“Navies are soon to disappear, according to a critic in the New York Herald” July 1901

In 1901, predictions about the coming changes to the navies of the world were abundant.

The industrial revolution had produced new technologies and science was rapidly advancing in many fields. The recent Spanish American war had shown how important a flexible navy was to a countries defense and the introduction of submarine warfare brought an entirely new kind of threat. This article appeared without attribution in a number of papers in July of 1901. Many newspapers subscribed to serial services and would print these stories as part of their “filler” columns. A filler column would be one that was used to fill blank spaces when needed.

The article that was recorded was prescient in its accuracy.

Two new weapons were just coming into their own after centuries of science fiction. The first was the successful mechanization of an undersea craft and the second was the potential for flight. And not just flight, but controlled flight with a methodology for delivering weapons of great destructive power.

Both technologies had been tried with limited success in the past. In America, for instance, primitive submersible vessels had played small roles in the Revolutionary war and the Civil War. But those attempts were thwarted by the lack of science which would allow sustained operation or significant damage to the enemy. The Holland boats were a major step forward in overcoming both science and mechanical limits.

US Civil War observation balloon. This is the balloon Intrepid, being re-inflated by Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe (1831-1913) from the balloon Constitution. This allowed Lowe to use the balloon to observe the battle at Fair Oaks, Virginia, on 31 May 1861, during the Peninsula Campaign of the US Civil War (1861-1865). Lowe’s observations of the Confederate armies helped to save one of the Union armies from defeat. Despite the successes, problems led to Lowe’s Balloon Corps being disbanded in 1863.

During the Civil War, balloons were used to observe battles. Some were even equipped with primitive telegraph capabilities to allow commanders below a bird’s eye view to the battles. Overcoming this “fog of war” allowed them to more strategically use their troops.

Now to be fair, the Wright brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, at what is now known as Kill Devil Hills. The brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible. Since this article was written in 1901, it might have been a little forward looking.

But the accuracy of the predictions in some cases was really spot on.

From the article:

“Navies are soon to disappear, according to a critic in the New York Herald, who has been watching recent mechanical developments. He knows nothing is more likely to become obsolete than an existing naval institution the moment something better is discovered, and he points to the rapid extinction of wooden warships propelled by sails when the Merrimac Monitor fight demonstrated that with such vessels the greatest squadrons under the ablest commanders were at the mercy of a little iron monitor.

Man’s command of the air through aeroplanes and flying machines, and his utilization of a water blanket to protect submarine boats, will, says this critic, render ships that float on the surface worthless. The floating warship, he says, will be subject to attack from above and from beneath by enemies which it cannot reach.

He draws, therefore, an interesting and thrilling picture of a naval battle of the future, which includes a fight between a flying machine and a submarine boat. This, he says, is not so improbable as it seems.

The flying machine can, he says, see the submarine beneath the surface when it would be in visible to men on a vessel, just as the fish hawk can locate its submerged victim. As the aeroplane can move with celerity, it can hover over the submarine until the latter is compelled to come to the surface for air or rises for attack. Then it can drop dynamite bombs upon the submarine and train rapid firers upon its thin shell.

The submarine, however, will not be quite helpless. A well-aimed shot from one of its bow rapid firers (which can be uncovered the moment the nose of the boat rises above the surface) would instantly put the flying machine out of business, thus clearing the way for the submarines to rise to the surface or for a bevy of friendly flying machines to come up. Meanwhile there would be no vessels in sight.

England, having ascertained the fact that France is equipping herself with a large fleet of submarine torpedo boats, and having always in mind the fact that only twenty one miles of sea separates France from England, has been casting about for some means of defending herself from submarine boats in general and those of France in particular.

Roughly speaking, the idea is to arm a very fast steamship with an explosive tipped lance and let her run up and stick the hapless submarine boat before its navigators can make it dive again.

