Denizens of the Deep – The idea that spawned the American Fast Attack Fleet

Denizens of the deep – Pursuing the ultimate underwater weapon: the original birth of the Fast Attack

Mankind has always had a fascination with being able to move freely under the water for long periods of time. Because of our nature, man has also sought to take advantage of the darkness and anomalies of the deep in pursuit of conquest and defense.

As early as 1515, Leonardo da Vinci had sketched a primitive submarine. By 1578, an inventor named William Bourne drafted the first design for a submersible craft. In 1620, the first successful submarine was actually built by Cornelius Drebbel this crude device was tested in the Thames River, completing a three-hour journey.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, at­ least 14 different submarine designs were patented by 1727. Early designs usually featured wooden submarine frames covered in oil-soaked waterproof leather, with oars extending from the hull for propulsion.

The first military submarine was developed by American inventor David Bushnell 1775, during the American Revolution. This was an innovation created out of desperation. The fledgling Colonial forces were facing the largest fleet in the world and the possible use of this new technology was a brilliant force equalizer. If it worked. The Turtle was used on September 7, 1776, to stealthily approach a British battleship and attach an explosive device to the hull of the enemy ship. The explosive Declaration of Independence was signed just a few months before the attack. Unfortunately, that was the only thing that created an effective explosion. Designing an underwater weapon delivery system proved to be a difficult task for years to come.

Despite Turtle’s shortcomings, Bushnell’s invention marked an important milestone in submarine technology. The American inventor Robert Fulton conceived of his submarine Nautilus in the first years of the nineteenth century and took it to Europe when the United States proved largely uninterested in the design. During the American Civil War, the Confederate States of America, faced with a similar situation to that of the colonies during the War of Independence, developed an operational submarine H.L. Hunley, whose destruction of the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor in February 1864 was the first successful submarine attack in history. By the early-twentieth century, the world’s navies were beginning to adopt submarines in larger numbers. Like Bushnell’s design, these boats mimicked the natural forms of marine animals in their hull designs. As one contemporary historian of submarines observed in 1901, the evolution of modern submarine evolved from the whale, which he deemed a “submarine made by nature out of a mammal.

In 1912, Lt. Chester Nimitz famously predicted the possibilities of the little craft.

“The steady improvement of the torpedo together with the gradual improvement in the size, motive power and speed of submarine craft of the near future will result in a most dangerous weapon, and one which will have a large part in deciding fleet actions.”

Even with the brilliance of this prophetic statement, it is well to remember that Nimitz was a classically trained naval officer of a certain generation. Fleet actions still placed a limiting factor on the future undersea vessels. The real vision that would emerge would go beyond any fleet action and highlight the potential for a weapon that could operate independently with an ultimately game changing effect.


100 years ago, in the aftermath of World War 1, all of the world’s navies were taking stock of the recent war. American newspapers were filled with stories about the near disaster caused by the little boats in a world that still believed in battleships. The most popular stories were centered on a series of articles by Admiral Sims about Winning the War at Sea.

But the aftermath of the war revealed the future of submarine warfare in an unexpected way. This article was written about a post war report given by Commander Emory S. Land about the German submarine operations during the war.

During World War I, he served on the Board of Devices and Plans connected with Submarines in Warfare, the Board of Standardization of Submarines, and the staff of Admiral William S. Sims, who commanded all U.S. naval forces in European waters.

Land played a key role in the design of the S-class submarines from 1917 to 1919, the United States Navy’s first attempt to build a submarine capable of operating with the battle fleet. Land was vice chairman of the Navy’s postwar V-boat Plans Committee in 1920. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his work on submarine design and construction and for work in the war zone.

But his advocacy for a change of mission for submarines and the recognition of the ability of submarines to hunt other submarines set the stage for the need for a Fast Attack Submarine.

Up to this point, the Navy was fixated on the use of submarines as a coastal defense weapon. Early submarines were designed to protect the coasts and our bases from marauding battleships. Lake discovered the potential for the new utilization while he completed his assessment of the World War 1 German submarine fleet.

The Sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]) 1916-1920, December 14, 1919, Section 7 Magazine Section, Image 80

U-Boat Secrecy Lifted by Naval Commander

JUST WHAT Germany had done in the way of preparations for a 1919 campaign of “frightfulness” against the United States, just how many submarines she had available and the details of their construction were fully considered in a paper presented at the recent meeting of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers by Commander E.S. Land, Construction Corps, United States Navy.

Commander Land, who as a member of the Naval Allied Armistice Commission which proceeded to Germany December, 1918, and later as a member of the American Submarine Inspection Board which examined the enemy submarines surrendered at Harwich, had unrivalled opportunities for getting accurate Information regarding the submarine phase of the war and as might be expected he upsets many popular Ideas which became current during the period when the operations of both enemy and allied submarines were shrouded In deepest mystery. No reliable Information being at hand, popular imagination clothed the submarine and the forces operating against it with all sorts of highly fanciful circumstances, most of which were very far from reality.

One of the most widespread of these conclusions regarding the submarine campaign was the almost universal belief that the most useful type of anti-submarine weapon was a swift surface vessel, possessing high speed and the ability to maneuver with the greatest ease, such as the destroyer or the smaller “submarine chasers” which gave young America a chance to demonstrate that the Yankee seamanship of the days of the clippers had not yet vanished from the blood.

Not so, says Commander Land. If his conclusions are correct, and they are based on the most authoritative Information available, the craft which In proportion to the numbers employed was most successful in disposing of enemy submarines was the very type which would rank last in the popular conception. To the average layman a battle of submarine against submarine seems to fall into the same category as a boxing match between blind men neither capable of Inflicting damage on the other, except by accident.

But this Is Commander Land’s unqualified statement of the case: “Anyone who will analyze In detail the number of submarines lost In the war will find that, due consideration being given to the relative number of vessels engaged In anti-submarine warfare, the allied submarines accounted for more enemy submarines than any other type of vessel. After we entered the war some of our submarines were located off the south coast of Ireland and some off the Azores. From that moment the loss to shipping in these localities very appreciably decreased.”

The mere fact that several American submarines were sent to European waters has been generally known to these who follow naval matters with Interest. The details of the operations in which they wore engaged never have been revealed, and it is hoped that Commander Land or someone equally qualified will tell the story of the American undersea warfare as we know now the history of our operations on the sea surface, on land and in the air.

The commander presented for the first time an accurate summary of the number of enemy submarines available for the piratical warfare which the German Admiralty Staff decided upon as the only means of overcoming the allied superiority in surface craft a superiority which resulted In odds of about 200 to 1 against every enemy submarine, counting ship for ship.

Started With Thirty.

At the outbreak of the war the German navy possessed about thirty Unterseeboten. During the fifty-two months of hostilities they produced or had under construction when the armistice was signed no less than 650 more, making a total of approximately 6S0. Of these 203 were lost through allied operations, accidents and the hazards of the sea.

The German submarines are, classified by Commander Land as follows: “All modern German submarines are of the double hulled type. The war produced three standard types, which are known as the UC type, the UB type and the U-boat or “Mittel U boat.” In addition to the standard types there were two special types, as follows: UE typo, mine laying cruisers and UA type, largo cruiser class. The large cruiser class consists of two designs, the ordinary design being a vessel of about 2,000 tons surface displacement, while there were a few of the special cruiser design of about 1,200 tons. There were apparently only two vessels of this class completed and they were especially designed for surface speed.”

The UC and UB classes, while intended for different work, were similar in their general characteristics. The UB class was slightly larger, having a surface displacement of about 520 tons, as against 500 tons for the UC class, and they averaged a knot faster on the surface and half a knot faster submerged. Vessels of both classes were usually armed with 10.5 centimeter guns, though some of the UC class mounted the slightly smaller 8.8 rifles. They were about I85 feet long.

