The development of the submarine changed the very nature of naval warfare forever. Suddenly, the huge fleets of yesteryear found their supremacy threatened by an unseen force and for a long time they were largely defenceless to the new weapon. However, it took a certain type of courage to volunteer for submarine duties especially in the early days when their vessels were often as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy. As a result of this courage submarine commanders and their crews were often exceptionally daring in their efforts to fight the enemy.
Here are five of the most significant submarine attacks in history.
- The First Ever Submarine Attack in History
Largely thought of as a 20th century invention, primitive submersibles have actually been around since the 17th century. On September 7th 1776 the submarine Turtle designed by American inventor David Bushnell was given over to the American patriot cause for use against the British in the American Revolution. Piloted by Ezra Lee, the submarine approached the British 64-gun warship HMS Eagle and attempted to plant a bomb on it. However, he was unable to secure it to his target’s hull and it fell off the British ship before detonating which saved the Eagle from destruction. Although a failure, Lee’s mission is considered the first submarine attack in history.
- The Cressy Catastrophe
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy had the most powerful surface fleet in the world and the British people were confident that they were safe on their island nation as a result. That confidence was shattered on September 22nd 1914 when German U-Boat U-9 attacked a formation of three Cressy-class heavy cruisers – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.
When the first ship, the Aboukir, was hit the crews of the other two cruisers believed that the explosion was caused by an accident onboard and went to assist them. Seizing the opportunity, U-9 attacked the Hogue and sank it. The remaining British ship, Cressy, attacked U-9 before returning to rescuing survivors of the other two ships. U-9 attacked again and sank Cressy. In all 1,450 British sailors were killed in what was at that time an unprecedented victory for a submarine.
For more on this read The Cressy Catastrophe
- The Submarine That Sent A Nation On The Path To War
On May 7th 1915 the British liner Lusitania was travelling south of Ireland on a route from New York to Liverpool when it was spotted by the German U-Boat, U20, which was taking part in an attempt to blockade Britain’s sea lanes. At the time the US was neutral in the First World War but despite being warned by the Germans that they reserved the right to attack any ship heading for British ports a large number of Americans were aboard believing that the Germans would never target an ocean liner with 2,000 people on it.
They were wrong.
Shortly after 2pm, U20 fired on the ship and in the resulting explosion and sinking, 1,198 people were killed including 128 Americans. The attack outraged the American people who were at that time largely oblivious to the war in Europe and pushed America closer to the Allies before they eventually declared war on Germany in 1917.
- Submarine vs. Submarine
Contrary to the myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, submarines sinking other submarines has only happened in exceptionally rare cases. In all but one of these incidents the target submarine was on the surface when it was attacked. The exception occurred on February 9th 1945 when the British submarine, HMS Venturer, detected the German U-Boat U-864 on the surface with engine trouble. The U-Boat was actually on a highly secretive mission to deliver two scientists and several key jet engine components to Japan, Germany’s ally, for use in their own jet fighter program.
Realising he had been spotted by a British submarine the captain of U-864 dived to escape. The captain of Venturer, 25-year old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, attempted to match the U-Boat’s dive and by estimating the approximate position of the German vessel, fired a spread of six torpedoes in to its vicinity. One of the torpedoes successfully struck the U-Boat destroying it and its precious cargo. It remains the only time in history where one submarine has deliberately sunk another in combat while both were submerged.
For more on this read The Only Underwater Submarine-to-Submarine Kill in History
- The MV Wilhelm Gustloff
From the outbreak of World War II Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine, exercised a policy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare against the Allies. This in turn dictated a similar policy amongst the Allied navies and the oceans became a brutal killing ground as a result. In January 1945 this policy was about to reach its bloody climax and it would actually be the Germans who would be on the receiving end. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine for service as a hospital ship when the war broke out. When it became clear the vessel could no longer safely go to sea it was held in port at Gdynia in German-occupied Poland where it was painted in naval grey and used as an accommodation ship for trainee U-Boat crews.
By the start of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was pursuing the retreating German Army across Eastern Europe and so the ship was pressed back in to service to evacuate thousands of German troops, Gestapo officers, officials and civilians who had made a life in occupied Poland. On January 30th 1945, the ship along with another liner, the Hansa, and a torpedo boat made their breakout attempting to reach Germany through the Baltic. Official records show that over 6,000 people were onboard but the actual number was closer to 11,000 as a large number of civilians desperately crammed aboard and in the chaos of the boarding the crew simply gave up counting.
Shortly after leaving port the Hansa had to turn back because of mechanical problems but the Wilhelm Gustloff continued on before it was discovered by the Soviet Navy’s S-13 submarine. The S-13 torpedoed the overloaded vessel which quickly sank taking around 9,500 people with it of which nearly 5,000 were children.
It remains the biggest loss of life at sea in a single incident.