Submarines are generally accepted to be craft capable of independent operation underwater. The term usually refers to large crewed autonomous vessels but can also encompass smaller vessels such as midget submarines, wet subs, remotely operated vehicles or robots. Traditionally submarines are referred to as ‘boats’ rather than ships no matter what their size.
The following paragraphs are by no means comprehensive, rather they give a flavour of some of the more interesting early submarine developments.
Whilst consensus is difficult to find, the majority of people would accept that the first military submarine was the ’Turtle’ which carried a single person and was built in 1775 by the American David Bushnell. The ‘Turtle’ was so named due to its shape, which resembled a turtle on edge. It is said to have measured about 10 feet (3.0 m) long, 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, and 3 feet (0.9 m) wide. Built of wooden shells, reinforced with steel straps and waterproofed with tar the boat had a bilge tank that, when flooded, allowed the vessel to dive. Emptying the tank using a hand pump forced it to rise. In an emergency a 200 pounds (91 kg) ballast weight could be jettisoned thrusting it swiftly to the surface. Propulsion in both the horizontal and vertical planes was accomplished by hand cranked screws. It contained enough air for about thirty minutes of operation and had a top speed, in calm waters, of around three miles per hour (5 km/h). The aim of this small wooden craft was to attach an explosive charge to the hull of a ship. It was used during the American Revolutionary War, where the operator, Sgt. Ezra Lee of the Continental Army tried, but failed, to sink the British warship HMS Eagle, in New York harbour on September 7, 1776.
In 1854 a German, Wilhelm Bauer, built the Seeteufel (‘Sea Devil’) for the Russian Navy in St. Petersburg. Little is known about this submarine however it is said to have been some 50 feet long with iron walls 1/2” thick and had some 21 windows. It had large cylinders to hold water as diving ballast and was designed for a crew of 12-15. It was powered beneath the water by crewmen walking on a tread wheel. In addition, Bauer provided the Sea Devil with a newly invented rescue device: the airlock, by which divers could leave and enter the submerged vessel. The Sea Devil made 133 successful diving excursions within four months. But during the 134th dive in 1856, the submarine got stuck on the sea floor. By emptying the ballast tanks with the pumps, the crew managed to raise the submarine high enough so that the hatchway was above the waterline. The whole crew (including Bauer) was saved, but unfortunately, the submarine sank back to the bottom of the sea. This submarine was never used operationally.
In 1863 a Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley (also known as the "fish torpedo boat") was built. Twelve 12 m long it was, yet again, hand cranked this time by 7-8 men. It was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship. Constructed by James McClintock, Baxter Watson, and Horace L. Hunley, it was used in the American Civil War. The first attack in 1864 was successful, sinking the USS Housatonion Union which was on blockade duty in Charleston's outer harbour. Soon after, Hunley sank, killing all eight of her crew. This time, the innovative ship was lost but relocated in 1995. The Hunley was recovered in 2000 and is now on display in Charleston.
The Resurgam II (unfortunate name in Latin: "I shall rise again"), was the name given to a Victorian submarine built in 1879. This was one of the first functional steam-driven British submarines, designed by the Reverend George William Garrett it was built by Cohran & Co. at Birkenhead. It was constructed with an iron frame to which iron plates were attached. The submarine was was 45 feet (14 m) long by 10 feet (3.0 m) in diameter, weighed 30 long tons (30 t), and had a crew of 3. The central portion of the submarine was clad in wood and was designed to be positively buoyant (it should have floated), diving would have been accomplished by means of a pair of hydroplanes mounted amidships. The engine was capable of providing enough steam to turn its single propeller for up to 4 hours.
The Resurgam successfully completed her sea trials in the East Float at Wallasey but following mechanical repairs in Rhyl sunk in Liverpool Bay whilst under tow by the steam yacht Elphin on 25 February 1880. The submarine was rediscovered in 1995 and on the 4 July 1996 was designated protected wreck number 42 under the Protection of Wrecks Act. Divers recently placed zinc corrosion inhibitors on the wreck in an attempt to slow its degradation. Plans to raise the wreck have so far been unsuccessful.
The first of the British submarines directly commissioned by the Royal Navy was the Holland 1. This was one of a batch of six that were built in secret by John Holland in 1901 at Barrow-in-Furness. Launched on 2nd October 1901 she dived for the first time on 20th March 1902. Sea trials for the batch were carried out cautiously but the submarine flotilla commander Captain Bacon is quoted as saying:-
“....Even these little boats would be a terror to any ship attempting to remain or pass near a harbour holding them.....".
The submarine was some 20 metres long with a beam of 3.5 metres weighing 105 long tons when submerged. She had a 160 horsepower petrol engine for use on the surface and a 70 horsepower electric motor for use underwater. Maximum speed would have been in the order of 7 knots when submerged with a range of 20 nautical miles when travelling at maximum speed underwater. It had a crew of 8, could travel to a depth of 30 metres and had a single torpedo tube for which it could carry 3 torpedoes.
On 24th October 1904 the Holland 1 along with several other Holland and A-Class boats was dispatched to attack a Russian fleet but was recalled before nay engagement took place.
The Holland 1 was considered obsolete by 1913 and sold for £410. It sunk under tow close to the Eddystone lighthouse. In 1982 she was raised and can now be seen in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport (UK).