Ahoy - Mac's Web Log
Mackenzie J Gregory

Join the Ahoy discussion group about naval and maritime history
Flag of Australia

Under Water Warfare The Struggle Against the Submarine Menace 1939 -1945

The seeds of World War 2, I believe, were sown with the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles as early as 20 April, 1923, at Munich, Adolf Hitler made these comments about the Treaty "The Peace Treaty ( of Versailles) is intolerable; its economic fulfillment necessarily means political slavery. The abolition of this Treaty is a necessity."

The author, aged 17, on board H.M.A.S. `Australia' 12th of October 1939

The author, aged 17, on board H.M.A.S. `Australia' 12th of October 1939

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

The Antagonists
Throughout W W 2 there was an unrelenting battle between two sets of opposing forces. On one hand, the menace of Submarine Fleets (in the case of Germany, major Naval ships augmented the U-Boats in their attack against the Convoys) plying the World's oceans. Seven tenths of the world's surface is covered with water, a Submarine thus has multiple choices in deciding where it may hide, and whence it will operate.

Submarines sought to -

(a) Sever the very lifeline of "Merchant Ships Ships carrying essential supplies from America / Canada to the United Kingdom. In 1939, 55 million tons of imported goods was needed to to sustain Britain. With the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, the German Navy had 57 operational U-Boats in service.

(b) Destroy Naval ships of all types.

(c) Destroy German. Italian, and Japanese Merchant shipping.

(d) Destroy Troopships wherever they may be found.

(e) In the case of the Japanese Submarine Fleet, it was saddled with an additional task, to transport troops and supplies to reinforce actions being fought in far flung locations from their Homeland. eg, "Guadalcanal" in the Solomon Islands. The other side of the coin is engraved with all the Anti-Submarine forces, be it

(1) The Convoy system, and its Escorts, whose primary task was the safe and timely arrival of the Convoy at its destination. In W W I the Convoy system was not instituted until 1917, but this mistake was not duplicated. War with Germany was declared on the 3rd. September 1939, and the first outward bound Convoy from Britain was sailed only four days later. The first inbound Convoy for Britain sailed out of Halifax on 16 September 1939.

(2) Anti-Submarine vessels seeking to locate and destroy enemy Submarines (including Submarines operating in an anti-submarine capacity)

(3) Aircraft, both land and Aircraft Carrier based, seeking to find and destroy enemy Submarines

(4) Aircraft seeking to destroy the German long range Focke-Wolf Kondor aircraft.

History of the Development of the Submarine
As early as the 3rd Century B C Archimides set out the physical principles needed to achieve submersion. William Bourne, an Englishman, in 1578, designed a submersible, but it was not mobile. Cornelius van Drebbel, a Dutchman, worked on submersible boats, and, in 1620 demonstrated one to an audience that included James 1st.

A Frenchman, de Son, was next in line with a designed 73 feet long Submarine 12 feet high, to be powered by a clockwork motor designed to operate a large paddle wheel.

This boat was actually floated, but the paddle could not cope with the water pressure,and this concept faded into oblivion.

Day's submarine of 1773

Day's submarine of 1773

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

An Englishman, named Day, in 1773, converted a small fishing boat into the crudest of Submarines. It was to be submerged by the weight of two stone bundles, held by iron bands, suspended beneath the keel. Tested in shallow water, by removing the Stones, it floated to the surface. On 20 June 1774, tested in 150 fathoms, neither Day nor his Submarine were ever seen again.

His boat showing the two stone bundles secured below the keel

His boat showing the two stone bundles secured below the keel

We now have to wait until 1775, when an American, David Bushnell, actually built a mobile Submarine which functioned. He wanted to sink British warships located in New York harbour at the time of the Revolutionary War. His "Turtle" was hand propelled by a one man crew member, and was in reality, a diving chamber, designed to deliver a bomb, and fix it to the target hull, then escape prior to the explosion, but on three occasions the "Turtle" failed to prove itself.

Submarine `'Turtle' - David Bushnell

Submarine `'Turtle' - David Bushnell

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

Robert Fulton was next on the scene, also an American, born in Pennsylvania in 1765.By 20 he was a painter of miniatures of some ability. By 1793, Fulton had turned to engineering, and for 5 years his main interest was the construction of canals, and design of equipment to assist in canal transportation, which included boats propelled by steam.

By 1797, he had moved to Paris, and over a 7 year period was engaged in the design and promotion of Submarines. He developed and tested his "Plunging Boat" the "Nautilus". Fulton unsuccessfully tried to interest Napoleon in his Submarine project, and labelled England as the villain.

