimized its hull shape for submerged operations, and the boat indeed demonstrated exceptional speed -- 28 knots submerged. It also demonstrated exceptionally high fuel consumption, 25 times that of a diesel engine, at exceptional cost. According to one source, one six-and-a-half-hour trial run consumed $200,000 worth of Perhydrol. The design showed great promise, but Hitler thought his war was won, so plans for production of a series of Walter boats were put on hold. Research continued, however, and perhaps eight, in several variations between 250 and 300 tons, were put into service in 1943-44.

1940 - The U.S. Navy ran depth-charge tests against an operational submarine that, for most of the test, was moored underwater without a crew. Finding that 300 pounds of TNT was not very effective, they doubled the explosive charge.

1940 - In June, France signed an armistice with Germany, and soon three French bases gave U-boats more convenient access to the open ocean. The 18 months between July 1940 and December 1941 were known, to the German submarine force, as the "happy time."

Fleet headquarters in Germany directed U-boat operations by long-range radio. The Germans assumed the Allies would intercept the traffic but didn't care, because they were encoding all messages. However, even coded intercepts were useful; the Allies could identify many individual boats by their unique radio signature. Even if an Allied plane or ship could not establish a submarine's firm position, an analyst could determine when a boat would be near the end of a mission and therefore headed home along one of several reasonably predictable routes.

1940 - Italy joined Germany in June, bringing 105 submarines to the Mediterranean theater. They do not seem to have had much impact.

1940 - In ramping up in anticipation of war -- or, put more delicately, considering the then overwhelming public support for continued neutrality, as a "just in case" prudent measure -- U.S. submarine production jumped from six or seven a year through the mid-1930s to 71 for FY1941. The Navy settled on Gato, SS-212, laid down in October 1940, as the template. Specifications: 312 feet, 1,825 tons, range 11,400 miles, 24 torpedoes. Over time the Americans made improvements, including a thicker pressure hull, beginning with the otherwise more or less identical Balao, SS-285.

1940 - On August 17th, Hitler formally declared a total blockade of the British Isles. Desperate to acquire more escorts, British Prime Minster Winston Churchill struck a deal with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt: a loan of 50 over-age World War I American destroyers in exchange for long-term leases for base facilities in Newfoundland, Bermuda, British Guiana, and the West Indies.

1940 - The first Wolf Pack went into operation in September. Whereas in World War I the simple fact of 'convoy' kept the U-boats at bay, the Wolf Pack tactic instigated a series of long-running battles. Early in the war, escorts were lacking, and escort coordination was minimal. Often, before meeting up in ocean, escort vessels had not even talked with one another, much less trained together.

One example: On October 16, one U-boat spotted a convoy of 35 ships and called in the rest of his pack, six more boats. Another boat joined the next day. After three days, the U-boats had sunk 17 of those ships, had intercepted two other convoys, and sent 21 more ships to the bottom, without a single U-boat loss. The tally would have been higher, but most of the submarines had fired all of their torpedoes and had to go home to re-load.

1940 - At the end of the year, a German Naval Staff study noted the 'accomplishments' of the U-boats, but called for the building of more battleships, taking shipyard resources away from submarine construction. At the time, a handful of operational U-boats -- often, not more than ten at a time -- were sinking twice as many ships as the surface fleet.

To enhance morale among civilians and sailors alike, a book of fiction and a feature movie showed Wilhelm Bauer battling bureaucracy and professional intransigence to reach the forefront of heroes ("Corporal Wilhelm Bauer, the first man who dove into the twilight..."). (See 1850.)

1940 - By December, newly perfected aircraft-mounted radar could pick up a surface-running U-boat at seven miles. Not a great distance, but farther than the eye could see at night. It was a start.

1941 - America's role as a 'neutral' was somewhat fuzzy. A steady stream of supplies flowed by convoy across the Atlantic, protected for much of the journey by U.S. Navy resources. After U-boats sank an American merchantman in May and a U.S. destroyer on October 30, with the loss of 115 sailors, public opinion, which had been about 70 percent in favor of continued neutrality, began to shift.

1941 - The code-breaking effort dubbed 'Ultra' cracked the German Navy code. Beginning in June, the Allies could read much of the U-boat radio traffic off and on throughout the rest of the war, depending on whether the Germans had implemented new codes. (See Decoding Nazi Secrets.)

