British Submarines at War 1914-1918, Edwyn Gray

British Submarines at War 1914-1918, Edwyn Gray

The British Submarine Service was a fairly new part of the fleet at the start of the First World War, and there was little consensus on the best way to use the new weapon. Submarines were incredibly dangerous to operate even in peacetime, and accidents took a terrible toll of their crews throughout the war.

This history of the British submarine during the First World War was originally published in 1971, and is a little old fashioned in tone, with tales of daring-do, all written from the British point of view. This doesn't mean that the author is uncritical of the British war effort, with the disastrous steam powered 'K' class ships the target of justified criticism. His wider attack on the overall idea of fleet submarines isn't quite as sound - the sub was a very new weapon in 1914, so it isn’t at all surprising that some mistakes were made in its use, and other countries also attempted to produce subs that could operate alongside their battle fleets (including the US Gato class subs of the Second World War).

The submarines didn't achieve a great deal in the North Sea, despite repeated attempts to get them involved in the main surface battles in the area. Their main achievements came in waters where there were still surface targets to attack - in particular in the Sea of Marmora during the Gallipoli campaign, and the Baltic for much of the war. In both cases actually getting into the area of operations was an impressive achievement in its own right, and once in place a handful of submarines proved how effective they could be as raiders, even when obeying the accepted rules of naval warfare.

There is no attempt to hide the cost of submarine warfare - half of the most numerous 'E' class submarines were lost to enemy action. Much of the text discusses the more successful operations, simply because most submarines that were lost took their entire crews with them ('missing, presumed lost'). There are some impressive tales from submarines that survived serious damage.

One gets the general impression that for long periods the navy wasn't entirely sure how to make the best use of its submarines, with a limited number of suitable targets in the main North Sea theatre and a believe that submarines weren't very effective anti-submarine weapons. By the end of the war we find many of the best submarine commanders serving with the Grand Fleet subs, where they could make very little impression on the war.

Despite its age, and a rather limited use of German sources, this is still a very valuable history of the British Submarine service during the First World War, looking at its frustrations and its achievements.

1 - A Damned un-English Weapon
2 - Incredibly Difficult Conditions
3 - Confusion and Lost Opportunities
4 - Live By Valour
5 - Why Can't They Wear Two Shirts?
6 - One British Submarine Equals One Russian Armoured Cruiser
7 - This Very Gallant Enterprise
8 - Go and Rum Amuck in the Marmora
9 - A Gun Would Be of Great Value
10 - A Revolver and a Very Sharp Bayonet
11 - Yes…a toothbrush
12 - Unsavoury Tin Cans
13 - God…Ain't They Generous
14 - What's Your End Doing, Sir?
15 - Remain on Patrol

1 - Flotilla Dispositions
2 - British Submarines 1900-1918
3 - Acknowledgment and Bibliography

Author: Edwyn Gray
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2016 edition of 1971 original

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