"It is the Naval force of England that is the source of all the incalculable horrors that are committed daily. ---- if by means of the "Nautilus" one could succeed in destroying the English Navy, it would be possible for a fleet of"Nautilus" to blockade the Thames to the end that England would become a Republic. Soon Ireland would throw off the yoke and the English Monarchy would be wiped out. A rich and industrious nation would then increase the Republics of Europe and this would be a long step towards liberty and universal peace."

However, Napoleon did not respond, and within a few years Fulton was writing about "The tyrannic principles of Bonaparte, a man who has set himself above the law."

He now shifted his allegiance to England, and in 1804, was "Begging leave to propose one plan, which will be prompt in execution, and if successful, will forever remove from the mind of man the possibility of France making a descent on England. I propose a Submarine expedition to destroy the fleets of Boulogne and Brest as they now lie."

Although England put up some money, the Admiralty was not interested, and Fulton now realised that the British would not build his boat, and he returned to America.

Fulton now turned his talents to building "Clermont" the first steamship.

In 1850, an Austrian corporal, Wilhelm Bauer, commenced to work at Kiel on a Submarine project. This boat was to be 26.5 fleet long- water flooding into a double bottom was designed to submerge the vessel, and torpedoes were to be attached to enemy ships by means of mechanical hands, were the offensive weapons.

Bauer's design translated into `Le diable marin

Bauer's design translated into `Le diable marin

On I February 1851, Bauer and two seamen started their descent in the "Brandtaucher," but Bauer did not correctly calculate the increasing pressure of water as his boat sank deeper. Part of the hull crushed, and, close to disaster, he was able to equalise the pressure by allowing water to flow into the submarine. All three crew members regained the surface, but the boat was wrecked.

Germany and Austria lost interest in Bauer, and he now moved to Russia- where under the patronage of the Grand Duke Constantine he managed to build a Submarine which was named " Le Diable Marin."

On the day to celebrate the coronation of Alexander II, on the 6th. of September, 1856, Bauer's Submarine made a successful descent, as passengers, he took a number of muscians, their task to play the Russian National Anthem, to what purpose is not known, but more importantly, the submarine resurfaced.

"Le Diable Marin" is reported to have submerged 135 times, finally she became stranded on a mudbank, and Russia then lost interest in submersibles, and Bauer faded from the scene.

H. L. Hunley - Confederate Submarine

H. L. Hunley - Confederate Submarine

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

A Captain In the Confederate Navy, Horace L Hunley, invented a craft given his own name - he had toyed with a steam driven boat, but there was insufficient oxygen available when submerged. He then turned to man power, eight men side by side rotated a crank shaft which ran the length of the submersible, this was connected to a stern screw. In the bow, a helmsman looking through a small conning tower steered the craft.

The weapon was a torpedo attached to a long spar which was protuding from the bows. The "Hunley" ventured under water 5 times, on each occasion problems evolved, and, in all, 32 men perished, including her inventor.

"Hunley" finally sank the" U S S Housatonic" in Charlston Harbour, killing 5 of her crew, but disaster struck the "Hunley" again, she became caught in the hole punched in the side of the " Housatonic", and was dragged down with her victim.

In 1866, Robert Whitehead had developed his Submarine torpedo which was self propelled, and in Liverpool in the late 1870's a Minister, George William Garrett, was busy inventing a Submarine. By 1879, his 45 feet long "Resurgam" built to include compressed air, hydrophones, and a steam engine, was ready to test. It is unfortunate that during trials off Wales, she did not live up to her name, and was lost with her crew of three.

Next in the saga of Submarine development comes the Swedish gun maker Nordenfelt. He built a 61 feet long boat, displacing 60 tons, in 1885. It was Steam driven with a range of 15O miles, and the claim that she would submerge to 50 feet. Under test this submersible spent 6 hours under water, and Nordenfelt 1 was modified to carry a Whitehead torpedo housed in an outside tube. The impressed Greek Government paid 9000 Pounds for this Submarine. Vickers built another boat for Nordenfelt with a 1300 horsepower engine designed to give a surface speed of 14 knots or submerged speed of 5 knots for a distance of 20 miles This Submarine was purchased by the Tsar, but delivery was never made, as she was wrecked at Jutland enroute to Russia.

The Turks ordered 2 Submarines to be built on the Thames, at Chetsey, by a British firm. This order included 2 torpedoes, 14 feet long, for each boat, and a pair of machine guns. On completion of the first Submarine no Turkish crew was forthcorning to man the boat, and an English crew manned her to undertake trials in the Sea of Marmora- the second boat was not completed.

Around the world a number of people were involved in trying to solve the mystery of producing a workable and safe Submarine. A Russian, Drzewiccki, in 1876, produced a 16 feet boat, powered by pedals. A Spaniard, Isaac Peral used an electric motor to drive a 165 foot boat in 1888.