1941 - In August, U-570 became the first and only submarine ever captured by an aircraft. Under attack, she surfaced and surrendered, and an arriving escort ship took control. U-570 subsequently entered the Royal Navy, where, redesignated Graph, she served until she was wrecked off the west coast of Scotland in March 1944.

1941 - In August, Hitler demonstrated a constitutional inability to keep hands off and let his commanders run the war. Against all advice, in a misguided effort to protect his supply lines to North Africa, he ordered a shift of submarines from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. (Misguided? How, indeed, could a submarine protect a surface ship against the principal threat, air attack?) This soon led to an order to shift all operational boats from the Atlantic theater, at a time when there were Atlantic targets aplenty and good weather in which to attack them. The submariners' "happy time" soon came to an end.

1941 - On December 7, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese had 25 I-boats on station around the islands, but the submarines did not encounter any American warships. In addition, five HA midgets attempted to penetrate the harbor before the air attack began, but they achieved nothing but their own destruction. One became the first casualty of the Pacific war, sunk by the destroyer Ward before the air attack had begun as an unauthorized interloper in the offshore defensive sea area. The destroyer sent a flash message to headquarters, which thought it might be a false alarm. The battle fleet was seriously damaged in the Japanese air attack, but in time all ships were back in service except for two obsolete battleships: Arizona, sunk at her moorings, and Oklahoma, which sank while under tow back to the west coast for repairs.

The major effects of the attack: to coalesce American public opinion as never before, and to force the U.S. Navy to abandon an ingrained fascination with battleships and shift the burden to the new-generation warships: the aircraft carrier and the submarine. At that time, the U.S. Navy had 111 submarines in commission, including 60 in the Atlantic and 51 in the Pacific, but many were barely capable. They commissioned Gato at the end of the month, yet it would be several years before a fully capable submarine force was in place.

Submarine pioneer Admiral Chester Nimitz assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on December 31, 1941, on board the only available undamaged warship, the submarine Grayling (the aircraft carriers were at sea).

With Roosevelt's approval, the U.S. Navy implemented unrestricted submarine warfare that same day. To salve the conscience of those who had for so long deplored German practice, all Japanese shipping was defined as being in the service of the military, and thus need not be considered as "merchant vessels."

1941 - On the first day of the war, 28 submarines of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet stood in defensive positions around the Philippines. That was more submarines than the entire German U-boat fleet at the beginning of World War I; indeed, it represented more submarines than had ever been assembled for one battle at the same time. But they might as well have been in San Diego. For the losing three-week Philippine campaign, with potential targets including 76 loaded transports and supply ships, the Americans averaged only two attacks per submarine and sank only three Japanese ships.

On the flip side, only one American submarine was lost. But that is not meant as a compliment. Pre-war training had emphasized caution: "It is bad practice and is contrary to submarine doctrine," noted an official report of 1941, "to conduct an attack at periscope depth when aircraft are known to be in the vicinity." Of more significance were problems with torpedo supply and design. As for supply: 1941 torpedo production was limited to 60 a month. For all of 1942, even with a war well underway, total production was 2,382. Submarine commanders, already too cautious, were cautioned not to waste their precious ammunition. For the year, they fired 2,010.

As for design: The Americans, British, Russians, and Germans all had similar problems with their torpedoes. The depth settings were wrong, the fuses were inadequate, and the torpedoes did not explode on contact. Example: during one period in 1940, U-boats launched four attacks on a battleship, 14 on cruisers, 10 on destroyers, and 10 on transports; they sank one transport. The leading U-boat ace Gunther Prien complained, "I cannot be expected to fight with a dummy rifle."

In all navies, senior management did not give credence to reports coming in from the fleet. The submariners themselves, who after all had the most to gain (and lose), continued to complain until someone took notice, or they conducted their own indisputable tests. Amazing to note: Some of these problems were holdovers from World War I, and others were well known in the 1930s. The Germans solved their problems toward the end of 1940.

Before the U.S. Navy had discovered and fixed its own problems -- an effort that took the first two years of the war -- their submarine commanders had fired almost 4,000 torpedoes against the enemy, with only marginal results. On one patrol, for example, Halibut fired 23 torpedoes; only one exploded, though one of the targets sank when the torpedo punched a hole through rusting hull plates. The U.S. tally for all of 1942 -- 180 ships, 725,000 tons -- was about equal to a monthly U-boat total. The Japanese replaced 635,000 tons in the same period. As far as the undersea forces were concerned, it looked like it was going to be a long war.

