The Stirling Letter and How it Helped to Change the Navy

Three Generations of Stirlings Yates Stirling Jr. (seated, upper left) with members of USNA Class of 1892

I am reading about the early American efforts to build submarines. There is a lot of great reference material out there that talks about how we entered the submarine race. In the beginning, there was a gap between the creative forces that invented the early technology and the reality of how to make the submarine a true war fighter. Existing technology like the gasoline powered internal combustion engine is a perfect example of that gap. While it was relatively simple to place the engines in the early boats, the operational reality soon became obvious.

The Navy had many bureaucracies in place from the beginning of the twentieth century. Today’s article really addresses how those bureaucracies slowed the progress of the new submarine technology.  It was the bravery of men like Yates Stirling that finally pushed the Navy forward despite itself.

The Stirling Letter

Yates Stirling (April 30, 1872 – January 27, 1948) was a decorated and controversial rear admiral in the United States Navy whose 44-year career spanned from several years before the Spanish–American War to the mid-1930s. He was awarded the Navy Cross and French Legion of Honor for distinguished service during World War One.

In a 1921 letter to the Secretary of the Navy, during angry disagreements over technical flaws in the diesel systems supplied by Electric Boat, Stirling forcefully pointed out numerous design and reliability problems of the boats then in service, especially the new 800-ton S class. His comments sparked a tumultuous strategy, mission, and design debate that lasted for another decade, coming to a climax between 1928 and 1930 when then Commander Thomas Withers Jr., commanding officer of Submarine Division Four, called repeatedly for an offensive strategy and solo tactics similar to those employed by the Imperial German Navy during World War I.

From the 1991 book Building American submarines, 1914-1940 / Gary E. Weir

“The sense of urgency and frustration felt by some naval officers over the condition of the submarine fleet reached a climax in 1921 when Captain Yates Stirling, then Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, penned a letter to the Secretary of the Navy. In this correspondence Stirling roundly condemned the quality of American submarines and their potential to make a positive contribution to the Navy’s mission in a future war. He thought American submarines suffered from a litany of technical problems that rendered them totally unreliable for service. These difficulties ranged from diesel and motor malfunctions to severe periscope vibration, poorly designed air compressors, and inferior ventilation systems. The Navy had to become more deeply involved in the design and construction of these vessels, if only to counter the risk of falling victim to a private sector monopoly. From Stirling’s viewpoint the Navy had at its disposal the perfect instruments for modernization in the captured German U-boats. The S class made it clear that the technical bureaus and private industry failed to produce a wartime equivalent to vessels like the U–53, a 700-ton Ms-boat with superior sea keeping qualities.

“Extensive reconsideration of current designs and perhaps a reevaluation of the Navy’s system for administering the submarine program were in order. The Stirling letter naturally prompted a storm of protest from the technical bureaus and the General Board. Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, Chief of BUC&R, dissected Stirling’s note in response to Secretary Daniels’s request for an opinion, and pointed out that in most instances Stirling’s exposé contradicted matters of record. Taylor assured the Secretary of the Navy that BUC&R had indeed made a careful study of the U-boats and had every intention of incorporating the latest German technology in future designs. That Taylor’s comprehensive response to Stirling did not end the matter illustrates the extent to which the captain’s observations struck a chord among the various activities responsible for submarine design and operation.

“When the General Board called a hearing on Stirling’s claims, it turned into a testimonial by the operating forces on the utter inadequacy of the Navy’s submarines and provided a gauge of the considerable diversity of opinion on the board and at the technical bureaus. Before the General Board, Captain Stirling acknowledged that the BUC&R had indeed recorded the specifications of the captured U-boats. But he persisted in his criticisms with selections from reports on the S class that he had solicited from ten of the most experienced submarine officers in the Navy, including Captain Hart and Lieutenant Commanders Daubin and Gibson. After reciting a litany against the S boats, Stirling drove home his central point: the methods historically employed by the Navy to develop submarine designs were responsible for the consistent record of mediocrity and failure. The real problem, it seemed, lay with the bureaus. Hart pointed out that it took far too long to convince the technical bureaus of the need to examine and learn from German wartime developments. The bureaus illustrated just how far removed they were from the cutting edge of submarine technology by the low priority they had initially given to obtaining the U-boats for research in the United States.

