X-1, The Royal Navy’s Mystery Submarine

B1811

All of these experimental submarines, with the exception of the British R Class hunter-killer, have received much coverage from publishers, almost beyond that merited by their place in naval history. Other navies also followed similar development paths and the Japanese were to use large submarines to launch aircraft and/or midget submarines during WWII. They have also received reasonable coverage in print. The one submarine to escape attention has been the British X-1 and this new book goes a long way to correcting this omission. The author has written an engaging account of the development and operation of the X-1 and also placed it in historical context by looking also at other large experimental submarines of Germany, the US, France, Russia and Japan. The text is enhanced but very good illustration in the form of photographs and drawings, spread through the body of the book. The level of information is excellent and based on solid research.

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NAME: X-1, The Royal Navy’s Mystery Submarine
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
FILE: R1811
DATE: 220213
AUTHOR: Roger Branfill-Cook
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 192
PRICE: £25.00
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Submarines, submersible torpedo boats, submersible cruisers, commerce raider, 5.2 inch gun
ISBN: 978-1-84832-161-8
IMAGE: B1811.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/afm367s
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: With all of the books published on warships and naval operations during the Twentieth Century, most new books are taking another look at a subject covered many times before by other authors. Then occasionally, a book is published that covers an important warship that has somehow managed to escape serious coverage before. This new book is one of those rare new books.

The submarine and the airship were concepts developed many years before the first viable craft, awaiting the development of a suitable power supply. Unlike vehicles constructed before, submarines and airships operated in a three dimensional world, moving not just by motive force from an engine, but adjusting their weight in their intended environment and through that ability being able travel vertically. The first serious efforts for both types of craft began in earnest before the end of the Nineteenth Century, but it can be argued that neither was able to draw on adequate components until the second half of the Twentieth Century. Where the airship has continued to be developed as minority interest, the submarine has become a vital component of modern navies and as specialist civil exploration and construction craft.

In the early years, the submarine was limited in size by available combustion engines and in endurance under water by the available electric motors and storage batteries. The first viable submarines were the American designed Holland, and the German U-1, neither being impressive weapon systems and neither having useful range. Established navies, notably the Royal Navy, looked at the submarine with mixed emotions. As a locomotive torpedo carrier, the submarine offered little to a large surface navy as a weapons platform, but presented a significant potential threat because a relatively small and low cost warship could destroy a powerful battleship and threaten merchant vessels. As a result many RN officers saw the submarine as a highly suspect and unethical assassin, a threat rather than an advantage. Early submariners and submariner builders therefore had a hard battle to promote this new form of warship.

Navies were also unsure where the development of the submarine might take them. Senior officers thought of how the submarine could be added to existing fleets and used for established forms of deployment, rather than thinking of what new forms of warfare the submarine might introduce. Those navies thinking of the submarine as an interesting new weapon tended to be those navies lacking the most powerful surface fleets, but wanting to compete with nations that did have many powerful battleships and a fleet that went down through a series of steps to the smallest warships. The concept of naval warfare was still trapped in the age of full fleet engagements with line of battleships, supported by scouting and screening vessels, and/or of commerce raiders that could range the oceans denying the enemy its marine supply routes.

In this period of attempting to place the submarine in a reliable perspective, the Royal Navy was one military organization that tried to develop a family of submarines to duplicate the place and function of established surface warships. From 1903, work began to draft plans for these types of submarine, with some surprising results. The R Class hunter-killer submarine was decades ahead of its time, having a low noise streamlined hull to produce a stealthy hunter of other submarines. It was relatively small and serious limited by electric motor and battery design, also having early examples of underwater sensor and detection systems. It was essentially an underwater destroyer of underwater torpedo boats. Of the other experiments, the submarines were large and all suffered teething problems on introduction. Most of these problems resulted from a lack of suitable main components.

The M Class were large submarines intended to carry a large gun, fulfilling the roles of battleship and monitor. Although the main heavy gun could be prepared underwater, the submarine had to at least expose the barrel above water before firing. Having a single large gun, and much lower speed than even the pre-Dreadnought battleships, the M Class submarines were never going to make viable capital ships but did offer some advantages over a monitor used for shore bombardment. M2 was redesigned to be a submarine aircraft carrier. Again, the technology available meant that a single small custom-built biplane was all that it could carry and the complexity of hanger doors resulted in the loss of the vessel when it submerged with the doors incorrectly closed. Had M2 survived, it would really have had little use other than as a long range commerce raider, using the spotter plane to locate enemy vessels and provide the information for the submarine to move into an ambush position, submerged until the enemy vessels were in range for a torpedo attack. The specialist submarine built in most numbers was the K Class fleet submarine. This design was intended to be fast enough to sail with the surface fleet and then submerge to attack the enemy capital ships. The problem faced by the designers was how to power the craft on the surface and underwater. The only power source able to provide the speed on the surface was the steam turbine, but, apart from the technical complexity of fitting the engine into a relatively small and poorly ventilated vessel, the challenge was the heat generated by the boilers to produce steam and the difficulty in dissipating the heat when the time came to submerge. The K Class suffered a series of major incidents, including collisions with other submarines and surface vessels.