1942 - Japan began construction of the 5,223-ton I-400 class of submarine aircraft carrier. Designed for attacks against the Panama Canal and the U.S. west coast, each carried three dive-bomber seaplanes. They planned for 12 but built only two, which never saw any useful service. Japanese submarines also made some attacks on the west coast, lobbing shells at Santa Monica, California and Astoria, Oregon. The attacks had minor effect, although Radio Tokyo gloated, "Americans know that the submarine shelling of the Pacific coast was a warning to the nation that the paradise created by George Washington is on the verge of destruction."

1942 - Donitz had hoped to send a blitzkrieg of U-boats against the eastern seaboard of the U.S., but Hitler, fearful of an Allied invasion of Norway, forced him to keep most of his assets closer to home. Donitz nonetheless managed to get five long-range cruisers into position in January, where they found the whole coastline lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve: no blackouts, all navigational aids aiding, all ships sailing with full navigational lights. With the war 3,000 miles away, it was high tourist season in Miami, and the northward-flowing Gulf Stream just a few miles off the coast kept southward-bound ships close inshore, nicely silhouetted against a glowing Florida skyline. The tally for two and a half months in American coastal waters: 98 ships. Coastal communities did not go under blackout until April.

1942 - The Battle of the Atlantic began in July and continued for 11 months, with U-boats claiming some 712 merchant victims. They were sinking ships at more than twice the replacement rate, and new U-boats were joining the fleet at a rate of about one a day.

Also in July, the Germans began deployment of a mid-ocean filling station. The Type XIV boat had a capacity for 700 tons of fuel and other supplies rather than armaments. Dubbed the "Milk Cow," this submarine could keep a dozen Type VII boats at sea for another month or five Type IX boats for two months.

1942 - On September 13, in what may be the most spectacular, if unplanned, submarine event of all time, the Japanese I-19 launched a spread of six torpedoes at the aircraft carrier Wasp. Three hit, sinking the ship. The others continued running for twelve miles into another task group, where one caused fatal damage to the destroyer O'Brien and other sent the battleship North Carolina to the shipyard for two months. The sixth cruised on into the unknown.

1942 - Technological advances such as improved radar, the radar altimeter, the aircraft searchlight, and effective air-dropped depth charges began to enter the force. Before long, aircraft could claim participation in 50 percent of all U-boat sinkings.

1942 - In September, Donitz issued a corollary to Special Order 142: "Be hard. Think of the fact that the enemy in his bombing attacks on German towns has no regard for women and children." He put his finger on the reality of modern war: All is 'unrestricted.'

1942 - By the end of the year, with the U-boat fleet clearly in trouble, Hitler authorized the design of a fully combat-capable, Walter-cycle, 1,600-ton U-boat designated Type XVIII. Two prototypes were ordered, but it soon became clear that not enough time or money existed to turn this dream into reality. The Germans converted the design into a conventionally powered submarine -- diesel on the surface, batteries for submerged running -- and the rather large space intended for storage of the Perhydrol was given over to an extra-large bank of batteries.

The Germans ordered two new classes. The 1,600-ton Type XXI had only half the range of the comparable Type IX, could manage bursts of 17 knots underwater (compared with seven knots in the Type IX), dive to almost 1,000 feet (300 feet deeper), and remain totally submerged at economical creep speed for 11 days. With a sophisticated fire control system, the Type XXI could launch an attack from a depth of 150 feet.

The 230-ton coastal submarine Type XXIII, meanwhile, had twice the submerged speed and five times the underwater endurance of the small pre-war Type II. However, combat effectiveness was severely limited: two torpedoes, no reloads.

The Germans quickly phased out all other submarine construction in favor of Type XXI and Type XXIII.

1943 - Hoping to hide existing U-boats from increasingly devastating air patrols, the Germans perfected an idea that had been kicking around for a long time: use of a breathing tube to allow running on diesel power just below the surface, thus also keeping the batteries fully charged. They dubbed it the 'snorkel.' It was not a perfect solution. The tube could break if the boat was going too fast, and the ball-float at the top would close if a wave passed over, thus shifting engine suction to the interior of the boat and occasionally popping a few eardrums. The snorkel also left a visible wake and returned a pretty good radar blip. But it helped.

1943 - The Germans underestimated the industrial capacity of the U.S. The prediction under which "Tonnage War" was by then being waged was that the 1943 ship production of Great Britain and the U.S. together would be less than eight million tons. The U.S. alone launched more than double that figure.

