Military Review

Birth of the underwater threat

Birth of the underwater threat

How was forged underwater sword of Germany

By the beginning of the First World War, submarines and their potential were already well described by Jules Verne and other science fiction writers, but none of the states that entered the war fully realized their value as weapons attacks. The ruler of thoughts naval officers at the beginning of the XNUMXth century was the American naval theorist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahen.

In his writings, he developed the theory of "sea power", according to which the conquest of supremacy at sea became the main goal for victory in war and control over the whole world. To achieve this domination was supposed to be due to the construction and use of a giant linear fleet. The backbone of any fleet is a battleship, to ensure and cover up which it was also planned to build cruisers and destroyers. The means of achieving the goal is a victory over the enemy’s fleet and a close blockade of its ports, as a result of which the enemy’s trade is paralyzed and its own is ensured. There was no room for submarines in this scheme: both Mahen and other pre-war admirals had little idea how a fragile ship with a displacement of 600 – 700 tons could harm powerful battleships, the cost of which was built by some small states. But the outbreak of the First World War quickly demonstrated the capabilities of submarines when they began to sink one ship after another, and the tactics of fighting underwater fragile boats was in its infancy. As a result, the belligerents had to get used to the new, underwater type of weapons on the move, paying a very high price for their short-sightedness.

"At the beginning of glorious deeds ..."

The era of underwater war officially began in the 60-s of the XIX century, during the civil war in the United States. This conflict became a kind of prologue to a new type of war, during which many new types of weapons were invented and tested. Trenches, mines, barbed wire, monitors (warships) - all this appeared precisely during the years of the war with the North and the South. And 18 February 1864 for the first time on the vast expanses of the oceans for the first time went on a campaign submarine: it happened in the harbor of the port of Charleston, when the submarine warship of the southerners, "Khanli" contact mine. But the Hanley was also damaged, "incompatible with life": the first combat submarine never returned to the base. Nevertheless, a start was made.

Submarine "Hanley." Source: US Naval Historical Center

In the next 40 years, the submarine concept continued to be refined. So, in 1865, the designer Ivan Aleksandrovsky created the first experimental model of a Russian submarine. Already in 1866, he developed a draft of new weapons for them - torpedoes. In 1893, the French introduced the Gustav Zedah submarine into their fleet, armed with one torpedo tube and capable of overcoming 35 miles underwater: in 15 years of service in the French fleet she made more than 2,5 thousands of dives.

After the French submarines appeared in service first with the Americans (1900), then the British (1901). In 1903, the Dolphin submarine was the first submarine to be officially recruited into the Russian Navy.


As already noted, in developing warfare plans before the war, none of the countries paid serious attention to submarines. And this is despite the fact that the conditions for the conduct of hostilities by them for some countries were simply perfect. First of all, this concerned, of course, the Germans.

No country was before the war in such a dependence on the delivery of goods by sea from the outside, as the main rival of Germany to the sea - the United Kingdom. This was due to the geographical location and the economic structure of the British Isles - the industrial and financial center of the British Empire. Industrial raw materials and food were not produced mainly on the territory of the British Isles, but in numerous colonies and dominions, from which they were delivered by a huge number of ships. According to statistics from the last five pre-war years, the UK imported 2 / 3 necessary food products, including 100% sugar; 73% fruit; 64,5% fat; 50% chicken eggs; 49,5% margarine; 40% meat; 36% vegetables. A special British government commission has calculated that if the islands are completely isolated from the outside world, food supplies will be enough for only 6 weeks. Therefore, the safety of maritime communications connecting the metropolis with the colonies and dominions and the rest of the world, was for the UK a matter of life and death.

For the conduct of sea trade at the disposal of the British there was a giant merchant fleet. By 1 July 1914, it included the 8587 steamer and the 653 sailing vessel with a total capacity of 19 million 250 thousand gross tons, which was 43% of world tonnage at that time.

