Solving the Problem of the Submarine

By Burton J. Hendrick

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, October 1918]

The failure of the German submarine has an importance that extends far beyond the present war. That it has failed to stop the food-supply of the Allies and the transportation of troops and war materials from the United States to Europe is the great fact that will inevitably cause Germany's defeat. But the sorry showing of the submarine means even m-ore than this, for, had the Germans succeeded in their ambitious naval program, England would have disappeared as a naval power, not only temporarily, but for all time. She would have become, to use Disraeli's phrase, merely a "Belgium at sea."

A brief review of the history of the submarine, extending over a hundred years, reveals one very remarkable fact: this has always been a weapon of warfare that has been directed against one particular country—Great Britain. Up to this time when the submarine first appeared all engines of land or sea warfare had been regarded as having an important value against the forces of all countries; but the peculiarity of the submarine was that it was immediately regarded as dangerous to England-only. Practically every inventor who worked at the submarine was inspired by the determination to destroy the British fleet. All historians attribute the original invention to David Bushnell, a Yale student of the class of 1774, whose boat, constructed in 1775, contains all the essential principles of the modern vessel. Bushnell's intention was to sink the British fleet which was then anchored off our coast, destroy England's sea connections with her revolting colonies, and thus end the Revolution at a blow.

Bushnell's immediate successor as an experimenter with the submarine was another American, Robert Fulton; and again the new contrivance was brought to the front as a means of annihilating British sea-power. By 1801 Fulton had constructed a submarine that would go a considerable distance under the water, the motive power being oars; with this he had crept up to a vessel in the harbor of Brest, attached a torpedo, destroyed his victim, and made his escape. This exploit was merely an experiment, intended to convince Napoleon that such vessels could destroy the only agency which then stood between himself and the conquest of the world—the British fleet. Napoleon retained Fulton for a time, but finally dismissed him as a "charlatan." One keen statesman, however, who appreciated the importance of Fulton's labors, was William Pitt, then engaged in his death struggle with France. Pitt invited Fulton to bring his submarine to England, an act of hospitality which aroused the wrath of the sea-dogs who were then operating the British navy.

"What a fool Pitt is!" said Lord St. Vincent, then First Sea Lord, and his words reflected the attitude which then prevailed in England toward the submarine, and which continued to prevail for a hundred years afterward. "Why does he encourage a kind of warfare that is useless to those who are masters of the sea, and which, if it succeeds, will deprive them of this mastery?" But Pitt saw this quite as clearly as did his admirals; he told Fulton that the submarine, was useless to the predominant sea-power, but that it was enormously valuable to the nations whose naval forces were inferior. He summed the whole thing up in the phrase, "It is essentially the weapon of the weak seapowers;" his purpose in sending for Fulton was to offer him a considerable sum of money on condition that he would betake himself and his submarine to the United States. Fulton indignantly spurned this offer, but the French still refused to regard his invention seriously, and he soon returned to America, where in the future he devoted his attention to surface craft.

Despite the fact that for nearly a hundred years the world possessed an instrumentality that would have seriously interfered with Britain's sea mastery, and perhaps might even have destroyed it, the world made no use of this invention. John P. Holland took up the submarine in the seventies because he was an ardent Irish patriot and a member of the Fenian brotherhood, and because he regarded the destruction of the British navy as an essential preliminary to the establishment of Irish freedom. Holland's submarines, built in the seventies and eighties, repeatedly demonstrated that they could submerge, sink large vessels, and get safely away; yet the world still refused to accept them at their face value. Yet about 1898 interest in them was revived, this time by the French, and again hostility to England furnished the inspiration. The Fashoda crisis had arisen, and when France, exasperated by England's advance in Africa, proposed to settle the matter by an appeal to arms, she suddenly discovered that she could not make war on England at all, for the British fleet stood in the way. Looking about for a means of overcoming this initial impediment, French naval men discerned that the underwater boat, when put to the test, worked admirably, and as a consequence they began building submarines to the neglect of all other types of war-vessels. Battleships, cruisers, and other surface craft now seemed to these exultant Frenchmen to have grown obsolete, for the submarine, all by itself, could apparently drive the British navy from the seas.

