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“The war is going to be won by inventions.”
Thus said British First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher in 1915, and he may well have been right.
The development of radio, interrupter gear, the tank, the huge advances in airplane technology
and artillery, mustard gas, all played a part, and the list goes on, but one development
has to go right near the top of the list, the submarine.
I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War special episode about the development of the
submarine before the First World War.
Yes, before.
A lot of the exploits of submarines are covered in our regular weekly episodes, so today I’ll
talk about what came before.
Submarines had existed in some form or another for centuries, but until the First World War
they were pretty much a hit and miss thing.
Now, contrary to what most might assume, it was Germany who was most hesitant about building
a submarine fleet for most of the years leading up the war, and Britain that was the world
leader in subs.
German Grand Admiral Tirpitz had this to say in 1904, “The submarine is... of no great
value in war at sea.
We have no money to waste on experimental vessels.”
His British opposite Jacky Fisher, who I quoted before, had this to the same year, “...the
very best among us fail to realize the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and
naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish!”
What actually changed the German plans was Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
He took a ride in a submarine- one of the few monarchs to do so- and was so impressed
that he overruled Tirpitz and ordered the development of a U-boat fleet.
It took a lot of time and effort for the Sub to develop into what it was during the war
and many countries were involved in various ways and various developments.
The man arguably the most influential to submarine development was the Irish Engineer John Philip
Holland tried to sell his first design to the US Navy, but they turned him down, so
he returned to Ireland and convinced the Fenian Brotherhood to pay him to work full time on
research and design, but the Fenians grew frustrated with his delays, and eventually
Holland literally stole his submarine and hid it in a shed in Connecticut where it remained
for 35 years.
In case you’re wondering, that sub is now on display in the Patterson City Museum in
New Jersey.
Anyhow, Holland continued to improve his designs and in 1897 launched the first sub that was
capable of running for any real distance, and more importantly, the first that combined
electric motors for undersea running and gasoline engines for surface use.
Three years later, the US Navy bought and commissioned this prototype and ordered six
more like it.
The company that emerged from this was called “The Electric Boat Company”- which sounds
like a crazy 60s band- and that company today is defense contractor General Dynamics, who
make nuclear subs.
Holland’s design combining the two motors quickly became standard worldwide.
One other thing, during the time it took for Holland to convince the navy to buy it, the
Spanish-American War was fought.
Holland offered to go to Cuba and sink the Spanish fleet if when he was successful the
navy would buy his design.
The navy decided that sending a private citizen in a private warship to sink foreign ships
was probably not a good idea.
Speaking of sinking ships, torpedo development was also proceeding at the same time.
In 1866, British engineer Robert Whitehead developed the “Whitehead Torpedo”.
It was supposed to be a harbor defense against attacking ships.
It was powered by compressed air, and by the 1890s these torpedoes could travel at up to
56 km/h.
By that time a few people were experimenting with using torpedoes and subs together.
In 1889, for example, Spaniard Isaac Peral’s sub “Peral” successfully fired three Whiteheads
during a trial run.
Keep in mind that there were not yet torpedo tubes; the torpedoes were launched from the
sides of the sub.
By the 20th century, torpedoes were a standard complement on many naval vessels, with launching
tubes placed on the decks, before eventually being built into more protected areas of the
Also by the 20th century, the submarine race was on!
In 1900 Britain had five Hollands on order and in 1904 they proved their capability;
in their first maneuvers when they were tasked with defending Portsmouth, they “torpedoed”
four warships, much to everyone’s surprise.
Still, though even as the 19 teens dawned, general naval doctrine held that submarines
were limited to harbor and coastal defensive operations.
In 1912, when two British subs slipped into a fleet anchorage and “torpedoed” three
ships, and British navy staff warned that enemy subs might be a serious threat to the
fleet, the British navy Board scoffed and refused to recognize them as anything other
than defensive.
That same year, the US navy replaced the subs’ gasoline engines with diesel.
Diesel was more stable and far less flammable.
The entire world followed suit.
Just before the war broke out, in June 1914, British Admiral Percy Scott, a big advocate
of submarines, wrote, “As the motor has driven the horse from the road, so has the
submarine driven the battleship from the sea... submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionized
naval warfare...”
He called for more submarines and no more battleships.
He was loudly attacked by the government and senior naval officers that his theory was
a “fantastic dream”.
But you know, theories and dreams often have a way of becoming a reality.
And three months later when the war raged, the HMS Pathfinder became the first ship torpedoed
by a sub using standard torpedo tubes.
Two weeks after that, U-9 sank three British warships in an hour and the age of the submarine
as an offensive threat had truly begun.
Submarines at this time did have some serious drawbacks, though.
They still had limited underwater speed and endurance and were pretty much blind when
submerged so they needed to be in position before an attack.
Also, their surface speed was less than the cruising speed of most warships.
Radio technology at the time was severely limited.
When a sub used a radio to send, the enemy knew where they were, so they were only set
to receive messages most often until contact with the enemy.
Again, I’ll talk about sub and tech development during the war in the regular episodes and
other specials.
If you were wondering, at the beginning of World War One, the nation with the most subs
was Great Britain, with 74 in service and 34 under construction.
They were followed by France, Russia, the United States, and then Germany.
Germany had 28 in service and 17 under construction at the time.
As you are aware, Germany would beef up that number substantially, and German subs would
sink 5,000 ships during the war, a total of 13 million tons of shipping, and the submarine
would indeed change the face of warfare and become one of the symbols of Modern War.
Thank you William E. Lutz for helping us with the research of this episode.
If you want to have a general overview of the navies in World War 1, you should definitely
check out our special episode right here.
You should definitely subscribe to our subreddit to not miss the next AMA Indy does once in
awhile and you should also subscribe to our show to never miss an episode.


The Invention And Development of Submarines I THE GREAT WAR Special

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happy 2016 年 9 月 8 日 に公開
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