The conditions for conducting active underwater warfare on the trade routes of Britain, which girded the entire globe, were ideal, but at the beginning of the hostilities the Germans did not yet possess a sufficient number of submarines capable of moving far from their bases. The Germans initially focused on the surface raiders - warships or merchant ships specially re-equipped for this task - in the fight against the sea cargo transportation of the enemy. However, with the beginning of the war, it turned out that the Germans should forget about the dashing privateer raids of the times of the sailing fleet. Coal, without which modern ships could not do, required constant refueling of ships in ports or secluded harbors, and steam emanating from the giant boilers of engine rooms of ships was visible from gigantic distances. The Germans tried to rectify this and that: supply bases in the German colonies were equipped with supply bases, dozens of coal-carrying ships were sent to the oceans. Germany before the war created stocks of coal, which gave white smoke, less visible from a distance. But with the outbreak of hostilities, all the supply bases were soon captured, the coal miners intercepted and sunk, and the coal reserves with minimal smoke output ran out. Following all this, almost all German raiders went to the bottom of the sea: by the end of 1914, the German raider threat in the seas far from Germany itself was not a trace left. However, it was still necessary to fight the British maritime trade, and only then the choice fell on the submarine.

But there were some difficulties. Relying on surface raiders, the Germans did not focus much attention on the construction of the submarine fleet before the war. The first U-boot (abbreviation of the German word Unterseeboot - underwater ship) was built only in the 1906 year, the second - in the 1908-m, the third - in the 1909-m. Only since 1911, the German fleet has put on stream the construction of submarines for military purposes - before that, the Germans built submarines exclusively for research and training purposes. The first German submarine with a diesel engine went into operation just a year before the war, and by the beginning of the war the Germans, according to various sources, had from 34 to 44 submarines of this type.

The largest submarine fleet at the beginning of the war was the country that later suffered the most from submarines and suffered: on 1 in August 1914, Britain had 78 combat submarines. But it seemed that, when building them, the British did not fully understand how they would be used. Apparently, the main reason for the massive construction of the submarine fleet was the famous principle of a dual standard, according to which the British naval forces had to be more than the two military fleets following it together. At the same time, many of the British officers, including those who held high posts, treated submarines as “inevitable evil”. The first inspector of the Royal Navy diving, captain of the 1 rank, Edgar Liis, frankly stated before the war: "The British fleet will never need submarines, but we have to develop them under the pressure of other states." The First Sea Lord (Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy) in 1910 – 1911, Admiral Arthur Wilson called the submarine “mean and damn non-English weapon.”

When building submarines, the British hoped to use them to attack the enemy’s fleet locked in their harbors and ports. The first sea lord Jack Fisher wrote about the blockade by the Japanese fleet of Port Arthur back in 1905: “Reading about the eight attacks of Togo on Port Arthur made me burst out laughing! Why! If he had submarines, one attack would be enough! The entire Russian fleet would have been caught like a rat in a mousetrap and completely destroyed! ”At the same time, the English admirals remained in happy ignorance regarding the technical capabilities of German submarines, believing that they could not act in the oceanic expanses of the Atlantic. In addition, it was believed that the British naval bases due to difficult navigation conditions are not available for the enemy’s submarine fleet.

But many misconceptions went to the high offices of the German Admiralty. The creator of the German fleet, grand-admiral Alfred Tirpitz, pointed out before the war that, thanks to the configuration of the coast and the location of the ports, Germany did not need submarines. It was assumed that the boats would be mainly used only for concealed laying of mines and reconnaissance, as well as for attacks on surface warships of the enemy, which would attempt to carry out a naval blockade of Germany. At the beginning of the war, the Germans believed that the English fleet would try to attack the German ports, and would also support its troops with shelling of the coast. Sinking these ships, including with the help of submarines, the Germans planned to level off the imbalances of forces in the North Sea Basin, where the British had a significant advantage in surface ships of the main classes. And as soon as the British would lose a decisive numerical advantage, the German naval headquarters planned to finish off the enemy in a general battle and seize control of the sea. Thus, the sea war was divided into two stages: preparatory (equalization of forces) and decisive (general battle).

The utopia of this plan was already determined in the first days of the war.

The main strategic goals of the British naval forces were: to ensure the safety of the sea lanes connecting the UK with the world; undermining the economic potential of the enemy by depriving him of the freedom of navigation; ensuring the safe transfer of British troops to the European continent; prevent the invasion of the enemy on the territory of Great Britain, its dominions and colonies. Only one of these goals suggested the implementation of the blockade of the German coast, but even that was not complete. The British did not intend to carry out the near blockade of German ports, putting their ships at great risk. It turned out that in order not to give freedom to the German fleet, the long-range blockade of the coast was enough, in which the British squadrons were in the port, going to sea as soon as intelligence reported on the activity of the Germans. And since the allies already at the very beginning of the war got the German ciphers and codes obtained by the Russian sailors from the German German Magdeburg cruiser stranded, they sometimes learned about the plans of the Germans before the plans reached the commanders of the German squadrons.

