The Submarine in War
By Robert Wilden Neeser
(Author of "Our Navy and the Next War")
[Scribner's Magazine, January 1916]
Had there been a sensational press in the days of '76 and as much ink and paper expended in the chronicling of under-water episodes, there is little doubt but that Bushnell's Turtle would have been cloaked in an atmosphere of invincibility equal to that which shrouds the U-boat of to-day. For centuries people had been trying to invent a practical vessel for subsurface navigation with little encouragement. Then, in 1776, Bushnell's submarine made its appearance on the blockaded coast of the American colonies; and, while it achieved nothing startling, owing to its primitive design, it created a distinct feeling of uneasiness on board of the ships of the royal navy stationed off the New England ports.
Since the American Revolution every conflict has seen, repeated in more or less acute form the menace of the submarine. In the Crimean War it constituted a prominent feature—on paper; in the American Civil War the Confederates accomplished heroic deeds with it. Again, in the Russo-Turkish War the submarine was a factor. But in the Russo-Japanese War the submarine did not figure at all. "It was still merely in its experimental stage," explained a French communiqué, "without military application on the high seas."
As long as naval warfare was carried on with the old weapons there was little question that a submarine boat could not have been of much use. But with the invention and perfection of the modern automobile torpedo war on the sea was almost revolutionized. In other words, the hour of the submarine came with the development of the torpedo.
It was this single event and the progress of submarine navigation in France and America, due to the perfection of the storage-battery and the gasolene engine, that in 1900 convinced the British admiralty that it could no longer ignore this type of war-ship. An experimental boat was forthwith built from the designs of Mr. John P. Holland, the American inventor. She was a small vessel with a water-line displacement of only one hundred and four tons, and a submerged displacement of one hundred and twenty tons. On the surface she was propelled by a four-cylinder gasolene engine, giving her a speed of eight knots, while for submerged cruising she utilized a small electric motor, capable of driving her barely four miles an hour.
In Berlin, where the passage of the ambitious naval act of 1900 had recently disclosed Germany's aspirations to a "future upon the seas," the addition of this puny craft to the British fleet was hailed with something approaching derision. The Prussian technical papers hastened to urge the futility of the submarine with a wealth of argument. The little Holland boat, however, proceeded to convince the British of the virtues of the submarine, and before long she became the model from which the British naval authorities proposed to develop a type of submarine in keeping with the best traditions of their service, until in 1906 undersea craft were being laid down for the British navy mounting two torpedo tubes on a displacement of 320 tons, and possessing a surface speed of 14 knots in combination with a submerged speed of 10 knots. When it is added that these vessels possessed a radius of 2,000 miles on the surface and were designed to travel some hours under water, it is not surprising that German naval opinion as to the advantages of the submarine underwent a very sudden, almost dramatic, change. Without so much as the formality of any public announcement in the Reichstag an Unterseeboot was laid down at the Krupp-Germania shipyard at Kiel in 1905, and so successful were her trials—on one occasion she succeeded in torpedoing a moving target twice while travelling submerged at full speed—that an energetic policy of construction was immediately decided upon, although it was not until two years later that legislative provision was asked of the Reichstag for the building of this type of warship.
It soon became evident that Grand Admiral von Tirpitz had grasped the significance and potentiality of submarine warfare. As inspector of the German torpedo service, and afterward as the first flotilla chief of the imperial torpedo vessels, he had obtained a practical knowledge of the importance of the torpedo that allowed no questioning of his views. "Politics are your affair—I build ships!" was his curt reply to the members of the Reichstag when, instead of permitting a decrease in the naval programme he demanded legislation for the construction, by the end of 1917, of 72 submarines, and it was precisely because he attended so strictly to his own business that he was able to do it so well. The submarine service was constituted as a separate branch of the navy, and as a practical result its personnel and its equipment, like every other department of the German navy, attained a degree of organization and efficiency that, at the outbreak of hostilities, quite astounded those who were not already aware of its capabilities. The war had hardly been in progress a week before the British light-cruiser squadron was attacked by submarines. By a singular piece of good fortune the attack failed and one of the submarines was sunk. But the first conclusions drawn from the sinking of the U-15 by the Birmingham were altogether too sweeping. In less than a month the German craft began to score a series of unheard-of successes. On September 5 the Pathfinder was sunk; within another fortnight followed a more reverberating blow—the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue were disposed of at one fell swoop; then the Hawke, the Hermes, and the Formidable, in the very chops of the channel; and in the Baltic Sea the Russian cruiser Pallada suffered a like fate. It seemed as if the startling declaration that less than two months before the war appeared in the British press over the signature of Sir Percy Scott had had in it almost too much of an element of truth. The public began to wonder whether, after all, the former director of naval ordnance was not right in so uncompromisingly predicting that the submarine had made it impossible for any surface ship to put to sea or even lie safely in harbor. The widespread belief that there was something mysterious about this heretofore untried instrument of war was naturally succeeded by a feeling of alarm which shook confidence in the ability of the British navy to cope with a weapon that possessed such awful potentialities.
