Underhand, unfair and damned un-English
(Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC speaking about submarines in 1901 )
There is a myth that the Royal Navy was bitterly opposed to the use of submarines as it flew in the face of the chivalrous nature of the Royal Navy officer who still believed in the Victorian ideals of gallantry and honour even in wartime. The fact of the matter is that while there were indeed a cadre of higher up officers who started their careers on wooden sailing ships who shared Wilson’s view there was a growing number of younger officers who saw the potential of the submarine in warfare. Fortunately for the Royal Navy they persisted in their beliefs citing the growing international submarine forces and in 1901 the Submarine Service was founded.
The new arm of the Royal Navy struggled to shake off the dirty view of their role and were often labelled as pirates by the officers aboard the powerful battleships of the British Grand Fleet. When war broke out the cutting edge of British submarine technology was the E-class with HMS E1 (the first Royal Navy submarines didn’t have names like today) being launched in 1912. Essentially an improved D-class the type served in the North Sea, Baltic and Turkish theatres of war.
Even by the outbreak of war in 1914 the submarine was still a primitive piece of kit and the E-class represented a typical submarine of the period. Armament comprised of four 18-inch torpedo tubes with one forward, one aft and two mounted on the beam; this reflected contemporary destroyer designs since the Admiralty was still perfecting the concept of the submarine. On the surface they could travel at a speed of some 15 knots while submerged the type could reach 9.5 knots; impressive figures for a submarine of the period. Equally impressive was its underwater endurance with a time of 13 hours if the engines were run economically enough. As was typical of early operations however the submarine stayed on the surface for most of the time only submerging to attack or to escape attack itself.
The First World War was almost two months old when the Submarine Service was finally blooded in combat. Immediately upon the outbreak of war the Submarine Service was primarily used to protect the British Expeditionary Force crossing the English Channel. Despite the odd encounter the British submarines failed to destroy any German ships but their presence alone dissuaded them from attempting to run the Channel and attack the troops going to France. Then on the morning of the 13th September 1914 the German cruiser SMS Hela was spotted by the crew of HMS E9 under command of Lieutenant Commander Max Horton (who later became an Admiral) conducting training southwest of Helgoland, a German island in the North Sea. At the time of sighting the cruiser, E9 was on the surface and so immediately submerged. Horton fired two torpedoes at his quarry at a range of 600 yards both of which struck the Hela amidship. The German cruiser took half an hour to sink watched from afar by Horton through his periscope. Despite the speed at which the ship sank all but two of her crew were rescued by German vessels.
The crew of HMS E9 returned to their port a short time after but whereas a battleship would have received a pompous return after their successful foray at sea the submariners expected nothing of the sort. They were after all nothing more than pirates in the eyes of many in the Admiralty and therefore they flew a Jolly Roger flag as they re-entered port to signal this. It has since become the proud tradition of Royal Navy submariners to fly this flag after a successful sinking and was continued up until 1982 when HMS Conqueror returned home from the Falklands having sunk the ARA Belgrano – the last of many surface vessels to date that have fallen prey to the RN Submarine force and it began with HMS E9 in 1914.