British Submarines in Two World Wars

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

Defense expert Norman Friedman is one of America’s most prominent naval analysts, and the author of more than thirty books covering a range of naval subjects, especially American and British vessels (battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates, and submarines) from the Victorian era through two World Wars, and the Cold War, as well as manned and unmanned combat systems such as anti-aircraft guns and gunnery through contemporary net-centric warfare, and even Afghan terrorism. Almost twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to review his Seapower and Space: From the Dawn of the Missile Age to Net-Centric Warfare (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), H-NET REVIEWS/H-DIPLO (Diplomatic History and International Affairs), an electronic book review, 10 pp. Published on 15 February 2001. networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/30163/kolb-friedman-seapower-and-space-dawn-missile-age-net-centric-warfare. He has not lost his ability to summarize, in clear prose, the ability to deal with complex materials and prepare informative and stimulating accounts of his subjects.

There are approximately 2,900 books and monographs about British submarines listed in Worldcat comprising the period from their early days to the present; most of these focus on the  two World Wars, especially 1939-1945: www.worldcat.org/search?qt=worldcat_org_all&q=British+Submarines  Only a few volumes cover both the First and Second World Wars and many of these entirely neglect or provide a perfunctory treatments of the important inter-war years. Internet resources, of course, provide chronological lists of attacks and sinkings, such as Campaign Summaries of World War 2: British Submarines at War, Two Parts, 1939-42 and 1943-45, www.naval-history.net/WW2CampaignsBritishSubs.htm, without linking commentaries and contexts.  Among other published works are those by the Naval Institute Press: Erminio Bagnasco  Submarines of World War Two (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977). 

British Submarines in Two World Wars is available in three formats: hardback, Kindle, and ePub. My review is based on the hardback edition, weight 4.85 lb., appropriately printed with a well-sewn binding, and 12-point typeface — it is certainly more than a “coffee table” book and, indeed, a primary, scholarly reference work. The book is divided into 16 chapters (generally chronological), three technical appendices, 43 pages with 759 scholarly endnotes, augmented by 305 monochrome images and 94 specially commissioned line drawings of the highest detail, and a section of eight color plates (inserted between pp. 256-257). A massive “Bibliography,” sections on “Submarine Data” and “Submarine List, and a comprehensive six-page “Index” complete the book. The “Bibliography is divided into “Primary Sources” which includes 186 entries from the British Admiralty, in addition to technical histories, staff histories, PRO files, citations to materials in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Covers Consulted, and US National Archives including ONI files. “Secondary Sources” lists 35 books and six articles. Friedman provides exhaustive details of all submarine classes 1901-1945 and anticipates that this book is the first of two volumes on this topic; the second is to cover British submarines beyond 1945. The chapter titles and my brief summary of their contents follows.

“Chapter 1: The Royal Navy and the Submarine 1901-1945.” The Royal Navy acquired plans of the CNS Hunley and devised improvements to the French-developed pressurized hull leading to the construction of coastal defense vessels beginning in 1903. By 1914, the RN was the leading submarine builder (Vickers was the only private builder) and had the largest fleet in the world with extremely innovative anti-submarine vessels. The Admiralty submarine staff was quite small but reorganized in 1917 and thereafter led by a flag officer. ‘U’ Class vessels were initially conceived for training but proved ideal for the Mediterranean service (Gibraltar and Malts), and submarines performed reconnaissance in the Far East (Hong Kong) in the 1920s. “Chapter 2: Making Submarines Work.” The Dutch had solved dynamic control issues by devising hydroplanes rather than using ballast. Propulsion using electric storage batteries proved preferable to attempts at using gasoline engines, but diesel piston engines would ultimately prevail. Among other issues were solving engine vibration problems, revising hull structures and tankage, and developing double-hulled vessels, trim tanks, and stern tubes.  

“Chapter 3: Beginnings.” In 1900 there were only two submarines: the French Gustav Zedé and the US Holland; five examples of the latter boat were acquired by the British. Vickers licensing from American Electric Boat Company expired in 1911 but they continued to have a monopoly on submarine patents and manufacture but by then the British had developed ‘A’,’B;’, and ‘C’ Classes with variations to coning towers, bridges, superstructures, cigar-shaped hulls, and hydroplanes. A new generation of pressurized hulls in ‘D’ Class increased displacement, and advanced deck guns (12 pdr.) and torpedoes. “Chapter 4: Overseas Submarines.” The loss of two Australian ‘E’ Class vessels, AE 1 and AE 2 (one lost at sea and the second in the Dardanelles), are reviewed and design modifications of periscopes detailed. British, French, Italian, and German submarines are, likewise, documented. “Chapter 5: Experimental Coastal Submarines.” Vickers ‘E’ Class vessels are compared to Italian FIAT, German MAN, and other craft (notably Scotts’ and Armstrong’s) and Vickers V 1 through V 4 coastal defense vessels are, likewise, detailed (with a comment by First Sea Lord Winston Churchill). Double-hulled ‘G’ Class submarines for overseas deployment had also been developed by 1914.