The Germans also underestimated the ability of the Allies to develop and implement highly effective anti-submarine weapons and tactics. During the year, the U.S. Navy established anti-submarine "Hunter-Killer" groups centered on a small, quickly built so-called 'jeep' carrier, from which perhaps a dozen planes might operate. Long-range aircraft went into service, including the B-24, which was adapted for anti-submarine efforts. Among other efforts, they put an end to the "Milk Cow." The rendezvous were too easy to spot by air patrol. Of nine Type XIV submarines in service in June 1943, seven had been sunk by August.

Also operational: the 'hedgehog,' so-named because the array of two dozen 65-pound projectiles looked like the bristles of a porcupine. Launched 230 yards in front of a surface warship, the projectiles would cover a 100-foot circle, exploding on contact. The weapon proved highly effective.

By the end of May 1943, the Germans had clearly lost the Battle of the Atlantic. In that month alone, the Allies sank 41 U-boats, representing 25 percent of Germany's current operational U-boat strength. Things got worse: In the final four months of the year, during which almost 5,000 ships sailed in Atlantic convoys and only nine were lost, the Allies destroyed 62 U-boats.

1944 - As in World War I, only one verified German submarine atrocity is on record. In March 1944, U-boat commander Heinz Eck, on his first combat mission, ordered his crew to kill all survivors of the Greek merchant steamer Peleos and to try to pulverize all floating wreckage with hand grenades. His motive: to hide the sinking from patrolling aircraft and thus conceal his own presence in the area. Three survivors later testified in a post-war trial; Eck and two of his officers, who claimed they were only "following orders," were convicted and executed.

1944 - In June, a "Hunter-Killer" group became the first American force to capture an enemy warship on the high seas since the War of 1812. Depth charges forced the Type IX boat, U-505, to the surface; quick action by a boarding party saved the boat from being scuttled by her crew. U-505 is now a permanent exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

1944 - In a reprise of the Deutschland efforts of World War I to move high-priority cargo through the blockade, the Japanese sent the cargo-carrying I-52 (356 feet long, cruising range of 27,000 miles at 12 knots) from Indonesia with a cargo of rubber, tin, opium, quinine, tungsten, molybdenum, and two metric tons of gold bullion, bound for Nazi-occupied France. Allied radio intercepts had pinpointed a mid-ocean rendezvous with U-530, to transfer a coast pilot, a radar technician, and some new radar equipment to assist I-52 in running the Allied gauntlet. Sunk on June 23, 1944 by an aircraft from the jeep-carrier USS Bogue, I-52 was discovered in May 1995 under 17,000 feet of water.

1944 - The American version of code-breaking, dubbed the "Pacific Ultra," allowed the fleet to plot Japanese merchant convoys in advance -- no need for long open-ocean hunting expeditions. As the existing submarine force was running out of targets, the U.S. radically scaled back submarine production early in the year. With perhaps 140 submarines operating in the Pacific, U.S. Navy submarines sank more than 600 Japanese ships, 2.7 million tons -- more than for the years 1941, 1942, and 1943 combined.

As targets disappeared, the Navy assigned many submarines to picket duty to rescue downed aviators making B-29 raids on Japan, or anyone else who happened along. The boats hauled aboard a total of 540 individuals, including the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy, Lt(jg) George Bush.

1944 - On November 28, the U.S. boat Archerfish sank the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine, the newly minted 71,890-ton Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano.

1944 - Japan fielded the Kaiten suicide torpedo, incorporating elements of the 24-inch, 40-knot version of the Long Lance, with a control compartment into which the pilot was locked. Range: not more than five hours, no matter what. I-class submarines carried Kaiten into battle, and a fairly large number went into action. The record is ambiguous, however. They did succeed in sinking one American tanker and a small landing ship, perhaps also a destroyer escort, as well as damaging two transports.

1944 - Germany also pursued weapons of desperation, developing a two-man, two-torpedo midget submarine called the Seehund. Thirty-nine feet long and weighing 15 tons, Seehund could dive to 165 feet with a surface range of 120 miles at eight knots or 250 miles at five knots; submerged, 20 miles at five knots, 60 miles at three knots. When the war ended in May1945, the Germans had at least 268 Seehunds ready for service.