Then Drzewiccki followed Peral in using an electric motor.

The French Navy became interested in Submarines as a means of an offensive weapon, and sponsored a competition, offering prizes for the best Submarine design. It should be no bigger than 200 tons, cruise at least 100 miles, with a surface speed of 12 knots, and a submerged speed of 8 knots.

The Russian, Drzewiccki, designed a vessel with a steam engine for surface running, and used an electric motor when submerged. This motor was to be fed from an accumulator. He was placed second in the French competition out of the 29 entries received.

The winning entry, the "Narval," was built in 1897 at Cherbourg. However the French Navy had actually received its first boat, the 60 feet long "Gymnote" in 1889. It was powered by an electric motor of 55 Horse Power, assisted by 564 accumulators, but it had only been used experimentally. Germany had built 2 boats to the Nordenfelt design, one at Danzig, and the second at Kiel, they were the work of a Frenchman, d'Equevilley, but they proved to be of little value.

Turtle Illustration by Gary Corbett with the kind permission of the Publisher, reference for the ‘Turtle’ illustration (by Gary Corbett) was taken from John Batchelors analysis in “A Modern Illustrated Military History - Sea Power

Turtle Illustration by Gary Corbett


Text to go with Turtle Drawing.


1. Ventilation pipes with simple self-sealing valves to prevent water entering boat.  

2. One vent pipe stayed shut as shown so that foul air could escape through top of dome.  

3. Skylights in the brass dome.  

4. Portholes on either side and in front of dome. These could be opened to admit air during surface running.  

5. Brass hinge allowed brass dome to tip sideways to admit crew. This could be screwed down from inside or out.  

6. Screw for attaching 'bomb' to underside of target ship. After screw was firmly attached to bottom planks, the boat was submerged even further to release screw, rope and bomb.  

7. Ascent and descent propeller which could effectively raise or lower boat in a neutrally buoyancy state.         

8. Bomb. Made from two pieces of oak hollowed to take 150lb of black powder. Inside, an 'apparatus' (most probably clockwork) was made to run up to twelve hours, when it would release a sear allowing a flintlock to fire and explode the main charge. When released, the bomb, which was lighter than the water displaced, would float up against the target to give better performance.  

9. Bomb release screw.  

10. Depth gauge. A glass tube, its open end at the bottom, allowed outside water pressure to float the phosphorus covered cork up and down according to depth. The light of the phosphorus allowed the operator to see the position of the cork and measure his depth against a graduated line on the glass.  

11. Propeller could move forward or astern.  

12. Propeller operating crank. A removable handle could be used for hand operation.  

13. Foot pedals for operating propeller cranks.  

14. Major transverse beam and operators seat.  

15. Compass.  

16. Two brass forcing pumps, for pumping out leaks and ballast water.  

17. Forcing pump operating handles.  

18. Rudder bar: down for port and up for starboard.  

19. Rudder bar crank.  

20. Rudder.  

21. Ventilation pump, to force fresh air in and foul air out at 2.  

22. Completely sealed down, the operator had enough air for about 30 minutes. This valve ensured that no water was admitted.  

23. Ballast reel.  

24. Tackle for lifting emergency ballast.  

25. Below deck, 200lb of lead ballast could be released on 50ft of line in an emergency, and recovered if and when the operator was able to continue his mission.  

26. Ballast water inlet valve operated by right foot. Perforated cover prevented weeds, etc. entering and blocking pumps or valve.  

27. Although not mentioned, it is fairly certain that the operator would carry some means of 'repelling boarders' in the event of being forced to the surface.  

28. Lead-weight stabilizers.


Related links:

  • The saga of the Submarine. Good description of the history of the submarine from 350 BC to today! Includes several photos.

  • Australian Submarine AE2 The wreck and its discovery.

    Did you know:

    She was the world's largest submarine, with a length of 400 feet and a surfaced displacement of 3,530 tons. Above her main deck rose a 115 foot long, 12 foot diameter, hangar housing three torpedo-bombers. She was equipped with a snorkel, radar, radar detectors, and capacious fuel tanks that gave her a range of 37,500 miles: one and a half times around the world. She was armed with eight torpedo tubes, a 5.5 inch 50 caliber deck gun, a bridge 25mm antiaircraft gun, and three triple 25mm A/A mounts atop her hangar. She had a top speed of 18.7 knots on the surface and 6.5 knots below snorkel depth. The Year: 1944. Can you name that WW II ship? For an answer, .... click any of the links below.

next chapter

back to Under Water index

Back to weblog home

This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness.  All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.

Copyright© 1984/2014 Mackenzie J. Gregory All rights reserved