To the Allies, however, this submarine phase of the war did not come entirely unexpectedly. In fact, it had been foreseen as early as 1907, when, in the light of the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War, Germany's probable aims were discussed by British officers. It was the opinion "that in the next European struggle Germany will not rely so much on her mammoth battleships, but more largely on torpedo-craft and mine-layers for carrying out the maximum amount of destruction at a minimum outlay." In other words, the submarine was considered primarily the weapon of the weaker navy, and it was more the business of the stronger power to devise means to defeat it.
There is every reason to believe therefore that the British navy, while pressing the development of the submarine, at the same time bent every effort to develop a system for frustrating its attack. How successful these defensive measures are proving is not very likely to be published in official documents before the close of hostilities, nor has any mention of them been allowed in the daily press. But that the problem, difficult as it is, has already been attacked with marked success is vouched for by the mute evidence of the captured German submarines safely moored within the "tight little island's" own naval harbors.
Just what system of protection against the U-boats is being employed by the British navy is not definitely known. There are reports of submarine nets and traps, and accounts of the activity of torpedo-boat destroyers and of "sweeping" by trawlers in restricted waters. Portsmouth is said to be closed by means of a submarine boom defense, stretched across the mouth of the harbor, and likewise the approach to the River Elbe, leading to the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, is effectively closed to British intruders by boom-defenses, mines, and submerged wire entanglements. But effective as mine-fields and cable nettings may be against hostile "undercraft"—as in the case of the channel where not a single troop-ship or supply-ship has yet been lost—they can be said to be only a deterrent, little more. A mine-field, such as was laid between the Goodwin Sands and Ostend, does not necessarily form an absolute barrier. If submarines care to run the risk of groping their way through the mine-infested area they can do so. They can also sometimes pass beneath it, if previous reconnaissance has shown the position of the danger zone and the water is of sufficient depth to allow of such a manoeuvre. But the chance of fouling the mooring-ropes can never for a moment be ignored. Early in the war a British submarine, the E-6 while diving, actually did foul the moorings of a German mine and on rising to the surface weighed it with its sinker. Fortunately the horns of the mine were pointed out-board, but it was only with the greatest difficulty that the crew divested the boat of her unwelcome and dangerous load without exploding it. On the other hand, in the Dardanelles and in the Adriatic the obstructions placed by the Turks and the Austrians have already caused the loss, of five British, and French, submarines, although on numerous other occasions the passage into the Sea of Marmora has been successfully forced.
It is almost superfluous to say that since the outbreak of hostilities no official details have been vouchsafed as to the composition of the several submarine flotillas. The number of vessels stationed at the various bases in July, 1914, was, of course, generally known. Great Britain's 82 submarines were distributed along her coast-line and based upon Devonport, Portsmouth, and Chatham. But regarding any possible rearrangement or increase of the flotillas that may have been made in the course of the past twelve-month no information has been allowed to filter through, except perhaps in the case of Commodore Keyes's despatch, the first in the history of naval warfare to recount the operations of a group of submarines, from which the public gleaned that several of England's largest and most modern boats had already been engaged off Heligoland. The French ministry of marine, likewise, has maintained an inscrutable silence in regard to the movements of the republic's numerous underwater craft, although one communiqué did refer at length to the operations of her Britannic ally's submarines in "menacing the hostile fleets before their bases in the North Sea." But, curiously enough, this paragraph was preceded by the statement that for many years officers had "considered the command of a gun-boat of 400 tons—a vessel of no military value—preferable as affording better opportunities for promotion to that of a submarine of 600 tons!" And this in the French navy, which had been the pioneer in adopting the submarine torpedo-boat as a vessel of war! What may have inspired the publication of such an utterance? Since 1888, when France assumed unquestioned leadership in construction of underwater craft, her efforts had met with success that by 1902 naval manoeuvres were held solely to test the comparative merits of the different types under consideration. In that year her war fleet actually included 14 submarines in commission, while 25 more were on the way. It is true that practically every one of these vessels was of the coast-defense or harbor-defense type, but efforts to develop sea-going submarines were already meeting with some success, and eleven 531-ton boats of the Labeuf type were about to be undertaken. Then occurred an unfortunate change in the cabinet at Paris. Monsieur Pelletan became minister of marine, and under his administration all submarine construction was suspended. From June, 1902, to January, 1905, not a single submarine was laid down, and only the Aigrette and a sister boat were launched. The advantage which France had gained by her previous readiness to adopt a consistent policy for the creation of a great submarine fleet was thus abandoned. Some years later every nerve was strained to recover the lost ground, but, although a large number of vessels was actually laid down, only a few could be completed at a time, as their construction was restricted to the three government yards, to the exclusion of private builders, with the result that it was seven years before the boats laid down in 1906 were completed and ready for service.