1944 - To minimize the effect of Allied bombing, the Germans built late-war Type XXI boats in virtually complete sections at scattered locations and transported them by barge to assembly yards.

1945 - The first Type XXIII went on war patrol in February. By the end of the European war on May 7, six were in service, 53 in the water, and 900 under construction or on order. The first Type XXI, U-2511, left Hamburg on war patrol on April 30; when she returned home to surrender, 30 Type XXI were in shakedown and training, 121 were in the water, and another 1,000 were under construction or on order.

1945 - Germany's largest U-boat, the 1,700-ton Type XB minelayer U-234 found itself at sea when the war ended and surrendered in mid-ocean to an American destroyer escort. Her original destination had been Japan. Her cargo included two complete ME-262 jet fighters (disassembled in crates, but with complete technical data) and 550 kilograms of Uranium 235 (or Uranium oxide -- sources differ), packed in lead containers. No one has ever determined -- or at least revealed -- the reason the Germans were sending the uranium to Japan.

1945 - How each country's submarines fared during the war:

Type XXI and Type XXIII submarines
For some, the war ended too soon. With more hope than sense, Germany had more than 1,900 Type XXI and Type XXIII submarines under construction or on order on the last day of the European war.

Germany: U-boats claimed 14.4 million tons, but Germany lost 821 U-boats. Allied aircraft were responsible for (or directly involved in) the loss of 433 U-boats; surface ships, 252; accidents, 45; mines, 34; submarines 25 (only one of which happened when both hunter and victim were submerged); unknown, 15; scuttled by their own crews, 14; interned in neutral ports, 2; sunk by shore battery, 1.

United States: American submarines sank at least 1,300 Japanese ships, 5.3 million tons, including one battleship, eight carriers, 11 cruisers, and 180 smaller warships. The U.S. Navy lost 52 boats; 22 percent of the submarine personnel who went on patrol did not return. It was the highest casualty rate of any branch of service, though not as high as that of the German submarine force, which lost an astonishing 630 men out of every 1,000 who served in the U-boat fleet.

Soviet Russia: The Soviets started the war with the largest submarine fleet: 218. They added 54 and lost 109. They did not have much impact on the course of the war, though S-13 was credited with the single greatest disaster in maritime history: the 1945 sinking of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was engaged in an effort to get German soldiers out of the path of the advancing Red Army. More than 8,000 troops and civilians may have been aboard; fewer than 1,000 were rescued.

Japan: Japanese submarines had great success early in the war, especially in the Indian Ocean area. But the tide of battle began to turn with the Allied invasion of Guadalcanal in August 1942, and the Japanese pulled submarines off combat duty and assigned them to carry vital supplies to beleaguered troops or to pull troops out of failing campaigns. The Japanese built submarine landing ships and 28 cargo submarines. Japanese submarines did score a few important victories, including the carriers Yorktown and Wasp and the last American surface warship sunk, the cruiser Indianapolis in late July 1945. Overall, however, they sank only about one-fifth as many ships as the American submarine force did.

midget submarines
Growing desperate late in the war, the Japanese launched a massive building program of suicide and midget submarines. Here, 84 midgets of four different designs huddle in drydock, October 1945.

On the last day of the Pacific war, Japan had only 33 submarines in commission (excluding midgets), seven of which were in the training command. Except for the midgets, the submarine force had become irrelevant.

1945 - Donitz, who started the war as commander of submarines, became Navy Chief of Staff in January 1943 and ended the war as Hitler's chosen successor as Chief of State, even though he had never been a member of the Nazi Party. After Hitler committed suicide on April 30, Donitz assumed command (on May 1) and issued cease-fire orders (on May 3).

The 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal brought Donitz up on charges, especially for "breaches of the international law of submarine warfare" for authorizing and encouraging unrestricted operations. The best witness in his defense: U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who acknowledged that the U.S. Navy had authorized unrestricted operations against Japan throughout the Pacific Ocean from the first days of the war.

Nonetheless, Donitz was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for being "fully prepared to wage war." It was a specious charge in the eyes of most observers, for any military force should always be thus prepared. Most observers believed he was tried in place of the unavailable Hitler.

1945 - The U.S. Navy took two Type XXI boats and a handful of Japanese submarines for study and applied some lessons learned to a fleet upgrade dubbed "Greater Underwater Propulsive Power" (GUPPY).

GUPPY modified boat
The Navy modified 52 boats, adding snorkels, removing guns, streamlining superstructures, and greatly increasing battery power. They gave another 19 boats some improvements. The net result: vastly increased underwater speed and endurance.