Attacking the British navy in the ports was indeed problematic even for submarines. As a result, before the beginning of the first stage of an unlimited submarine war, the Germans practically did not use the potential of the submarine fleet. The hunt for warships in 1914 did not give the Germans outstanding results, the British fleet suffered minor losses. The biggest success was, of course, the sinking of three cruisers by Otto Weddigen in one day, but none of the submariners managed to repeat this success throughout the war.

In the German naval headquarters, even before the war, it was calculated that a complete commercial submarine blockade of Britain would require 200 submarines. However, this figure did not please Admiral Tirpitz, who called concentrating on the construction of submarines instead of dreadnoughts a "frivolous exercise." Therefore, it was decided to abandon the construction of such a number of submarines.

As a result, both the British and the Germans had to develop a strategy and tactics of underwater operations already in the war years.

Submarine ships

Experimental samples of those submarines that would later be used during World War I, appeared at the beginning of the 1900's. A weighty contribution to the development of submarine shipbuilding was made, in particular, by the professor of shipbuilding mechanics from St. Petersburg Ivan Bubnov, who created the world's first submarine equipped with a diesel engine, which significantly increased its speed.

By design, submarines were divided into one-hull, one-and-a-half, and two-hull. The single-body submarine had one strong hull with a superstructure and a light fore end. This type of submarine usually had a small displacement (100 – 250 tons), and could pass in a surface position at a speed of 8 nodes from 500 to 1500 miles, which means these submarines were used mainly near the coast, to patrol the waters around the bases. Even before the start of the war, it became clear that the combat value of such boats was extremely small, so the countries focused on the construction of one-and-a-half boats.

In this type of ships, another one, more lightweight, was built on top of a strong hull. In the lower part of the submarine there was no light hull (therefore, the model was called a one-and-a-half hull). Boats of this type were characterized by an average displacement and were considered vessels for operation in the open sea. However, they were not very well suited for action on enemy shores.

The third type of submarines, double-hulled, had a light hull along the entire circumference of the strong main hull, which ensured better driving performance compared to other types of submarines. Such submarines had a displacement of more than 650 tons and were considered "oceanic". They were intended for military operations on the enemy’s long-distance communications. These submarines began to enter service after the start of the war, beginning with the 1915 year, as they were developed taking into account the experience gained in the first months of the war. On the surface, they could travel up to 10 thousands of miles. The diving range was much shorter: from 30 to 100 miles with an economical turn of 3 – 5 nodes.

The speed of such submarines was on average equal to 12 – 14 nodes (approximately 22 – 26 km / h), although the maximum reached 17 – 18 nodes (approximately 31 – 33 km / h). For movement above water and under water different engines were used. In the surface position, the submarines used internal combustion engines: diesel, kerosene, gasoline. On the English submarines of type "K" installed a steam turbine. For the underwater movement of the boat of all types and designs used an electric motor with batteries.

The depth of submersion on the boats of pre-war construction was 30 meters, but later submarines could descend to a depth of already 50 meters. The dive speed varied (the maximum reached 90 seconds, but during the war emergency diving devices appeared that reduced the dive time to 30 – 60 seconds).

Mine-type submarines used for laying mines were only born on the eve of the war, but during 1914 – 1918, this type of submarine also began to develop rapidly. These were ships of various sizes, from 170 to 1200 tons. Early prewar versions could accommodate up to 12 mines, later ones took on board already before 72. Torpedo armament on minefields was reduced to a minimum (on large ships), or it was generally refused.

Some submarine projects had little to do with reality. For example, the British submarines of type “E” had an unusual arrangement of torpedo tubes — one on board in both directions, only four. As a result, the submarine could shoot in any direction. But to pay for it accounted for the lack of a volley. Due to the poor quality of the British torpedoes, the increased chance of evading a single torpedo, as well as the good protection of German ships, the threat to them from “E” type submarines was minimal.