Meanwhile the Germans had taken the lesson so seriously to heart that they entered the war with a flotilla of 30 vessels and a reserve of 6 new boats which were secretly nearing completion. This was no mean record for nine years of submarine construction, but not in the least surprising when we consider the opportunities enjoyed by the Berlin Admiralstab, thanks to its wonderful system of espionage, of profiting almost instantly by what in other countries had required years of study and experiment. It was unblushingly admitted by a German naval officer, in an account which appeared in the German press last year, when he remarked that the submarine he commanded was "built upon the Labeuf principle, which is a modern design and the type generally adopted for all our seagoing submarines." But what is astounding, even in view of what we now know, is that the very year in which Germany constructed her first U-boat the French attaché at Berlin informed his government that the Krupp works were offering to Roumania a submarine designed from French plans. And since the outbreak of hostilities Germany has been working her shops day and night on submarines. Every shipyard has been requisitioned and even those acquired by the German arms in Belgium have been utilized. The Teutonic press announced some months ago that one hundred U-boats had been laid down during the past year. "These figures," comments a French naval officer, "are very much exaggerated." Yet the most reliable reports received in this country indicate that Germany last July had completed her seventieth submarine, and had many more on the ways.
Several factors have to be borne in mind when considering the surprising efficiency of the submarines during the past year, factors known to the advocates of underwater craft before the commencement of hostilities. The first is the advantage which the submarine enjoys over all types of surface war-ships, of being able to become invisible at will. On the surface so little of her frail hull shows above the water that it may be made to blend with the ever-changing tints of the surrounding sea. To increase this invisibility various colors have been adopted by the different navies. The French, after many experiments, have chosen a pale, sea-green, non-luminous paint; the British a dull gray; the Germans a gray-brown. But it is when fully submerged that the concealment of the submarine becomes practically perfect. And this has earned for her the name of the "daylight torpedo-boat," for in a short space of time she acquires the ability of performing the same task by daylight that the surface torpedo-boat may accomplish only under cover of darkness or fog, that of creeping unobserved within range of an enemy and of launching her deadly missile. It was thus that the E-9 torpedoed and sunk the German light cruiser Hela six miles south of Heligoland, and immediately afterward faded from view by submerging, while a flotilla of German destroyers, summoned to the scene by wireless, hunted her in vain on the surface.
Another factor, which the practical experience of war has confirmed, is the ability of the submarine, by sinking, to cover herself with a sufficient thickness of water to be absolutely shell-proof. She thus may enjoy an almost perfect immunity from gun-fire, and she has only to fear the possible danger that may be awaiting her at the hands of a watchful foe as she rises again. Strange as it may seem, the operation of coming to the surface is far less difficult than that of submerging quickly. When a submarine is running on the surface with her decks above water, in what is technically called the "light condition," she has her water-ballast tanks empty, but the moment she is required to sink, so that her tiny deck is awash and only the conning-tower remains above the surface, water must be let into these ballast-tanks. The additional weight of this water causes her to sink until her back is almost flush with the surface. In this condition the submarine's reserve buoyancy is small indeed, and total submergence then requires not additional weight in the ballast-tanks but merely the deflection of her horizontal rudders, which, placed in pairs, and sometimes both forward and aft, enable the vessel to descend to the required depth after her electric motors have given her sufficient headway. The tendency of the boat to rise, owing to her buoyancy, is then counteracted only by maintaining a slight degree of horizontal helm, but should the propellers that drive her along cease to revolve and the vessel slow down she would instantly begin to come to the surface, because the rudders no longer had any effect. Generally speaking, the time required for submergence has been so reduced that it is claimed to answer every military requirement, although not so many years ago eight and even fifteen minutes were needed to accomplish this apparently simple operation. Yet recently, on various occasions, several submarines have been lost through their inability to dive in less than three minutes. On March 30 a torpedo-vessel of the French light squadron off Dieppe saw a German submarine cruising on the surface. The destroyer opened fire with her guns and instantly started in pursuit, forcing the submarine to submerge. But this the U-boat was not able to do in time. Before her periscope could disappear beneath the surface the French vessel was on top of her; there was a crash, a crumbling of steel plates, a large amount of oil floated to the surface, and the submarine was no more.
