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U.S. Naval Historical Center

USS Gato (SS-212) is launched at Electric Boat Company, Groton, Connecticut
in August 1941. The Gato class was the
last pre-war submarine design.


Silent Defense:
1900 - 1940

by Dr. Gary E. Weir

Editor’s Note: In recognition of the approaching
Submarine Centennial, UNDERSEA WARFARE
presents the first of a series of articles reviewing
the history of the U.S. Submarine Force
since its beginnings nearly 100 years ago.

In the year 2000, the U.S. Submarine Force will celebrate one century of service to the Nation by the Fleet’s most highly-skilled personnel in some of the most technologically advanced ships ever built. The past century has witnessed the evolution of a force that mastered submersible warfare, introduced nuclear propulsion to create a true submarine, and in recent decades patrolled a deep ocean front line that was the hottest part of an otherwise Cold War.

For many, these statements conjure images made familiar by modern techno-thrillers rendered in prose or film. Unfortunately, even as these contemporary, “high-tech” impressions seized the popular imagination, the
submarine’s origins and technical adolescence were fading into a mysterious naval antiquity. Rediscovering that past permits us to recover a fascinating world of pioneers, gasoline engines, diesel oil, and 12-knot submerged speeds as little known as they were 100 years ago.

The U.S. Navy’s involvement with the submarine dates from 1888, when the Bureau of Construction and Repair sponsored a design competition that awarded John Holland a contract to build the experimental Plunger. As the new century dawned, prominent American naval leaders like Admiral George Dewey called the submarine a real threat to international surface forces, leading the Navy to acquire its first submarine in 1900. Overcoming competition from fellow American inventor, Simon Lake, Holland sold his newest model, Holland VI, to the Navy for $160,000 on 11 April of that year. This 64-ton submarine, commissioned as USS Holland, or SS-1, on 12 October 1900, came equipped with an Otto-cycle gasoline engine for surface running and electric motors for submerged operations.

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                                                                                   U.S. Naval Historical Center
    USS 0-1 (SS-62) in dry dock at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Naval Shipyard in November 1918.

Because of the dangerous volatility of gasoline, American submersible designers soon followed the French practice and adopted the diesel engine for surface propulsion in 1909 with the Electric Boat Company’s F class (SS-20 through 23), built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco, California. With diesel propulsion married to the submersible designs of Holland and Lake, American submarines took on a familiar configuration that lasted through American entry into World War I. Submarines of the E, H, K, L, M, N, O, and R classes ranged in displacement from 287 to 510 tons, with the fastest boats capable of a top surface speed of barely 14 knots on diesel power.

Germany set the pace for submarine warfare in World War I as early as 1914, when Kaiser Wilhelm II proved unwilling to risk his High Seas Fleet in a direct engagement with the British Grand Fleet and unleashed the U-boat force. Operating alone, German U-boats usually displaced well over 800 tons, carried very reliable Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-N�rnberg (MAN) diesels, and successfully operated in the English Channel approaches and much of the Atlantic Ocean. The U-boat community, dubbed the Raiders of the Deep by American journalist Lowell Thomas, set the standard for that era’s submarine performance – technical,
tactical, and strategic.

In contrast, the U.S. Navy separated their submersibles into two groups according to mission. “Boats” of the N and O classes, as well as some of the E type, patrolled U.S. coasts and harbors in the service of a defensive strategy. Other submarines drew assignments that sent them to hostile European waters after 1917, and some K-, L-, O-, and E-class boats conducted offensive, open-sea operations from the Azores and Bantry Bay in Ireland. They supported the Allied effort to maintain open sea lanes for imported foodstuffs and war supplies along the European coast and in the approaches to the British Isles, but fell far short of the German effort. The L-class submarines deployed to the Azores and Ireland displaced only 450 tons and could not hold their own against adversaries in the North Atlantic. Only in a few instances did these boats see action, and in every case the outcome proved inconsequential. The L-11, for example, attacked an unsuspecting surfaced German U-boat in May 1918. Missing the target, the U.S. submarine did not have the power to stay within range for another attempt. The U-boat submerged and left the area. These early classes of American submarines clearly demonstrated the shortcomings of de-signs driven by missions not yet clearly defined, but the war taught important lessons in size, speed, propulsion, and weaponry that stimulated a heated post-war strategy and design debate.