In the carrying out of this plan England intends to fit one of these marine lances to the destroyer Starfish. Probably there will be one of these boom like lances on each side of the ship. They will protrude before the bow, just as a lance is extended before the rider that carries it. Each lance will be tipped with powerful explosives.

Submarine boats are necessarily rather slow. They can neither come to the surface quickly nor dive below it as quickly as a fish. As a matter of fact when a submarine comes to the surface either to take an observation or for fresh air, it takes some minutes to submerge the boat again. Those few minutes are to be taken advantage of by the destroyer which travels at a very high speed.

When the submarine boat comes to the surface it will be seen by the destroyer. Before it can sink again the fast lance-carrying boat will have dashed up to it and speared it with one of the explosive booms or lances. The submarine torpedo boat is then expected to retire from business.

The Star. (Reynoldsville, Pa.), 03 July 1901. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87078321/1901-07-03/ed-1/seq-3/

Doing a little research, I found a brief history on the destroyer HMS Starfish. She was indeed intended to be a ship of very high speed but the Royal Navy did not manage her construction closely enough and her speed was negatively impacted by some design flaws. She was fitted with the spars that were to be used to counter a submarine boat but there is no record of any amount of success.

The first Starfish was a Sturgeon Class Destroyer built by Vickers and was intended to operate at speeds of up to 27 knots. Starfish served throughout her career in home waters, being prone to failures of her propeller brackets, which were made of forged scrap iron.

In late January 1900 it was announced that she would be commissioned as tender to the gunnery school HMS Excellent. In 1900–1901, Starfish was used in tests of a modified spar torpedo for use as an anti-submarine weapon. The 42 feet (13 m) long spar, carrying an explosive charge, would be swung out and immersed in the water in action, and detonated as the submarine was passed.

Starfish was attached to the torpedo school HMS Vernon at Portsmouth in 1901, participating in the 1901 Naval Maneuvers. She took part in the fleet review held at Spithead on 16 August 1902 for the coronation of King Edward VII.

In April 1903, Starfish was used for trials of the use of kites designed by Samuel Cody for lifting radio antennae. On 26 October 1907 a minor collision took place between Starfish and the destroyer Daring at Devonport, both ships’ hulls being dented.

Starfish was laid up at Devonport for disposal in 1910, and was sold for scrap to Thos. W. Ward of Preston on 15 May 1912.

No submarine was ever officially “speared” by Starfish or any other Royal Navy ship. But the progression to depth charges was successful in ultimately countering the German U boat threat that would come in the Great War that was brewing.

Ironically, the third Royal Navy Craft to bear the name Starfish was a submarine in the 1930’s. Even the British Navy began to see that that detestable little monster called a submarine was going to have a key role in the future of naval warfare. HMS Starfish was a first-batch S-class submarine (often called the Swordfish class) built for the Royal Navy during the 1930s. Completed in 1933, she participated in the Second World War.

During the war, Starfish, part of the 2nd Submarine Flotilla, conducted five uneventful war patrols in the North Sea. On 9 January 1940, during her sixth patrol, she attacked a German minesweeper off Heligoland Bight, but after the attack failed and her diving planes jammed, Starfish was repeatedly attacked with depth charges. Badly damaged, she was forced to surface, and sank after all her crew were rescued by German ships. The irony of the attack of the Starfish by depth bombs considering the role her predecessor was to play in antisubmarine warfare did not escape my attention.

The author really was a visionary.

It would be interesting to find out who the author was that wrote the article. Looking at the rapid development of the submarine and naval air power over the next forty years validated much of what was written. In the one hundred twenty plus years, it can be observed that nearly all of the ideas were validated and then some.

April is submarine month.

I will be looking at some of the other developments that influenced the growth and success of the American Submarine Navy.

Now that my first book is at the editors, maybe that will be the path forward for the next book.

Stay tuned.

Mister Mac


One thought on ““Navies are soon to disappear, according to a critic in the New York Herald” July 1901

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s