United Kingdom (1890-1918)
About 350 subs.

Overview of British ww1 submarines

In the general sense, the very conservative Royal Navy always considered surface warfare like the only “honorable way” to do battle on the seven seas. Submarines were either not considered as to be trusted (not proven) in the 1890s, and good only for small navies and defensive purposes only. For a truly naval superpower, it just had no reason to be developed. The same reasoning made torpedo-boats long lasting at the fringe of the British “naval dust”. Only destroyers (at that time still considered as TBDs or “torpedo boat destroyers” have some right to exist alongside cruisers and battleships, thanks to their range and high seas capabilities. 80 submarines were in service when the Great War broke out in 1914.

Holland 1
HMS Holland 1, first British submarine, in trials 1902

This mistrust however ended when Admiral John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher arrived at the head of the admiralty in 1914 (first sea lord). This energetic figure, innovator, strategist and developer of the navy introduced both torpedo boat destroyers and fast monocaliber battleships of the Dreadnought class, created the Battlecruiser concept, encouraged the introduction of submarines into the Royal Navy, and the conversion to oil-fuelled only ships at large.


C-class submarines (author’s vector illustration)

C class
C class, experimental vector-photoshopped illustration

Introduction – The first British subs

When decision was made to test a small serie, rather than rival France, UK turned more naturally towards USA and the most important manufacturer then that was John Holland. Licence was acquired and the boats were built at Vickers, Barrow-in-Furness and simply denominated as the “Holland” serie. Holland 1 was launched 2 October 1901 and decommissioned 5 November 1913. In fact the five built only saw training in home waters. Hollands’s designs were famous to be fast and deep diving, with excellent agility underwater due to their electrical propulsion, but suffered of being relatively complicated and having poor range and surface speed.

Holland class specifications

Dimensions 19.5 x3.6 x3.0m
Displacement 113/122 t FL
Crew 8
Propulsion 1 screw, 1 4-cyl Wolseley engine, 1 electric mot. 160/70 hp
Speed 7.5/6 knots ( kph; mph) surf/sub
Range 500 nmi ( km; mi) at 7 knots ( km/h; mph)
Armament 1x 457mm TT, 3 torpedoes

Prewar subs: A, B and C classes

A class (1902)

13 boats derived from the Holland model, but way more larger were built at Vickers, Barrow-in-Furness, this time only using part of the former licence. There were considerable variation amongst the boats, as the serie was revised on the fly until 1905. Various propulsion were tested, battery-powered electric motors and shaft-drive Wolseley petrol engines, 400 bhp (300 kW) (A1) for surface warfare, 450 bhp (340 kW) (A2,A3,A4), 600 bhp (450 kW) (A5 to A12). The last, A13 tried an experimental 500 bhp (370 kW) heavy oil diesel engine by Vickers, which proved unreliable. Range was however increased as well as surface speed. The first was 31.5 x3.6 x3.1 m large. All were given the same Wolsleley 16-cylinder engine, but power output ranged from 350 to 450 hp, even 600 hp for the last serie A8 to A12. Armament also varied, the A5 to A13 having two instead of a single TT.

A class specifications

Dimensions 32 x3.9 x2.3m
Displacement 190/207 t FL
Crew 11
Propulsion 1 screw, 1 16-cyl Wolseley engine, 1 electric mot. 350/125 hp
Speed 9.5/6 knots ( kph; mph) surf/sub
Range 320 nmi ( km; mi) at 10 knots ( km/h; mph)
Armament 1/2x 457mm TT, 3/4 torpedoes

B class (1904)

More homogeneous, these 11 boats were similar to the previous class, still ordered for coastal patrol work and relying on petrol engine (surface propulsion) and batteries (underwater propulsion). Armament was limited to two forward tubes in the prow, with four torpedo spares. Top speed (surface was 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph)) but range was increased to 1000 nautical miles. The main improvements were a substantial deck casing to improved submerged performances and and a bigger reserve of buoyancy. They were also fitted with a pair of hydroplanes as the forward end of the conning tower to improve underwater handling. This feature was not repeated in following classes, but reintroduced on US submarines half a century later for the very same reason… In action: The first six (out of 11 boats) were sent to the Mediterranean, but mothballed from the autumn of 1915 because of the lack of spares. An arrangement made them rebuilt by the Italians as patrol boats in 1917, with their electric engines removed, a forecastle raised, a new superstructure added, and a platform for the 12 in gun.

