A Brief History
On March 4, 1970, the French submarine, Eurydice, apparently blew up violently while underwater off the coast of Cape Camarat in the Mediterranean Sea. As you can imagine, all 57 hands were lost. When the boat (submarines are called “boats” instead of ships, regardless of their size) was discovered several weeks later, only pieces were found spread over a large area. No cause of the explosion was ever determined, a not uncommon fate of submarines and the sailors that operate them. Today we will touch on several incidents that should give anyone contemplating a life as a submariner serious pause.
One of the first submarines to actually see combat, the CSS Hunley, was operated by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. This unlucky vessel actually sank twice before its single successful combat mission in which it became the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat on February 17, 1864, when it sank the US Navy ship, the USS Housatonic at Charleston Harbor. Unfortunately for the Hunley and her crew, the sub was also lost in the same action, possibly due to damage from the same explosion that sank the surface ship. The first time the Hunley sank was because its skipper accidentally sunk his own boat after stepping on a diving plane control, drowning five of the seven-man crew. As fate would have it, the skipper was one of the two survivors. The second time the Hunley sank, its inventor sank with it, along with the other seven men aboard. The sub was recovered and put back into service for its fateful final mission. Perhaps the experience of the Hunley should have been a warning to future submariners!
By the early 20th Century the invention of internal combustion engines and electric motors made the modern type of submarine possible, a vessel that ran on the diesel or gasoline motor while surfaced and using electric, battery powered motors while submerged. While many countries were interested in the development of submarines as weapons of war, it was the German Imperial Navy that really took submarine warfare to heart. The Germans built and deployed about 351 submarines, usually referred to as “U-boats.” Of that number, a massive 217 were lost, both to enemy action and to accidents. About 6000 U-boat sailors were lost, but the high price paid by the German Navy also paid extreme dividends, with about 5000 enemy merchant ships sunk and over 100 enemy warships destroyed! Over 15,000 enemy sailors were killed by U-boat actions.
After the massive influence of U-boats during World War I, the navies of the world took notice and submarine fleets were expanded and submarines were improved, along with their weapons. Once again, in World War II the Germans became the foremost proponent of submarine warfare, and they eventually deployed about 1100 or so U-boats, but never reaching 200 submarines on active duty at any one time. Of those U-boats, 783 were destroyed, along with over 30,000 German submariners! Again, the German U-boat force achieved great results, but the Allied technological effort in detecting submarines from ships and airplanes and from code breaking efforts to locate enemy submarines along with the development of improved anti-submarine weapons made life difficult and short for the German submariners.
In the Pacific, the Americans and Japanese also engaged in a vigorous submarine war, with the American effort aimed at destroying Japanese merchant, troop, and cargo vessels while the Japanese subs often targeted American warships instead. While the US submarine force comprised only about 2% of the US Pacific fleet, those subs destroyed a whopping 30% of Japanese shipping sunk. While American submarine losses could not come close to the number or percentage of German U-boat losses, service in the American submarine fleet was the most dangerous military occupation of World War II for American sailors, with about 20% of US subs lost during World War II, a total of 52 boats. About 3500 American submariners lost their lives.
Losses to enemy action are expected in the submarine business, especially during World War I and World War II. Improvements in technology and stealth since then have theoretically made subs safer, including with improved emergency escape equipment to give sailors on a doomed sub a fighting chance at survival. Extensive mapping of the ocean floor also makes diving in submarines somewhat safer, but no matter what engineers and designers can come up with, submarines are still highly dangerous vessels to travel in, even without enemy action.
Some subs have been lost when their own torpedo malfunctioned and took a circular course, circling back to strike the submarine that fired it! Notable examples include the USS Tang and the USS Tulibee, both of which were destroyed by their own torpedoes that had been fired at Japanese ships in 1944, torpedoes that circled back and hit the sub that fired them. This occurred in completely separate incidents. It is entirely possible that other submarines have been lost in this manner, or perhaps accidentally torpedoed by other submarines on the same side in a mass attack, such as a German “Wolf pack” group submarine attack in the Atlantic during World War II. Many subs are lost and never found, with the reason they were lost unknown.
Fantastically expensive and complicated modern submarines powered by nuclear reactors are not immune from accidents that cost the loss of the submarines and the lives of their crews. The United States Navy lost the USS Thresher in 1963, and then also lost the USS Scorpion in 1968, both rather new nuclear powered subs. Both of these American submarines were lost with all hands. In fact, 1968 was not a good year for modern submarines, as the French lost the Minerve (a sister ship of the Eurydice, both Daphne class submarines), the Soviets lost the K-129 and the Israelis lost the INS Dakar. Mysterious submarine losses in fact have never ended, including the loss in 2000 of the Russian submarine Kursk while engaged in naval exercises in the Barents Sea, another nuclear powered submarine lost with all hands.
Many submarines have been lost due to collisions with other ships, perhaps even with other submarines. Another danger to submariners are the inconveniently located hills and mountains located along the ocean floor, requiring precise navigation on the part of the submarine crews so that they know exactly where they are and what the undersea terrain is like at all times. Since submarines cannot “see” underwater, and since using active sonar would give away their position, accurate charts and precise navigation is essential so as to avoid disaster. In 2005, the American nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco made one of those classic blunders by smashing into an undersea mountain at the incredible speed of 30 knots! The fact that the boat was not lost and only one crewman died of his injuries is nothing short of a miracle. Others have not been so lucky.
Another disaster involving submarines not due to enemy action was the so called “Battle of May Island” in 1918, a British naval disaster in which a series of blunders resulted in 8 ships and submarines to be damaged or lost. Submarine losses included 2 subs sunk and another 4 subs damaged. A total of 104 British seamen died in the fiasco, many of them submariners. (Click the link for our account of this Naval Oops Moment.)
Many movies have been made about submarines, either from the submarines’ perspective or from the sub hunters’ perspective. A pair of such films that capture the travails of operating a submarine, both in combat and in peacetime are Das Boot (1981) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002). The first film captures the terror of being in a hunted sub, and the second captures the terror of having something go wrong without the action of an external enemy. We recommend both films.
Are you still interested in becoming a fearless submariner, a sailor that follows Captain Nemo into the depths of the seas and strikes terror into the hearts of surface sailors? Or have we scared you off from such a career? If you do choose to spend your life under the waves, you will achieve a high level of status among US sailors, with a premium pay of $75 to $600 per month paid for such service depending on rank or grade ($835 for Admirals). Unfortunately, this incentive pay is taxable!
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been aboard a submarine? (Note: We have!) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Ballantyne, Iain. The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare From Archimedes to the Present. W&N, 2019.
Parrish, Tom. The Submarine: A History. Viking, 2004.