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HMS K3 underway in harbor with sailing barge in background.

All 13 K-boats with sea trials in the first half of 1917 had serious problems. Fuel leaks, explosions, fires, boiler flashbacks, hydraulic failures, and groundings were common. During a static test dive at the Devonport Dockyard with many civilian workmen aboard, K6 refused to surface. The occurrence was hushed up. K14 sprang a leak at anchor in the Gareloch, flooded her batteries, and nearly asphyxiated the crew with chlorine gas. She had to be towed in. As more of the boats gradually moved north to join the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, their tactical deficiencies became increasingly apparent. Formed into two flotillas and employed primarily for antisubmarine sweeps of the North Sea in conjunction with light surface forces, the K-class proved unwieldy and unreliable, several barely making it back to port after engineering mishaps. In one operation, after narrowly avoiding destruction by friendly destroyers mistaking her for a U-boat, K7 earned the distinction of being the only K-class submarine ever to fire in anger when she attacked the German U-95 on 16 June 1917. Firing five torpedoes, she scored one hit—and that was a dud. After a short surface chase, with K7 gaining, U-95 submerged and escaped.

After the Battle of Jutland in mid-1916, the German High Seas Fleet provided the British no real opportunity to execute the tactical concept for which the Ks had been designed. Nonetheless, Admiral Beatty, replacing Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief, led several large-scale feints into the Heligoland Bight in late 1917, hoping to draw the Germans out. In one of these operations, in mid-November, the K-class 12th Submarine Flotilla took park in one of the rare instances when they were actually used as “fleet submarines.” Although they saw no action against the enemy, misfortune struck again. On the night of 17 November, K4 collided with K1 off the coast of Denmark, so crippling the latter attempts to tow her away were thwarted by worsening weather, and she had to be abandoned and sunk. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Disaster in the Firth of Forth
Sadly, this was not the case in a lugubrious incident that took place on the evening of 31 January 1918 off the Firth of Forth. By then, Beatty had moved the K-boats south of Rosyth, where they joined the Fifth Battle Squadron and the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron under Vice Adm. Hugh Evan-Thomas. Beatty planned a major fleet exercise for 1 February in which his main force from Scapa Flow would rendezvous with the Rosyth contingents in the North Sea. Thus, in the early evening of 31 January, Evan-Thomas, in the cruiser HMS Courageous, led his forces down the Firth of Forth in a long, single line-ahead. After Courageous came the 13th Submarine Flotilla—K11, K17, K14, K12, and K22 (formerly K13)—all following their Commodore, Cmdr. Edward Leir, in the flotilla leader HMS Ithuriel. Several miles behind them were the battle cruisers Australia, New Zealand, Indomitable, and Inflexible, and then the 12th Submarine Flotilla: the light cruiser HMS Fearless (with Capt. Charles Little, Commodore), K4, K3, K6, and K7. Bringing up the rear were three battleships, which, like the battle cruisers, were accompanied by a number of screening destroyers. The initial speed of advance was 16 knots, but Evan-Thomas had ordered his forces to increase speed to 22 knots when they passed May Island, which lay just at the entrance to the Forth estuary.

The night was clear and the seas relatively calm, but the moon had not yet come up, and each of the K-boats was essentially steering on the shrouded stern light of the vessel ahead.

At approximately 1900, Courageous passed May Island and increased speed, just as a low-lying bank of mist settled over the sea. Almost simultaneously, Evan-Thomas’ force unexpectedly encountered a small flotilla of minesweeping trawlers crossing their path. As K14 maneuvered to avoid them, her helm jammed, and she veered out of line to port and slowed. Meanwhile, K22, having lost sight of her next ahead, K12, had also straggled to port off the intended track, and when K14 managed to regain steering and turned back to starboard, K22 plowed into her at 19 knots, nearly tearing off her bow. Thus began a chain reaction of misadventures that was later dubbed the “Battle of May Island.”