Gun-fire in most cases, except by sheer luck, has proved ineffective against the small targets offered by the elusive underwater craft. But what the U-boats have learned to fear more than the prospect of being hit by a chance shot is the crushing effect of an enemy's sharp prow upon their frail hulls, and there is no gainsaying that the submarine commanders, from this new danger, have experienced many anxious moments. Some of the German boats, following the example of the Greek submarine Delphin, which, during the Balkan War of 1912, submerged to a depth of sixty feet just in time to avoid the ram of a Turkish cruiser that then passed directly over her, have been able to evade such attacks. One, last June, was reported as having in this way escaped from being sunk by the Anchor Line steamer Cameronia. But, on the other hand, the U-3 was not so fortunate, the U-I2 was rammed by the destroyer Ariel, the U-8 met a similar fate off Dover, the Badger accounted for a submarine off the Dutch coast, while the merchant steamer Thordis crashed down upon a U-boat which was struggling in the trough of a heavy seaway.
Of all the perils which attach to ocean navigation the most paralyzing are undoubtedly those caused by fog. No type of ship is immune from its terrors, and every ship captain has to guard against the dangers that may be lurking within its misty veils; for the fog takes away his sight and deprives him of the surer dependence on his ears which he has in a clear atmosphere. When it is realized that these conditions are practically the normal conditions of service of submarine craft some idea may be formed of the difficulties of underwater navigation, for beneath the surface of the waves an impenetrable mist shrouds the vessel and places her at as great a disadvantage as a surface ship in thick weather. This was one of the most dreaded handicaps of the submarine during the numerous trials held in the French navy, for twice there occurred collisions between submarines cruising below the surface. They ran into each other without the slightest knowledge of their close proximity. On neither occasion were the vessels seriously injured, but the experiment was not repeated, at least not in the case of the Bonite, which had figured in both accidents. The French manœvres consequently demonstrated the difficulties attending operations of submarines acting in company, because when submerged the sole means of inter communication between boats is the submarine bell, which at best is slow and uncertain and cannot be used in the face of an enemy without betraying the submarine's presence. It is true that the larger boats are now provided with wireless apparatus, but this is of use only on the surface and within a very limited radius.
The greatest difficulty, then, which beset both submarine construction and navigation was the problem of how to enable the commander of a submarine to see when the vessel was entirely submerged. At first these efforts were not very successful, but in the end this shortcoming was met by fitting periscopes to their conning-towers. By a series of lenses and prisms an image of the surface was thus refracted downward through the tube, which in some cases is telescopic, being focused by an appropriate lens at the base. A man with his eyes at the lower opening of the periscope could thus see the surface clearly, the tube being sometimes of such length, varying from, fifteen feet to twenty feet, that the submarine could submerge sufficiently to give him a feeling of security when he swept the horizon. In nearly all boats there are now two periscopes, one for the commander when guiding the vessel and discharging the torpedoes, the other for the constant use of the lookout. Recently the observer's field of vision has been increased to about sixty degrees by the adaptation of panoramic lenses. At night the periscope is useless, even by day it does not furnish an entirely satisfactory means of vision, since it is very difficult to estimate the distance of objects seen, while, in addition, the range of visibility, even under the most favorable conditions, is limited to five miles, and much less in rough weather. Yet with the periscope splendid work has been done by both sides in the war. The loss of three British cruisers at the hands of the U-9 proved conclusively that, with experienced observers, the periscope serves well enough for practical purposes. The British submarine E-9 also successfully torpedoed the German destroyer S-126 off the mouth of the Ems River while running at high speed. But in making these attacks the underwater craft ran the risk of becoming blinded by the shattering of their periscopes. This was the fate that befell the U-15 when she attempted to torpedo the cruiser Birmingham. Her "eyes" were carried away by a well-aimed, or chance, shot. She dived to escape her assailant, but in the circumstances under which the action was fought she was bound to come to the surface again. This the commander of the British cruiser well knew, and the moment the dark mass of the submarine showed upon the waves the Birmingham fired a second shot which struck the base of the conning-tower, shattering it completely.