1946 - Dr. Philip Abelson proposed a marriage of the Walter hull form with a nuclear power plant. The Navy detailed eight engineers to the home of the atomic bomb, the Atomic Energy Commission facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to see what might be developed.

1947 - Testing some newly discovered peculiarities concerning the transmission of sound in the open ocean, a U.S. submarine was able to detect a destroyer at a distance of 105 miles and hear depth charges exploding 600 miles away. This, and other research, led to the development of a deep-ocean array of hydrophones called SOSUS (for SOund SUrveillance System). One of the earliest installations could detect a snorkeling submarine at 500 miles.

1948 - The U.S. Navy began experimenting with submarine-launched missiles, starting with a copy of the German V-1 buzz bomb now called Loon. Crew members tracked Loon by radar and command-controlled it from the submarine. Erection of the launching ramp and preparation of the missile kept the submarine on the surface for five minutes, however. The Navy therefore developed a hand-off control system, in which another submarine 80 miles downrange could take over for the missile's final 55 miles of flight.

1950 -The Soviet Union moved to regain status as operator of the world's largest submarine fleet. Over the following eight years, they built 235 Whiskey class submarines using the Type XXI as a template.

1950 - USS Pickerel, SS-524, ran from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor -- 21 days, 5,194 miles -- on snorkel.

1950 - One of the officers detailed to Oak Ridge in 1946, Captain Hyman Rickover, assumed control of the Navy nuclear propulsion program -- and kept control until finally retired in 1982. Rickover was a submariner and an engineer, with a passion for safety and an obsession for control. Brilliant and difficult, he made nuclear power a reality, not just in submarines but in many major surface warships as well.

1952 - The first of the post-war U.S. submarines -- USS Tang, SS-563 -- set an American depth record of 713 feet.

1953 - The next generation sub-launched missile, Regulus I, could carry a 3,000-pound nuclear warhead for 500 miles.

USS Grayback, SSG-574
Integrated into the hull, the missile hangar on USS Grayback, SSG-574, could house two Regulus I missiles. When later developments overtook Regulus, the hangar became a compartment for clandestine amphibious assault troops. The Soviet Union countered with Project 651 class vessels. These were code-named as Juliett-class submarines.

1953 - The U.S. Navy began operation of a fast-submarine test bed (a boat without combat capability but easily reconfigured to try out various control schemes): the 203-foot USS Albacore, AGSS-569. Bearing a hull form resembling that of an airship, the boat went through five experimental configurations. In the first, she demonstrated underwater speeds of 26 knots.

USS Barbel, SS-580
The Navy applied the Albacore's successful hull form to the last class of U.S. diesel boats, including the USS Barbel, SS-580 (shown here) and to the Skipjack nuclear class, both of 1959.

1954 - The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, SSN-571, went to sea. The 323-foot, 3,674-ton boat boasted a speed of 18 knots (surface) and 23 knots (submerged). On her shakedown cruise, she steamed 1,381 miles from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico, submerged all the way at an average speed of 15 knots. She was so fast that, on her first exercise with an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) force, she outran the homing torpedoes.

Note the use of the term 'steamed.' The nuclear plant finally made a steam-powered submarine practical. The reactor generates heat that turns water into steam to drive the turbine. Two different reactor configurations were proposed. One used pressurized water to transfer heat from the reactor to the steam plant, the other used a liquid sodium potassium alloy.

Rickover built one of each. He installed the first in Nautilus, the other in the second nuclear boat, USS Seawolf, SSN-575, where it proved to be difficult to maintain and not as effective as the Nautilus plant. It was replaced a few years later.

1955 - The U.S. Navy experimented with various propulsion systems, including so-called closed-circuit engines, which did not require access to atmospheric oxygen.

The 49-foot-long X-1 tested a closed-circuit diesel-hydrogen peroxide plant, which exploded in May 1957 and was removed.

Development of the nuclear power plant tended to put other technologies on the shelf, however, at least in the United States. The development of closed-circuit systems has continued, especially in some European navies seeking a lower-cost alternative to nuclear power.

1955 - Based on hard experience with the Japanese kamikaze aircraft, the U.S. Navy developed a prototype nuclear-powered radar-picket submarine. At 447 feet and 5,963 tons, USS Triton, SSN-585 was the largest U.S. submarine to date, but by the time she was in commissioned in 1959, advances in airborne detection systems had rendered her intended mission unnecessary. In 1969 she became the first nuclear boat to be retired.

