SCHOOL of WAR: American Submarines in WWI

By Whitman, Edward C. | Sea Classics, May 2009 | Go to article overview

SCHOOL of WAR: American Submarines in WWI


Whitman, Edward C., Sea Classics


American submarines based in Europe quickly came of age when confronted with the harsh arena of undersea combat

Despite ineffectual attempts by both the Russian and Japanese Navies during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) to employ "submarine torpedo boats" in Far Eastern waters, modern submarines received their first real baptism of fire in World War I (1914-1918). Even with the global proliferation of submarines during the first few years of the 20th century, it was the Germans and British who first demonstrated their dangerous potential for undersea warfare in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during 1914 and 1915. In acquiring John Holland's pioneering Holland VI - the progenitor of all "modern" submarines - in 1900, the US Navy had gained a small head start on its European counterparts. But by the time the United States joined the Allied cause in mid-1917, rapid technical and operational developments in Europe and particularly during the early years of the war had left the US submarine force significantly outclassed.

When WWI broke out among the European powers in early August 1914, the US Navy had 29 submarines in commission. These ranged from the immediate successors of Holland VI - eight A- and B-class boats in the Philippine Islands - to the first two members of the K- class, which had just entered service. When Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare campaign and the infamous Zimmerman telegram finally drew the United States into the war in April 1917, the Navy had 42 submarines in commission, having added the remainder of the K-class (for a total of eight) and seven of the newer L-class boats (of an eventual eleven). But even the best of these had only been intended for harbor or coastal defense, with surface displacements of around 450-tons on a length of 165-ft - and capable of only 3,000-mi endurance at 11-kts, barely enough to cross the Atlantic. By then, the succeeding N- and O-classes were already under construction, with the 27ship R-class soon to follow, but only the three large "fleet boats" of the T-class laid down in 1916 and 1917 - offered true ocean-going potential, and they would not be joining the fleet until well after the Annistice.

FIRST US SUBMARINES TO EUROPE

Nonetheless, because the Royal Navy in 1916 had begun assigning submarines to antiU-boat patrols in the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Irish Sea, the US Naval high command in June 1917 proposed sending a contingent of submarines to European waters to assist in the anti-submarine campaign. Initially, SUBLANT designated twelve submarines for the mission, divided into separate divisions to be stationed, respectively, in the Azores and on the southern coast of Ireland. These boats were chosen from the most capable the Navy had to offer: USS K-I, K-2, K-5, K-6, and E-I, constituting SUBDIV 4, for the Azores; and USS L-I through L-4 and L-9 through L-Il, constituting SUBDIV 5, for Bantry Bay, Ireland. At first, the Navy intended to steam the boats across the Atlantic under their own power, but marginal fuel capacity and the unreliability of their rudimentary two-cycle diesel engines militated against that approach. In October, the four JCboats left Philadelphia and New York to rendezvous with the submarine tender USS Bushneü (AS-2) and the old protected cruiser USS Chicago off Provincetown, Massachusetts, from whence they were towed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to the Azores, some 1700-nm to the southeast. Under the prevailing North Atlantic conditions, towing two submarines from each surface ship posed a serious challenge, but when the former attempted to proceed on their own, recurring engine failures left the expedition no choice. Fortunately, after arriving in the Azores where they were eventually tended by the monitor USS Tonopah (BM-8) - they spent an uneventful year, largely because mechanical problems kept them out of service for much of that period.

The L-boats of SUBDIV 5 plus E-I left Newport, Rhode Island, for Europe in early December 1917 under tow by Bushnell and two ocean-going tugs.

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