British Submarines 1900 to 1918

British Submarines 1900 to 1918

British submarines did not take part in World War One with ease. Thanks to the traditional views of may members of the Admiralty, they were considered an almost unwelcome part of the British naval fleet. However, the design and technical developments that took place saw this novel military machine turn into a formidable weapon by the end of the First World War. The design was honed to such an extent, in fact, that it was used at the start of the Second World War, 20 years later.

Sadly, these developments took time and when the submarines were first introduced to the world in 1900 they were relatively crude machines. The British Submarine Service was also relatively new, working as a volunteer branch of the Royal Navy despite the complex technology that was on board. The technology was so difficult to master, in fact, that volunteers had to make it past a pre-selection process and then take part in a training programme to ensure they were ready to step foot on the submarine. This selection process was so difficult that it led to those who were successful viewing themselves as an elite force, which caused much resentment between them and those working on surface ships. W G Carr summed this up:

“Submariners feel as much superior to the ordinary ‘big-ship’ mattaloe as a high-caste Hindu does to his low-caste brother. To be sent back to general service (the result of inefficiency on a submarine) reacts on them like a nail on a pneumatic tyre.” (W G Carr)


The first whitehead torpedo was developed in the 1860s and had a range of 700 feet at six knots. By 1914, the German U-boats were equipped with torpedoes that boasted a variable range and would travel a maximum speed of 45 knots.

But while the Germans influenced the design of the torpedoes, it was the United States who influenced the design of the submarines themselves. In 1902, Britain launched its first submarine based on the design of the American Holland. This was mainly the result of the Admiralty actively discouraging people from becoming involved in the development of submarine design. The Holland had a single hull compared to the double hull of its French cousin, but it still proved to be a solid base.

The Holland was powered by petrol and electric engines, which offered greater efficiency on the surface and while submerged, respectively. However, the petrol engine was prone to giving off dangerous sparks and petrol fumes within the cramped space of the submarine. It was this that discouraged Sir John Durston, Rotal Navy Engineer-in-Chief, from having anything to do with the new vessels. He also argued that this new machines were unseaworthy as they had no conning tower to boost their stability.

There were a number of positive features, however. The Submarine Service’s first captain - Roger Bacon - invented the Submarine’s periscope, which was raised and lowered by a simple ball and socket joint. This remained almost unchanged throughout World War One but the introduction of a properly sized conning tower ensured it would be kept in an upright position.

Smaller submarines such as the Holland and its successor, the A-class, were restricted to coastal duties. The A-class was an improvement on the Holland, partly because the petrol engine was shielded from the electrical parts to avoid danger. The A-class was also larger and its engine generated 500 hp, meaning it could run at 11.5 knots on the surface and seven knots submerged. However, the engine still caused problems due to the fact that it would suffer from burnt out plots and piping during use, causing a constant problem. Some submarines were even lost at sea, most likely as a result of these issues.

The A-class soon developed into the B-class, which would have included its own small-calibre gun if it weren’t for the lack of support from First Sea Lord, Lord Walter Kerr, who was notably anti-submarine. However, the B-class was fitted with adjustable horizontal rudders to assist with diving and to help level off the submarine underwater.

Many sceptics believed the B-class was too large to be effective but this actually allowed the sub greater handling that those that had come before it. A larger engine was also possible, which meant an increase in its radius of action.

The D-class was the next significant step up in the development of submarines, and was able to stay underwater for 12 hours. Britain’s first overseas submarine, it was so large that it was able to hold enough crew to allow for shift patterns, so tiredness was no longer an issue. The D-class also had a diesel engine and the ability to carry a greater number of torpedoes, as well as a saddle-tank hill to allow its ballast tanks to be outside the submarine for greater buoyancy. The D-class took just one minute to generate full power.

E-class submarines were similar but had a twelve-pounder gun and additional torpedo tubes. The E-class was the main submarine used during World War One by the Submarine Service, fighting in the Atlantic, Baltic, Dardanelles and the North Sea. It was so successful, in fact, that the World War Two L-class was almost an exact copy.

Despite the success of the E-class, different designs continued to be developed during World War One, mainly in an attempt to keep up with the more advanced submarines being produced in Germany. However, the Admiralty did back the development of the hunter-submarine R-class sub, which reached 15 knots underwater and was not beaten for speed until 1945. However, its launch at the end of the war meant it never had the opportunity to show its capabilities.

Despite this success, not all the submarines that were pushed through by the Admiralty were as positive. The M-class submarines, for example, featured a Mark XI gun, which was simply placed on the hull off a K-class submarine. While torpedoes could be avoided, the gun on this submarine was designed to be used above water, so the sub could surface, fire and submerge easily. The problem, however, was that it had to be reloaded on the surface, which made for an easy target to other submarines. The M-class was also targeted as a possible base for planes. However, this idea never developed at it was dropped by the end of the war.

MLA Citation/Reference

"British Submarines 1900 to 1918". 2024. Web.