While it may be said that the capabilities and limitations of the various types of submarines were well known to naval men before the fateful 3d of August, 1914, it must be confessed that their calculations have been rudely upset in at least two respects by the recent achievements of the underwater craft. For example, it was never believed possible for one submarine to engage another submarine in battle. Yet, within a month of Italy's entrance into the war such an encounter did take place between the Italian submarine Medusa and an Austrian U-boat. From the fact that both were running submerged and came quite close to each other without becoming aware of one another's presence it would seem that the meeting took place more by chance than by judgment. At any rate, the Medusa came to the surface first and, finding the way clear, emerged. Shortly after the Austrian boat also decided to come up, but as her periscope rose above the waves her commander saw the Medusa not far off and directly ahead. From this favorable position it was then only a question of moments before a torpedo could be discharged. The Austrian boat had made her score by stealth.
In the absence of detailed reports the operations between submarines and aeroplanes have given rise to many interesting speculations regarding the ability of aerial observers to detect "the presence of submerged vessels. In the Mediterranean and its tropical seas, where the water is clear and calm and the light favorable, air-craft when flying at an elevation of less than a thousand feet can usually see submarines operating down to a certain depth below the surface. But under conditions such as are met with in the choppy gray waters of the North Sea the difficulties that arise often preclude any possibility of successful reconnaissance by aviators. As an instance may be cited the air raid along the Belgian coast last February, in which thirty-four British and French aeroplanes participated without detecting a single German submarine—yet several of them were known to be in those waters. Nevertheless, if we are to give credence to the press reports, encounters between aeroplanes and submarines have taken place, and the advantage thus far has been with the former, except on one occasion when a British underwater vessel is said to have actually driven off her assailant with the fire of her small deck-guns.
And now we come to the vital question of armament and speed, without which no war-ship could remain at sea a week. Strange to say, the submarine is deficient in both of these factors so necessary to a successful offensive, owing to the limitations imposed upon her by the very theory of her conception. Before the war the Krupps were making two types of guns for the undersea boats of the German navy, one a 1.45-inch piece on a fixed pedestal mounting; the other a 12-pounder on a disappearing carriage. The English also were known to have armed their larger vessels with. 3-inch quick-firing guns placed on high-angle disappearing mountings. And recently the British submarine officers were the first in the field to make legitimate use of their guns when they bombarded the Turkish powder-mills on the shores of the Sea of Marmora. But the advantage possessed by such a battery was found somewhat offset by its insufficient gun-power and by the very limited supply of ammunition which could be carried on board. Likewise the limitation to the submarine's torpedo-armament results from her being unable to fire her death-dealing missiles at all arcs of training. Owing to the very small space available, it has been possible to equip submarines only with fixed tubes, laid in a line with the keel. The boat herself is therefore the gun-carriage. The difficulties attending submarine attack are then apparent. Unless the enemy can be brought directly ahead and within a point-blank range every torpedo fired does not necessarily find its mark." On one occasion, I am told, a German submarine sighted the Mauretania, which since the outbreak of hostilities has been used as a troop-ship, and fired four torpedoes at her without once striking her—a lavish expenditure of precious ammunition when we realize that, according to the most reliable accounts, the newer U-boats carry only eight torpedoes, of which half are usually high-speed, short-range weapons, capable of travelling barely three-quarters of a mile. And apparently the British, quite early in the war, became aware of still another technical difficulty under which their Teutonic antagonists were laboring in carrying out their submarine campaign. Torpedoes, as is known, may be adjusted to run at any depth below the surface. But the German Schwartzkopf torpedoes, it seems, had all been set for a standard depth of twelve feet. So when the British navy was called upon to aid the Anglo-French-Belgian left flank in stemming the German offensive along the coast of Flanders the Admiralty immediately despatched to the scene several recently completed monitors drawing only five feet of water. "Our ships were persistently attacked by German submarines, and torpedoes were fired without success," reads the official statement given out on October 24, 1914. But what the writer of that despatch failed to add was that the torpedoes fired had all passed under the monitors without doing the slightest damage.