”The controversy created by Stirling’s letter and his testimony before the General Board exposed the gulf between the technical bureaus and the operational submarine forces. The technical bureaus took advantage of the captured U-boats to improve the designs and modify the systems of American submarines. Although BUENG displayed greater flexibility in this regard than did BUC&R, both saw the importance of educating themselves in the latest German technology. However, the operational officers did not benefit from the bureaus’ evaluation of this technology. The technical bureaus excluded these officers from decisions on design and engineering matters. Thus the lamentable condition of the S class and the possibility that the bureaus did not appreciate fully the insights provided by the Germans drove Stirling and the officers who supported him to take action. They feared that a lack of communication between those designing and those manning submarines could retard the Navy’s submarine program.

“Stirling advanced a solution to this predicament that paralleled the proposal to establish a Bureau of Aeronautics for an equally new form of technology first applied to military purposes during the war. He believed that a Bureau of Submarines would focus command authority, operational experience, available money, and all the technological expertise in a single agency that could then produce the best possible undersea vessel for the Navy. Instead of receiving this kind of direction, submariners currently had to go begging because the Navy Department naturally assumed, to use Stirling’s words, “that they are better fitted to dispense it [financial and administrative resources] to the prodigal son than he would be to dispense it himself.”

A Bureau of Submarines would overcome the natural reluctance of the other bureaus to abandon or revise a prized creation like the S-class design. Neither would it hesitate to copy all or part of the U-111 and its sister boats if the state of American technology made these measures necessary. The development of a seaworthy submarine to fulfill the mission assigned to it would finally take the highest priority.

“The General Board did not enthusiastically embrace Stirling’s suggestions in its report to the Secretary of the Navy. It defended the S class as the best design BUC&R could have generated during the war. The members also felt that insights gained from the U-boats could have a positive effect on the future of both the S and V types if implementing some of the findings proved financially feasible. The board attributed the propulsion problems in the S class to unhealthy dependence upon Electric Boat. To deal with the problem, they recommended greater bureau participation in design and development, upgrading facilities on both coasts for repair and overhaul, and creation of a school for all enlisted personnel working with submarines.

“Ironically, suggestions for a Bureau of Submarines did not only come from the group around Stirling. In his analysis of the debate caused by the Stirling letter, Rear Admiral Sims, by now President of the Naval War College, suggested in a letter to the General Board that the facts regarding the design and production of submarines for the Navy would “demonstrate the futility of attempting further to improve our submarine service through the agency of our present submarine organization….”

“Sims thought the Navy had waited too long to involve itself in submarine construction and design. He agreed with Stirling that the technical bureaus too often proved unwilling to depart from accepted designs and that this resulted in a reluctance to learn from other nations or agencies as well as a tendency to keep producing the familiar, regardless of quality. He also voiced his suspicion of the private sector, questioning whether its motives inclined them to change old, well-tested, profitable designs.”

“Sims’s opinions only heightened the intensity of the submarine design debate, which had persisted from the time of the Stirling letter until 1930. The discovery of new German submarine technology at the end of the Great War, combined with the traditional uncertainty regarding the submarine’s role, placed the Navy in a quandary it could not readily resolve. This awkward situation displayed the ineffectiveness of the Navy’s submarine organization. Contention between the technical bureaus, the General Board, and the operational forces paralyzed the decision-making process and deprived the Navy of both a consensus on strategy and design and a coherent plan for the future.

It is a blessing that the American submarine force would benefit from the courage of Stirling and Sims to buck the system.

Their drive led to a culture of continuous improvement that resulted in the most powerful submarine force on the planet.

Mister Mac

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