The Admiralty and the Submarine Service

The Admiralty and the Submarine Service

The Admiralty was famous unenthusiastic about the possibility of using submarines as part of their naval offensive in World War One, preferring instead to rely on dreadnoughts and Britain’s traditional naval shops. Admiral John Fisher was one such naysayer, going as far as to resign in 1915 following a dispute with Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, over the Dardanelles campaign.

In fact, by August 1914, the Admiralty was ruled by what could be considered today as Victorian views of naval supremacy over the rest of the world. However, while this was the case during the reign of Queen Victoria, it was not necessarily so by the start of the first world war.

This attitude was summed up by S W Roskill in “The Strategy of Sea Power”:


"The officers of the Navy were, of course, a microcosm of contemporary society; and in that society the privileges of wealth and birth had as yet been little touched by the winds of reform. It is difficult not to feel that the authoritarian attitude and Victorian outlook of many senior officers of the period was a factor in the too slow adaptation of the service to the vast changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution."


To many, the use of the submarine would be a direct challenge to the naval system that had supposedly reigned above all others for so long; rather than see the submarine as a new weapon that could revolutionise their strategy, the Admiralty saw it as a threat to their supremacy.

Sadly, younger naval officers, who may otherwise have seen the benefit of this potential weapon, did not go against the views of the superiors who would ultimately decide when they achieved promotion. As such, it was the pressure from the media - concerned by the number of submarines owned by the French - that ultiamtely forced the first submarines into British waters. In fact, pressure from the newspapers resulted in the designing of the Holland, as well as the A and B class submarines.

A British R-Class submarine during World War One

Despite this, many members of the Admiralty still saw enemy submarines as only posing a threat to Britain’s North Sea fleets, which would result in little need for Britain to construct a huge fleet of its own. Many even argued that they did not see how a submarine weighing just 1,000 tonnes could be any threat to a dreadnought weighing 18,000 tonnes. A Marder summed this up in “From Deadnought to Scapa Flow”:


"It was too novel an idea. With the exception of the First Sea Lord (Jackie Fisher), they all scoffed at such heresy and claimed that the staff were raising scares."


However, there were some senior politicians who clearly saw the potential in the submarine, and in June 1914 Admiral Sir Percy Scott wrote to “The Times”:


"As the motor vehicle has driven the horse from the road, so will the submarine drive the battleships from the sea."


His views were dismissed as “madness” and the Admiralty continued to deny the potential uses of such machines. They did allow them to be constructed for use in World War One, but this was under the command of the Admiralty and only as a means of protecting the coastline.

Eventually, in 1914, G Keynes - head of the Submarine Service - ordered for his submarines to be used in the Heligoland Bight. In 1916, the Admiralty ordered for the submarines in the Bight to stop attacking any German ships leaving the port in an attempt to tempt the German fleet out of harbour. However, as the blockade bottled up the Germans refused to leave the harbour, such as the potential of the British submarines.

Despite this, it was actually the case that the submarines did not have the power to sink battleships; when HMS Marlborough was hit by a German torpedo at Jutland, she continued in the battle and returned to harbour. There were cases where the submarine achieved victory - such as when the Messudieh was sunk by a British submarine - but many of these cases involved older ships that were not strong enough to withstand a torpedo.

These contrasting views and stories meant that the Admiralty was constantly at odds with politicians over the potential of submarines during World War One; many refuted claims by Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill that the Submarine Service could play a role in British military success.

However, John Fisher, First Sea Lord, did see their potential. Fisher had already upset many members of the Admiralty by making a number of changes to the Navy in 1905, and his comments that “submarines will be the battleships of the future” did not go down well with his peers.

This sourness was also reflected in the relationship between the surface ships and submarines, which seemed to get worse as the war developed. This was not helped by the lack of naval battles during the war; while the British Admiralty sought another opportunity like Trafalgar to demonstrate the might of the British Naval fleet, instead they were succeeding in preventing German trade, which held far less of a romantic image. However, the media did begin to report on the successes of the Submarine Service, which won two Victoria Crosses during World War One. This arguably only exacerbated the problems between the surface and submarine fleets, which was summed up in the USA Naval Proceedings of 1917:


"Rank has always been denied the submarine. Probably the worst feature of submarine service occurs when a submarine is obliged to go to a naval yard for an overhaul without its tender. The crew is assigned berths or billets on board the receiving ship and they immediately chaff under receiving ship's discipline. The character of their work keeps them in dungarees all day. When they return to their receiving ship they feel the implied, though not always expressed, hostilities of petty officers and officers towards them for being dirty themselves and for dirtying decks and paintwork."


Despite the successes won by the submarine during the war, the Admiralty continued to chastise those who praised this new form of marine warfare. Fisher summed it up in his words below:


"The submarine will prevent any fleet remaining at sea continuously....it is astounding to me how the very best amongst us fail to recognise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish."

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Admiralty and the Submarine Service". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.