Blockades and Submarines – An Opinion From a Master Submariner in 1939 Reply

Simon Lake was by any measure a Master Submariner.

A prolific inventor, he held over two hundred patents at the time of his death in June of 1945 (just a few months short of the end of the war that was largely shaped by submarine warfare).

American Inventor and entrepreneur Simon Lake (1866-1945) was on of the most influential early submarine constructors and introduced many innovations still in use today. His Lake Torpedo Boat Company designed and/or built 33 submarines for the U.S. Navy between 1909 and 1922

Lake was a dreamer and had many ideas about peaceful uses for submarines. As a young man, he had read Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Lake and was intrigued by the prospects of undersea travel and exploration.

This article was written in October 1939 as the world was gearing up for a war that would touch every single corner. On the very day this article was published, the last of the Polish army resistance fell to the German onslaught and the lights were beginning to grow dim all across Europe. Orders were secretly issued at the Reichstag to prepare for the occupation of Belgium and France. The Navy’s of the world were about to be tested like never before.

Lake made many predictions in the press through his lifetime. This one was very curious considering the time and ongoing incidents. It is interesting to look through the prism of history and see what actually happened.

Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 10 Oct. 1939. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

Submarine Believed Capable of Voiding Blockade

Future of Convoy System Is Made Dubious, Says Inventor

War under the sea! What has been proved about it so far? What will the future hold? This is discussed here by the man who, more than any other individual, gave the world the modern submarine. He invented the even keel submarine, and every submarine made today uses at least 25 of his patents.

By SIMON LAKE.

NEW YORK. Oct. 10 (N.A.N.A.).— According to the British admiralty, German shipping has been swept from the seas in the first month of the war and England, as ever, rules the waves.

But Germany, according to my information, had 60 submarines before the war started, had parts for an unknown number more waiting to be assembled, and the shipyards and equipment to turn them out at the rate of 12 a month when needed.

With German shipping swept from the seas, it would seem that the blockade is on in force and the iron belt has been drawn tight around the Reich’s middle. , Supplies from nations that are in a position to and are willing to feed Germany overland are of an unknown quality.

But what if the submarine can smash a blockade by surface craft and can establish a blockade of its own? What if the submarine can become a cargo carrier and can run under any blockade that can be established by surface craft?

Depth Bomb Limited Weapon.

As was noted earlier, the depth bomb is a severely limited weapon, and the hydrophone—the only means by which a surface craft can possibly detect a submerged submarine and “aim” its depth bomb—works better for the undersea craft. In addition, no ship can be armored sufficiently to withstand a blow from underneath.

The submarine has other capabilities and potentialities which make the future of the convey system—on which Britain is relying so heavily—dubious.

The modem submarine is a vessel that can be built to almost any size desired. Just before the United States entered the last war against Germany, I was negotiating with the German government, for which I had done work before, for the construction of submarines that would carry 5,000 tons of cargo.

Our declaration of war, of course, ended the negotiations.

Reich Has Small U-Boats.

Germany’s fleet of submarines, according to the information I have, consists mainly of small U-boats.

I saw none there over 500 or 600 tons and longer than 150 feet, These craft carry six 21-inch torpedoes weighing about l ton each – each one capable of destroying a battleship—and make about 16 knots on the surface and 10 knots under water. This is slow, but the only time a submarine needs speed is when it is submerging.

Modern submarines can submerge, while traveling at 16 knots on the surface, to periscope depth (about 28 feet) in less than one minute. A submarine I built in the early 1920s did it in 56 seconds, and that time has since been bettered.

These submarines are built to operate chiefly in the North Sea and the English Channel. They have to stay close to their source of supplies. It is perfectly obvious that such submarines, operating in sufficient force, can block any harbor entrance or sea estuary that the controlling power desires.

Once the submarine became soundless and fired soundless, invisible torpedoes that sped through the water without leaving any streak, the only means of detecting it while submerged was through its periscope. The periscope left a wake if the submarine was traveling at periscope depth. But it is perfectly possible to build a periscope that will leave no wake. I know, because I have built one.

Periscope Unseen Now.

The periscope is a little arm about as large across as a silver dollar, camouflaged and hugging the surface of the sea. It is practically impossible to see, and yet there is just that bare possibility. However, science can now obviate even that.

I know—and, again, from my own research—that a submarine can be made that would be able to see a ship on the surface even while the submarine itself was submerged to a depth of 200 feet or more. Not only can it be made able to see the ship, but it can also fire on it from the bottom of the sea. Then, indeed, will ships be spurlos versenkt (sunk without trace). They will never know what hit them and will never be able to find out.

Against such submarines, all the convoy system does is offer more targets and greater opportunity for damage. Such submarines could not only smash or seriously cripple a blockade, but set up a blockade of their own. In the last war undersea mines and vast systems of heavy chain nets were used to keep submarines from harbor mouths, but submarines can be equipped readily with antennae that will feel out the mines. Once a submarine locates a mine, it can send a diver out to “capture” it and take it home for a souvenir.

Submarines can also be equipped to lift nets, or, if the nets are too heavily weighted, there is nothing to prevent them from feeling them out and sending a diver ahead to cut through them with a torch.

As a man who has devoted his life to the submarine, I can say that these are grim truths that I have been relating, and there is no cheer in them for me. I relish the defensive prowess of the submarine, and I shall always remember with joy what Admiral Sims told me in 1932, after the Japanese had gone up the river back of Shanghai and blown holes into the city with their ships.

“If the Chinese had had two of the submarines you built 20 years ago,” the admiral said, “the Japanese wouldn’t have come within 5O miles of that river.”

But the submarine has become a dark, almost invincibly deadly thing, striking with tremendous force from impenetrable cover. I envisaged— and still do—a gentler use for it.

Someday the submarine will make man richer. It will take food from the sea for him and oil and gold and coal and radium, all of which have been discovered in great masses at the bottom of the sea. Someday, when war will be no more.

sunk apr25 1943

Mister Mac