Long Voyage Of ‘Puny Boats’ To Becoming The Mightiest Vessels Of War Ever Seen (Or Rather Unseen)

With this year seeing the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, in which submarines played a major role, across a series of four blogs Iain Ballantyne looks at the epic story of submarine warfare. As told in his latest book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, the boats and their crews have progressed from originally being viewed with contempt to inspiring awe and terror. In part one, Iain takes us from early times in submarine warfare to the dawn of the 20th Century and the power of submarines today.

There can be no doubt the submarine in its various forms is a powerful weapon of deterrence and a means to mercilessly wage war or exert control in both coastal waters and the open ocean.

Today nuclear-powered submarines are just about the most complex and costly warships in existence. Creating and operating them is the mark of a Tier 1 nation (as even UK Prime Minister Theresa May might understand).

On the cutting edge of modern submarine warfare: The US Navy attack submarine USS John Warner, which in April 2018 launched cruise missiles to destroy Assad regime chemical warfare facilities in Syria. Photo: NATO.

Armed with nuclear weapons, submarines, such as the UK’s current and future Trident missile boats, possess the ability to destroy millions of lives by potentially inflicting world-ending devastation – they threaten a level of destruction that is beyond our imaginations. It is impossible to conceive anyone would ever unleash such terrible power, but while they exist the risk is always there.

For both sides in the debate on renewing the UK’s Trident deterrent, the answer seems to be simple…the deterrent preserves peace or we are a missile launch away from extinction…Renew it, or get rid of it. The reality is a lot more nuanced than that – even for some who back its renewal the whole issue is imbued with ambivalence – reflecting attitudes towards the application of submarines in wars down the ages.

Both sides of the argument have merit and any sane person would surely wish to have multilateral nuclear disarmament, which hopefully will happen sometime within the next few decades – in fact, the sooner the better.

Yet, in the short-term, is the Continuous-at-Sea Deterrent (CASD) in a submarine the best means to show rogues states and bullyboy would-be superpowers you won’t be pushed around? Does it still prevent an outbreak of major conventional warfare that may costs millions of lives? Possibly it does both and remains a so-called weapon for peace, preventing bad situations from getting even worse.

For, thanks to great power rivalry, today there are several struggles for dominance on land and at sea underway simultaneously. From the Arctic to the Black Sea, from the eastern Mediterranean into Arabia and over the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula war clouds are gathering, or – in some places – have already given way to fire and thunder.

Aside from the rivalry between the great powers underpinned – and overshadowed – by vessels armed with nuclear missiles, in the past few years submarines armed with conventional weapons have been at the forefront of simmering – and sometimes white hot – confrontations between East and West.

Poor torn-apart Syria has more than once been bombarded with cruise missiles launched by Russian conventionally powered submarines and this year also by a nuclear-powered American submarine. Just a few years earlier British and American submarines launched dozens of cruise missiles to help pull down the Gaddafi regime in Syria and even to try and assassinate the dictator himself.

The reach and power now achieved by submarines – to potentially end all life on the planet with nuclear tipped weapons, or seek to change the course of history up to a 1,000 miles inland via cruise missiles – has been a long time coming and was completely unimaginable even a century ago.

In fact the idea of a combat vessel that could remain invisible under the sea until it struck with utmost devastation taunted the imagination of artists, scientists and inventors for centuries before it ever became a practical reality.

In the late 14th Century no less than Leonardo da Vinci made sketches for what he called ‘a ship to sink another ship’. In England during the 16th Century retired naval gunner William Bourne and his former captain William Monson separately created designs for a submersible and an underwater cannon, though neither man sought to make them real.

The challenges involved in creating a viable submarine were considerable: the inventors had to devise a means to dive the vessel, then achieve neutral buoyancy under the waves so it could maintain depth and move up and down (plus also horizontally) at will. A means of propulsion was required, a system of navigation, all while somehow sustaining the lives of the crew and fitting it with a workable weapon. Some died in the attempt but others achieved incremental progress.

A depiction of Bushnell’s Turtle and with would-be British target in the background.
Image: Public domain.

What really boosted efforts by various people was a desire to destroy the most powerful maritime force on the surface of the ocean – the Royal Navy – with putative diving machines seeking to provide equalisation for those who found their ambitions thwarted by the British.

Among them, in the late 1770s, was the American colonial rebel David Bushnell with his Turtle, reputedly the first fighting submersible. Propelled and manoeuvred by the pilot’s muscle power, the Turtle was a failure when put to the test off New York against a British warship, its attachable mine failing to gain purchase on the hull of the 64-gun Eagle.