Deficiency in speed is another handicap imposed on the submarine in her operations against surface war-vessels. Imagination reels at the thought of what would have happened to the British battle-cruisers in the Bight of Heligoland had they not possessed such remarkable steaming powers. "Our high speed," wrote Vice-Admiral Beatty, "made submarine attack difficult." And it is this factor which so often in the war has enabled the surface man-of-war to cope successfully with her underwater antagonist. The maximum speed of the submarine at the present time is approximately 18 knots, as against the 22 knots steamed by the battleship, the 28 knots of the battle-cruiser, and the 32 knots (54 feet per second!) of the destroyer and light cruiser. It is obvious that the submarine is at a great disadvantage, and at a disadvantage extremely difficult to overcome. For any realization of high speed on the surface, through a tendency toward the adoption of the stream lines of surface craft, can be obtained only at the sacrifice of her speed when submerged, and, besides, the bluff and round-ended bows needed to accommodate the torpedo-launching tubes are far from conducive to great speed.
But if the torpedo-armament provisions had to be taken into consideration when designing the submarine another perplexing difficulty also arose in the method of propulsion to be used. In the French navy most of the early boats were electrically propelled. But the cost of electricity in weight was nearly thirty times more than that of other motive powers. Besides, it was extremely dangerous on account of the chlorine gas generated whenever leaky batteries admitted the slightest amount of salt water. So another type of engine had to be devised for surface navigation. At first steam-driven reciprocating engines were installed, then the internal combustion gasolene engine, after which came the paraffin engine. The carrying on board of large quantities of gasolene, however, was attended with too much risk, and paraffin was a source of constant worry, whenever any naked light was brought near. Consequently further efforts had to be made. And right here is where Germany took advantage of her opportunity. While the French and British naval services were experimenting with steam and gasolene the Germans were perfecting the heavy-oil engine with which they had surprised the world at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The result was that when their first submarine was built there was no indecision as to the motive power to be used, all the trials proved remarkably satisfactory, and the development of Germany's submarine flotilla proceeded apace. The British, after various trials with the gasolene engine, finally resorted to the heavy-oil engine in 1908, with the construction of their "D" class. But the French do not seem to have been so fortunate. In their effort to develop a large sea-going submarine they appear to have overlooked the fact that, the more powerful the Diesel motors are, the more delicate their working. Every increase in motor power was accompanied by no end of trouble. The 720-horse-power Diesels of the Mariotte had to be completely remade. The attempt to install 2,400-horse-power engines in the 1 ,000-ton Nereide proved a costly experiment, and the French designers found themselves obliged to retrace their steps and substitute the steam turbine which they had discarded only a few years before on account of the extreme heat contained in the boilers and the impossibility of submerging in less than fifteen minutes when steam was used for surface propulsion.
As an illustration in passing of what the submarines have been able to accomplish even with the handicap imposed by the division of power between two sets of motive machinery—for all boats have to carry electric motors and the necessary installations essential thereto in addition to their surface engines—I may refer to the astonishing long-distance cruises already made by the boats of several European navies. We were prepared for this some years ago by the remarkable performances of the small French coast-defense submarines Papin and Faraday, which, under their own power and in heavy weather, actually accomplished runs of 1,230 and 1,730 miles respectively. But if these were feats performed under peace conditions we had still another record to turn to in the operations of the French-built Greek submarine Delphin, which left Toulon just before the declaration of the first Balkan War and, under her own power, not only cruised the length of the Mediterranean, covering the distance of 1,100 miles in 130 hours, but for months maintained her station off the Dardanelles and effectively prevented the Turkish fleet from sallying forth on depredatory raids against the Grecian coast. Of course, to keep the sea for so long a period various bases of supplies had to be depended upon, but these were easily established along the sparsely settled shore without the Turks being any the wiser.
It is quite evident from, the course of events upon the sea during the past year that the lessons taught by these astonishing performances of the submarines were not long overlooked by the great European powers. In Germany the submarine service was immediately established as a separate branch of the imperial navy, with a large personnel interested solely in the development of underwater warfare; France, handicapped by the dominance of party politics and unable to put forth her best energies, hastened to reassure herself as to the efficiency of what seagoing vessels she possessed; while England, not to be outdone, despatched two submarines which she had recently constructed for the Australian navy on a 12,500-mile voyage to Sydney. Then the European War broke out, and prophecy gave way to proof.
