A History of Submarines and U-Boats

Submarines may date back as far as 332 B.C., with references in history mentioning Alexander the Great going down into the sea in a glass barrel because he wanted to study fish. If this is true, then the concept of submarines has been floating around for about 1,800 years. William Bourne wrote Inventions or Devises in 1578, describing the principle of making a boat sink and come up by changing its volume. By contracting the volume, the ship sinks, and by expanding the volume, the ship rises. The precise way this was done in 1578 isn’t clear, but modern techniques and materials have made it possible.

Early Submarines

The attempts of Alexander the Great and William Bourne were focused on diving bells and not boats or ships. From that point, inventors began concentrating on a way to propel a submerged craft through the water. Cornelius van Drebbel was able to achieve propulsion in 1620 with his boat the Drebbel I, which was arguably the first functioning submarine. This enclosed rowboat was propelled by 12 oarsmen. A sloping foredeck helped force the boat under the water as the oarsmen applied forward momentum.

In 1636, Marin Mersenne had the idea that a submarine should be made out of copper and should be cylindrical in shape so it could withstand the pressure of deep ocean depths better. From this point, early designs of submarines all had a shape like a porpoise. Even with these advances and the Drebbel I prototype, more than 200 years passed before the French Navy launched an actual precursor of the modern submarine. The Plonguer was powered by engines that ran on compressed air, and in 1863, it became the first submarine not to need human propulsion.

Military Possibilities of the Submarine

It didn’t take long for countries to recognize the military possibilities of a submarine. The First Anglo-Dutch War between 1652 and 1654 involved a 72-foot-long semi-submerged battering ram that was designed to approach enemy warships without being detected. The craft would punch a hole in the side of the enemy ship. Once it was launched, however, the battering ram couldn’t move.

In the American Revolutionary War, David Bushnell’s Turtle was used. Water could be pumped in and out of the skin surrounding the boat to change its ballast. This made it possible for it to rise and sink in the water. One man operated the boat using hand-cranked propellers, and another man provided vertical movement. A third man had to provide horizontal drive. The Turtle was the first submarine to attack an enemy ship, likely the HMS Eagle in New York Harbor. The attack wasn’t successful, and the boat’s pilot couldn’t attach its armament to the enemy ship’s hull.

Robert Fulton got the attention of Napoleon with his submarine the Nautilus. This submarine tested successfully with several dives, achieving a depth of 25 feet and a speed underwater of 4 knots. A hand-cranked propeller under the water made it move, and it had a sail for when it was on the surface of the water. This craft made several attacks on Royal Navy ships, but they could always see it coming to evade it. This failure led to Fulton’s dismissal.

It was 50 years before submarine warfare was used again, this time during the American Civil War. The Confederates used submarines as a way to break the Union blockade of the South. Both the Union and Confederate armies used submarine prototypes, but these crafts were largely based on limited improvements to technology that already existed. In 1864, the USS Housatonic was destroyed, marking the first submarine victory. The CSS Hunley, propelled by oars, attacked the Housatonic with explosives. The Hunley was also destroyed. This marked the beginning of war beneath the surface of the sea.

The Royal Navy and the Modern Submarine

The modern submarine is credited to John Phillip Holland, and this became a reality near the end of the 19th century. Holland was the first person to combine an electric motor, an electric battery, and an internal combustion engine in a completely modern submarine. Up until this time, the Royal Navy had made it clear that submarine development was not a priority. With this technological advancement, however, the Admiralty could not ignore submarines any longer. The Royal Navy ordered five Hollands to test them. The Admiralty had previously considered submarine warfare to be underhanded and “un-English.” But watching the Hollands sink four warships in a test exercise convinced the Admiralty of their effectiveness. Funds were diverted from the Royal Navy’s shipbuilding budget to begin constructing submarines. Submarines were developed starting with the Hollands and continuing through A to D classes. The final D-class submarines had decking and deck guns.

Submarines in World War II

In 1935, the British government agreed that the German Navy should be allowed to have the same tonnage of submarines as the Royal Navy had. A new German submarine strategy involved operating U-boats in “wolf packs” of seven or eight boats in the Atlantic, shadowing merchants across the ocean, attacking at night, and submerging to escape and plan the next attack. This strategy was used until 1943, when Germans faced a loss of 250 submarines after sinking more than 3,000 Allied vessels. In May of that year, 42 U-boats were sunk, forcing the Germans to withdraw their fleet. Over the next two years, the Germans lost 520 more submarines while sinking only 200 ships. At that point, the Germans reconvened to discuss a new strategy. Outfitting submarines with a snorkel so that the vessels could use their diesel engines below the surface would help conserve battery power and keep the submarines less visible from the air.

A standard U-boat was 200 feet long and had a surface displacement of 760 tons. These vessels could go 15 knots on the surface and had a dive time of 20 seconds, reaching a maximum safe depth of 650 feet. They could also last seven to eight weeks without needing to refuel. These boats also were the first to have fuel tanks inside the hull, eliminating the issue of leaking fuel trails along the surface.

Submarines During the Cold War

After World War II, the arms race between the United States and the USSR dominated world events. The Royal Navy stopped attacking surface shipping and began focusing on intercepting Soviet submarines. A new Amphion class had been rolled out near the end of World War II, and it featured more sophisticated equipment. A new “snort mast” had been developed on submarines, which was an advancement of the German snorkel. Air-warning radar also helped protect a submarine while it was submerged. These vessels also had deck guns removed to make them more streamlined, and new sonar devices were added.

Nuclear Submarines

Continued submarine advancements included the ability to launch missiles. The first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1955, called the USS Nautilus. This vessel could reach surface speeds of 18 knots and submerged speeds of 23 knots. The Nautilus was more porpoise-shaped so it could spend more time under the water. The British also developed nuclear-powered submarines during this time, and their first vessel was the Dreadnought.

Although the Cold War ended and submarine roles are ever-changing, submarines continue to be important and relevant today. Submarines have the ability to launch special forces operations and gather intelligence. These silent service vessels also are able to multitask as needed, making them a continual and lethal presence in the course of naval warfare.

  • Nuclear-Powered Ships: Nuclear power enables ships to stay at sea for long periods of time without having to refuel.
  • How Nuclear Submarines Work: Nuclear-powered submarines can stay submerged for long periods of time without having to come up to refuel.

More Information on Submarines

Go to Knowledgebase