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.


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

What Would You Take With You? 17

One of the questions almost always asked during one of my submarine life talks is about sleeping on the sub. Most people who have been around sub sailors have heard about hot racking and I will have to admit to doing so a few times in my career as a lower rated enlisted man. Getting qualified and getting a few extra stripes on your left arm are keys to being able to avoid this. Sometimes I think that in itself is the main motivator for a guy to advance.

That question always brings back memories of getting ready for patrols (or Spec Ops when on the fast boats). I would have to say that most people I know were very careful about what they would bring with them and for a very good reason. Up until the Trident Class submarine, the average sailor was limited to two storage areas for their stuff; the bed pan beneath their rack and a small foot locker which is really nothing more than a place to store shoes when not in use.

The bed pan was really your only “owned” space on the boat. If you are really lucky, your COB (Chief of the Boat) will have a list of suggested things you should bring with you. You quickly find out that your sea bag (as issued in Boot Camp) will probably not all fit in the pan. The one that I was issued had blue wool jumpers and bell bottoms (not very useful in the South Pacific) as well as the white cracker jacks. But if you did pull into a foreign port up north (Japan for instance) you may be directed to have an alternate set of uniforms with you.

The rest of the space needed to be carefully thought out. The bunk itself is fairly compact. At its longest, its about 6 feet, 3 feet wide, and about 2.5 feet to the bottom of the next guy’s rack (or the overhead stuffed with wiring and cables). The bunk pan itself was only 4 inches deep so you can see that you will have to be judicious. Once the hatch is closed, there are no stores on board the ship and you don’t typically pull into the Stop and Go Quickie Mart for a junk food fix.

Compounding that problem, most subs are limited in their laundry abilities. It is made worse if there is a “quiet” operation during your division’s time to wash.

There are specific Laws concerning stowage on a submarine that must be respected. This list is not all inclusive (and I am sure to this day they are still updating it). But here is what I believe were the Cardinal Rules:

1. If you bring it on board, you must stow it in such a manner not to annoy the COB or the XO or bring unwanted attention to your Chief.

2. Stowage space is in direct proportion to your rank, qualification status and your physical intimidation status. There are no appeals. This applies to the few “hooks” on the bulkhead where the ever present poopy suit hangs between watches.

3. You will not get it right the first time you sail. You may as well not even try. All of the older sailors will have filled you with typically useless suggestions if for no other reason to see your discomfort when you realize that canned soda takes up way too much space and there is free stuff on the mess decks anyway.

4. You will make continuous improvements each time you sail (unless of course you are under the impression you can somehow beat rule #1) In any event, your ability to plan and pack will be greatest on your last patrol before you leave the boat (which adds to the list of useless skills you have acquired).

5. Regardless of how many times you sail, you will not have everything you need. In fact, you can almost be assured that something you desperately need will come to your attention at the breakwater before the first dive. Hopefully, this does not include enough skivvies.

6. If you are married or in a committed relationship, you will lose some of that precious space to inanimate objects of someone’s affection to remind you of them for the entire patrol. They will invariably be drenched in some kind of perfume that renders them almost impossible to hide for very long. (Note to any former San Francisco Sailors from the early eighties: I have had several discussions with one of our old shipmates regarding a certain bear that went missing… thirty years have not erased the pain and as you fall asleep tonight, remember that… I’m just saying, sleep lightly dudes… you know who you are)

7. If any of your shipmates discover any intimate unmentionable inanimate articles you will face an inordinate amount of laser like harassment. These objects can and will end up as fodder for the traditional half-way night festivities. (If the “delicate unmentionables” are actually yours you will be pleased to note the coming change to the Navy’s DODT policy – but I would still wait for a bit before you put on your eye shadow and come out to the crew.)

8. If you smoked (back in the day that was actually allowed) you will never have exactly enough cartons of cigarettes to make the actual length of the patrol. Your best intentions about cutting back will disappear (in a cloud of smoke on the first mid-watch) and the panic that occurs to all who are addicted will continue to increase as your now inadequate supply dwindles. As the end of patrol approaches (especially on an extended run) you will find that you could fit quite well into the beggars colony of Calcutta and your soul is stripped bare of any dignity you have ever had.

9. Up until the advent of the IPOD and other mass storage devices, you would quickly discover you also did not bring enough personal music on board with you. Going way back before Sony perfected the cassette deck, some of us even thought it was a wonderful idea to bring aboard our shiny new eight track tape machines with the awesome Koss headphones (that vaguely resemble small coconuts on either side of your head.) These ultimately resulted in power supply wars (limited outlets in berthing) bargaining with the electricians to get the coveted “safety tag” and of course you could only bring along so many tapes. To this day, I am unable to listen to “Bread” and Summer Breeze makes me want to go screaming from the room to the nearest open hatch for air.

10. The only commodity on board which had equal or more power than cigarettes were “adult” magazines. I am not sure why they call them “adult” since it was mostly boys spending any time reading them. These dog eared magazines became a sailors best friend once the hatches were closed and the air was let out of the ballast tanks. Another sign of the changing times is that now, you aren’t even allowed to hang Miss September in public viewing areas like your bunk. Although the lights were off most of the time, field days would reveal a glorious display of all manner of flowery creatures draped in nothing but your imagination.

If you ever want to really know what its like to sail on a submarine for a patrol, gather everything you think you will need and try and stack it into a four inch high, three foot wide, six foot long area. No cheating now!

You may want to remember your soap, razors (no shaving cream… sorry… against the rules), socks, undershirts, skivvies, spare uniforms, candy, and much of the aforementioned gee dunk. I have to admit in retrospect that preparing for a run is actually an art. You had to be as lean as humanly possible or you would pay some kind of price for your lack of it.

As the years went by, I noticed some changes in my needs. The cigarettes finally went away, the music got infinitely smaller, and the need for reading material turned to things that were more age appropriate. Our needs as people change as we mature. We still have needs, but hopefully as time goes by the maturing process helps you identify what is really important and what is not.

If you were forced to prepare for a journey where you could only consume what you brought, what would you bring? What things in your life could you live without and what could you not live without?

Have a great weekend

Mister Mac