B class specifications

Dimensions 19.5 x3.6 x3.0m
Displacement 113/122 t FL
Crew 8
Propulsion 1 screw, 1 4-cyl Wolseley engine, 1 electric mot. 160/70 hp
Speed 7.5/6 knots ( kph; mph) surf/sub
Range 500 nmi ( km; mi) at 7 knots ( km/h; mph)
Armament 1x 457mm TT, 3 torpedoes

C-Class blueprints
C-Class blueprints

C class (1906)

Having built three classes of submarines, the Admiralty felt confident enough to embark on a large serie. Some 38 boats of this class were built, having the distinction to be the last Royal Navy development of the Holland-Type, using petrol engines for surface. This was essentially a large coastal design however, and in that delayed the construction of proper sea going boats. The decision falls squarely on Fisher, that advocated submarines for harbour and coastal defence only and even saw them as substitutes for minefields. Despite their limitations like petrol engines, limited armament and cramped interiors, the Type C saw active service throughout the war. The last was launched in 1910. Six were built at Chatham Dyd, partly to ensure the yard keep up with submarine design development. In general appearance they were stille very much like the B, only for the diving planes amidships. An interesting note for modellers, many were camouflaged towards the end of the war.

Action service includes the Zeebruge raid, when the elderly C1 was converted to destroy the viaduct during the famous 1918 raid. Eventually kept as a backup, this task fell on the C3, loaded with explosives and conducted on 23 april 1918 to the Belgian base, later succesfully blew up to severe the link of the mole to the shore and prevent reinforcements. The C11 was sunk in collision with steamer SS Eddystone off Cromer. The C14, C17 suffered the same fate (first with TB N°27, second with HMS Lurcher), but both were salvaged and repaired. The C26, 27 and 35 served in the Baltic from 1916, they were scuttled on 4 April 1918 off Helsingsfors to avoid surrender to the Germans. The C32, also served in the Baltic but was stranded and scuttled in the gulf of Riga.

C class specifications

Dimensions 43.3 x3.1 x3.5m
Displacement 287/290 t FL
Crew 16
Propulsion 1 screw, 1 16-cyl Vickers engine, 1 electric mot. 600/300 hp
Speed 13/7 knots ( kph; mph) surf/sub
Range 1,000 nmi ( km; mi) at 8.5 knots ( km/h; mph)
Armament 2x 457mm bow TT, 3 torpedoes

D class (1908)

At last, these were the first type of oceanic and overseas patrol capabilities approved by the Admiralty. These eight British submarines were much larger than previous types, with almost twice their displacement, diesel engines, more than 2,5 times the range, one more TT tube, two more torpedoes and a gun (at least for one). Out of range, diesels also stopped the dangerous petrol emanations that caused so many accidental explosions in previous boat. Another great novelty in design was the adoption of saddle tanks and the two screw propellers gave some extra agility. The D types also received radio sets, with emitter units, not the case for previous classes, through an extendable telescopic mast. Contemporary references showed the entire class equipped with as many as two guns in some cases, but in fact only the C4 tried one, a 12 pdr (76mm) installed on a platform. At last also the D types possessed proper conning towers, allowing several officers to scan the horizon. In action, the D2 was sunk by German patrol boats while attempting to cross the Ems estuary, and the D3 was sunk by error by a French airship, while the D6 was torpedoed by the UB 73 off Northern Ireland.


D-class submarines

D class specifications

Dimensions 49.7 x6.2 x3.2m
Displacement 483/595-603-620 t FL
Crew 15
Propulsion 2 screws, 2x 6-cyl Vickers Diesels, 2electric mot. 1200/550 hp
Speed 14/9 knots ( kph; mph) surf/sub
Range 2500 nmi ( km; mi) at 10 knots ( km/h; mph)
Armament 2x 457mm TT (2 bow, 1 stern), 6 torpedoes

Wartime British Submarines

About 156 Submersibles (approximately) in all:
The first submersibles of the war series were the “E”, in fact the continuation of a class begun in 1913, which will comprise 47 units in total, operational between 1914 and 1916. Inspired by the Italian submarines designed by Laurenti, the 3 “S” of 1915, the 4 “V” followed in 1915, the 4 “W” in 1915-16, the 3 “F” in 1915-17, the HMS Nautilus (1915) and HMS Swordfish (1916). All were prototypes, but operational during the war but the K26. Larger series were the 14 “G” in 1915-16, 17 oceanic “K” in 1916-17 and seven “J” in 1915-17, twenty “H” in 1917-19, 34 “H bis” in 1917-19 (Of which more than 50% did not see service during the Great War, being released too late.

The 12 “R” of 1918 however did saw action, as well as the eight of the “L” type in 1917, 19 “L-bis”, half of which entered service just before the armistice. 5 ships of the L50 class only were completed post-war, all the remaining ordered leading to mass cancellation. The most gigantic British submersible of WW1, has been, without contest, the three of the class “M”, classed as submersible cruisers and equipped with a 305 mm gun intended for coastal bombardments on Belgian shores. Only the M1 became operational before the armistice but they remains the most powerfully gunned subs of all times.


A5 of the A-class submarines, cdts. theatlantic.com

E class (1914)

These 60 submarines were distributed in two groups. E1 group comprised 8 boats, plus two AE in service with the RAN (Royal Australian Navy), all built either by Chatham or Vickers. These were among the first of the 1911-12 programme of six enlarged and improved D types. One of the change was the addition of beam TTs optimized for short-range shootings. As a result, these boats received only one tube at the bow and stern and two amidship. Standard for propulsion were the same Vickers 4-stroke diesels, although E3 tested Belgian 2-stroke Carel diesels.