“Chapter 6: The Ocean Submarine.” The 29 February 1912 Admiralty conference of submarine officers resulted in a division of vessels into coastal and overseas types; on 8 May, six potential builders were invited to review plans for the construction of ocean-going craft. ‘J’ and “K’ Classes were developed with a priority to operate along the German coasts. The “K” craft were unusual as they were steam powered and ultimately scrapped by 1924. “Chapter 7: Submarine and Anti-submarine: The Run-up to War.” By 1903, the Royal Navy had purchased submarines to learn how to neutralize other vessels (e.g. anti-submarine warfare) especially to learn maneuvering, torpedo attacks using periscopes, learning how to dive under ships, and flotilla organization. The latter had roles for blockading, attacking enemy squadrons, patrol, and detection of enemies. 

“Chapter 8: The First Submarine War.” The Royal Navy submarine service” Grew enormously” during the First World War (1914-1918), with 62 submarines, 168 officers, and 1,250 enlisted men serving in nine flotillas which served in the North Sea, Baltic, and the Mediterranean (primarily the Dardanelles Campaign). The submarine Classes had separate missions; Friedman divides the actions into three parts: 1) home waters and actions at the Heligoland Bight (‘E,’ ‘J,’ and ‘K’ Classes) and Baltic (‘C’ and ‘E’ Classes); 2) the German High Seas Fleet versus the Grand Fleet leading to the Battle of Jutland; and 3) the Mediterranean (‘E’ and ‘H’ Classes).  Germany had anticipated the British plan of action at Jutland and the engagement technically ended in a “draw,” although Admiral Jellico would be replaced by Admiral Beatty.  Anti-submarine warfare led to the installations of newer weapons for the ‘J’ and ‘L’ Classes (4-inch guns), and developments in communication (S/T telegraphy), fire control, periscopes, torpedoes, depth charges, and mortars. “Chapter 9: War Construction.” British submarines were constructed in both the UK and Canada; a variety of Classes (‘E,’ ‘H,’ ‘J,’ ‘K,’ and ‘L’ [an elongated ‘E’]) were built while plans for ‘M’ and ‘R’ Classes were developed in 1915 by the Submarine Design Committee. Two ‘M’ Class vessels were converted to a seaplane carrier and minelayer, respectively, while the ‘R’ Class was an anti-submarine warfare craft. “Chapter 10: War Experience and New Technology.” In 1919, the Post-War Questions Committee recommended five types of submarines including submarine minelayers, and long-range “cruiser” submarines (speedy with heavy guns). Improved torpedo firing gear, fuel-injection closed-cycle exhaust engines to mitigate smoke issues, range-finding equipment, and development of anti-ASDIC measures are documented. Construction of the X-1 submarine (the largest in the world in 1920) was authorized, and the limitations established by the 1930 London Naval Treaty are reviewed.   

“Chapter 11: A New Submarine for a New Kind of War.” The Post-War Fleet Ten Year Rule, and the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 are assessed. Plans for “War in the East” were also developed which included a blockade of Japan. The need for 80 new submarines (in eight Classes ‘E’ through ’R’) were projected and a prototype patrol submarine, Oberon Class, planned.  However, political change in the UK (the Labour Party lost the election and Neville Chamberlain attained power) altered plans. Nonetheless, new classes of submarines were planned during the 1930s: Odin, Otway, Parthian, Perseus, Rainbow, and Regulus. A patrol submarine with a Peto seaplane was developed using a converted ‘M’ Class vessel. “Chapter 12: Fleet Submarines and Minelayers.” The British faced financial strains beginning with the economic depression in 1928 so that the submarine program was being reconsidered well before the London Naval Treaty expired in December 1936. The construction of fleet submarines was reduced and the concept of battle submarines versus fleet subs resulted in some repurposing of ‘E’ and ‘M’ Class craft.  Planning did continue with new Classes being developed, notably minelayers Clyde, Thames, and Severn. “Chapter 13: Arms Control.” The effects of the 1921 Washington Naval Conference, 1927 Geneva Conference to extend  limits to smaller warships, London Naval Treaty of 1930, and League of Nations Disarmament Conference are evaluated. Friedman also compares British versus German craft: ‘S’ Class vs. VII U-boat.  By August 1941, the Royal Navy had captured U-590, renamed the HMS Graph, learning a great deal about their adversary. “Chapter 14: Rearmament.” The Royal Navy ‘P’ Class replaced the ‘G’ Class and ‘T’ Class replaced the ‘H’ Class; in both cases there were improvements in armaments, engines, periscopes, and ASDIC. By 1939 the Ursula Class patrol and minelaying submarine had been developed, and, notably, plans devised for both Far Eastern and European Wars.   

