British Submarines in Two World Wars

British Submarines in Two World Wars. By Norman Friedman. Seaforth Publications. Barnsley, South Yorkshire. 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

This latest book by noted naval analyst and author, Norman Friedman, examines the design, development and operation of Royal Navy submarines from 1901 to 1945. It is the first of two volumes on this topic; the second will cover British submarines beyond 1945. As with all other Friedman books, this offering features exhaustive details of all submarine classes, supported by specially commissioned drawings of the highest detail, hundreds of photographs and 75 pages of closely-spaced notes and data, the latter almost worthy of a second volume.

The RN waited several years as the submarine boat was being developed in the US, France and Italy in the late 1890s, reserving any decision to acquire submersibles until it had assessed their usefulness or threat to the RN’s position as the premier naval power. The French ‘jeune ecole’ had advocated torpedo boats as the navy’s attack force in the 1890s and the RN responded with the ‘torpedo boat destroyer’ to counter French torpedo boats attacking British ports. The ports were defended by shore batteries and controlled minefields. However, it was when the French Navy unveiled a ‘submersible torpedo boat’, the Gustav Zede, which the French claimed could cross the Channel, that the RN approached the American Electric Boat Company in 1901 and acquired five examples of the Holland boat. 

At the same time, several British politicians, including the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, became attracted to the submarine boat and this enthusiasm was shared by the incoming First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher. Fisher, a forceful proponent of technology, saw submarines as ideal for port defence; their relative cheapness adding to their attractiveness. Accordingly, the initial submarine classes – the A, B and C – were deployed as port defenders, including the overseas bases Gibraltar, Malta and Hong Kong. 

 The next stage was the D class, which were ‘overseas’ submarines, designed to conduct ‘observation and blockade’ off enemy naval bases. After the Ds, the E Class became the workhorse of the RN submarine force in World War One; 55 of which were built for the RN and two, AE1 and AE2, for Australia. Pushing range and size further, as ‘ocean’ submarines, came the J class which were designed to work with the fleet. But they were too slow and largely unsuccessful, and six of the seven boats were transferred to the RAN in 1919; they only lasted 5 years in Australia before they were scrapped.

The need for submarines to run with the fleet saw the bizarre steam-powered K class. First Lord Winston Churchill had minuted his Board of Admiralty for an ‘ocean submarine’ which would be a ‘decisive weapon of battle and be a substitute for battleships’. They had to be fast – up to 24 knots – to be able to overhaul a battle fleet to get ahead of it to attack. The concept was flawed, and the K class reputation became untenable when two K class submarines were sunk in collisions while participating in fleet exercises in January 1918. Poor coordination and communications and lack of situational awareness by all concerned was blamed for the fiasco. When K26 deployed to Singapore to test suitability of the class in the tropics, the extreme heat in the engineering spaces disabled most of the staff. All the Ks were gone by 1924. 

RN submarine experimentation also included the three-unit M class. Originally conceived as submarine monitors with a 12-inch gun in 1916; two were later converted to a seaplane carrier and a minelayer respectively.

The Postwar Questions Committee of 1919 assessed submarines as a proved military capability (the German showed that was indeed a fact); however, the RN still considered that submarines should be able to work with the fleet. By this time the RN was concerned with the emergence of Japanese naval power and the possibility of hostilities in the Far East. The priority was for patrol submarines to carry out reconnaissance with long range wireless and an endurance of 12 to 14 000 nm at eight knots. Next in priority was minelaying, then fleet submarines and lastly, cruiser submarines.  

The interwar classes set the design scenario for the Second World War which comprised the small and handy U and V classes (71 boats), the S class (49 boats) and the larger T class fleet boats (57), some of which were based in Fremantle. The last class covered is the A class which were developed for Pacific operations. Several T and A class boats were based in Australia until the early 1960s as the 4thSubmarine Squadron, prior to the RAN acquisition of its Oberon class submarines.

Apart from the submarine class details, the book covers the interwar arms limitations conferences as they applied to submarines, rearmament in the 1930s which saw the wartime classes construction, midget submarines and details of wireless in submarines and asdic (sonar).

Of interest is a comparison between British boats and the US fleet submarines, written by an experienced RN submarine officer at the end of the Pacific war. Both design philosophies had their advantages and disadvantages but the officer sums up the US boats as akin to the Packard car, used as senior officers’ staff cars (Packard was a prestige US car brand in the 1930s to the 1950s) whereas the British boats were more like the army workhorse Jeep (cheap and simple but more useful).

The book’s bibliography lists the extensive primary sources, largely from Admiralty Files. The secondary sources show that there is no comparable book on this subject covering all the aspects of British submarines.

Many of the images depict submariners on the casing; sailors in their submarine jumpers and officers in their uniform jackets (presumably jumpers were not authorised for wear by officers). These photographs provide a human interest; the early Holland boats have the whole crew on deck hanging off any available hand hold.  

British Submarines in Two World wars is a magnificent achievement which belongs on the bookshelves of submariners past and present as well as all those fascinated by the ‘submarine boat’.  

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