A Brief History
On November 14, 1941, British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal sunk after being torpedoed by a German U-boat (submarine) the day before. The Aircraft carrier would replace the battleship as the capital ship of each fleet during World War II, but the little submarine, with a crew of only a few dozen compared to the 1500-2500 men on a battleship or aircraft carrier could sink either of those monstrous and monstrously expensive ships.
When we think of World War II submarine warfare, we usually think in terms of German U-boats sweeping the Atlantic clear of Allied merchant ships, and in turn being chased by Allied destroyers and maritime patrol craft. While it is true that German U-boats sank far more enemy ships than any other submarine fleet, other Allied and Axis fleets boasted their share of submarines and their share of success.
Germany started the War with a paltry 24 deployable subs out of 56 commissioned U-boats. The tremendous damage wrought by these ships makes one tend to wonder what would have happened if Germany had concentrated on building and deploying an enormous fleet of U-boats right from the start of the war. It is entirely conceivable that Britain could have been successfully blockaded into surrendering. Hitler and his henchmen instead wasted material and money building giant battleships and impractical gigantic cannon instead, and started the massive U-boat building program too late. Of the 1256 (please note statistics vary with source about numbers of subs, tonnage sunk, etc) U-boats built, about 783 were lost in action, costing about 70% of the lives of sub-mariners in the German Navy (30,000 dead). Still, these U-boats sunk about 3500 Allied merchant ships, 175 Allied warships, killed 72,000 Allied seamen and 741 Allied planes were lost on anti-submarine operations.
The United States Navy had another remarkably effective fleet of submarines, about 288 serving during World War II. Of those, 52 were lost along with over 4000 men, but those subs sank 1178 Japanese merchant ships and 214 Japanese warships, about 5.3 million tons of shipping. By late 1944 our subs had virtually shut off Japan by sea, with a tight blockade of the islands. For an investment of only 1.6% of the USN, the sub fleet sank 55% of all Japanese tonnage! About 16% of American submarine officers died during the war, and about 13% of all enlisted submariners, a shocking percentage compared to other American military arms.
Our Allies, the British Royal Navy, fielded a submarine fleet of 131 boats by the end of the war, and sank around 1.52 million tons of Axis shipping. British subs were also often in conflict with German U-boats and some served in the Pacific.
The USSR started the war with a surprisingly large submarine fleet of about 288 boats, with another 91 being built. Over 100 of those subs were lost, but they sank about 160 Axis vessels of 402,000 tons.
The Italian Navy had a sizable sub fleet, but it was mostly of the least effective type of boats. They did, however, achieve notable success with the use of mini-sub manned torpedoes, especially at Alexandria in 1941 where they disabled 2 British battleships and damaged a destroyer and a tanker.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had a submarine fleet of unparalleled diversity, with manned torpedoes, midget subs, and giant aircraft carrying submarines. With a fleet of about 195 subs, the Japanese had orders to prioritize attacking Allied warships instead of cargo ships, an enormous strategic blunder. For the reward of sinking about a million tons of Allied ships, 127 Japanese submarines were lost. The Japanese also used submarines as stealthy re-supply ships for isolated island posts and even shelled the US mainland from a sub. Most remarkable, was the launch of an airplane from a Japanese submarine that bombed the mainland US twice, the only incidents of the US being bombed. The small float plane used dropped 2 X 170 pound incendiary bombs on Oregon in an attempt to start a massive forest fire. Wet conditions prevented the hoped for fire, and in the second attack the bombs may not have exploded.
Submarines during World War II did much more than just sink enemy ships. They performed valuable reconnaissance, transported special operation commandos, saved downed airmen, carried high value cargo and evacuated important personnel. Large subs often transported small subs and manned torpedoes within range of those smaller craft. Submariners performed perhaps the most dangerous duty of the war, and casualty figures bear this out. Almost always a volunteer force, the bravery of these men must have been to the extreme. Even when not attacked by enemy ships and planes, life in a submarine is dangerous just from natural elements, especially back then when escape systems and computer navigation was not well developed.
Today’s submarine fleets are still of critical importance to any navy in which they serve, either to protect the coast of a country, attack enemy vessels, launch nuclear missiles or any of the myriad duties planners can dream up for them. Our hats are off to the brave men manning submarines around the world, and nowadays, the brave women of submarines as well!
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been on a submarine? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Charles River Editors. The Naval Warfare of World War II: The History of the Ships, Tactics, and Battles that Shaped the Fighting in the Atlantic and Pacific. Charles River Editors, 2015.