The attitude of British naval experts, in the early years of the twentieth century, was precisely a reflection of that of Lord St. Vincent and Pitt a century before. The feelings they entertained toward submarines was well expressed by Sir John Fisher's attitude. "Submarines!" he exclaimed. "If I can catch one I'll hang the whole crew to the yardarm, whether I'm court-martialed for it or not!" The debates in Parliament from 1900 almost up to the outbreak of the world war show that the leading English statesmen and naval strategists regarded the modern submarine as the one engine of naval warfare that seriously endangered the security of the empire. The reasons for this were chiefly geographic. For centuries England's great element of strategic strength had consisted in the fact that she was an island. Up to the time of the Napoleonic wars this fact had made her position impregnable. As she was at that time a self-sustaining people, with a fleet larger than the forces of any combination that could be brought against her, the initiative in warfare always lay in England's hands. No nation could make war on England, for the island empire could always select her own time for engaging in hostilities, and when she did make war the war was always fought on the enemy's soil. Not since 1066 has a foreign army landed in England. With the rapid industrial growth of the nineteenth century, and an increase in population from seven million to forty-five million, England's island situation now developed into a source of danger as well as a source of strength, because she became dependent on her sea communications for her industrial materials and her food—that is, for her existence. Had Napoleon, with Fulton's assistance, succeeded in removing the obstacle of the British navy in 1801, he would have created the possibility of an invasion, but he could not have starved England and ruined her industrially, for this compact nation of seven million was then economically self-sustaining. The elimination of the British navy any time in the last fifty years, on the other hand, would have destroyed the British Empire in two months' time. There is no other great country of which this statement is true. England might destroy, with submarines, every war-ship and merchant-vessel in Germany, yet Germany's strategic position would be precisely the same as it is now. The submarine, that is apparently, gave England no greater strength at sea than that which she already possessed, for she already had a complete mastery. But it might give a nation which was weaker in sea-power a means of destroying the British fleet. "It is the weapon of the weaker power," as Pitt and St. Vincent declared a century ago.

To all this the answer seemed obvious: let England herself build great fleets of submarines, and so retain the ascendancy. That was the policy which was advocated in Parliament in the early years of the twentieth century. But this idea, as men like Lord Glenesk, Lord Goschen and Mr. Arnold Foster pointed out, involved a serious lapse in logic. Battleship can fight battleship, cruiser can fight cruiser, destroyer can fight destroyer, but submarine cannot fight submarine. Since the days when men first made war this was the first fighting machine ever invented to which there was apparently no answer.

"There is nothing that you can send against it," said John P. Holland, gleefully, "not even itself!"

Just before the outbreak of the European war the outlook for the British Navy, because of the development of submarine fleets, seemed to be very dark. The prevailing pessimism found expression in, the famous words of Sir Percy Scott, one of the greatest experts in the British navy.

"The introduction of vessels that swim under the water," he said, "has entirely done away with the utility of ships that sail on top of the water. Money spent on dreadnaughts is just so much money thrown into the sea,"

The war had hardly been going on a month when the German navy apparently made good Sir Percy's prophecy. German submarines crept up to three English cruisers, the Aboukir, the Hogue, and the Cressy, and sent them to the bottom in short order. The whole world went faint with horror when this news was received; the submarine was apparently accomplishing the task for which it had been preparing for more than a century. Under these stealthy attacks it seemed inevitable that the British navy should either retire to its harbors or, if the ships ventured out, that they should suffer the fate of these cruisers.

This dramatic event took place more than four years ago. Yet those three war-ships are almost the only ones that the British navy has lost from submarine attack. British war-ships now sail the seas as uninterruptedly as ever, and the vessels of all the Allied fleets go freely to all parts of the world, and even penetrate the waters whack are thickly strewn with German submarines. Apparently the fears, whack disturbed the sleep of British naval experts for a hundred years had no foundation, and Sir Percy Scott, great naval authority that he is, has proved to have been a sadly mistaken prophet.

