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  • Submarine Weapons Before Torpedoes: Gloves, Javelins and Greek Fire February 13, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    mermaid underwater

    Even the first submarine pioneers recognised that there would be a military applications for crafts glidingly silently unnoticed under the water. But the question was how on earth do you get to blow up the enemy flagship? On land there was everything from machetes to canons, and rocks to catapults. But under the waves human potential for violence was seriously limited: in part, because of the tricky nature of water; in part, because there were just so many other things to worry about not least getting back to land alive. Torpedoes were the obvious answer, but they had to be invented first – the first submarines were two hundred years too early in the seventeenth century – and even when they were invented they proved frustratingly unreliable. So what else could our gallant underwater pioneers use to hurt their enemies prior to 1900. Here is my favourite selection:

    1) Upward Firing Canon: The first reference that I’ve been able to find never left the design board – luckily for those doing the shooting. When in 1644 Father Mersenne, a French priest, dreamt up a submarine he showed that he was forward thinking in many ways: he wanted a metal hull and a fish-shaped vessel. But his weaponry skills left something to be desired. He suggested that the submarine should sail beneath its target, open a watertight door and a canon beneath should fire into the wooden belly of the enemy. But who sinks, the sub or the ship? A very small prize for who can come up with the most problems with this device. An 1877 patent offered a more sophisticated version of this with a metal drum at the centre of its sub that fired up cartridges ‘like a revolver’

    2) Underwater Timed Explosive: The first reference to this particular weapon comes in relation to the Turtle, an American proto-submarine used three times against the British in 1776! Its brilliant inventor, Bushnell had decided to use an explosive under the water that would have been released once the Turtle (a one man craft) sidled up to some HMS. The problem with this is that the bomb would have just slipped down five fathoms. Was there perhaps, submarine WANW Paul Bowers suggests, a screw that attached the bomb to a wooden hull, an eighteenth-century equivalent of the magnetic explosives used on modern ships? We will never know and neither did the  British: none of the three Turtle attacks worked.

    3) Horizontal Firing Canon: The first reference to this seems to relate to the projects of Robert Fulton, a gifted American who had it in for the British (notice a pattern) c.. 1800 and who tried to sell submarine designs to the French and failed. His preferred weapon was a canon, a primitive version of those that WW2 submarines had. The submarine would surface out of the blue and then let loose six or seven balls. Then, as the enemy was preparing to counter, the sub would simply sink back into the waves. The problem? Even mid twentieth-century subs had serious problems rising and diving quickly. The idea that Fulton’s early sub could have skitted up and down beneath the surface just doesn’t hold together. A more convincing possibility is a heavily armoured sub came up to do the shooting, as in a late nineteenth-century design. Against wooden ships this would have been interesting, against Ironclads just an interesting take on suicide.

    4) Greek Fire: Well, why the hell not? This particular idea came from the French designer, De Montgery in the early nineteenth-century. His Invicible was never built (the name was not suited to an underwater craft, for one) but on the design sheet it had twelve canons (shot when the submarine quickly surfaced) and a spout that sprayed ‘Greek fire’ on the enemy. The exact composition of Greek Fire has long remained a mystery, but De Montgery was presumably thinking of some form of flammable oil. Think of it as a just above water flame-thrower.

    5) Dangerous Divers: Wilhelm Bauer’s nineteenth-century Russian-built craft the Diable Marin (great name) had an airlock that would allow divers to emerge from the submarine. They would carry explosives to the enemy ship, which would presumably be mere yards away, and then attach them with suction cups! I want to say something sarcastic, but this all sounds pretty credible: though God knows if the divers would have made it back, so much of early submarine warfare (imagined or real) sounds like a suicide mission. Unfortunately the Russian navy did not have my faith and the Diable Marin though built was never used militarily.