In the early 1800s Robert Fulton, another American, offered the wind and muscle-powered Nautilus to France, aiming to assist its struggle against British naval hegemony. Napoleon ultimately shunned the proposal, thinking Fulton a con artist, so he took his talents to Britain and offered to help destroy the French invasion fleet being assembled to conquer the troublesome English. Fulton fared no better in England – where the top admirals were less than enthusiastic about his proposals – than he had across the Channel and so went home in a huff.

Robert Fulton’s plunging boat Nautilus, built in France but destroyed by Fulton himself to prevent the host nation for exploiting it without his permission. Image: US NHHC.

Later on in the 19th Century the Bavarian artillery soldier Wilhelm Bauer and one-time English clergyman George Garrett were among those who took a tilt at building a proper submersible war vessel.

British submarine pioneer George Garrett (with bushy beard) at the helm of a Nordenfelt submarine boat in the Baltic during the 1880s. Photo: US NHHC.

Bauer’s large metal box with a snout, the Fire Diver, relied on two musclemen using a treadmill for propulsion and the air it enclosed to make sure its occupants did not suffocate. The Fire Diver’s means of attack was a pair of mechanical hands fixed to the outside, which were meant to attach an explosive charge to the would-be target vessel. Unfortunately, it got stuck in the mud on the bottom of Kiel harbour, with Bauer and his assistants only narrowly avoiding death, making the world’s first successful escape from a submersible craft.

Bauer became a wanderer, working in England with Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the Great Eastern steamship at the time of the Crimean War, but fell out with his English hosts. He headed for Russia and offered a new submersible attack craft called Sea Devil to the Tsar, whom he tried to charm by sending musicians under the waves in it to serenade him. Russian admirals were less impressed – they were offended by its sheer cheek in seeking to sneakily sink surface ships – and allegedly conspired to sabotage Sea Devil, which ended up coming to grief on the bottom of a basin at Kronstadt naval base.

Some 30 years later George Garrett – in addition to being a former Manchester curate, a one-time school headmaster in strife-torn Ireland where he invented razor-edged mortarboards for his teachers to wield in order to protect pupils – worked with the Swedish engineer and arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordefeldt.

With the notorious Basil Zaharoff as their salesman they endeavoured to sell steam-powered submarines to various countries. Garrett’s boats didn’t work very well, though one sold to the Ottomans distinguished itself by becoming the first ever submersible to fire a self-propelled torpedo while dived. Garrett’s career as a submarine inventor came to a shuddering halt when a large vessel sold to the Russians ran aground on the delivery voyage.

Steam wasn’t necessarily a bad idea – after all nuclear-powered submarines of today are steam powered – but Garrett’s reach was far in excess of technological practicality of his era, and he exhibited poor attention to the detail of operational utility. His boats need a whole day cruising on the surface to build up enough steam to manage only three knots when dived – with erratic depth keeping – and then could stay (more or less) submerged only for a few hours. Also, the threat of being broiled alive was a distinct danger for Garrett or anyone else daring to sail his creations under the sea.

Some years earlier the deaths of three crews in pursuit of an effective undersea war vessel did score a notable achievement. For the early submarine inventors included Confederate rebels who during the American Civil War of the 1860s created the H.L. Hunley, which was again man-powered and had several fatal mishaps while in development, but would make history.

The H.L. Hunley actually managed to use a spar torpedo to sink the Federal Navy warship Housatonic, the first vessel ever claimed in war by an underwater craft. The Hunley may have made history but sank herself in the process – sustaining fatal damage to her watertight integrity thanks to the explosion – and carried her last crew to a watery grave.

A cutaway drawing of the H. L. Hunley with crew ready to propel the craft through the water.
Image: US NHHC.

By the end of the 19th Century, however, there were signs that, finally, someone might yet produce a workable undersea war machine, which is where we will pick up the story in the next part of this short series.

This article is a revised and expanded version of part of an article that was first published in ‘Scuttlebutt: the magazine of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth) HMS Victory and the Friends’

For much more on these incredible true-life tales, read ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99)  which is available via Amazon or Waterstones and other retailers and shops.


‘This formidable and addictive book’

Review by Major Gerry Bartlett, former defence journalist
on the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph *

As an Army man with a secret fear and loathing of the sea and ships generally, I was surprised to feel this book taking me over. It sparked the imagination and demanded total attention as I was plunged into epic convoy battles, ‘when hopes of victory were placed upon the shoulders of daring young submarine captains – many of whom perished alongside the men they commanded’, as the book’s blurb (and the author) puts it.

U-47, whose famous captain, Gunther Prien, sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in late 1939, an episode vividly told in ‘The Deadly Trade’. Prien and the crew of U-47 were among those lost in action during spring 1941. Image: US NHHC.