Both types, as might be expected from their comparatively modest dimensions, were designed for coastal use only – the UC class as mine layers and the UB class for general work. The latter carried four torpedo tubes in the bow and one In the stern, while the former carried eighteen mines In the forward part of the vessel and a torpedo tube aft ns well as two other tubes fixed externally In the superstructure of the conning tower. At the date of the armistice about 100 of the UC class and 140 of the UB class had been completed, and there were a large number of others In course of construction.

The U-boat proper, or “Mittel U-boats,” were in use in the largest number and were highest In the favor of German naval officers. Their design was a gradual development from a type constructed in 1906 .The earlier models were small craft of not much over 200 tons surface displacement, but as the modification of the design their displacement was Increased until the type of 1914 had reached a surface tonnage of 760. Subsequent to this date the U-boats were generally similar in design except that their size was slightly increased so that the vessels launched during the last months of the war had a displacement of about 830 tons.

The boats which became standard .during the later phase of the conflict and which carried on most of the work during the period of unrestricted submarine warfare, were 235 feet long with a beam of twenty feet six inches and a draft of twelve and half feet. They had a sped on the surface of about thirteen knots and when submerged of about eight knots.

Most of the “Mittel U-boats” were fitted with four bow torpedo and two stern tubes and carried either one or two 4.1 inch guns. This type of boat was considered the most successful of the German submarines and many of the German service consider that if they had adhered to this type of vessel they would have been more successful in their submarine warfare. By November, 1918, the enemy had completed 110 of these vessels and a large number of others were in course of construction.

The UE and UA types were essentially similar, the former being ocean going mine layers and the latter cruisers. They were of about 1,200 tons surface displacement, 275 feet long, with a beam of about twenty-four feet and draft of thirteen feed.

U-Boat Secrecy Lifted by Naval Commander Continued from Preceding rage.

The cruisers were designed for a surface speed of eighteen knots, the mine layers about fifteen knots. Both had a maximum speed when submerged of between seven and eight knots. The mine layers had four torpedo tubes In the bow and two mine tubes aft and had storage space for forty-two mines and twenty-four torpedoes, though Commander Land expresses some doubt as to whether the vessels ever “actually carried this number of spares. The mine layers were also fitted for two deck guns but generally carried only one a 5.9 Inch rifle.

Ten of the mine layers were completed when the armistice was signed and a number of others were being built. Of the cruisers only two, the U-135 and U-136, appear to have been completed. They were armed with six torpedo tubes and one 5.9 Inch gun.

Only Four of Cruiser Class

Of the special cruiser class, vessels over 300 feet In length and with a displacement on the surface of 2,000 tons, only four appear to have been finished, but there were a large number under construction In various parts of Germany. They were designed for a surface cruising speed of nearly sixteen knots and were armed with four bow torpedo tubes and two stern tubes. Vessels of this character were quite capable of carrying the war to the American coast, provided they could avoid the barriers set by the allied navies in the North Sea, and it is probable that the U-boat which cruised between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras during the summer of 1918 was of this type. Given an opportunity to complete these which she had under construction when the war came to an end and to train crews for their operation, Germany might have seriously threatened American commerce during the summer months of 1919.

Of the general feature common to all the U-boats Commander Land details a number, many of them interesting because characteristically German. Far too much space was allotted to officers and petty officers, he notes, and very little provision was made for the comfort of the men. The engines he finds excellent, but the design of the hulls was so poor that the speed of the vessels, both on the surface and submerged, is considerably less than the power of the engines should produce. The periscopes, as might be expected in the case of the nation which stood first in the manufacture of optical Instruments of all sorts, were excellent – in fact they are almost the only feature of the craft that Commander Land finds beyond criticism. Most of the boats were equipped with three, one being offset, from the center line.

As regards the Interior mechanical fittings of the boats Inspected the American expert criticizes the undue complication which was found everywhere. They were crowded, congested and complicated to an unnecessary degree, he declares. He is also of the opinion that many details of the design were unnecessarily clumsy, particularly the folding wireless masts, which were so heavy that it was dangerous to raise them in any but “the calmest weather.

