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Holland 1 The Royal Navy's first submarine
Holland 1 The Royal Navy's first submarine

"underhand, under water and damned un-English"

E11WWII Submarine E11 In 1900, Britain was the only major maritime power not to have at least an embryo submarine flotilla but, despite vehement condemnation of the submarine as a means of waging war, those determined to find out what all the fuss was about prevailed in the argument. Holland I was launched in 1901 and the RN's Submarine Service was born.

The pioneering days of the submarine, in all the navies which embraced the new technology, brought disaster as well as triumph. However, it was not long before increasing range and endurance meant that submarines became fearsome offensive weapons and formidable opponents.

During World War 1 German submarines, attacking Britain's lifelines of trade across the sea, sank 6.5 million tons of allied merchant shipping. The Royal Navy Submarine Service quickly made its mark as well, and finally laid to rest its image of being manned by `unwashed chauffeurs'. Equipped in the main with the excellent E-Class, and operating in the confined and distinctly unhealthy arenas of the Baltic and Dardanelles, they sank fifty four enemy warships, including nineteen submarines. From their ranks emerged names like Horton, the first CO to fly the Jolly Roger, and Holbrook, the first Naval Victoria Cross to be awarded during World War I and the first in the Submarine Service - he was followed by thirteen others.

'Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners...' Sir Winston Churchill.

HMS TruantWWII Submarine HMS Truant. Between the wars, design hardened into a diesel electric boat with torpedoes and a small bore gun for armament. These submarines had a good range but, to achieve tactical mobility, they had to surface in order to keep up with surface ship targets. It was with this type of submarine that the warring factions entered World War 2.

From the start, the Germans took advantage of the situation using surface mobility to the full, for convoys had few escorts and there were virtually no anti-submarine aircraft. The U-boats operated as submersible destroyers, only diving to escape counter attack or in the latter stages of a day attack. This is perhaps the first glimpse of the potential that a submarine has, given speed equal to or higher than its quarry. Likewise the Americans in the Pacific, fitted with efficient radar and up against poor anti-submarine forces, were able to use their high surface speed to get ahead of their targets. Our submarines, on the other hand, operating in inshore waters against stronger anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, largely used the surface only to charge their batteries at night.

The nature of RN operations took a heavy toll on submarines and submariners' lives. In addition to the hazards of inshore navigation and wary ASW forces, Commanding Officers faced the ever present danger of mines, and it is estimated that 50% of the seventy four RN submarines lost during the war fell prey to that weapon.

Notwithstanding the risks - Winston Churchill described it as the most dangerous of all occupations - the Service never lacked for volunteers and they acquitted themselves with great distinction. The major operating arenas were Norwegian Waters; the Mediterranean where, under the leadership of Captain 'Shrimp' Simpson, the 'Fighting Tenth' Flotilla fought an often bloody, but ultimately successful battle against the Axis replenishment route to North Africa; and the Far East where, based at Trincomalee and in Australia, and operating in appaling conditions when foot-rot, sweat rash and prickly heat were constant companions for weeks on end, RN submarines posed an unrelenting threat to Japanese shipping operating in the Malacca Straits.

Stories of submarine exploits during World War 2 are legendary. Wanklyn in Upholder, lost after 25 gruelling patrols, but with a remarkable 135,000 tons of enemy shipping to his credit; Linton in Turbulent, who in the process of sinking over 90,000 tons of enemy shipping, was hunted 13 times by the opposition and was depth charged on over 250 occasions; Miers in Torbay, who sat on a glassy sea inside an enemy harbour charging his batteries before applying the 'coup de grace' to his targets - were all VC winners (the first two posthumously), and personified the skill and courage of all the crews. Hezlet's remarkable 'five out of eight' torpedo hits from Trenchant when he sank the Japanese Cruiser Asigara at a range of 4000 yards will remain a world record for all time. Cloak and dagger operations, which were immensely dangerous but always rewarding and vital to the war effort, figured largely in the tapestry of submarine operations, and there were also the achievements of the mini-submarines, the X-craft and the Chariots. The sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz and the Japanese Takao earned a further four VC's but, in addition to these very highest awards, were a string of medals for feats of outstanding courage in the most challenging of circumstances.

By the end of the war British submarines had sunk 2 million tons of enemy shipping and fifty seven major war vessels, including thirty five enemy submarines, by gun and torpedo.

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is at Gosport (Portsmouth Harbour), Hampshire, UK. For details of the fascinating exhibits including the original Holland I, recovered after 70 years on the seabed, and HMS Alliance, a World War II diesel submarine, visit their web site below.

Royal Navy Submarine Museum