Probably the most successful British submarine design of World War I was the E-class. It is the type of boat most imagine when they think of British submarines from the First World War and it no doubt helps that all three of the most famous British submarine commanders of the Great War skippered E-class boats. They were small but sturdy and meant business with, unusually, bow, stern and beam torpedo tubes. A deck gun, originally lacking, was added in the course of the war. These, as with most British submarines tended to operate in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Long-range offensive submarine operations were always going to be rather limited for the British since their boats tended to be limited to coastal range and in areas such as the North Atlantic they had few potential targets since the domination of the Royal Navy surface fleet tended to sink or keep in port most German merchant ships and, because of the German submarine campaign, there was always the danger of “friendly fire”. The terrible toll taken by German u-boats meant that when any British warship spotted a submarine, they tended to shoot first and ask questions later.
|Centenary RN submarine flags|
However, the success of the German u-boats soon proved to even the most conservative British admirals that submarines were a weapon they had to take seriously and so King George V was to send his own out to do battle for King and Country. There were certain places were only submarines were able to operate effectively, areas which only they could reach and it was the British in the First World War who found out what naval experts today still know to be true; the best weapon to use against a submarine is another submarine. Three German u-boats were sunk by obsolete British C-class submarines, D-class subs sank two u-boats, the E-class sank five and British mine laying submarines accounted for a large number of destroyed German u-boats as mines took the heaviest toll of all on the Kaiser’s underwater fleet. The three primary area of operations for British submarines was the North Sea and waters adjacent to the British Isles, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The North Sea would see the least success for, not only was it dangerous due to the threat of the German fleet and the presence of German submarines but also, because of this, was an area in which British ships could be just as dangerous to British submarines.
|Sir Max Horton in 1940|
In the Baltic, Horton and Laurence raised havoc on German shipping. Sometimes they operated together, other times independently and the Russian port of Lapvik served as their home base. Horton proved that a submarine could operate even in the frigid conditions of January as long as one did not dally too long on the surface. Laurence, in E-1, attacked and badly damaged the German battle cruiser Moltke in the Gulf of Riga, forcing the Germans to cancel their plans for a landing there. Czar Nicholas II hailed Laurence as the “Savior of Riga” and decorated him with the St George Cross. Horton, in E-9, also sank a number of German transports, minelayers, escorts and damaged the cruiser Prinz Adalbert. He too was awarded the St George Cross by the Russian Czar and took such a heavy toll on German shipping in the area that the Germans began referring to the Baltic as “Horton’s Sea”. Their success proved to the British high command that their submarines could accomplish great things and soon more were sent in, some directly and some by being broken up and sent by rail overland from Archangel. This was an area that British surface warships could not penetrate but British submarines could and soon crippled German shipping in the area and fouled up their land operations on the coast as well.
|LtComm Francis Cromie|
In the Mediterranean Sea, British submarines were dispatched to once again go where no surface warship could: the Dardanelles. Based on the island of Mudros, the original British force consisted of only six Allied submarines, three of which were the pre-war, British B-class boats which were largely obsolete. However, in the hands of a talented British captain, even these boats proved capable of success and, luckily for Britain, just such a captain was tasked with making the first foray into Turkish waters, Lt. Comm. Norman Holbrook of HMS B-11. On December 13, 1914 Holbrook and his men went in, but pushing against the strong currents made progress slow and maneuvering a struggle. Nonetheless, Holbrook was able to sight a target and with one well placed torpedo the outdated B-11 sent the Turkish cruiser Messudieh to the bottom. Holbrook managed to escape though it was a nerve-shattering experience and by the time he was able to get clear and surface his batteries were totally exhausted and the engines so totally deprived of oxygen that it took thirty minutes before they could be restarted. For this stunning victory, Holbrook became the first British submariner to earn the Victoria Cross.
All told, the British submarine campaign in Turkish waters had been a resounding success thanks to the skill of the Royal Navy officers and sailors. By the time it was over, they had basically wiped out the Turkish navy by 1916 and sunk about half of the entire Turkish merchant marine as well. Efforts to use submarines in conjunction with the surface fleet proved unsuccessful, epitomized by the fate of the big K-class boats, and in the later stages of the war emphasis shifted to countering the u-boat menace. In this, again, the British submarines proved highly successful, sometimes hunting on their own and, at other times, in conjunction with a surface ship. Up until 1917 only five German u-boats were lost to British submarines but from then until 1918 the British boats managed to sink thirteen of the underwater raiders. All in all, British submarines accounted for 10% of all German submarine losses, more than were sunk by aircraft or the infamous Q-ships.