Lord St. Vincent and William Pitt said one hundred years ago, "The submarine is useless to a strong naval power, and is useful only to a weak naval power," and, as I have shown, this dictum represented the opinion of all naval experts from their day up to the outbreak of the present war. But all these authorities have been absolutely wrong. What these great statesmen should have said is the exact reverse, "The submarine is somewhat useful to the nation that commands the seas, but it is absolutely valueless in the hands of a weak naval power." The present conflict has established an entirely new principle of naval warfare. That principle is this: a nation that controls the surface of the sea also controls the subsurface. That is, only a navy that commands the top of the water can successfully operate its submarines.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the submarine is that, after all, it is not a submarine. A war-skip that could sail continuously under the water, leaving no traces of its presence, and able at the same time to keep the surface under constant observation, would promptly put an end to all the surface navies. But that is precisely what the present submarine cannot accomplish. One of its greatest handicaps is that, when submerged, it has to depend exclusively up on electricity for motive force; it cannot use a gas-engine, an oil-engine, or a steam-engine, because these mechanisms would quickly exhaust the precious oxygen which is so essential to the existence of its crew. With an electric engine, however, the batteries need frequently to be charged, and this charging can be done only on the surface. According to Vice-Admiral Sims, the submarine can sail continuously under the surface for only, forty, or fifty, or sixty miles, according to its size; after making this distance it has to rise to the top and renew its store of electric fluid. The business of charging its batteries takes about five hours, during all of which period the vessel is the prey of its enemies that are scouring the surface. Even when sailing under the surface this craft usually reveals its presence by several signs which now the experienced sailor can easily detect. The most obvious, of course, is the periscope; but, even though the periscope is not visible, the submarine, however deeply it may be submerged, causes a disturbance, a kind of wake, which, even though it may be very slight, betrays its presence to the keen eye of the practised observer. A watcher on the bridge of a war-ship can usually detect this disturbance, while to a watcher in a hydroplane or other aerial craft it stands out glaringly. Because of these limitations, the submarine actually spends the larger part of its time upon the surface. It cruises around until it sights its prey, discharges its torpedo, and then dives to make its escape. The so-called submarine might thus accurately be described as a surface warship whose chief defensive quality is its ability to submerge.

These two facts—that it must spend a great part of its existence upon the surface, and that, even when in the depths of the sea, it cannot absolutely conceal its presence, are what have made the anti-submarine warfare so successful. For it is no longer true that there is no "answer" to this little adder of the seas. About twenty-five years ago a new type of fighting-craft appeared which caused almost as much consternation among naval men as did the submarine at the beginning of the present war. That was the torpedo-boat.

This was a little reptile-like vessel, which was capable of great speed, and whose main weapon of offense, as is the case with the submarine, was the automobile torpedo. It was the function of the torpedo-boat to creep up to a fleet, especially in the night-time, discharge its explosive, and then scamper away to safety. The torpedo-boat, that is, was intended to perform about the same part in warfare as has the submarine, its one great difference being that it had to make its escape on the surface, since it could not submerge. Yet at one time it was generally prophesied that the torpedo-boat had rendered the battleship useless, and there were great naval authorities, just like Sir Percy Scott in more recent times, who declared that money spent on these great fighting-ships was simply money thrown away. Yet the torpedo-boat enjoyed a very brief career; many years ago, indeed, all navies ceased to build them. For, in response to this need a new type of craft arose, whose purpose was sufficiently described by its name, "torpedo-boat destroyer." Against this agile war-ship the torpedo-boat fought helplessly, for its chief weapon, the torpedo, was utterly useless against the destroyer. The chief reason for this was that the torpedo, in order to make a straight course, had to sail about fifteen feet under the surface, whereas the draft of the destroyer was only eight or nine. These ugly mechanisms, that is, almost invariably passed harmlessly under the keel. This left the torpedo-boat nothing but a very light gun with which to oppose its suddenly discovered enemy. But the destroyer was much larger than the torpedo-boat; it made even greater speed, it carried much heavier guns, and it could thus demolish it almost on sight. In a short time it had so completely rid the sea of the much feared little craft that the "torpedo-boat destroyer" lost the first part of its name and went upon all naval lists simply as "destroyer." There were no more torpedo-boats to destroy, and it was not worth while to continue building them.

Thus, when the war began, the "destroyer" had one complete and splendid victory to its credit. And this war had not gone far when it appeared that it was likely to have a second victory. The successful attack by submarines on the Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir so shocked the world that it gave an altogether false emphasis to the submarine in naval warfare. What has not made so great an impression is the more significant fact that, after these first few months, the German submarines sank practically no more Allied war-ships. Since this first great naval tragedy most of the spectacular torpedoings of war-vessels have been made by the Allied fleets—on the Turks in the Dardanelles, on the Austrians in the Adriatic, and so on. For more than four years the Grand Fleet of Great Britain has been absolutely immune to submarine attacks. How little the popular mind understands the situation is explained by the fact that most of us picture the British dreadnaughts as anchored in landlocked harbors, protected by nets, booms, and other similar obstructions. The idea that the Grand Fleet has spent four years anchored more or less continuously behind such shore protections is ridiculously false. If this popular conception represented the true situation it would simply mean that Germany had long since won the war. The fact is, however, that the British fleet, in the last four years, has had constant access to the high seas and has actually spent more than half its time cruising in the waters about the British Isles, including the areas which are supposed to be dominated by Germany. This fleet is not only master, of the seven seas, but it has the utmost freedom of action. The famous policy of "attrition," by which the British dreadnaughts were to be reduced by a slow and agonizing process, has utterly failed. Instead of disappearing, unit by unit, under the attacks of German submarines, the British fleet, as Sir Eric Geddes has publicly announced, is 160 per cent, more powerful than in 1914. Yet all this time the German submarines have had these magnificent targets cruising in the open sea! Why have they not disposed of them?

