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Submarines have long been a part of warfare and military history. In fact, the submarine’s origins trace back as far as 332 B.C., when it was said that Alexander the Great was lowered into the ocean inside a glass barrel so he could study the life of fish. This concept was then pushed aside for around 1,800 years, until it reappeared again in 1578 in a publication called Inventions or Devises, written by William Bourne. Bourne described the idea of submerging a boat by altering its volume.
Originally, submarines were closer to the design of a diving bell than an actual boat. A man named Cornelius van Drebbel added propulsion to the vessels around 1620. He named his boat Drebbel I, and it is considered by many to have been the first functioning submarine. The vessel was an enclosed rowboat with 12 oarsmen that had a sloping front. As the rowers propelled the boat forward, it was forced underwater. More than 200 years later, the French navy constructed the first real precursor to the submarines that are used today. Called the Plongeur, this vessel used engines instead of manpower, and it was launched in 1863.
Around the time of the Anglo-Dutch War, a 72-foot-long “Rotterdam boat” was built by Louis de Son. It was an aquatic battering ram designed to approach enemy warships stealthily and punch a hole in the side. Unfortunately, once it was launched, it was unable to move.
In 1800, American Robert Fulton created the Nautilus. This sub went through a few successful tests and was able to reach a depth of 25 feet and a speed of 4 knots while operating underwater. It used a hand-cranked propeller, augmented by a sail whenever it was at the surface. The Nautilus made several attempts to attack Royal Navy ships, but the enemy ships could always see it approaching, so it was easy to evade. It would take another 50 years before submarine warfare developed any further. Both sides took interest in submarines during the Civil War, when the Union blockaded the South, leading to the first military victory by a submarine: The Confederate Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic using an explosive attached to its tip, destroying both vessels.
The true origin of the modern submarine came after Irishman John Philip Holland combined three important components: the electric battery, the electric motor, and the internal combustion engine, which all worked together to make the first modern sub. In October of 1900, the submarine was tested to see how it worked in dealing with the enemy. Holland and his crew built this submarine for the Royal Navy.
At first, Rear Adm. Arthur Wilson claimed that submarine warfare was unfair and underhanded. But Adm. John Fisher, his superior, saw the submarine “sink” four warships during a training exercise at Portsmouth Harbor, and it was at this pivotal moment that he realized that naval warfare would be changed forever. When Fisher became head of the Royal Navy, he allocated five percent of the boat-building budget to the development of submarines. Changes were made that included adding decking and guns and improving the shape.
As the world entered World War II, naval strategies began to change. In World War I, military personnel realized that merchant ships could be sunk at a much faster rate than they could be replaced. When the world went to war once again, the Germans used their submarines, called U-boats, in the waters of the Atlantic, working in packs of seven or eight to shadow the merchants. They would attack under cover of night, then submerge in order to escape. This strategy was successful until mid-1943, at which point Germany had lost about 250 submarines and had sunk more than 3,000 Allied vessels.
The tipping point occurred when 42 U-boats were sunk in one month alone, May of 1943, forcing the Germans to withdraw from the Atlantic. In the next two years, another 520 German submarines were lost, and only 200 ships were sunk. These events caused the Germans to rethink their strategy. Through this period, the snorkel was developed. This breathing tube allowed the submarine to use its diesel engine as it operated just underneath the water’s surface and conserve battery power. It also helped to make submarines harder to spot from the air. The snorkel did leave a wake that could be picked up with sonar, however.
More than 700 U-boats were built around this time period, measuring about 200 feet long with a surface speed of approximately 15 knots. These boats had a dive time of 20 seconds and could safely dive to around 650 feet. Another breakthrough was that these vessels could go anywhere from seven to eight weeks before needing refueling.
Britain’s equivalent, the T-class, was the first to have a fuel tank inside the hull, which eliminated the problem of leaking fuel that left trails behind on the surface. The HMS Truant was an example of how useful these types of vessels were: It sank enemy ships all over the globe, including in its home waters, the Far East, and the Mediterranean. Another successful ship was the HMS Trenchant, which sank the Japanese cruiser Ashingara.
After World War II, the Cold War was front and center. The arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. had begun. This conflict changed the role of the submarine, and the Royal Navy stopped focusing on attaching surface ships. Instead, they shifted toward the interception of Soviet submarines. A new Amphion class was designed toward the end of World War II, but its new role caused it to be refitted. These vessels were given a snort mast, which was an improvement on the German snorkel. Other enhancements included air-warning radar that could function even when the submarine was operating underwater. The most impressive advance included a new, complex assortment of sonar devices added to submarines.
The Germans invented the rocket, which soon led to another major advancement in submarine design. The U.S. started to experiment with sub-launched missiles, and it also developed a power plant dedicated to submarines. In 1955, the USS Nautilus went on the first nuclear-powered submarine patrol. It was 323 feet long with a weight of 3,674 tons. This new sub was able to maintain sustained underwater cruising and featured the original streamlined, porpoise-like shape of its predecessors. Now, there was no longer a need for submarines to spend a long amount of time at the surface.
Nuclear submarines revolutionized naval warfare by combining stealth with speed. The British also built nuclear-powered submarines, including the Dreadnought, which first launched in 1963. The British created attack submarines including the SSBN, a nuclear submarine that could launch ballistic missiles. The HMS Conqueror, the most famous SSBN, sank the Belgrano in 1982 during the Falklands War, making it the only nuclear submarine to record an official kill.
Over time, the role of submarines in warfare has changed. Today’s submarines are also used to launch special forces operations and for intelligence-gathering. This silent vessel has always been able to effectively multitask. Thanks to its lethal design, the submarine has changed the way we view naval warfare.
Written by Stephen Moynihan