Other details which he notes are an airplane recognition signal consisting of a folding metal ring on the forward superstructure, which when unfolded disclosed a white circle six feet six Inches In diameter and fourteen inches wide. Also the provision in many of the newer type of boats for stopping shot holes by means of tapered wooden plugs, an assortment of which was provided.

He expresses the opinion that the policy of absolute secrecy which was followed by the Allies not only as regards the work of their own submarines but also as to enemy operations was ill judged and had the effect of retarding the development of the submarine, while it probably failed to have the hoped for influence on enemy morale.

“It is a rather well accepted American adage,” he says, “that it pays to advertise. The secrecy which has enshrouded submarine design, construction and operation has been one of the most serious drawbacks in regard to the development of submarines not only in this country but throughout the world. While this feature may be necessary in war time, there is a good deal of doubt thrown upon the methods followed by the Allies In connection with this matter. Many authorities doubt the advisability of keeping losses of submarine vessel secret, especially when their destruction was accomplished by ordinary methods of war. The Idea was to undermine the morale of the enemy, and opinions vary as to whether this was successfully accomplished. There Is no doubt that the morale of the enemy was undermined, but from present Information available It appears that the morale of the submarine navy of the enemy was superior to that of the remainder of the naval service.

“The value of submarines, in both defensive and offensive operations, has never been fully appreciated except by a very small number of technical people. This statement requires no proof, but If proof Is desired all that is necessary Is to read the first three chapters Admiral Jellicoe’s book ‘The Grand Fleet” There is sufficient evidence contained In the first part of this book to convince any quantity of doubting Thomases relative to the value of submarines from a military point of view.

“If It were not such serious matter It would almost approach that ludicrous If one determined the amount of energy that was expended by the Grand Fleet In the stages of the war owing to the presence, actual or suspected, of one or more submarines In Scapa Flow or the vicinity thereof. The defenseless condition of these bases has been thoroughly brought out in this book and the herculean efforts made to make these bases submarine proof form an interesting chapter in the early days of the war.”

Emory S Land
From October 1, 1932 until April 1, 1937, Land was Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. In this position, he played a major role in submarine development leading to the highly successful fleet boats of World War II.

Emory S. Land died in 1971 at the age of 92. He lived long enough to see the advent of the hunter-killer diesel boats and the transition to the nuclear fast attack submarines that protected the United States against the Soviet aggression that followed World War 2. Forty years later, the world of Fast Attacks has continued to grow and expand.

I wonder what he would think about these deep-diving fast-moving monsters of the deep.

Mister Mac

5 thoughts on “Denizens of the Deep – The idea that spawned the American Fast Attack Fleet

  1. The real first lethal modern hunter/killer (Hu/K) submarines were the Thresher/Permits (SSN-593/594) these boats ushered in the high speed deep diving stealth SSN specifically optimized for killing there own kind. Every follow on class: Sturgeon SSN-637, Los Angeles SSN-688, Seawolf SSN-21, Virginia SSN-774 owes its existence to the ground breaking work of the Permit class.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Each layer of this story has its own unique characteristics. I will do my best to tell the story but I am sure there will be many experts that will have things to add. It should be an interesting year.

  2. Mac, from reading so many of your articles, I know that you are a stickler for detail and accuracy. Please don’t take this as nit-picking as there are a great many who make the same mistake. The HL Hunley was never commissioned into the Confederate Navy and was not designated as CSS at anytime in it’s career. As a member of USSVI Charleston Base and living in Charleston, the submariners here have a real love affair with the Hunley; many of us were pall bearers when the remains of the last crew was buried in Magnolia Cemetery. Just thought I’d do what I can to keep the historical records correct. Thanks for all the wonderful articles, including this one.

  3. <r. Mac — Have you written about the USS Tang (SS 306), CO O'Kane, that was sunk by its own torpedo? I'm writing an article about Rubin Raiford, Ck3, age 15, who went down on the Tang. He's the youngest submariner to die in combat..

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