Strong, authoritative and perhaps upsetting stuff, Iain Ballantyne’s new book literally drips with overwhelming tales and interest on practically every one of its 752 pages. It is practically impossible to single out any particular chapter of this un-put-downable book as particularly fascinating, since they all are – in equal measure.

In a postscript to this formidable and addictive book the author writes: ‘We have voyaged across the vast span of submarine warfare history to a point where vessels that men once dreamed of in order to explore the wonders of the deep, now carry cargoes of nuclear annihilation.’

Cold War legacy: An elderly Delta IV Class ballistic missile submarine of the Russian Navy at sea in the Barents Sea, October 2016. ‘The Deadly Trade’ looks at both Cold War submarine operations and also today’s undersea activities. Photo: Norwegian Armed Forces.

He goes on: ‘The new rivalry between Russia and the West – including the construction of ballistic missile boats – does seem like a rewind to the bad old days.’ The postscript ends as follows: ‘The undersea warriors of today and tomorrow will, like their forebears reckon they can beat the odds and so will nations that deploy them on war patrols. To borrow and adapt the Spanish philosopher-poet George Santayana’s famous phrase, it is likely only the dead have seen the last of submarine warfare. Humanity will have to put its faith in “the better angels.” The submarine, for good or ill, seems destined to play a major part in world events, and indeed its activities could yet decide the fate of all humanity.’

The cover of the May 2018 edition of ‘Scribblings’, a depiction by renowned artist Paul Monteagle of a British BE2c fighter versus a Fokker of the German air arm during WW1. To see more of his work visit his website

One chapter that particularly captured my interest is entitled ‘Best of Enemies’, in which the author tells readers that during the Second World War, the allies ‘swept not just enemy submarines from the seas, but also eliminated entire navies’. He relates that from the inventories of the defeated fleets ‘they cherry-picked a few vessels as war booty – submarines primarily, though taking other ships too, with the Russians even commissioning an ex-Italian battleship into service.’

This is a fascinating chapter but one I should now leave and let buyers of this inspiring book enjoy at their leisure. Well done Iain, I am not surprised that countless readers thoroughly enjoy your books.

* This is a condensed version of a review published in the May 2018 edition of ‘Scribblings: The Journal of the Pen & Sword Club’ which presents ‘news, views, analysis and comment of interest to the military media operations community’. For more on that publication visit this website with further details of the club itself here.


The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) It is available via Amazon
and Waterstones and also via other retailers and shops.


Convoy Battles were as Important as El Alamein, Stalingrad or Guadalcanal

Seventy-five years ago saw what has often been lauded as the moment of victory for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. The key clashes were staged across April and May 1943, with convoy escorts battling a U-boat force encouraged by an impressive score in March – sinking 107 Allied ships in the month’s first 20 days – to believe it could yet secure supreme triumph for Germany.

As was so often the case in war, such an upswing in fortune could so easily become a downturn and signs of the German decline to come were there even in March. The month had closed amid dreadful weather, with only 15 enemy merchant vessels sent to the bottom by U-boats during its final 11 days. The submarine crews were tired, the boats battered and in need of repair, while fuel and torpedo stocks were depleted.

A U-boat hunts for a convoy in the vast N. Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Yet the resilient U-boat force soon sent its submarines back into action, to become locked in battle with escort groups, trying to break through and attack merchant vessels.

The first of the pivotal fights came in early April with the assault on convoy HX-231, of 61 merchant vessels, a battle stretching across hundreds of miles of ocean. The cutting edge of the wolf pack was blunted above all by the determined actions of the B7 escort group, led by the Royal Navy’s formidable Commander Peter Gretton. Six merchant vessels were sunk, for no boats lost, but the overall performance of the German submarines had been timid, the U-boat force War Log blaming it on ‘the inexperience of young Commanding Officers.’

A British escort charges off to tackle a U-boat to prevent it from sinking merchant ships in convoy across the Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

In fact, morale was so fragile in the U-boat force that some submarine COs eagerly embraced any mechanical defect to report their vessels non-operational. Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Grand Admiral Karl Donitz responded by threatening stiffer penalties for those he perceived to be shirkers.

The B7 group was also sent out to protect the 41-ship convoy ONS-5. The U-boats were ordered by their boss to wait for nightfall on 5 May and then to attack with vigour in order to ensure ‘there will be nothing of the convoy left’. This was far from being the case, with just 13 merchant vessels sunk, a poor return for five U-boats and their crews destroyed.