Subsequent Navy Department planning for submarine operations reflected prevailing surface warfare thinking, which perceived the submersible as a type of destroyer or torpedo boat that should operate with the battle fleet. Thus, the first foray into submarine design by the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Steam Engineering, with the assistance of the Electric Boat and Lake Torpedo Boat Companies, produced the faster 15-knot, 800-ton, S-class submarine in 1916. At virtually the same time, Electric Boat received a commission to design the three boats of the 20-knot T, or AA class, with a nominal displacement of 1,107 tons. On paper, these post-World War I design goals seemed to bring the Navy one step closer to the “fleet submarine” that could form part of and keep pace with the battle fleet. That goal proved elusive for the inter-war submarine force largely due to technical shortcomings and the immature state of diesel engine technology.

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                                                                                      U.S. Naval Historical Center
               USS R-1 (SS-87) cruises on the surface. The 569-ton R-1 was launched at the Fore
             River Shipbuilding Company, Quincy, Massachusetts, in June 1919 and served until
                                                              the end of World War II.

The political and budgetary climate in the United States denied private industry any new submarine construction between 1925 and 1931, and the resulting hardships demonstrated how heavily the private sector had come to depend on naval contracts. Electric Boat managed to survive this long dry spell by building everything from machinery to pleasure boats. But Lake, the Navy’s only other private prime contractor for submarines, closed its doors for the last time in 1924.1 Nonetheless, the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Engineering soon came to depend on the technical cooperation of private industry to supplement their own efforts at both naval research facilities and the Navy’s submarine shipyards at Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Mare Island, California.

During the interwar period, the Navy took the initiative in a number of submarine-related areas. Dissatisfied with industry’s early control over both submersible technology and the market, the Navy’s technical bureaus acquiesced in Lake’s demise and used all of their available assets to develop the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard into a first-class submarine design and construction facility.2 Naval authorities also played the role of coordinator or catalyst for certain essential technologies, supporting and supplementing work by firms like Kollmorgen on periscopes and naval, industrial, and university teams on radio transmission and underwater sound. This interaction during a period of severely limited financial resources made the bureaus more sensitive to the problems of the private sector, while providing naval and civilian personnel with valuable experience.

That experience was key. The Navy needed to explore the strategic potential of the submarine and, with industry, address the corresponding technical challenges. Indeed, after World War I, uncertainty prevailed within the Navy Department and the Submarine Force over issues as basic as strategy and mission. Only clarity and consensus in these matters would permit the development of a successful submarine design. Thus, the Navy’s relative inexperience with submarines and their particularly demanding engineering problems quickly sparked controversy and heated debate over design, technology, and strategy.

In a 1921 letter to the Secretary of the Navy, during angry disagreements over technical flaws in the diesel systems supplied by Electric Boat, Captain Yates Stirling, Jr. – then Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard – forcefully pointed out numerous design and reliability problems of the boats then in service, especially the new 800-ton S class. His comments sparked a tumultuous strategy, mission, and design debate that lasted for another decade, coming to a climax between 1928 and 1930. During those years, Commander Thomas Withers, Commanding Officer of Submarine Division Four, called repeatedly for an offensive strategy and solo tactics similar to those employed by the Imperial German Navy during the war.

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                    The submarine tender USS Savannah (AS-8) at Portland, Oregon, circa 1927.
                                Alongside are S-27 (SS-132), S-29 (SS-134), and S-25 (SS-130).