Only a few weeks before the order of mobilization was issued from the Rue Royale the French underwater flotillas had been engaged in various problems of offense and defense along the channel coast from Brest to Dunkirk. According to the official observers, the submarines "had more to boast of in the efficient working of their motors and the endurance of their crews than in the accuracy of their torpedoes." But, reading between the lines, it was evident that the French had derived strategic lessons of the utmost importance from those days and nights of practise, for, to quote again, "to Frenchmen it was a warning that the most favorable field of operations for submarine craft is in the immediate vicinity of the foe's naval bases and that a submarine offensive at the outset of hostilities is the course best suited to submarine weapons." And it is interesting to note that this is the very policy pursued by the British Admiralty since the 3d of August, 1914. Within three hours of Great Britain's declaration of war the submarines E-6 and E-8 were on their way, unaccompanied, to carry out a reconnaissance in the Heligoland Bight, after which the whole of the Eighth Submarine Flotilla took up positions from which it could have attacked the German high-sea fleet, had it emerged from its base and sought to interfere with the transportation of the British expeditionary force across the channel. Without relief this patrol was maintained both by day and by night, until the last battalion was safely landed on the northern shore of France and all chance of effective interference had disappeared. But against an enemy whose capital ships never, and whose cruisers seldom, emerged from their fortified harbors, the opportunities of delivering submarine attacks were necessarily very few. Only on one occasion, during the first six weeks of the war, was a British submarine within torpedo range of a German cruiser during daylight hours. Yet the ceaseless vigil was not in vain, for the British soon found themselves in possession of extensive information regarding the habits of the Germans, without which the "fortunate and fruitful" Battle in the Bight might never have taken place.
While reconnaissance work has proved one of the main duties of the submarine in war, the power of offensive operations has not been overlooked. In this respect the Germans scored their greatest success and compensated themselves, in a measure; for the fact that their naval ships were practically blockaded within their own harbors, and that their merchant marine was being swept from the high seas. By mine and submarine they scored repeatedly and successfully. But as time wore on, at least in the North Sea and around the British Isles, the activity of the U-boats became less pronounced, until it ceased to produce any recorded results against their enemy's fighting fleet. From their legitimate prey the Germans then turned savagely upon unarmed merchantmen, peaceful fishing-vessels, and penny pleasure-boats. And right here Germany committed a grave error of principle, for when she began her guerilla warfare beneath the waves she embarked upon a policy of attrition purely secondary in effect and without influence on the main issue of the war.
Admiral Von Tirpitz's undersea warfare against merchant ships at first gave the impression that it would sweep England's merchant marine from the seas, But Berlin's rejoicings were premature. In spite of the occasional activities of the U-boats the commerce of the United Kingdom has steadily increased. Of nearly 20,000 vessels that entered or left the port of Liverpool during the first five months of the submarine blockade, the Germans were able to intercept only 29, And during the month of June, 1915, which the Berlin admiralty claimed was the most successful from their point of view, the British Board of Trade reports showed an increase in imports of $89,180,000, and a net gain for a year of war of $55,985,000 over the previous twelve months of peace.
The menace of the submarine, however, has exerted a decided influence on naval operations upon the high seas. In the North Sea the British grand fleet has been forced to seek a distant base, remote from the waters of the German Ocean. Touch is kept with the German coast-line by means of the cordon of submarines maintained off Heligoland, assisted by the French channel flotillas, whose presence likewise deters the German battleships and battle-cruisers from issuing from their protected harbors. The only waters in which the battleship was able to roam unattended seemed to be among the islands of the distant Ægean Sea, where the more optimistic hoped that "the business would be completed before these pests made their appearance." But the enterprising Commander Otto Hersing managed to find his way from the North Sea to the Dardanelles, and his appearance upon the scene produced a situation which the British admitted "could not be otherwise than disquieting." With the loss of the Triumph and the Majestic the activities of the more powerful ships ceased and the troops operating on shore were deprived of the support on which they counted so much to assist them in their advance against Achi Baba. Had the Turks possessed submarines in the straits, there is little question that the operation of disembarking troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula would have proved far more difficult and dangerous than it was. But in this the British forestalled their opponents and by the activities of their own undersea boats effectively arrested the flow of reinforcements and supplies on which the successful Turkish defense of the Dardanelles will ultimately depend.