The fact is that the "destroyer" has practically eliminated the submarine from naval warfare, precisely as it had already eliminated the torpedo-boat. And for the same reasons. As already explained, the submarine, for the larger part of its career, travels upon the surface. But if it happens to come to the surface anywhere near a destroyer, it almost immediately meets destruction. It cannot fight the destroyer with the torpedo, for the reasons already given. If the submarine attempts the combat with her guns, the odds are again altogether against her, for the destroyer usually carries a more powerful armament than the submarine, and has the great advantage of shooting down from a high platform, whereas the submarine must shoot upward. Moreover, the destroyer is so swift—some of our new boats are making forty knots—and the submarine is so clumsy and so 'slow, that the latter ship always runs the danger of being rammed. Even though the submarine submerges, it still stands little chance of escaping. The destroyer can usually tell its approximate neighborhood by the disturbance on the surface, and then a depth bomb ends its career. The destroyer also knows that, once submerged, the submarine must come to the surface somewhere within a radius of fifty or sixty miles. It can therefore wireless to all surface craft within this area that a submarine is in the neighborhood, and one or more of these ships, by keeping a watchful patrol, are usually on hand when the harried underwater vessel cautiously rises to the top. These are the reasons why the British fleet is almost as safe on the open sea as in the protective harbors which have figured so largely in discussions of modern naval warfare. This armada always sails surrounded by two circles of destroyers about ten miles from the fighting-ships. Between these two lines are a large number of other swift and light surface craft. Only one German submarine has ever succeeded in penetrating that screen; it did this by diving under the boats and coming up on the other side, where it was promptly rammed and sunk by a battleship.

In the early part of 1915 the German Admiralty discovered that its submarines could make no headway against a fleet which was so impenetrably screened by destroyers. It openly confessed the failure of its submarine flotillas against vessels of war by turning them against merchant-ships. Instead of attacking war-ships like the Hague, the Cressy, and the Aboukir, the submarine now proceeds to assault the Falaba, the Lusitania, the Arabic, and hundreds of other vessels, and once more Germany boasted that she had found the solution of her naval program. Yet, as subsequent events have disclosed, she had not found such a solution at all. It needs no elaborate argument to show that the destroyer can screen from submarine attack a convoy of merchant vessels quite as successfully as it can screen a fleet of war-ships. Yet Germany for a time did have great success in sinking merchant-ships, but this success was purely fortuitous and could have had no permanent effect upon the ending of the war. Her submarines won this temporary and questionable triumph only because the Allies did not have enough destroyers to provide this screen. Great Britain began this war with 240 destroyers, and France had an entirely negligible number. The Allies needed all these destroyers to protect the Grand Fleet and to safeguard communications with France across the English Channel. If the Admiralty, in 1915, had had a sufficient number of destroyers to provide an escort for the Lusitania, that vessel would probably never have fallen a prey to submarines. But the Lusitania was sunk simply because the strategy of war demanded that Great Britain, should send a great army to France as rapidly as possible and that the great dreadnaught fleet upon which the whole cause of the Allies hung should be held intact. England has transported millions of soldiers and millions of tons of supplies to France because these have all been protected by destroyers, and the British fleet has cruised with the utmost security because it has always been surrounded by an adequate destroyer screen.

The Lusitania and hundreds of other ships have gone down simply because there have been no destroyers to protect them. But merely to state the case shows that Germany's cowardly success was necessarily only temporary. She could sink merchant-vessels just as long as there were no destroyers to act as convoys, and no longer. England's obvious answer was to build destroyers on the largest possible scale, and that is what she immediately began to do. In 1916 British shipyards turned out far less merchant tonnage than in peace-times; the explanation was that they were devoting all their time to building warships, particularly destroyers. American shipyards are now building these and kindred types on a tremendous scale; indeed, we are probably surpassing our British allies in this construction. We all remember the enthusiasm with which the British public acclaimed that fleet of fifty or sixty American destroyers which appeared in England about a month alter Congress had declared war. The cause of this enthusiasm was that destroyers were the particular munition of war that was most needed just then—each one was worth more, in actual fighting value at that moment, than a dreadnaught or a battle-cruiser.