One major innovation was the provision of two watertight bulkheads. With their long range these successful subs saw heavy action and lost 50% of their numbers, sunk by mine, torpedo, sunk or disappeared. E7 for example tried to force nets in the Dardanelles, trapped, the crew was made prisoner and the boat and was sunk by UB14. But she did several successful sorties in the Marmora sea. E8 was lost and scuttled in the Baltic in 1918, AE2 off Bismark archipelago.

The second group called E9 comprised 47 ships (three were never achieved). They were built at Chatham and Vickers but also later Palmer, John Brown, Fairfield, Denny, Beardmore, Thornycroft, White, Yarrow.. incorporating early lessons learned with the D and early E class subs. The Admiralty renounced to an improved D type and preferred to mass-produce the basic E1 type with some improvements. They were 3 feet longer to incorporate one more bow TT, the tubes reverted to a side-by-side TT configuration, the bulkhead moved aft for better loading. The engines were moved forward, the conning tower was enlarged and now included a steering position, and a third watertight bulkhead was added.


E9, seen from the stern.

The Chatham design was the norm, but a few boats were built to a slightly modified Vickers design, apparently with one bow TT for some time. On 11 November 1914 contracts were awarded to the various shipbuilder, on a Chatham licence. From E19, these boats were given a plough bow, and some were armed, following the experience in the sea of Marmora: E20 had a 6 inches howitzer, and E11-12 when at Malta were fitted with 12-pdr guns (76 mm). Some North sea boats also had 12 pdr guns. In 1916, E22 tested a launching ramp for a Sopwith Baby floatplane, used in Heligoland Bight. Other modifications included the addition of extra Torpedo external cases, and the external rudder was often eliminated.


E18. Submarines of the E-type were often camouflaged. At least three patterns has been identified.

They had interesting carrer, most surviving the war. Three were scuttled in the Baltic to avoid capture, one was sunk in Marmora sea, one by a German decoy ship K, and E41 accidentally rammed by E4, both sinking with heavy losses.


HMS E11 in the Dardanelles, painting.

E9 class specifications

Dimensions 55.2 x 4.6 x 3,8 m
Displacement 667 t, 807 FL
Crew 30
Propulsion 2 screws, 2 Vickers 8-cyl diesels, 2 electric engines, 1600/840 hp
Speed 15/9 knots ()
Range 3,000 nmi at 10 knots
Armament 4-5 TT 457 mm, wartime 1x 12 pdr 18cwt (76 mm)

S class (1914)

This little-known class was the result of a visit by the Admiralty to FIAT-San Giorgio La Spezia yard in Italy back in the summer of 1911. They were shown the Medusa and Velilla in construction. Back in UK, Scott shipyard, owner of FIAT’s Laurenti double hull licence since 1909, offered in September 1911 to built this type of submarine for fifty thousand pounds, a request that was accepted by the Admiralty, resulting in the S1. She was launched 28/2/1914 and featured a partial double-hull for a size comparable to the C class, excellent buoyancy and cruise due to a refined hull with a “ducktail” stern. Their compartimentation included no less than ten watertight bulkheads. However, diving time and top speed were inferior than the C class.

Eventually, only three were delivered by Scott, S2 (14 april 1915) and S3 (10 june 1915) following the S1. The class has been said to be unfit for northern sea conditions, but it’s difficult to assert. On 25 October 1915 all three were transferred to the Italian Navy. Their fate is obscure.


S class blueprint.

S class specifications

Dimensions 45.1 x 4.4 x 3,2 m
Displacement 265 t, 324 FL
Crew 18
Propulsion 2 screws, 2 Scott-FIAT 6-cyl diesels, 2 electric engines, 650/400 hp
Speed 13/8 knots ()
Range 1,600 nmi at 8 knots
Armament 2 TT 457 mm (4 torpedo), 1x 12 pdr 18cwt (76 mm)

Upcoming submarines

  • V class (4, 386t, 1914-15)
  • W class (4, 321t, 1915)
  • F class (3, 363t, 1915)
  • HMS Nautilus (1441t, 1915)
  • HMS Swordfish (932t, 1915)
  • G class (14, 703t, 1915-16)
  • J class (7, 1204t, 1915)
  • K class (17+1, 1980t, 1916-17)
  • M class (3, 1594t, 1917-18)
  • H class (20+34, 364t, 1915-18)
  • R class (12, 410t, 1918)
  • L class (8+19+5, 891t, 1917-18)

Links & sources

Submarines of the RN
K-class subs (wikipedia)
E-lass subs (wikipedia)
On harwichanddovercourt.co.uk
The K class on Mil Factory.com
On dropbears.com
Article on henry Stoker, AE2 sub Dardanelles
Timeline of submarines
Specs Conway’s all the world fighting ships 1860-1905 and 1906-1922.

Share →