With both K22 and K14 now dead in the water—and the latter nearly in extremis—out of the mist loomed the battle cruisers, with Australia in the van. The first three succeeded in avoiding the crippled submarines, but Inflexible, last in line, struck K22 a glancing blow and tore down her side making 18 knots, removing all her external tankage. Surprisingly, both submarines survived, and K22 even made it back to port the next day under her own power.

By 2000, Commodore Leir on Ithuriel had received word of the initial collision, and turned back—with K11, K17 and K12 in train— to render assistance. Almost immediately, they ran afoul of the column of battle cruisers and their screening destroyers, still outbound, but narrowly managed to avoid a collision. With that danger averted, however, Leir blundered right across the bows of the oncoming 12th Submarine Flotilla, with Fearless in the lead, and the latter rammed full speed into K17, just forward of the conning tower. Fearless lost twenty feet of her bow, and K17 sank within eight minutes. In the resulting confusion, K6 collided with K4, nearly cutting her in half. K4 sank almost immediately, but not before K7 ran over her in turn. These events left the confused remnant of both submarine squadrons stationary in the path of the battleships and their destroyers at the end of the column. Just alerted to the catastrophe before arriving on the scene, all three battleships in succession barely squeezed by K3, but their accompanying destroyers killed many K17 survivors in the water.

At dawn when the mist had lifted, the losses in the “Battle of May Island” were revealed: K4 and K17 sunk; Fearless, K14, and K22 badly damaged; and over 100 men drowned. The resulting inquiry and a court-martial assigned blame to five officers, but still no one questioned the tactical concept of operating the K-class boats with surface ships or the technical deficiencies of a submarine that combined the ‘speed of a destroyer, the turning circle of a battle cruiser, and the bridge-control facilities of a picket boat.’ Indeed, in June 1918, the Admiralty ordered six more, intended to be numbered K23 through K28.

Close up of HMS K6 gun and funnels looking aft.

Big Guns on Submarines–The M-Class

Earlier, however, the Admiralty had decided to follow up on a post-retirement suggestion of Lord Fisher, who proposed arming large submarines with 12-inch guns to create a class of “submarine dreadnoughts” that would be more effective against surface ships than boats armed with torpedoes alone. Since these ships might also have been useful for shore bombardment, they were eventually christened “submarine monitors.” The Director of Naval Construction produced a design in 1916 for a class of four such boats, which were laid down on the keels of K18, K19, K20, and K21, all just starting construction. This was the M-class, and prudently, the Navy reverted to diesel engines for their surface propulsion. Each carried a single 12-inch gun in a large casing forward of the conning tower that could be fired from periscope depth with the muzzle protruding from the water. Though fifty rounds of ammunition were carried for the gun, it could only be reloaded on the surface.

Despite the engineering challenges of adapting a 60-ton battleship rifle to a submarine, the M-class boats were reasonably successful. They could make 15 knots above water—10 submerged—and because of their great weight, could dive in 30 seconds and remain stable underwater. Even the gun was relatively trouble-free, although on one occasion M1’s hydraulically-operated tampion—what was supposed to seal the barrel—allowed water to leak in ahead of the shell. When the gun was fired, the projectile tore off the muzzle, which flew away with the wire winding of the barrel trailing behind, like a giant fly-cast. M1 was only readied for action in June 1918 and was sent to the Mediterranean, where she never fired a shot in anger. M2 and M3 were commissioned in 1919 and 1920, respectively, but M4 was cancelled on the stocks at war’s end.

The K-and M-Classes Post-War–The Beat Goes On
By the time World War I ground to a halt in November 1918, and particularly in the aftermath of the “Battle of May Island,” the reputation of the K-class had sunk so low that the Royal Navy was having difficulty finding submariners—all volunteers—willing to serve in them. Consequently, the Naval Society issued a lengthy treatise minimizing their many deficiencies and defending their performance in the war. The Admiralty’s 1921 Technical History and Index noted that, “The K-class stands by itself. No other nation is building similar boats and our inception of them shows that our lead in design is very great.”1 Nonetheless, the Navy cancelled five of the six K-class boats ordered in 1918 when hostilities ceased; only K26 was commissioned, in May 1923. Incorporating a number of improvements in her boilers, funnels, air intakes, and ballast tanks, she was expected to become the first of a new class of replacements, but in fact, no more were ever built. Moreover, even before trials, she upheld the traditions of the K-class by scalding two men to death in a boiler accident.