At the present time more German submarines are being sunk than are being built, and the amount of merchant shipping which is submarined is growing smaller every month. The great increase in the production of Allied destroyers is the explanation. The submarine proved useless against war-ships because the Allies, in the early days, had destroyers enough to interfere with their activities, and it is likewise becoming useless now against merchant-ships because the Allies, enormously helped by American shipyards, are rapidly building enough to protect these vessels also. From the beginning of the war destroyers have been convoying the Allied ships of war, and now they are with equal success convoying our transports and our merchant marine. In a year the lanes of travel will be simply swarming with destroyers and kindred craft. But perhaps one doubt still lingers in the mind. Is it not possible that Germany can build submarines faster than we can build destroyers? This question again involves a great misconception. The present situation on the sea is not a race between the construction of submarines and destroyers. Germany cannot restore the equilibrium and perhaps gain the upper hand by turning out submarines on an enormous scale. Her great difficulty is that the fundamentals in this contest are working against her. A flotilla of destroyers, such as furnish a convoy for merchant-ships or transports, can sink a dozen submarines .almost as easily as it can sink a solitary one. As already described, a submarine simply cannot fight a destroyer on anything that approaches equal terms, whereas the destroyer can most efficiently fight a submarine. If a single destroyer meets three or four submarines, it can lay around in comparative security and pick off one after another; it can send all to the bottom almost as easily as it can send one; its enemies can only escape destruction by running away and submerging, and, as already described, the latter process also involves great perils. Thus we may say, as a general principle, that it makes little difference how many submarines Germany possesses, provided we have destroyers enough to convoy our war-ships and our merchant marine.

Does all this mean that the submarine is valueless in warfare, and is destined to disappear, like the torpedo-boat? Not necessarily, though it does mean that it has a much more restricted use than we believed four years ago. It also means, as I have already indicated, that the submarine is the weapon of the strong naval power, and not, as the British statesmen and naval experts contended for nearly a century, of the weak naval power. The last four years have proved that it is only the nation that controls the surface of the sea which can operate its submarines in any way that can make them permanently effective. Destroyers can annihilate submarines wherever they show their heads, but destroyers themselves cannot operate unless the fleet of which they are a part controls the surface of the water. Before Germany can make her underwater boats the determining factor in the war she must first succeed in driving the Allied destroyers off the sea. In order to do this she must have a stronger surface fleet than that of the Allies—that is, she must herself control the seas. In other words, the basis of British sea-power is to-day precisely what it has always been—a great preponderance in battleships. The destroyers operate to eliminate the submarine only because back of them stands a mighty force of dreadnaughts. At first this principle apparently eliminates the submarine, for the fleet that commands the surface has already done what this new type of craft was expected to accomplish; it has driven the enemy fleet into its ports and chased its mercantile ships off the seas. But it is the opinion of our greatest naval experts, such as Admiral Sims, that large sea-going submarines, attached to the Grand Fleet, could accomplish very destructive results in a sea battle. But in such an engagement they would be useful only to the navy that had strength enough to protect them against their natural enemies, the destroyers. Thus we reach this new principle of naval warfare, that the nation which controls the surface also controls the subsurface; in other words, that the navy which rules the surface need stand in no particular fear of submarines. Isolated sinkings there may be, but these will not affect this basic principle. The position of the submarine, which has haunted naval strategists for a century, is definitely determined.

All this has a great bearing upon the problem of defending the American coast. There are still many who believe that a large force of submarines, based on Atlantic and Pacific ports, could prevent the bombardment of our large cities and the landing of an invading army. But whether they could do this or not would depend upon one point and one point only—whether we or the enemy fleet controlled the surface of the sea. If the invading nation were more powerful in dreadnaughts than we, a thousand submarines could not interfere with its operations. For such a fleet would approach our seacoast screened by rows of destroyers, which would readily dispose of any number of submarines that we could send against them. Then the enemy fleet could leisurely spend its time picking up any mines that interfered with its progress, and afterward bombard our cities and land an army. If, however, our fleet of capital ships succeeded in maintaining a more than equal combat against the enemy, and in sinking or rendering harmless its destroyer screen, then a flotilla of large seagoing submarines would have the utmost freedom of action and could probably inflict great, damage. And so we come back to the point that, despite all the modern improvements of war, the underlying principles have changed very little. The battleship, just as in the days of Drake and Nelson, still determines the issue at sea. For the United States to stop building great fighting surface ships and to depend upon submarines for coast defense would be merely to extend an invitation to an invading fleet.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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