1956 - The German V-2 rocket became the U.S. Air Force Jupiter missile. Although the missile was exceedingly large, at least one scheme proposed mounting four V-2s in a submarine. Timely development of the Polaris missile, which permitted 16 on a boat, precluded any further discussion of submarine-based V-2s.

USS Sam Rayburn, SSBN-635
The USS Sam Rayburn, SSBN-635, one of 41 U.S. ballistic missile submarines built between 1960 and 1968, with its Polaris tube hatches open.

The A-1 Polaris -- solid-fuel, compact at 28 feet long, and bearing a range of 1,200 miles -- was ready for deployment by 1960. An A-2 version, 1,500 miles in range, entered service in 1962, followed a year later by the 2,500-mile A-3, all of which could fit in the same launch tubes.

1958 - The Soviet Union fielded its first nuclear-powered submarine. The Soviets gained a head start by following and copying the Americans. Five years into its program, the Soviet Union had 24 nuclear boats in three classes, all bearing the same reactor. Unfortunately for submarine crews, the Soviets apparently failed to appreciate the hazards associated with nuclear power. Rumors have circulated that entire crews of early Soviet boats later died from radiation poisoning.

1959 - The first submarine to utilize the potential of both the nuclear power plant and the high-speed Albacore hull was USS Skipjack, SSN-585, which was officially rated at 29 knots submerged.

1960 - USS Triton completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe: 36,014 miles in 84 days.

USS Triton
The USS Triton, the first submarine to execute a submerged circumnavigation of the Earth.

1963 - On April 10, the USS Thresher, SSN-593 became the first of two nuclear submarines the U.S. Navy has lost to accident. After two years in commission, the boat had just spent some time in a shipyard and was on sea trials when something went wrong, perhaps the rupture of a section of piping. No one knows for certain. Thresher sank in 8,300 feet of water, taking 128 crewmembers with her. The boat had an operational depth of 1,300 feet, more than any other U.S. submarine class to that date, but clearly the hull would have passed "crush depth" well before hitting bottom.

At least two things came out of this accident. First, the Navy carefully reviewed the entire design, looking for any possible defects, and it ordered modifications to all boats of the class then under construction. Second, because the U.S. had no viable method for rescuing trapped submariners at any depth below a few hundred feet, the Navy developed the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) to assist any submarine that bottomed short of crush depth.

Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle
The Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle is air-transportable and able to mate with and remove crew from U.S. submarines to a depth of at least 5,000 feet. Two were built; neither has ever been used.

1965 - USS Albacore reportedly set an underwater speed record of 33 knots, though the posted 'official' speed is 25 knots.

1968 - On May 22, the USS Scorpion, SSN-589, became the second U.S. nuclear boat lost. Possibly the victim of one of her own torpedoes, Scorpion in its last moments may have been picked up by the then-secret SOSUS sound arrays planted on the ocean floor.

1968 - A Soviet November class nuclear submarine surprised the U.S. Navy by keeping up with a high-speed task force going 31 knots and led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Spooked, the Navy developed a new class of fast attack boats, Los Angeles.

USS Los Angeles, SSN-688
The USS Los Angeles, SSN-688

The class had some teething problems, but the 62 boats in the class demonstrated respectable performance, with submerged speeds in excess of 30 knots.

1971 - The C-3 missile, Poseidon, with multiple independently targeted warheads, went to sea.

1972 - Development was underway on the next-generation submarine-launched ballistic missile, Trident, C-4, which had twice the range of the C-3. A C-4-equipped submarine could launch at the most logical targets in the Cold War world while sitting in New York harbor. The U.S. would no longer need to maintain overseas submarine bases in Scotland, Spain, and Guam, and the Navy closed those bases when the C-4 became operational. The C-4 missile first flew in January.

1977 - The C-4 did pose some problems for the people who design submarines. Too large to fit in any extant sub design, Trident required a new, very large class of submarine: Ohio, 560 feet long, 42 feet wide, 16,674 tons.

1974 - The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency attempted to raise a Soviet Golf-class diesel-powered boat, K-129, which sank in 1968. The agency did so under cover of a deep-ocean mineral recovery effort using a ship built for the purpose, the Glomar Explorer. The submarine apparently broke apart and the stern half fell back to the bottom.

