Naval Gazing Part 7: We’re All Sunk By A Battle Submarine

By Tom Anderson


"Submarine Torpedo Boat H.L. Hunley, Dec. 6, 1863" by Conrad Wise Chapman

The last few articles in this series have mostly focused on the idea of a neat progression of frontline naval technology and tactics over time. However, in this article we’re going to take a step to the side, and look at the parallel development of a different kind of naval war machine. A ship, or rather boat, which does not sail the seven seas, but floats beneath them, silent and deadly. The submarine.

Descriptions of the history of technology often focus on otherwise intelligent people who dismiss an invention as ‘it will never work’ or ‘it will never catch on’. Of course, we never hear about the failed inventions they may also have dismissed! Regardless, it is interesting to note that submarines seem to have been rather rarely subject to this attitude. Despite the apparently radical idea of a submerged underwater boat, many commentators from very early on recognised the tactical usefulness of such a weapon. However, it took many centuries before technology had caught up to a point where submarines became truly viable.

16th century painting of Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell

Undersea warfare, indeed, has a long pedigree. Divers were used to clear harbours for sieges centuries before the birth of Christ. Some chroniclers record that Alexander the Great used a diving bell for reconnaissance. It was in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries AD that more substantive records of submarine experiments begin to show up. Inventors such as England’s William Bourne and the Netherlands’ Cornelis Drebbel began building submarines from contemporary materials like wood and leather. In Drebbel’s case it is recorded that his oar-powered submarine wowed crowds in London, and even gave King James VI and I a ride under the Thames. The full details of the machine remain up for debate, but some claim that Drebbel supplied oxygen by means of the decomposition of potassium nitrate—remarkable considering oxygen theory would not arrive for over a century.

Fellow Dutchman Constanijn Huygens (the father of scientist Christiaan Huygens) was quick to recognise the potential of Drebbel’s technology for warfare: “From all this it is not hard to imagine what would be the usefulness of this bold invention in time of war, if in this manner (a thing which I have repeatedly heard Drebbel assert) enemy ships lying safely at anchor could be secretly attacked and sunk unexpectedly by means of a battering ram — an instrument of which hideous use is made now- a-days in the capturing of the gates and bridges of towns.”

But the Admiralty of the Royal Navy were uninterested, and likely for good reason. Though Drebbel’s machine was a nine days’ wonder, it was not yet a practical weapon of war. Inventors continued to work on the concept over the next two centuries, both for exploration of the seas and as for military uses. French physicist Denis Papin developed a submarine in the 1690s capable of changing its buoyancy with water and air pumps—a key technology required for submarines to be able to raise and lower themselves in the water. About thirty years later, self-taught Russian inventor Yefim Nikonov attempted to build a wooden, barrel-shaped submarine for Tsar Peter the Great for military uses. Better known, however, is the Turtle, a submersible built in 1775 by American inventor David Bushnell while he was studying at Yale. Bushnell supported the rebels in the American Revolution, making his invention available to the Continental Army.


In September 1776, only two months after the United States declares its independence, one of the earliest acts of the young nation was to use it. Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army used the Turtle in an unsuccessful attack on the British ship HMS Eagle while in New York City’s harbour. The Turtle was powered by hand-cranked propellers, requiring considerable strength and stamina on the part of her pilot, and attacked by means of an explosive charge screwed into its target’s hull—which proved ineffective, possibly due to contacting an iron plate in Eagle’s hull. Nonetheless, the Turtle had been a valuable proof of concept. Bushnell went on to work on sea mines and time bombs.

Following winning her independence, America continued to lead the way in early submarine development. The inventor Robert Fulton, also known for his work on early steam boats, developed a prototype submarine for Napoleon called the Nautilus. This vessel looks far more modern to our eyes than its predecessors, being made of copper sheets over an iron framework and even starting to suggest the shape of a modern submarine. The Nautilus was powered by a combination of a hand-cranked screw propeller and an optional collapsible sail, possibly inspired by the shape of those used on Chinese junks. She was equipped with a snorkel to allow air to be exchanged without surfacing, and even had horizontal rudders (what we would now call diving planes) to control her dive angle. The Nautilus attacked by towing a sort of gunpowder sea mine, then referred to as a ‘carcass’ (a term also used in land siege warfare) to its target, attaching it to the hull and then detonating the mine by a cord pulled from a safe distance. There were a number of successful trials, but Napoleon cancelled the project after visiting at a point where Fulton had disassembled the submarine, and deciding (despite eyewitnesses) it had all been a fake by a charlatan. The annoyed Fulton tried to take his invention to Napoleon’s enemy Britain instead, but the Royal Navy was not interested following the destruction of France’s naval capabilities after the Battle of Trafalgar.

Fulton's 1806 submarine design.

Following some other experiments elsewhere, it was once again the United States which produced the next big breakthrough in military submarines. The American Civil War, as previously discussed in these articles, was a crucible of technological and tactical development, and this field was no exception. French inventor Brutus de Villeroi had worked on a number of submarines for the past few decades, but had always been turned down by the French Navy. De Villeroi went to the United States and in 1859 built a submarine for salvage purposes. When war broke out in 1861, the Philadelphia police seized the vessel in suspicion, but this provoked interest on the part of U.S. Navy commanders, who wondered whether de Villeroi’s ideas could be turned to warfare. De Villeroi proposed a military submarine design to the U.S. Navy as a counter to Confederate ironclad warships (as discussed in the previous article ‘Steam and Steel’. His design, the Alligator (as nicknamed by a newspaper due to its green colour) was the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, but was never successfully used in combat.

