Above us the Waves

They were terribly uncomfortable, highly dangerous (primarily for the crew) and not very effective. In 1864 - during the American Civil War - the Confederate submersible H.L. Hunley sent the Union sloop USS Housatonic to the bottom of Charleston Harbour. However, shortly afterwards, the Hunley followed suit and sank with the loss of her entire 8-man crew. Not surprisingly, this incident did little to encourage anything more than an idle interest in submarines for nearly fifty years.

'It's simply not cricket!

In fact, submarines were not only considered ineffectual, they were regarded by many top brass as jolly unsporting. In 1901 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson went further, describing them as 'underhand, unfair and damned un-English'. He proposed that all submarines be treated as pirate vessels in wartime... and their crews hanged, no doubt from the yardarm (had submarines been equipped with them). Then on the 5th September 1914 HMS Pathfinder was sunk by a torpedo fired on the orders of Oblt. Otto Hersing commanding the German submarine U-21. The 'Hun' obviously didn't share Sir Arthur's opinion - the U-boat menace had arrived.

Fly the skull 'n' crossbones

Now the gloves were off and the Royal Navy's revenge came just eight days later. LtCdr. Max Horton, patrolling in a British E-Class submarine sighted the German cruiser SMS Hela and fired two torpedoes from a range of 600 yards. The next time Horton looked through his periscope the Hela had vanished beneath the waves. Hoisting the Jolly Roger (once a pirate, always a pirate), the crew celebrated the first of many 'kills' by E-Class vessels - soon to be established as the submarine workhorses of the First World War.

The 'Kalamitous' K-Class

Which is more than could be said of the K-Class boats (to this day submarines are usually called 'boats', not 'ships'). Known unaffectionately as the Kalamity-Class, out of the 18 built, 6 sank in accidents and only one ever engaged an enemy vessel. It fired on a German U-boat... but its torpedo failed to explode. The problem was that in order to keep up with a surface convoy, the K-Class had to run on steam. But when they manoeuvred, seawater poured down the funnels and flooded the boilers. And it got worse. If water reached the batteries the chemical reaction produced clouds of chlorine gas. As if that wasn't enough, K-Class boats had another design flaw. They were 339ft long but could only dive to a depth of 200ft. So, if they descended at a 30° angle, the prow would reach maximum depth while the stern was still sticking out of the water. Ah well, back to the drawing board...

No more Mr Nice Guy

For a while the submarine's potential as a covert weapon was restricted by the Prize Laws. These were naval codes - common since the 19th century - which stipulated that merchant vessels could not be attacked without warning. Breaking the 'Laws' was at first considered to be a war crime, but the brutalising effect of combat, together with an increasing sense of desperation (on both sides) meant they were quickly ignored, and eventually abandoned. The result: an escalation in the war's ferocity, the sinking of the Lusitania and consequently the USA entering the conflict in 1917.

Harnessing (and unleashing) the power of the atom

Between the wars, various navies experimented with submarine cruisers, submarines armed with battleship calibre guns and even submarines capable of carrying small reconnaissance aircraft. However, these ideas met with limited success. During the Second World War, submarines still relied on the diesel-electric engines – with improvements and refinements - of their 1914-18 predecessors. But a major change was coming, and in 1954 it arrived with the USS Nautilus - the first nuclear-powered submarine.

Around the world, beneath the waves

And nuclear power was far more than just another energy source. Whereas diesel-electric submarines needed to surface and refuel at frequent intervals, these new vessels could generate their own air and water for extended periods. So the necessity to surface was radically reduced. This was demonstrated in 1960 when the USS Triton completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the world.

'Speak softly and carry a big stick'

More recently, the Royal Navy's submarine fleet has been divided into two distinct types of craft. There is a small fleet of fast-attack, hunter killers which is armed with conventional cruise missiles - and four nuclear-armed boats. The latter - called ballistic submarines or 'bombers' - are, at 180m long, almost twice the size of the hunter killers. A 'bomber' is always on patrol somewhere in the world - its location top secret - ready to unleash Trident missiles in the event of Armageddon. Of course, the Defence Chiefs argue that having these 'End of Days' weapons has avoided a world war for over 60 years, and for lesser conflicts, the Royal Navy has its hunter killer fleet. Like the 'bombers', these boats rely on stealth (the hull is covered with sonar-absorbing tiles) but unlike the 'bombers', their missiles have been fired in recent conflicts. For this reason, they are used not only to support the surface fleet, but also in counter-piracy, anti-terrorism and narcotics operations.

Onwards and downwards...

Which is why the 'special forces of the maritime world', and the submarines they man, will continue to run silent, run deep for the foreseeable future. Mind you, the sardines are still laughing...