1982 - During the Falklands War, two British ASW carriers, more than a dozen other surface warships, five submarines (four of them nuclear), and a gaggle of patrolling aircraft became occupied -- in fact, almost paralyzed -- in protecting the force against two badly maintained, poorly manned Argentine submarines. One was a post-World War II Guppy and the other an eight-year-old German boat that, in the end, had nil effect upon the war.

Be not deceived by this comic-opera vignette, however. For the British, the submarine war was deadly serious. With two World War II-vintage torpedoes, the British submarine Conqueror sank the World War II-era Argentine cruiser Belgrano (ex-USS Phoenix), killing 368 sailors.

1982 - Planning began for the next-generation American attack submarine: another Seawolf, SSN-21. The Navy adjusted the hull number (the next in the series would have been 774) to celebrate Seawolf as the "submarine of the 21st Century." It features the most sophisticated systems imaginable. Size: 353 feet long, 40-foot diameter, 8,000 tons. Top speed: probably in excess of 35 knots. According to one program manager, when underway at quiet speed, Seawolf would be as quiet as a Los Angeles boat sitting at the pier. Quiet speed may be in excess of 20 knots.

1986 - On October 6, a Soviet Yankee-Class nuclear-powered missile boat, K-291, sank in the Atlantic 680 miles northeast of Bermuda, from an explosion in a missile tube.

1989 - Soviet submarine Komsomolets sank in the Norwegian Sea. Most of the crew abandoned ship, but while waiting for rescue in the frigid waters, 34 of them died from hypothermia, heart failure, or drowning. This accident prompted the Russians to develop individual escape survival suits rated to a depth of 328 feet, and led the U.S. Navy to adopt the Mark 10 British-designed Submarine Escape Immersion Module. This provides individual full-body thermal protection and has been tested to 600 feet.

1997 - Seawolf joins the United States Navy fleet.

1997 - In preparation for development of the next submarine class (Virginia), the U.S. Navy elected to create a one-fourth-scale, unmanned submarine to test new and emerging technologies before they are committed to full-scale ships. Designated the Large Scale Vehicle (LSV) 2 and named after a species of trout, Cutthroat, the 111-foot boat was delivered to the Navy in the spring of 2001.

2000 - The U.S. Navy tested Avenger, a 65-foot mini-submarine with a closed-cycle engine powered by diesel fuel and liquid oxygen. Intended for use by SEALs, the Navy's clandestine amphibious assault teams, Avenger can carry 18 troops and a crew of six.

2000 - The Russian missile attack submarine Kursk, K-141 sank while on maneuvers in the Barents Sea. Placed in service in 1995, the 510-foot Oscar II-class Kursk had a surface displacement of 14,700 tons and speed in excess of 30 knots.

USS Los Angeles, SSN-688
The ill-fated Russian missile attack submarine Kursk.

On August 12, the sound of at least two explosions reached the Norwegian Seismic Service and five other ships operating in the area, including two American and one British submarine shadowing the exercises. The cause of the accident remains unknown, although Kursk had radioed for permission to launch an exercise torpedo about an hour and a half earlier.

Kursk went down in about 350 feet of water with 118 men. Although the boat bore several escape systems, including individual escape-survival suits, none was used. Efforts to reach Kursk were hampered by bad weather. Eventually, during recovery of bodies, search teams determined that at least 23 sailors survived the initial explosion, only to perish later. Russia has contracted with several firms to help remove crew remains, and plans for raising Kursk are under discussion.

2000 - The United States Navy celebrated the 'official' 100th anniversary of the submarine (dating from the U.S. Navy purchase of the Holland in 1900), some 47 nations operate more than 700 submarines, almost 300 of them nuclear-powered. A host of countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Japan, are pursuing new designs. In short, the submarine appears to be in the best of international health.

2002 - Women in the Submarine Service?
Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden operate diesel-electric powered submarines which have to surface regularly to recharge their batteries, during the course of which the atmosphere is refreshed. There is a potential health risk to a fetus from the build up of contaminants in the submarine's atmosphere. Despite careful filtration and purification, there are around thirty different contaminants, including higher than the usual concentrations of Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide, which could be harmful to fetuses. There is no health risk to adult male crews. Most nuclear submarine fleets remain underwater for much longer periods of time, allowing the contaminants to accumulate. Currently, no women are known to serve in the U.S, U.K., French or Russian Submarine Forces.

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