“Chapter 15: The Second World War.” This lengthy, detailed chapter includes many plans and drawings and concentrates on aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic although British submarines participated in “every theater of the war.” One notable issue early in the was a torpedo “famine” and the problem of warheads exploded prematurely or not at all – this would result in replacing TNT warheads with Torpex. In 1931 a Submarine Torpedo Director (STD) had been developed and in 1942 a US Torpedo Data Computer (TDC). Wartime modifications included  new guns, ventilation, and distillers, as well as both sound and shock proofing. Initially the Royal Navy valued submarines for reconnaissance duty as they had in the First World War, but Royal Air Force aerial reconnaissance was proven more valuable, particularly in the Mediterranean as Italy entered the war and attacked British convoys. The First and Second Battles of the Convoys (1941-1942) are recounted as are U-boat attacks in the Mediterranean. The pros and cons of US and British submarines are reviewed as are radio, radar, and ASDIC.  British torpedoes were generally characterized as “very good”  and British surface night attacks were especially successful. War Programs (1940, 1941, and 1942-1943),the construction of ‘T,” ‘S,’ ‘U,’ and ‘A’ Classes, and Dutch work on developing the snorkel are also reviewed. “Chapter 16” A Glimpse of the Future.” Friedman provides and assessment of German and British submarines during the war and recounts the British interrogation of German Kriegmarine POWs and code breaking as well as HTO submarines (underwater torpedo boats) and the post-war value of captured German submarines to both the UK and US.  U-boat Types XXI and XXIII are evaluated in terms of sonar and speed and dive capabilities. Lastly, 1944-1945 programs to develop experimental models are noted.  Three appendices  provide data on key topics: “Appendix A: Radio (W/T) and Submarines”; “Appendix B: Midget Submarines”; and “Appendix C: Export Submarines.”

Although we are reminded several times “that the Royal Navy did not invent the submarine,” the reader will learn that Friedman’s newest book demonstrates how innovative the British were in their submarine design. Royal Navy submarines performed well in combat in both world wars, and often in unheralded ways. By 1914, Britain had the largest submarine fleet in the world and by the end of World War I some of the largest and most unusual of all submarines. The characteristics, design, and production data are documented in this incredibly detailed and well-illustrated book. Hence, British Submarines in Two World Wars provides the reader with a comprehensive, detailed report from 1901 through 1945 in a 432-page compendium that is both a chronological history and reference work on British submarines that is innovative, remarkable in scope, and an encyclopedic tome that is a definitive benchmark setting a standard of documentation for decades to come. 

In the absence of  Friedman’s second volume, readers may be interested in a monograph written by John F. Schank, Frank W. LeCroix, Robert E. Murphy, Cesse Cameron Ip, Mark V. Aren, and Gordon T. Lee, Learning from Experience, Volume III: Lessons from the United Kingdom’s Astute Submarine Program. Santa Monica, Arlington, and Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation, National Defense Institute (2011),  www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1128z3.html, which covers the history of British submarine production and commissioning from 1958 to 2000. During this era, large, complex submarine design and construction programs demanded personnel with unique skills and capabilities supplemented with practical experiences in their areas of expertise. Recognizing the importance of past experiences for successful program management, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) requested that the RAND Corporation develop a set of lessons learned from its Astute submarine program that could help inform future program managers. RAND reviewed the history of UK nuclear submarines, investigated how operational requirements were set for the Astute class; explored the acquisition, contracting, design, and build processes that the Astute program employed; and assessed the plans and activities surrounding integrated logistics support for the Astute. The impact of the substantial time gap between the design and build of the Astute and its predecessor nuclear submarines was greatly underestimated by the private sector and the MOD, and both parties underestimated the impact of the MOD’s decision to shift responsibilities to the private sector. The report noted that designing and building a submarine requires careful management and oversight and a delegation of roles and responsibilities that recognizes which party — the shipbuilder or the government — is best positioned to manage risks.


Norman Friedman, British Submarines in Two World Wars. Seaforth Publishing, South Yorkshire: 2019.

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

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