The submarine has, through its enterprise, thus effectively hampered the operations of the capital ships. But it has not stopped them. With adequate precautions against this form of attack, and with destroyers present in sufficient numbers, the war has proved that efficient protection can be given, and it is interesting, in this connection, to note that the most effective work of the destroyer against the submarine has been done, not in the daytime, but at night Owing to her inability to use her periscope in the dark, the undersea boat has been obliged to spend the hours from dusk to dawn on the surface, using her oil or petrol engines, not merely for cruising, but also for the additional purpose of running the dynamos in order to recharge her accumulators and renew the air-supply for the following day. In this condition the submarine on many occasions has met her fate, for the throbbing of her air-compressors, heard many miles off by the lurking destroyers, has revealed her whereabouts and invited her own destruction before, she could escape or submerge.
Dodging about the seas and viewing the world through a periscope, with the constant reflection that the vessel in which you sail may at any moment be sunk and never again rise to the surface, cannot be a very exhilarating occupation. The moderate truth of the matter is, as Captain Hansen of the U-16 himself admitted, that "it is fearfully trying on the nerves." Every man cannot stand it. When running submerged a deathlike silence reigns on board. Even the electric motors are silent. The temperature within the vessel is above the normal for a ship's engine-room, and the air, as it heats, gets poor and mixed with the odor of oil from the machinery. "The atmosphere becomes fearful, an overpowering sleepiness often attacks new men, and one requires the utmost will power to remain awake. I have had men who did not eat for the first three days out, because they did not want to lose that time from sleep," which perhaps was just as well, for no stove could be lit, as fire burns oxygen, and the electric power from the accumulators was too precious to be wasted in cooking. Yet day after day the vigil of the submarine crew has had to be maintained in the cramped quarters. "I have sat or stood for eight hours," wrote Captain Hansen, "with my eyes glued to the periscope, peering into the brilliant glass until my eyes and head have ached." There is no rest to be obtained, even in calm weather. And when the westerly gales sweep the North Sea, the strain becomes almost unbearable as the boats strive to remain on their stations in the short, steep seas so common in those waters, for "even when cruising at a depth of sixty feet," reported Commodore Keyes, "the submarines roll considerably, and pump—i.e., move vertically—about twenty feet."
Volumes might be written, if all the facts were known, about the many thrilling adventures and narrow escapes which have been incidental to the work of the submarines in this war beneath the waves. Some have already found their way into the daily press, but others have not yet been recorded and doubtless never will be known to us. In the first category may be mentioned the remarkable exploit of Lieutenant Holbrook, who, with the B-11, entered the Dardanelles and despite the difficult current dived under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship Messudiyeh. Another astonishing feat was that of Lieutenant Cochin, commanding the French submarine Papin. Recently he suddenly found himself in the midst of an Austrian mine-field. It was too risky to proceed any farther, so Cochin adopted the novel expedient of clearing the field single-handed—by having his crew dive for each mine, sever the holding cables, and then explode it as it floated to the surface. And in this connection also should be noted the timely work of rescue performed by the E-4, which, during the Battle in the Bight, came to the surface and took on board a boat's crew from the destroyer Defender, which the latter had been obliged to abandon in the face of the enemy's fire.
In the way of sensational experience, however, one must be alluded to as specially noteworthy. A Russian submarine, while cruising in the Baltic last June, submerged to attack a squadron of German battleships which was escorted by torpedo-craft. The submarine was able to approach quite near without being observed by the enemy, until one of the destroyers came so close that she was obliged to descend to a depth of fifty feet to escape being run down. Then the enemy passed on, and the Russian commander attempted to raise his periscope.
But at that moment the leading German battleship was sighted less than a hundred yards off. The Russian boat immediately submerged again and fired her torpedo. Almost simultaneously a terrible crash was heard. The submarine trembled from stem to stern, the electric bulbs burst, crockery and all kinds of articles flew about, something above broke, cracked, and gave way. The submarine took a list of 25 degrees to starboard. Her crew were unable to keep their feet. But fortunately not a man lost his head. By keeping going at full speed, and thanks to the stanchness of her upper deck, which had not been penetrated by the collision, the boat was able to regain her balance. Only the periscope had been damaged, and some water was leaking through the stuffing-box. But rising to the surface was out of the question. Each time the Russian commander attempted to do so the screws of the German vessels cruising overhead could be heard. So for four hours the boat remained beneath the waves, until darkness permitted her to emerge again and regain a haven of refuge.
There is little question that the submarine has brought new problems into naval warfare which will henceforth seriously influence the handling of the battle-fleets. Ten years ago underwater torpedo-boats were passing into the navies of the world, which were small, fragile, slow, and comparatively ineffective. What the submarine of to-day is we already know. She is yet neither invincible nor invulnerable. She has not supplanted the battleship. But what she may become in the future no one can predict.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald