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The Oxford Companion to American Military History

Sarandis Papadopoulos


are special purpose naval vessels that use their submerged capability for protection. A submarine must possess a hull strong enough to withstand substantial water pressure; tanks for taking on and holding water to adjust buoyancy and facilitate diving below the water's surface; and a means of underwater propulsion. Typically, submarines carry torpedoes as weapons, but some have carried ballistic missiles.

David Bushnell's human‐powered Turtle launched the first (unsuccessful) submarine attack in New York Harbor in September 1776 during the Revolutionary War. In the Civil War, Horace Hunley built the David craft for the Confederate navy, one of which sank the USS Housatonic in July 1864, in Charleston, South Carolina, sinking itself in the process. In the late nineteenth century, John Holland, an Irish immigrant and inventor from Paterson, New Jersey, privately built a series of experimental craft culminating in a gasoline‐powered submersible, Holland VI (1896). Due to its oxygen requirements, the boat's engine could only operate while it cruised on the surface, so the vessel also had an electric battery to provide submerged propulsion. Holland's design became the basis for submarines of the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Navy bought his design as well.

European technical developments paralleled U.S. efforts, especially in Germany and France. French naval theorists of the so‐called young school (jeune école) provided submerged weapons for submarines by first combining them in 1893 with the self‐propelled torpedo. In the view of most naval officers, submarines would be especially useful to defend a coast or for a relatively weak naval power to attack an enemy line of battleships. Due to their low submerged speed, most submarines operated as temporarily submersible torpedo boats, largely sailing and often attacking while surfaced.

During World War I, the submarines, and especially the German Untersee boats (U‐boats), achieved prominence. Submarine crews gained a reputation as élite personnel who endured real hardships; few survived the sinking of a submarine. The submarines of all navies had internal combustion engines (usually diesel), a periscope, and a deck gun for surface combat, as well as torpedoes or mines. Early in the war, a submerged German U‐boat torpedoed and sank three British cruisers in one day; another was responsible for the sinking of Lusitania (1915). Against Allied merchant shipping, the long‐range U‐boat came into its own, evading the larger Royal Navy, and sometimes attacking even while surfaced until deterred by the U.S. convoy system and vigorous U.S. antisubmarine efforts in 1917–18. Allied submarines, including American boats sent to Britain in 1918, focused upon attacking enemy surface ships but faced few targets due to the enemy's caution. Since the force almost succeeded in starving Britain, the Treaty of Versailles forbade German possession of U‐boats.

After World War I, the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Conference (1922) considered a complete ban on submarines. But opposition from the Italian and French governments guaranteed that submarines remained in the inventories of most navies, and they returned in Germany after 1935. Interwar developments included improved construction, more sophisticated torpedoes, better torpedo fire control systems, and even air conditioning in U.S. vessels. Submarine doctrine remained divided between those who desired to use the boats for commerce warfare, the German goal, and those who emphasized fleet reconnaissance and attacks on warships, the policy in the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies.

World War II saw accelerated building of submarines by both the Axis and the Allied sides, with almost 2,000 vessels serving. Overwhelmingly, submarines attacked enemy merchant shipping, despite prewar doctrines emphasizing fleet operations. Their patrols succeeded in sinking over 20 million tons of shipping, one‐quarter by 300 American boats, which provided an effective naval blockade of Japan. U.S. design innovations included improved torpedoes and the addition of radar for surface operations. Changes from 1943 onward in Germany included series construction, the snorkel, an air tube for submerged diesel use, and improvements in submarine battery power and submerged speed. All postwar diesel submarine designs made use of these German innovations.

During the Cold War, submarine design incorporated nuclear weapons and propulsion, as well as improved sonar and reduced noise signatures. Nuclear weapons entered use as torpedoes, cruise missiles, and as the strategic ballistic missiles that the United States, Soviet Union, France, Britain, and the People's Republic of China added to their fleets. Ballistic missile submarines were a prominent nuclear deterrent. Nuclear propulsion, first introduced in the U.S. Navy by Adm. Hyman Rickover, gave submarines virtually unlimited range and radically more underwater capability due to their power plants' independence of air supplies. With improved range and weapons, both diesel and nuclear submarines fully realized their capabilities, emerging as a versatile branch of modern navies.

[See also Mines, Naval; Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty.]


John Moore, Jane's Pocket Book of Submarine Development, 1976.Find this resource:

    Ulrich Gabler, Submarine Design, 1986.Find this resource:

      Gary Weir, Building American Submarines 1914–1940, 1991.Find this resource:

        Gary Weir, Forged in War, 1993.Find this resource:

          Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Since 1945, 1995.Find this resource:

            Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945, 1995.Find this resource:

              Sarandis Papadopoulos