Almost as soon as the war was over, a movement to outlaw submarines began. Supporters of the movement argued that submarines, like poison gas, were too horrible to be acceptable even in warfare.
The governments of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan were more or less in agreement, but France felt that a move to outlaw submarines made about as much sense (and had about as much chance of being accomplished) as a move to outlaw warplanes. It vetoed the idea, saying that the submarine, like the airplane, was here to stay.
Even while the peace conferences were going on, Britain continued to operate submarines as weapons of war in a little-known sea campaign which was part of the unsuccessful effort to defeat new-born communism in Russia. (In this effort Britain was joined by France, the United States, and several other nations.) On June 4, 1919, the British submarine L-55 was sunk by a Russian destroyer off the Baltic port of Kronstadt with all of its crew of forty-one. (With a single exception, the L-55 was the only submarine sunk by hostile action between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, a little more than twenty years later. The exception was a Spanish submarine sunk under rather obscure circumstances off Malaga, Spain, on December 12, 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. Its crew of forty-seven went down with it.)
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, stipulated that defeated Germany, which had operated the largest submarine force in the war, could neither have nor build any more. Allied nations kept their submarines, though, and hatched plans for bigger and better ones to come.
Britain, for one, had not given up on its disastrous K-class boats. On the giant K-18 it installed a 12-inch gun — by far the largest and, at 60 tons, the heaviest gun ever mounted on a submarine either before or since. Four inches larger in diameter than the largest gun on any United States Navy capital ship now in commission, the gun fired a shell that weighed 850 pounds — and if any seawater splashed into the gaping muzzle of its low barrel before firing, the last three feet of the barrel was often blown off after the shell. The K-18, redesignated the M-l, was lost after a collision in the English Channel on November 11, 1925, with all of its crew of sixty-nine.
Undeterred by the sinking, Britain remained determined not to give up too soon on the K boats. Another was converted, this one redesignated the M-2, but instead of a 12-inch gun, this giant mounted a watertight seaplane hangar on its deck. Inside it was housed the Royal Navy's smallest aircraft, a tiny two-seater biplane known as a Peto. The Peto, after emerging from the hangar and spreading its wings, could be trundled on its pontoons down tracks on the M-2's deck to the water where it could take off. In the plane's front seat was its pilot; in the back its observer.
Like the K- and M-class boats as a group, the M-2 had its problems. One of the minor ones was the result of an oversight which large organizations like navies are occasionally known to make. Inadvertently the observer assigned to fly in the back seat of the M-2's tiny Peto was one of the largest officers in the Royal Navy, tipping the scales at a whopping 254 pounds.
Though the Peto's straining engine dutifully lofted its burden without complaint, on one occasion the plane sagged toward disaster. While the pilot guided it over a row of small bathhouses at a British seaside resort, the overtaxed Peto droned lower and lower, finally striking the last bathhouse a blow that reduced it to kindling wood around the ankles of an outraged citizen clad in nothing at all. The Peto and its crew survived the encounter and flew on. At a later inquiry into the matter the pilot steadfastly maintained that he had not been flying dangerously low on purpose at all; the cause of the misadventure was the overload stuffed in the plane's back seat. (He got away with it.)
Sad to say, the M-2 sank on January 26, 1932, off Portland Bill, taking Peto, pilot, observer, and everybody else with it. The sinking occurred when water poured into its hull through hangar doors which had been opened before the submarine was fully surfaced.
Despite its history of bad luck with large submarines, Britain made one last try before calling it quits. The X-l, larger at 365 feet than any of the giant K or M boats, was completed in 1925. Awkward and hard to maneuver, it collided with a merchant ship off Star Point, Devonshire, and sank, drowning Britain's hopes for outsized submersibles with it.
Meanwhile other nations were at work on submarines. Italy produced one called the Balilla that was successfully tested to the then considerable depth of 400 feet. Germany, working in secret, developed designs which were to find use when the construction of submarines was begun again in German shipyards in 1935.
France, paralleling Britain's interest in monsters, constructed the huge Surcouf which at the time of its commissioning was the largest submarine ever built. It displaced 4,000 tons (about as much as two destroyers), mounted two 8-inch guns, and carried twenty-two torpedoes plus its own scouting seaplane. (It was to be rammed and sunk by a ship in a convoy it was escorting in the Mediterranean Sea in World War II, taking its Free French crew down with it.)
Japan also worked to keep abreast in the field of submersibles. Included in its submarine building program were ocean-going and coastal boats, minelayers, and midgets. The midgets, a scant 41 feet long and crewed by two men, were powered by electric motors only, and their range was limited to 200 miles. They had to be carried to the vicinity of their target by larger submarines. (Five midgets were to be used by the Japanese in the attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941.)
The United States produced neither innovations nor eccentricities in its submarine designs in the years between the wars. Concentrating on S-class boats from 1925 until 1935, it then began producing a newer class, known as fleet-type boats, which were to be the mainstay of American submarine operations in World War II.
In the decades of the twenties and thirties, emphasis was placed on finding ways to save lives in submarine disasters. Since 1904 the average of accidental submarine sinkings had been greater than one a year. As early as 1912 an effective underwater breathing apparatus for use in submarine escapes had been adopted by the German navy, a move prompted by the sinking of the U-3 in 1911 in which all hands had suffered from the effects of chlorine gas. The German breathing apparatus, carried in U-boats throughout World War I, was used again in World War II with little alteration. In 1913 the Royal Navy adopted an escape lung of its own, but, to save space, none were carried on its submarines in the first World War.
Two American submarine tragedies underscored the fact that the United States Navy was behind both Germany and Britain in its submarine survival equipment. On September 25, 1925, the USS S-51 was run down and sunk off Block Island, Rhode Island, by the Italian liner City of Rome, and on December 17, 1927, the S-4 sank after a collision with a Coast Guard cutter off Cape Cod. There were no escape lungs on, or survivors from, either submarine, and public indignation flared in the United States at the loss of life.
