A century unseen – 100 years of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service
The Royal Navy recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Submarine Service, whose motto is “We Come Unseen”. It started off with a scurrilous reputation but soon covered itself in glory, changing the course of sea battles from the First World War onwards. From HMS E9 to Astute, we look at the most important submarines to have served, and some of their most glorious – and occasionally inglorious – moments.
13 September 1914
Until World War I, the Admiralty regarded submariners as little better than a bunch of pirates. In 1914, the Vickers-built E-class submarine HMS E9 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Horton claimed the first kill by a British submarine when it torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela. Three weeks later E9 sank the German destroyer S 116, earning Horton the Distinguished Service Order. On her return to port, the crew of E9 flew a Jolly Roger, cocking a snook at the above-water naval establishment that had snubbed them.
13 December 1914
Three months later, the Royal Navy's last B-class boat HMS B11 departed from the island of Tenedos on a mission to sink the Ottoman battleship Mesûdiye. To get there, it had to navigate at a snail's pace through heavily mined waters with uncharted currents, a journey that took five hours. After a successful torpedo hit sank Mesûdiye, the journey back took even longer - eight hours - as every time the periscope was raised it attracted enemy fire.
Commanding Officer of the B11 Lieutenant Norman Holbrook received the first of five World War I Victoria Crosses awarded to the Submarine Service for his action.
6 April 1942
Ton for ton, the U-class boat HMS Upholder was the most successful submarine of the Second World War, sinking 93,031 tons of enemy shipping comprising twelve Italian and two German vessels, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Malcolm David Wanklyn. Upholder left for her 25th patrol on 6 April and became overdue on 14 April, and was declared lost with all hands, presumably sunk by depth charges.
30 April 1943
Torpedoes weren't the only thing to be launched from submarines to change the course of the war. As well as carrying out a number of intelligence and special operations missions during World War II, HMS Seraph played a key role in Operation Mincemeat. The corpse of a homeless man, Glyndwyr Michael, was dressed in a Royal Marines uniform and tipped into waters off the coast of Spain by the crew of the Seraph. Attached to the body was a briefcase containing papers identifying him as one Major William Martin, and faked documents designed to cover the Allied invasion of Italy from North Africa.
9 February 1945
Towards the end of the war, V-class submarine HMS Venturer made naval history by becoming the only submarine to deliberately sink another while both were submerged. Under the command of 25-year-old James 'Jimmy' Launders she sailed to the island of Fedje off the Norwegian coast to intercept U-864 based on information decrypted from Enigma coded communications. The German submarine detected the Venturer's presence and embarked on a zig-zag evasion course. Launders manually predicted its three-dimensional course through the water and spread torpedoes into its path, successfully hitting the target.
15 February 1968
At the height of the Cold War, the Resolution class was built as the Royal Navy's first ballistic missile submarine, taking a key role as the UK's nuclear deterrent. HMS Resolution was launched on 15 September 1966 and fired its first nuclear-capable Polaris missile on 15 February, carrying out 69 patrols before being decommissioned in 1994.
2 May 1982
HMS Conqueror made history during the Falklands War in 1982 when she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship with torpedoes, the ARA General Belgrano. Of the 1,042 people aboard, 323 died in the attack. Controversy surrounding the nature of the Maritime Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands and whether the ship had been returning to port followed, not helped by the infamously tasteless Sun headline "GOTCHA!"
4 March 1992
The Resolution class was replaced by the Vanguard class carrying the Trident II system as Britain's at-sea nuclear deterrent, with first in class HMS Vanguard being launched on 4 March 1992. The four submarines in the class carry up to 16 trident missiles each and have represented the UK's sole nuclear platforms since 1998.
5 October 2004
In a rather different example of notoriety, the UK sold Canada four Upholder-class submarines through a 1998 lease-to-buy deal. Shortly after their activation, one of them, renamed HMCS Chicoutimi, was two days out from Scotland on its way to Halifax in Nova Scotia when a fire broke out on board leading to the death of a sailor. This caused some diplomatic strain between Canada and the UK when the British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon stated that Canada would have to pay for the rescue operation and that Canada should have obeyed the maxim 'caveat emptor'.
22 October 2010
Just two months after being commissioned, HMS Astute, first in class of the Royal Navy's new nuclear-powered submarine fleet, ran aground off the west coast of Scotland while taking part in a training exercise. She remained stuck for ten hours until a coastguard tug towed her into deeper water. An enquiry found problems with charting the course of the exercise and the on-board communications. Despite the manoeuvre being carried out at night, the primary radar was switched off. Commanding officer Commander Andy Coles was relieved of his command shortly after the incident.
24 March 2011
The most recent strike by a Royal Navy submarine took place during the Libyan Civil War when a Trafalgar-class submarine launched guided Tomahawk land attack missiles at Libyan air defence targets. The Chief of the Defence Staff's strategic communications officer, Major General John Lorimer, said at the time that the action formed part of a coalition plan to enforce UN resolution 1973 to enforce a no-fly zone, and to ready the UK's contribution to the NATO arms embargo of Libya.
8 December 2011
The MOD overturned a ban preventing women serving on Royal Navy submarines, a sanction originally put in place because the raised levels of carbon dioxide found onboard were thought to be harmful to female health. After training on HMS Vigilant, the first female submariners, Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alexandra Olsson and Penny Thackray, earned their 'Dolphins' on 5 May 2014.
26 September 2014
According to media reports, a Royal Navy submarine, most likely HMS Astute, was deployed to the Persian Gulf to support air strikes against Islamic State militant targets and potentially launch Tomahawk missiles. The aim was to support the UK's policy not to have 'boots on the ground' while offering an alternative to aerial bombardment. The MOD refused to confirm speculation for operational reasons.