When the U-boats tried to score big again in late May, they failed utterly, with four submarines lost during attempts to attack convoy SC-130. All 37 of its precious merchant vessels – carrying fuel oil, explosives, lumber and grain among other things – were delivered safely to Liverpool.

By this time in the contest Allied escort groups & aircraft were clearly achieving a measure of superiority in the open ocean war that stacked the odds heavily against Germany’s submariners. In the first five months of 1943, Allied warships and aircraft sank 81 U-boats. With that rate of losses Donitz felt he had no choice but to admit wolf pack operations were no longer possible – at least not for the time being. He therefore issued an order for U-boats to withdraw from the North Atlantic on May 24.

The quality of Allied warships, not least their weapons and U-boat detecting equipment, had risen dramatically since German submarines had been able to wreak havoc on convoys (especially during 1940 – 1941). The senior leadership of the Allied escorts – the skill of junior officers too – was also greatly improved.

Gretton, along with other escort group commanders, including the equally lethally proficient Donald Macintyre and ‘Johnny’ Walker, were now getting into their stride. As they wielded their ships to great effect, long-range air patrols by Allied air forces bore down heavily on the enemy too, at times scoring a similarly devastating rate of kills.

An Allied aircraft attacks a U-boat as the struggle in the N. Atlantic continues during WW2. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

Amid all the memorializing of the great victories on land at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943, the great turning of the tide against the Axis – via the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Sixth Army surrendering to the Russians at Stalingrad, the capture of 275,000 Italian and German troops in Tunisia and Americans triumphing at Guadalcanal – the significance of the convoy battles in the Atlantic of April and May 1943 can become forgotten. Such critical events in the turn of the tide at sea risk being lost amid the amorphous term Battle of the Atlantic.

Those laurels that were awarded to the warship captains who beat the U-boats came in the form of paper slips on which were written decryptions of coded signals conveying congratulations from senior commanders. In the aftermath of the fight to get ONS-5 through there was at least a message of thanks from Prime Minister Winston Churchill signaled to escorts.

One post-war admiral – a junior officer serving in destroyers during 1943 – judged Allied victories in the Battle of the Atlantic to be as great as any land victory. According to Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald, they were vital in ‘preparing the way for the invasion of Europe’. Had it been fought ashore, or even a sea engagement in the age of fighting sail, the ONS-5 victory ‘would be [lauded] in the history books, like Salamis or Trafalgar’ for it was ‘no skirmish’ and the battle ‘to defend convoy ONS-5 was of more significance than Alamein.’

That may be stretching it a little, but the point is well made, for pitched battles at sea do not leave behind scarred buildings or pockmarked bunkers, or wrecked tanks littering the landscape. Nor do the casualties lie in lovingly tended war cemeteries close to the scene of the battle to offer an all too tangible reminder of sacrifice.

Those who perished in the battles for convoys HX-231, ONS-5 and SC-130 lie in unseen and unknowable watery graves, vanished under the sea either inside their sunken ships and submarines or swept away by the cruel sea until absorbed into the vastness of the ocean.

Each merchant vessel that reached a UK port was another victory for the Allies in the struggle against the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Photo: US National Archives.

Victory for the Allies was actually recorded in the ships the enemy never saw – the vessels that slid by the U-boats without a shot being fired and to enter a British port to offload their vital cargoes, all routine and largely unremarked. Each ship unloaded was, however, another small victory and diminished even further Germany’s chances of success.

Even though May 1943 is often regarded as the moment when the Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allies – enabling the invasion of Normandy just over a year later – in reality the bitter struggle between Allied escorts/airpower and U-boats continued right until the end of the war in Europe. There were even fears the war at sea off Europe could still be lost by the Allies.

It morphed into a different kind of contest – in fact a series of contests stretching from the deep ocean to inshore waters around N.W. Europe – that at various times was arguably harder for the Allies to deal with, though the US Navy’s escort carrier hunter-killer groups reaped a devastating harvest in the mid-Atlantic, around the Azores. Tough as the fight may have become once again, British escort groups were relentless elsewhere.

The Allies feared the ‘U-boat peril’ (to borrow Churchill’s description) right up until the Reich’s total collapse, not just because of the looming (if troubled) introduction into service of the much-vaunted Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats, but the Total Underwater Warfare concept.

Donitz hoped it could deliver final victory to Germany. So, in May 1943 the war of the transatlantic convoys may have peaked but now the battles had different objectives and the Allies’ hard won advantages were under threat of neutralization by Total Underwater Warfare.


How that German bid to achieve victory at sea unfolded – along with many other episodes in submarine warfare across the ages – is told in my latest book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) which is available via Amazon and Waterstones plus other retailers and shops.

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