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The School of War U.S. Submarines in World War I

U.S. Submarines in World War I

Despite ineffectual attempts by both the Russian and Japanese navies during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) to employ “submarine torpedo boats” in Far Eastern waters, modern submarines received their first real baptism of fire in World War I (1914-1918). Even with the global proliferation of submarines during the first few years of the 20th century, it was the Germans and British who first demonstrated their dangerous potential for undersea warfare in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during 1914 and 1915. In acquiring John Holland’s pioneering Holland VI – the progenitor of all “modern” submarines – in 1900, the U.S. Navy had gained a small head start on its European counterparts. But by the time the United States joined the Allied cause in mid-1917, rapid technical and operational developments in Europe – and particularly during the early years of the war – had left the U.S. submarine force significantly outclassed.

Photo caption follows The first U.S. submarines to arrive in European waters were USS K-1, K-2, K-5, and K-6, which reached the Azores in October 1917. They are shown here moored alongside their tender, USS Bushnell (AS-2), at Punta Delgada, Azores late that year. (Bushnell later transferred to Bantry Bay, Ireland, to tend L-class submarines there. She was replaced at Punta Delgada by USS Tonapah (BM-8).)
When World War I broke out among the European powers in early August 1914, the U.S. Navy had 29 submarines in commission. These ranged from the immediate successors of Holland VI – eight A- and B-class boats in the Philippine Islands – to the first two members of the K class, which had just entered service. When Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign and the infamous Zimmerman telegram1 finally drew the United States into the war in April 1917, the Navy had 42 submarines in commission, having added the remainder of the K class (for a total of eight) and seven of the newer L-class boats (of an eventual 11). But even the best of these had only been intended for harbor or coastal defense, with surface displacements of around 450 tons on a length of 165 feet – and capable of only 3,000-mile endurance at 11 knots, barely enough to cross the Atlantic. By then, the succeeding N and O classes were already under construction, with the 27-ship R class soon to follow, but only the three large “fleet boats” of the T class – laid down in 1916 and 1917 – offered true ocean-going potential, and they would not be joining the fleet until well after the Armistice.

First U.S. Submarines to Europe

Nonetheless, because the Royal Navy in 1916 had begun assigning submarines to anti-U-boat patrols in the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Irish Sea, the U.S. naval high command in June 1917 proposed sending a contingent of submarines to European waters to assist in the anti-submarine campaign. Initially, SUBLANT designated 12 submarines for the mission, divided into separate divisions to be stationed, respectively, in the Azores and on the southern coast of Ireland. These boats were chosen from the most capable the Navy had to offer: USS K-1, K-2, K-5, K-6, and E-1, constituting SUBDIV 4, for the Azores; and USS L-1 through L-4 and L-9 through L-11, constituting SUBDIV 5, for Bantry Bay, Ireland. At first, the Navy intended to steam the boats across the Atlantic under their own power, but marginal fuel capacity and the unreliability of their rudimentary two-cycle diesel engines militated against that approach. In October, the four K boats left Philadelphia and New York to rendezvous with the submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2) and the old protected cruiser USS Chicago off Provincetown, Massachusetts, from whence they were towed to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then to the Azores, some 1,700 nautical miles to the southeast. Under the prevailing North Atlantic conditions, towing two submarines from each surface ship posed a serious challenge, but when the former attempted to proceed on their own, recurring engine failures left the expedition no choice. Fortunately, after arriving in the Azores – where they were eventually tended by the monitor, USS Tonopah (BM-8) – they spent an uneventful year, largely because mechanical problems kept them out of service for much of that period.

The L-boats of SUBDIV 5 – plus E-1 – left Newport, Rhode Island for Europe in early December 1917 under tow by Bushnell and two ocean-going tugs. Bound for Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the group ran headlong into a hurricane and was forced to divert toward Bermuda. Although the flotilla was badly scattered, with one tug and a submarine actually returning to Boston, the other tug and four submarines eventually reached their destination. Then, after several more straggled in, Bushnell, a tug, and four submarines completed the remaining 1,000 miles to Bantry Bay on 27 January 1918, with three more boats to follow. They were promptly re-designated the “AL” class to avoid confusion with British L-class submarines and under the tutelage of the Royal Navy, began preparing for their role in the ASW effort off southern Ireland.2

Photo caption below Map caption to left
(above) The first L-class boats arrived at Berehaven, Ireland in late January 1918. Under the tutelage of the Royal Navy, they were soon conducting anti-submarine patrols south and east of Bantry Bay and served in that capacity until the end of the war in November. Here, USS L-1 and L-3 are tied up alongside Bushnell.

(right) Late in World War I, the seven U.S. L-class submarines of SUBDIV 5 were transferred to Bantry Bay, Ireland to carry out anti-submarine patrols in an area of responsibility that included St. George’s Channel and the western approaches to the English Channel. Several American battleships were also stationed at Bantry Bay, and an entire division of them formed the 6th Battle Squadron of the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.