An interesting project of the British submarines of type "M", which were developed as underwater monitors. According to the creators, their task was the shelling of the German coast, as well as surface attacks of convoys. It is not clear, however, whose convoys, if German shipping was completely paralyzed when the war began. It was supposed to arm these vessels either with two guns with a diameter of 190 mm, or with a single 305 mm. As a result, the project was abandoned as unnecessary.

The Germans initially focused on the construction of medium-range submarines, which, from the very beginning of the war, did not allow them to operate on the sea communications of the Entente countries and seriously impede, for example, the transportation of troops from the British dominion countries to France.


The main weapon of the submarine was torpedo tubes (4 – 8 guns on large submarines, 1 – 2 - on small ones). The years of the First World War were preceded by a long era of experiments in the field of torpedo weapons, which resulted in the use of torpedoes based on the construction of the British Whitehead self-propelled mine developed in 1866 in most fleets. Pre-war torpedoes were driven by a pneumatic engine that operated on compressed air, and could reach speeds up to 43 nodes. Depending on the speed limit, the torpedo could be fired over a distance of 6 kilometers.

Only large seaworthy double-hull boats were equipped with artillery guns before the war.

As already noted, by the beginning of the war, the opponents had almost no means of anti-submarine defense. At the beginning of the war, the submarine could be sunk only by artillery fire or a ram attack. A so-called anti-submarine zigzag was used against submarine attacks, when the ship, going on the high seas, constantly changed course. In addition, in parking lots in the port stretched anti-torpedo networks. This is, in fact, all that could do at the beginning of the war. No special rules were developed for the attack of submarines, or methods for their early detection. It was only because of this that the staggering success of Captain Otto Weddigen, who sank three British cruisers in a row for an hour, became possible.

On September 22, a German U-9 submarine under Weddigen's command discovered an English compound consisting of three cruisers following the 10 hub without an anti-submarine zigzag move: the Abicure, Hog, and Cressi. The first was attacked "Abikur", which hit with a torpedo. The periscope of the enemy submarine was not noticed, so the commander of the "Hoga" decided that the "Abikur" hit a mine. "Hog" approached the deceased fellow, stalled the course and began to lower the lifeboat boats. But at that moment he also got hit by a torpedo, and then Cressy was sunk, which also followed at low speed. As a result, Britain lost three ships and 1459 sailors. Only after that, rules were developed according to which captains were forbidden to approach sinking ships if the presence of enemy submarines was suspected.

Anti-submarine weapons also had to be invented hastily right during the war. The first type of anti-submarine weapons were towed mines, which were in service with Britain, Germany, Italy and France. They were invented back in the nineteenth-century 60 by British officers, the brothers Harvey, who intended to use them to protect against ram attacks. Mina of this particular design, the first submarine "Hanley" sank "Husatonic". But the effectiveness of a single mine was very low, so the British fleet invented an improvement - a special anti-submarine trawl with four mines was created, which the patrol ship dragged along under water. There was a special device that allowed to regulate the depth at which the charges followed. Girth width was 150 – 180 meters. It is impossible, however, to say that this weapon had increased efficiency, since during the war years only four submarines were killed by such a device.

The depth charges were shown to be much more effective in the fight against submarines; the first experimental samples of which were created by the British at the end of 1914. But they began to enter service in small batches of 100 units per month only in 1915 year. Only by 1917, with the growing threat from German submarines, bomb production began to increase and by the end of the year reached 4 thousands of copies.

Maritime Law and the German Admiralty

The first combat mission received by submarines since the beginning of the war was the 1 operation of the German submarine flotilla. 10 submarines were ordered to go 300 nautical miles to the Orkney Islands (north of Scotland, where the main base of the British Navy Scapa Flow was located), sinking all military ships that would be met, and then return to the base on Helgoland Island (north from Wilhelmshaven). The purpose of the campaign, which began on August 6, was primarily to test the capabilities of submarines, as well as to conduct reconnaissance. According to the results of the operation, one submarine went missing, another was sunk by British watchdogs (rammed), the rest reached the target and returned to the base.

From this campaign both belligerents made important conclusions. The Germans realized that in order to conduct long-term operations in the North Sea, they needed more powerful submarines capable of long-term autonomous navigation, which they immediately began to create and manufacture. For the British, the appearance of enemy submarines in such a remote area was a complete surprise. Fearing their attacks, the British Admiralty found the fleet base at Scapa Flau unsafe, it was decided to temporarily move the fleet base to Lough Yu on the west coast of Scotland.