By 1929 the Navy had adopted a lung developed by a naval officer, Comdr. C. B. Momsen. Two years later an escape tank 100 feet deep was constructed at the submarine base in New London, Connecticut. In the tank submariners were trained to become proficient in the use of Momsen's lung. In appearance it resembled a gas mask. Prior to use it was to be charged with pure oxygen from tanks in the submarine. If the air in the submarine became unbreathable for any reason, the lung could double as a respirator, and it could serve as a float for a submarine's survivor when he had popped to the surface.
The value of escape lungs was demonstrated when the British submarine Poseidon sank in 130 feet of water off China in June, 1931. Using an excellent lung known as the Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, six men made it to the surface and were rescued, including a Chinese messboy who had had no instruction in the use of the survival device until the Poseidon lay disabled on the bottom of the China Sea.
An altogether different submarine survival device was developed by an American naval officer named Allan R. McCann. It was a rescue chamber designed to be lowered into place over the hatch of a sunken submarine. When the chamber was locked in place, the sunken submarine's hatch could be opened and its survivors taken to the surface inside the chamber in groups of seven.
Many navies of the world were skeptical of the chamber's potential value, since its use depended on the sunken submarine being in an upright position in relatively shallow water. Moreover the weather had to be favorable, and there could be only very light currents in the water. Perhaps most importantly, the use of the rescue chamber depended on the sunken submarine being found before its survivors had used up the available oxygen.
A test of the chamber's value was to come in 1939, in a rescue attempt after the sinking of the American submarine Squalus .
The Squalus , one of the United States Navy's newest submarines, was 310 feet long, displaced 1,450 tons, and normally carried a crew of fifty-five. On one trip, however — Tuesday, May 23, 1939 — it sailed from the submarine base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with fifty-nine on board; the extra men were shipyard technicians checking equipment. In command was Lt. Oliver Naquin.
At 8:30 that Tuesday morning the Squalus began a dive. On the control panel — known as the "Christmas tree " because of its red and green lights — all lights were green, indicating that all openings through which water could enter the submarine were safely closed.
But such was not actually the case. For reasons never finally determined, the main induction valve — the principal opening for bringing fresh air into the submarine when it was running on the surface — was still open when the Squalus went down.
Flooding began immediately. Despite prompt measures to counter it, the submarine sank in 240 feet of water. Twenty-six men in the after-portion of the boat were lost in the sinking. Thirty-three men survived in the forward portion.
Lieutenant Naquin assessed his position. Fortunately the submarine had sunk on an even keel. Power had been lost and the only source of light was emergency battle lanterns. The water temperature outside the Squalus's hull was two degrees below freezing and inside it was getting chillier.
Naquin had all available blankets broken out and distributed. He directed that the emergency buoy, which carried in it a telephone connected to the submarine, be released. Then he and his men settled down to wait and pray.
At submarine headquarters in Portsmouth the time arrived for the Squalus to report that it had surfaced from its dive. When no report came in, the first alert was sounded. The Squalus's sistership, the Sculpin, was ordered to search the area where the Squalus had dived. — In its search the Sculpin found the Squalus's emergency buoy, and its captain, Warren D. Wilkins, talked to Naquin 40 fathoms below. Not long after their conversation the telephone line broke, but the Squalus's position and plight were now known. The Sculpin flashed a radio message of the sinking.
The machinery of the Navy went into urgent action. In New London the submarine rescue ship Falcon set out at top speed with a McCann rescue chamber on board. When it arrived over the Squalus a diver quickly descended into the Atlantic. In three minutes he reported to the rescue ship that he was standing on the Squalus's deck. As quickly as he could he fastened in place the cable used in lowering and raising the rescue chamber.
It was now Wednesday morning, and twenty-four hours had passed since the Squalus had sunk. The nation and the world had received news of the sinking from the Navy, and the event was fast becoming one of the major news stories of the decade as millions waited in suspense to see if the thirty-three trapped men would be brought up to safety or would die on the bottom of the Atlantic.
As quickly as possible the rescue chamber was lowered and locked into position over the Squalus. When the juncture of the chamber and the submarine had been blown free of water, the chamber technicans opened the submarine's escape hatch at their feet. Shining the beams of their flashlights down onto the upturned faces of the submarine's survivors, one of the technicians said, "Hi, fellas, we're here." The men had been trapped for twenty-eight hours.
Because of the possibility that bad weather might halt rescue operations, the chamber was loaded with more than its normal limit of seven passengers. On its last trip up with eight survivors aboard, the chamber snagged its cable. Divers from the Falcon descended below the chamber and cut the lower portion of the cable in two, and the chamber's ascent was made by carefully blowing its water ballast out. The trip took more than four hours, and it was 12:30 A.M. of Thursday, the third day, when the last of the thirty-three survivors were safe on the submarine rescue ship. From sinking to rescue, thirty- nine and three-quarters hours had elapsed.
The rescue of the men from the Squalus was the only successful use of the McCann chamber, but in that one operation it paid for itself many times over.
Later the Squalus was raised and repaired at a cost of a million dollars. Recommissioned the Sailfish (and sometimes called Squailfish by its crew), it served with distinction in the Pacific in World War II. Ironically it was to torpedo and sink the Japanese escort carrier Chuyo on December 4, 1943. In the Chuyo' s hold were twenty-one American prisoners — submariners captured when their submarine had been sunk on November 18, less than a month before. Only one of the American prisoners from the Chuyo was rescued by the Sailfish; the other twenty were lost.
The lone survivor identified his sunken submarine as the Squalus's benefactor in 1939, the Sculpin.
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