Even after the Armistice, the K-class submarines continued their erratic behavior, and several more nearly foundered. When Admiral Sir David Beatty was appointed First Sea Lord in 1919, however, their prospects improved. Since Beatty remained a firm believer in “submersible battle cruisers” and fleet submarines, he formed seven of the remaining K-class boats into the Atlantic Fleet’s 1st Submarine Flotilla, specifically to gain deep water fleet experience. In 1920, they accompanied the Atlantic Fleet on a lengthy overseas cruise to Arosa Bay (Spain), Gibraltar, Majorca, and Algiers, and although several suffered the usual and by-now familiar engineering and seakeeping problems, they all returned without mishap. On 20 January 1921, however, K5 disappeared with all hands during fleet exercises 120 miles west-southwest of the Scilly Islands, probably the victim of a loss of control in a dive. Except for an oil slick and some wood fragments, she was never found. Only six months later, K15 sank at her pier in Portsmouth, and although raised, she did not return to service and was eventually scrapped.

As more of the older K-class were retired during the 1920s, M1, M2, and M3 took their places in the 1st Submarine Flotilla, along with the newly-commissioned K26. Then on 12 November 1925, M1 disappeared while on a routine training exercise only 15 miles south of Start Point on the southeast coast of England. Her whereabouts remained a mystery for the ten days it took the Swedish freighter Vidar to arrive at Kiel and report striking a submerged object precisely when and where M1 had gone missing. Paint scrapings on Vidar’s hull revealed that the submerged object had indeed been the lost submarine. After this tragedy, the Royal Navy disbanded the 1st Submarine Flotilla, and all of the remaining K-boats, save K26, were disposed of. K26 spent most of the rest of her days in the Mediterranean, but she too went to the breakers in 1931, as troublesome as her sisters to the very end.

This left only M2 and M3—originally K19 and K20—to carry on the fateful tradition. After the loss of M1, the gun on M2 was removed and its housing converted into an airplane hangar to carry a collapsible Parnall Peto seaplane, which could be catapulted from the forecastle for scouting in advance of the fleet. Similarly, in 1927, M3 was converted into a large submersible minelayer, with capacity for over a hundred mines. The Navy used both boats in the late 1920s and early 1930s for a variety of operational experiments, but on 26 January 1932, M2 disappeared off Portland Bill with 60 men aboard. When her wreck was found on the bottom a week later, both the hangar door and the conning tower hatch were open, suggesting that the ship had flooded in the act of surfacing and attempting to launch the aircraft as quickly as possible. M3—happily—escaped the K-class nemesis, and she was scrapped that same year, thus bringing our sorry tale to a close. Of the 22 K- and M-class boats ultimately commissioned, only one saw combat. But seven—nearly a third—were lost to accidents, half with all hands.

The Lessons of History
What lessons can be learned from the sad history of the Royal Navy’s K-class submarines? There are many—and each observer will discover his own. For some, it will be the danger of trusting in immature technologies; for others, the folly of over-reacting to a perceived threat, or jumping to the conclusion of a flawed tactical concept. Subsuming all of these, however—and lying behind the Admiralty’s stubborn persistence in defending their creation—was a “willing suspension of disbelief” that sacrificed common sense to an idealized view of naval operations that had little counterpart in the real world. Obvious design implications were not followed through to conclusion; the hard realities of recurring experience were ignored; and the habits of self-deception and wishful thinking drove out critical analysis and reflection. Are navies today very much different?

Edward C. Whitman, Ph.D. is the Naval Science Advisor at the Center for Security Strategies and Operations (CSSO) at Techmatics, and is a former Senior Editor of Undersea Warfare magazine.

1 Don Everitt, K Boats: Steam Powered Submarines in World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999).

All historical photos courtesy of The Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport.

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