During the first months of the war, the tasks of the submarines of both fleets were the same — reconnaissance, patrolling, search for the enemy, hidden production of mines. However, in four months the results of such activities were minimal. We began to say about cruisers sunk by Weddigen that it was not a pattern, but good luck, so the German command began to think about the attacks on the British Atlantic sea trade routes by the British, especially since the raiders assigned to this cause had already been destroyed. However, there were a number of obstacles, including in the legal field.

In May, 1899, at the Hague Conference, Russia attempted to ban the creation of underwater weapons as potentially dangerous for the civilian merchant fleet, but, ironically, this proposal did not pass through the efforts of the British delegation. The British did not know then that just in 15 years the enemy submarines would be a tremendous threat to them. But at the Hague Conferences 1899 and 1907, the basic rules, laws and customs of waging war, both land, air and sea, were established.

According to these rules, it was impossible to sink or detain a neutral ship if there was no military smuggling on it. If smuggling was found, it was necessary to ensure the safety of the crew of the vessel, disembarking it on rescue ships, and only after that it was allowed to sink the ship.

After the first trips to the coast of England, when it became clear that the capabilities of submarines are much higher than anticipated, the discussion of the use of submarines against merchant ships began in Germany. Most of the Admiralty, led by Tirpitz, chief of the naval headquarters von Pohl and commander of the submarine fleet Bauer, advocated circumventing some of the restrictions imposed at the Hague conferences. They pointed out that restrictions on the methods and means of warfare against merchant ships are only valid for surface ships, and on a submarine there is a very small crew that cannot search the ship, check the cargo, and most importantly, as soon as the submarine emerges, it can itself become a target for an attack, even a merchant ship that can try to ram it. In addition, the trader, taking advantage of the speed, is fully capable of trying to escape. Therefore, supporters of unrestricted submarine war advocated allowing the German captains to sink trade without checking the cargo, in case the “trader” renders disobedience.

Their opponents were primarily politicians headed by Chancellor Betman-Golvegom, as well as the highest ranks of the army. They believed that the risk of involving third powers on the side of the Entente as a result of an unrestricted submarine war was too high and not worth the advantages that such tactics gave. Kaiser Wilhelm II leaned in one direction or the other. Its final decision was affected by the situation on the land fronts. By the beginning of 1915, it became clear that the war had dragged on indefinitely. Much has become dependent on the economy and production: whether the powers can smoothly supply their armies with everything they need, from ammunition and weapons to food. Theories of the German submariners, who promised to deprive Britain of maritime trade and defeat the enemy with the forces of a single submarine fleet, ceased to seem fantastic after the first successes of submarines. And the German command decided to "take the risk."

As a result, the final decision on the beginning of the first stage of an unlimited underwater war was made on February 2 1915 at a government meeting, and on February 4 it was approved by the Kaiser. Thus began the "golden era" of German submariners.

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  1. toad
    toad 26 May 2015 10: 49
    The Germans failed to do a very good deed, to destroy England as a state is a pity, if they destroyed from them in the next world they would have written off a third of sins.
    1. KakoVedi
      KakoVedi 26 May 2015 12: 33
      Why is the United Kingdom not loved ?! Country as a country ...
      1. kolobok63
        kolobok63 26 May 2015 14: 03
        Country as a country, but the leaders of obscurantism! hi
        1. KakoVedi
          KakoVedi 26 May 2015 16: 39
          Uh-uh ... So this is the job! One would think that there were solid humanists in the USA or Germany ?! And then what is the question? Destroyed - not destroyed ... Divination on a daisy! In war - this is the right way to fly.
        2. voyaka uh
          voyaka uh 26 May 2015 17: 28
          Not so obscurantists ...
          Even the princes in England do not sit out in the rear, but fight in the heat.
          All would have the leaders of countries so! fellow
          Prince Harry has been to Afghanistan twice: as a combat helicopter pilot
          and as a special forces officer in jeeps. The Taliban knew about this and especially for
          they hunted him. A reward was awarded for his head.
          1. KakoVedi
            KakoVedi 26 May 2015 23: 48
            The security service got drunk when the prince of the Terminator drove home ... Finally!