All of these experimental submarines, with the exception of the British R Class hunter-killer, have received much coverage from publishers, almost beyond that merited by their place in naval history. Other navies also followed similar development paths and the Japanese were to use large submarines to launch aircraft and/or midget submarines during WWII. They have also received reasonable coverage in print. The one submarine to escape attention has been the British X-1 and this new book goes a long way to correcting this omission. The author has written an engaging account of the development and operation of the X-1 and also placed it in historical context by looking also at other large experimental submarines of Germany, the US, France, Russia and Japan. The text is enhanced but very good illustration in the form of photographs and drawings, spread through the body of the book. The level of information is excellent and based on solid research.

The X-1 was something of an oddity in RN service because it was a submarine cruiser, intended as a commerce raider. This was odd because the RN was primarily engaged in blockading enemy coasts and protecting the largest merchant fleet in the world that was crucial to British survival in a prolonged conflict. As a result, the British had much less to gain from building commerce raiders than potential enemies. As powerful surface warships, including the new aircraft carriers, would be spread around the world, in transit to join or leave convoy escort, were very capable of acting as commerce raiders. Where submarines could prove useful to the RN, it was as submersible torpedo boats.

The X-1 broke new ground by mounting four 5.2 inch guns in two turrets, providing an armament similar to light cruisers or destroyer leaders, the latter being more heavily armed than their sister ships that typically carried 3 inch or 4 inch guns, often in single gun turrets. For a submarine, this heavy gun armament imposed some special difficulties. The weight of the gun armament imposed the need to build a very large hull for the technology of the time. That also required large diesel engines for surface propulsion and large electric motors that demanded increased battery capacity. The guns themselves also imposed some difficult requirements. A typical submarine of the time might have a small deck gun, primarily intended for use against low value targets, such as small merchant ships. In some cases the deck gun was little more than an automatically loading small calibre cannon. That meant that the ammunition could be handled manually, being held in ready use lockers on deck with additional ammunition being passed up through an open hatch. Two twin 5.2 turrets required a much more sophisticated ammunition feed system and, with all of the attendant safeties, increased the time required to surface and lay guns on a target. There was also a need to fit a gun directory system for aiming and ranging the heavy guns. Other submarines that used a single smaller gun would often be firing over open sights.

The specialist gunners posted to X-1 during her trials were drawn from cruisers and battleships. They had to relearn their art in a vessel that tried to pack in traditional surface ship gun directors and mechanical computers. Given all of the many constraints and the lack of suitable components, X-1 was remarkably successful. However, the RN was coming to realize that the best use of the submarine was as a submersible torpedo boat that had little use even for a single smaller deck gun. The engines frequently presented reliability problems. There were a series of challenges in getting the guns and their directory system to work effectively and the very large hull was potentially detectable by anti-submarine craft and aircraft. Had nuclear power been available, a reliable power source would have transformed the reliability of X-1 and allowed her to operate very effectively as a true submarine and as a gun-equipped commerce raider. Modern electronic gun control systems would have provided the necessary ranging and laying computers in a very small space and radar would have allowed the submarine to operate on the surface in poor weather conditions and at the full range of the guns. As it was, smaller submarines with torpedoes proved more successful weapons systems and the Germans developed closed-cycle power sources during the closing stages of WWII, including submarines with very large battery capacity and snort masts to allow the diesels to be run to recharge the batteries without surfacing. The advent of nuclear power after WWII then created the first true submarines that could circle the globe without surfacing and remove the size constraints that then made missile-carrying submarines practical.

Never the less, X-1 was a very important stage in submarine development and enabled the Royal Navy to fully explore the potential of submarines, then fixing on the most effective designs to produce reliable and effective weapons systems. The author has described the life and times of X-1 against other broadly similar experiments in submarine design. It is important to understand how X-1 played a key stage in technical and operational submarine development and provided a set of unique information and experience that could be applied in the future.

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