It would instead be the rival Confederates who finally built the first submarine to sink a surface vessel, after so many attempts over the centuries. Horace Lawson Hunley, a marine engineer loyal to the Confederacy, built three prototype submarines: the Pioneer, the American Diver, and a third, originally unnamed. After the first two failed during trials, the third was deployed against the US steam sloop USS Housatonic, blockading the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1864. The submarine attacked with a ‘spar torpedo’, an explosive charge on the end of a spar. The attack was a success, sinking the Union ship, but the submarine was also lost in the process. It was posthumously named after its inventor, H. L. Hunley.

The United and Confederate States were far from the only nations experimenting with submarine technology at this time. The French Navy, finally deciding they did want a submarine after all, built the Plongeur in the early 1860s, the first submarine to move under its own power rather than human muscle power—it used a compressed air engine. Pioneering science fiction writer Jules Verne observed the Plongeur and combined it with the name of Fulton’s submarine (Nautilus) to create the setting of his novel Two Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (The title is often misunderstood – it means going 2,000 leagues along while under the sea, as nowhere on Earth is the ocean 2,000 leagues deep!) Verne imagined the character of Captain Nemo, dispossessed from his home on dry land, living in a then-futuristic submarine and living on food from the ocean floor. The novel caught the public imagination, not least because yet more submarines were being experimented with in nations from Spain to Chile, from Britain to Sweden. Even the Ottoman Empire bought a Swedish-designed, British-built submarine, the Abdül Hamid, which went on to be the first submarine to successfully launch a self-powered torpedo. This would eventually become submarines’ primary form of attack.

The USS Holland (SS-1) under way

A convenient dividing line in the history of submarines is the USS Holland (SS-1) which combines many of the features associated with modern submarines: an internal combustion engine for use on the surface and an electric one for underwater, torpedo-based armament, ballast and trim tanks for changing her position underwater, and a conning tower (or fin) from which to direct the weapons. Annoyingly, the submarine’s inventor John Philip Holland had a habit of naming all his craft after himself, with the result that there were actually seven different Hollands (and multiple Holland classes) built for the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, and (somewhat inconsistently) Fenian Irish revolutionaries—Holland himself was Irish-born.

At this point it is worth a digression to consider terminology. Both ‘submarine’ and ‘submersible’ are properly adjectives not nouns, and it is only through informal use that the term ‘submarine boat’ (or ‘submersible boat’) has become worn down to using just the adjective as though it was a noun. (Incidentally, submarines are, by convention, always referred to as ‘boats’, not ‘ships’, no matter how large they are). About the only example where the adjectival form survives today is in describing the data cables used to carry internet signals (and, historically, telegrams) on the sea floor, which are sometimes still called ‘submarine’ cables. ‘Submarine’ means ‘below the sea/waves’, while ‘submersible’ means ‘able to be submerged’. In our timeline (OTL) the term ‘submersible’ has become particularly applied to small, usually non-military submarines, but there is no particular reason why this should be the case. Some alternate timelines have indeed used ‘submersible’ as the generic term for all submarines, including attack submarines – which is a plausible outcome if a war had come at the end of the nineteenth century, when the term was in more regular use.


The German Submarine U 1 (Imperial Navy)

As before, we can look to other languages to get an idea of other terms that might have caught on. Submarines are somewhat unusual as a weapon of war in OTL, in that a non-English term is also regularly used and understood in English, but in a highly specific way. This is the German word Unterseeboote, literally ‘undersea boat’, abbreviated to ‘U-boat’. It is rare in English to refer to ‘a German submarine’ rather than ‘a U-boat’, with its national loyalty clear from the term used. Winston Churchill was keen to promote this distinction for propaganda purposes; he wrote, with typical self-awareness: “Enemy submarines are to be called U-Boats. The term submarine is to be reserved for Allied under water vessels. U-Boats are those dastardly villains who sink our ships, while submarines are those gallant and noble craft which sink theirs.” Submarines remained considered a morally questionable weapon for a large part of the twentieth century, as we will see in future articles.

German is, however, unusual in this respect. French uses sous-marine, very close to the English term, while Russian uses Podvodnaya Lodka or Podlodka for short (also meaning ‘undersea boat’). It is interesting to speculate that a different Great War, with Britain and Russia on opposite sides (as could easily have happened) might have resulted in ‘podlodka’ being a recognised term in English which signifies The Bad Guys’ Submarines, rather than U-boat.

Some timelines use entirely different terms for military submarines. Jared Kavanagh’s Decades of Darkness uses the term ‘sea wolf’ (a name used for a particular class of U.S. submarines in OTL) while my own Look to the West uses ‘ironshark’, a term inspired by the Iron Fish adventure comic in (OTL’s) The Dandy comic. LTTW only uses this term for military submarines, with ‘submersible’ used for civilian scientific ones. Torpedoes are also subject to possible alternate terminology—after all, until the 1890s or so, ‘torpedo’ was used to mean any kind of explosive in OTL, and more usually a stationary mine. In LTTW the term ‘steeltooth’ comes into common parlance, by analogy to it being fired by an ironshark.

But let us return to OTL. Both Russia and Japan possessed small numbers of Holland-type submarines in the Russo-Japanese War, but these were never used in combat. It would have to wait until the Great War for submarines to become a fully mainstream weapon of war for the first time...a story which we will continue as part of that conflict in the next article.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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