THE BLOG
06/24/2014 03:22 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014

'Sea Devils: Pioneer Submariners' by John Swinfield

"As the motor vehicle has driven the horse from the road, so has the submarine driven the battleship from the sea": Admiral Sir Percy Scott, at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

No-one alive today was around back in the late 19th century when the first functioning submarines appeared on the scene - or disappeared (sometimes permanently and tragically) under the waves. But John Swinfield's superbly researched, beautifully illustrated and compelling new book, Sea Devils, makes the reader feel very much part of the bizarre and often heroic process in which science fiction became science fact - to devastating effect.

"While most of us think of journeying in a submarine as the human equivalent of being a sardine trapped in a can, others have been beguiled" he writes. "The saga of the submarine is one of tragedy and triumph, heroism and hardship, its inventors and operators as daring as their exploits... The story is awash with inventive, courageous, largely forgotten souls."

Starting its life as a madcap, demimonde, much ridiculed idea, the submarine was destined to completely change the whole concept of naval power, like an under-water David which eventually terrorised the crews and even the innocent passengers aboard the massive and seemingly impregnable goliaths of the world's ocean-going warships and passenger liners.

"During the hours and weeks on patrol" says Swinfield, "submariners became the ears and eyes of the surface navy...At war's end, fifty four British boats (submarines) and in most cases their entire crews, had been lost."

In an earlier book, Airship: Design, Development and Disaster (2012) Swinfield was led to conclude that much of the airship technology was also to be found in early submarines. Indeed in an Appendix to Sea Devils, he says: "They were both mongrels, strange hybrids: the submarine was a boat but sailed beneath the water; the airship sailed the skies but flew without wings."
As long ago as the 17th century, Bishop John Wilkins of Chester wrote presciently of the submarine concept: " Tis private; a man may thus go to any coast in the world invisibly, without discovery or prevented in his journey.

"Ties safe from the uncertainty of Tides, and the violence of Tempests...from Pirates and Robbers which do so infest other voyages; from ice and great frost which do so much endanger the passage towards the Poles." And tellingly, he added: "It may be of great advantages against a Navy of enemies , who by this may be undermined in the water and blown up."

One early submarine , in 1653, was claimed by its French designer De Son, to have the potential "to race to and fro the English Channel in a day and sink a hundred ships en route."

But by no means was everyone convinced of the submarine's potential. Submarine warfare, says Swinfield, was "not cricket." In 1901, one Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson was quoted as saying that "submarines were underhand, unfair, and damned un-English."

Even Napoleon, it seems, had been confused by the idea, and unable to appreciate "the supremacy of whale over elephant" in the context of naval strategy. And the US Navy's Commodore John Rodgers would say: "I leave the reader...to judge whether such torpid, unwieldy, six-feet-sided, fifteenth-sixteenth-sunk water dungeons are calculated to supersede the necessity of a navy, particularly when the men who manage them are confined to the limits of their holds, and in perfect darkness as if shut up in the Black Hole of Calcutta."

One problem Rodgers did not mention was the unexpected differential between salt and fresh water, which could have a huge and disturbing effect on a submarine crew's ability to control its diving and resurfacing abilities. An early victim in 1878 was a submarine which sank immediately when it was launched (by no means the only one to experience such ignominy). Its designer, the brilliant Irish-American John Holland "had calculated the buoyancy of the boat for salt water, but the upper reaches of the Passaic River (in New Jersey) comprised almost fresh water."

A "swirling cocktail of fresh and salt water" would become a vital consideration during the Great War when much of the naval action centred around the Dardanelles, " a treacherous 38-mile long strait which was barely four miles wide in north-west Turkey...linking the Aegean Sea to the Marmara Sea...

"The strait presents the submariner with more daunting challenges than swift-running tides: an alarming mix of salt and sea water."

As Swinfield explains: "A submarine set up for fresh water sailing...has less buoyancy and is more prone to dive. If it experiences heavy water of a greater density which contains salt, it will rise.
"If the salt content is severe a submarine may inadvertently bob to the surface in hostile waters, greatly adding to the burden on its already overstretched commander."

This is just what the Australian Norman Holbrook, the first naval VC of the Great War, had to contend with. "Holbrook had set sail in his small and elderly B11 (submarine) to try to interrupt seaborne Turkish supply lines to the Gallipoli Peninsula says Swinfield. "He had to negotiate lines of mines, diving beneath them, and navigate the pinched Narrows...patrolled by gunboats and guarded by batteries of guns and searchlights. Throughout the mission B11 unwittingly rose and dived , called 'porpoising' in the trade, as Holbrook gingerly negotiated swift tides of salt and fresh water."

Holbrook would write later: "Often she came up as much as forty feet then went down again without altering speed or helm." Sighting a Turkish battleship, the Messudieh, he added: "The boat (his submarine) immediately sank to eighty feet and remained there, and nothing would bring her up till I blew two auxiliaries for five minutes (ballast tanks blown by compressed air to make the craft more buoyant)...At the time of firing , the diving was very erratic, the depth varying from fifteen to forty feet. On firing, the boat sank to forty feet. I made men run forward and took some time on three (motors) before she came up, then she refused to dive till I flooded the auxiliaries I had previously blown." Not only did Holbrook win the VC. He had a whole town in his native New South Wales named after him.

Sea Devils is certainly not without humour. In 1915, One submarine commander flatly refused to use the submarine lavatory. According to Richard Compton-Hall, the former director of Britain's Submarine Museum at Gosport, near Portsmouth "he insisted on coming to the surface daily where he perched on the bridge rail like an overgrown seagull. One day he was literally caught with his pants down by a German Zeppelin which bombed the submarine accurately and severely; but the Captain was unrepentant and refused to change his daily habits."

In his Epilogue, Swinfield writes: "The world could learn the fate of a surface ship through pictures and by newsreel. In a submarine whose crew would never see daylight again, trapped in black and airless coffins fast on a sea bed, anguish and death went unseen. The final throes of a stricken submarine and its crew were played out unobserved beneath the waves.

"Lives were snuffed out in an instant in a flash of flame, others stolen by arbitrary inundation (flooding) the choking seep of gas, the torment of air expiring, of lungs imploding."

But that was then. By and large today's submarines are much more secure, although hardly home from home. A modern submarine is "a sentinel of stealth" says Swinfield, " keeper of peace, bringer of apocalypse. Once blind, now all-seeing; once deaf, now sharp-eared. Her command centre a continent away. Always ready, listening for that which lies above, the cry of a desperate world."

Arnie Wilson

Sea Devils: Pioneer Submariners is published by The History Press at £18.99