If the “fleet submarine” indeed proved technically impractical, the Submarine Force would have to operate independently on the German model to achieve maximum effect. Unfortunately, that model had only mixed appeal. While the German commercial warfare strategy and independent patrol tactics had great effect on the war effort of the Allies, incidents like the wartime sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania painted this style of warfare with a dark brush, suggesting a certain immorality in operating submersibles without restriction. Indeed, at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 and 1922, the activities of the wartime U-boats received general condemnation for operating by stealth and in many instances unrestricted by the same rules of prize and capture governing surface vessels. While never officially advocating unrestricted submarine operations, the Naval War College and the Submarine Officers Conference (SOC) endorsed Commander Withers’s views in the early 1930s.3 Only then did naval authorities finally begin to give serious consideration to aggressive, independent, blue- water operations as the submarine’s primary mission, vice coastal defense or intelligence gathering. Naval architects and engineers immediately realized that this new strategic perspective demanded a larger, more reliable, and more habitable submarine designed for long-range offensive missions.4

Due to the initiative of Withers, the SOC, and the staff at the Naval War College, independent operations to inflict casualties on enemy forces eventually became the primary task of American submarines. Coastal defense virtually disappeared as a submarine assignment, while gathering intelligence for the fleet remained an important, but secondary, mission.

The American fleet submarine that so effectively executed an offensive strategy against the Japanese during World War II ultimately resulted from the synthesis of Stirling’s assault on the technical unreliability of the S-class submarine and Withers’s strategic challenge. Following this first stimulus, the support and sensitivity of Admirals Henry A. Wiley, Harry E. Yarnell, and Samuel M. Robinson proved critical. Wiley, as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet and former Chairman of the General Board endorsed Withers’s ideas – as did the staff at the Naval War College – permitting them to flourish in a potentially inhospitable environment. Yarnell and Robinson, as successive chiefs of the Bureau of Engineering from 1928 to 1942, utilized German technology from MAN at a time when America could not afford the comprehensive diesel engine research and development program desperately needed by the Submarine Force. 5

Strategically, American officers realized that war in all of its brutality, not peacetime politics or worthy ethical concerns, would determine the future challenges faced by the Submarine Force. In spite of official policy, the boats under construction in the 1930s reflected assertive, offensive, strategic thinking as the country came to terms with the Depression under Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the Bureaus of Construc-tion and Repair and Engineering resolved the submarine’s engineering and propulsion dilemmas. The new Salmon-Sargo designs set the standard for the Gato class, which was intended for long-range, independent patrols, with the requisite food, fuel, and weapons capacity. In addition, fleet exercises and war game scenarios during the late 1930s encouraged these submarines to attack warships, convoy escorts, and even certain convoys themselves, when identified as critical to enemy logistical support. By 1940, the Submarine Force had resolved its fundamental strategic issues and had the ships in place to carry out the roles and missions that resulted. Thus, when Admiral Thomas Hart proclaimed unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan on 8 December 1941, it came as no surprise. Submariners knew what to do.

— Dr. Gary Weir is a historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

1. In 1914, only the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, founded by inventor Simon Lake; and the Electric  Boat Company of Groton built American submarines. The latter built designs pioneered by the inventor of the submarine and one of the company’s founders, John Holland. Before World War I, the Navy’s best facilities, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Mare Island, California, served the submarine fleet only as repair and overhaul centers.
2. The term “technical bureaus” refers to the Navy’s Bureaus of (Steam) Engineering, Construction and Repair (BUC&R), and Ordnance. In 1940, the first two were combined to form the Bureau of Ships. Previously, the Bureau of Steam Engineering had had its name changed to the Bureau of Engineering (BUENG) in 1920.
3. The Submarine Officers Conference, founded in 1926, was composed
of a group of active submarine officers who served in an advisory
capacity to the General Board and Chief of Naval Operations on all
submarine matters.
4. By 1934, a design of approximately 1,475 tons assumed primary place within the submarine community as the best size and configuration to satisfy the Navy’s desire for reliability, range, and habitability. In March of 1936, the General Board’s final recommendations to the Secretary for the 1937 construction program gave 1,450 tons as the “minimum compatible with a proper balance of the required military characteristics to meet the intended employment of the submarine.” Gary E. Weir, Building American Submarines, 1914-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1991).
5. Robinson was Chief of BUENG when the merger with BUC&R took place in 1940, creating the Bureau of Ships (BUSHIPS). He became the first Chief of the new bureau.


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