    6) Gauntlets: Bauer’s Diable Marin also had projecting arms whereby a crewmember could place his arms within protected rubber (?) gloves and fiddle around in the ocean while looking through a lit porthole. He could presumably attach explosives to a ship’s side using this method, though Poseidon help him if he fumbled the timer.  Also how did they get the explosives out? ‘Gloves’ were used too in later nineteenth-century mini subs with one man riders: for the most part on paper not as actual viable vessels.  There on short runs the potential for success was presumably greater, though you can imagine the panic as the sub driver tried to get his vessel around and back pointing at the shore before the bomb blew.

    7) Reverse Depth Charges: Dangerous but simple. The submarine carried explosive barrels on its top side. It directed itself under the enemy ship and then released the barrels, inviting hell down on its head: early submarines were fragile things, remember. Then what if the submarine bumped into something as it was passing through the water? Mutually assured destruction, I imagine for basking shark and sub. The first reference that we’ve come across is 1863. A later version had canisters with nitro-glycerine ‘in tubes forward of the central conning tower’. Early submariners were uninsurable.

    8) The Javelin: the technical terms is the ‘spar torpedo’. A submarine has a protruding rod with an explosive on the end. It would then move towards the enemy boat underwater and the explosive would detonate on contact. Would a big salmon have been enough to set off the charge? What happened to the sub when the charge went off, some of these early vehicles, remember, were incredibly fragile? There was also a more sophisticated version where the javelin would attach with a spike to the enemy hull, through the force of impact (at two knots?). The submarine would withdraw and explode the charge remotely.  Before you laugh the first successful attack in sub history took part using this technique, the Confederate sub Hunley’s run at immortality. Needless to say the Hunley and its brave crew did not survive.

    9) The Fire Ship: Here the sub towed its weapon and this is another one that would work for short distance attacks, say a blockade, a very nineteenth-century problem. Your sub sets off from harbour and moved underwater towards an enemy boat. It is towing behind it though, on the surface, a floatable raft of explosives set to go off on contact. It simply continues on its way under the ship until the explosion follows. There is no question that the enemy would have seen you coming, or at least seen your deadly gift. Presumably the big flaw here was the ability of the enemy to blow the approaching raft out of the water before it came within a hundred yards of the ship. Would even small arms fire have been enough?

    Other early submarine weapons: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    By far the best book I’ve found on this topic is Paul Bowers, The Garrett Enigma. Lots of archive work and lots and lots of technical knowledge. Any other good early sub books?

    16 Feb 2014: Some great emails here. Brayton author of Navy Times Book of Submarines writes: Some interesting stuff here . . . a lot of “submarine history” is buried in imperfect history. I explored some of this but was unaware of others. You can browse my website www.submarine-history.com. My book, with much more detail, is out of print but available from a number of used-book sources. Two quick comments: the term “torpedo” (coined, circa 1797, by the American artist Robert Fulton, appropriating the Latin name of an electric stingray, torpaedae) originally meant, a mine that could be attached to an enemy ship . . . by a rowboat. The “automobile torpedo” (that which we know today) came much later. Fulton built a submarine (his Nautilus), to help the French then at war against the English; he later tried to sell it to the English, and then made  his name and fortune by inventing the steamship. There was a murky connection between Fulton and Bushnell, who played the submarine game in 1775. (Details, as much as I know, in the book.). The Confederate submarine Hunley . . . indeed, had a “spar torpedo” that indeed sank a Union ship (Housatonic, the first ever, I believe, to succumb to attack by a submarine . . . although Hunley was then operating on the surface as it had earlier sunk twice, in training, killing everyone aboard). Hunley then sank a third time, but not from the blast, she was most likely swamped by the wash of a ship rushing to the rescue. Hunley was powered by hand, and the rowers would have been exhuasted, and opened the hatches to get fresh air . . . If this wasn’t good enough next came a pleasant suprise. Mike Dash sent some pages from his doctorate on submarines (!!) and gave me permission to publish his juvenilia online. Honoured to do so, Mike! Finally, Southern Man dug up (though he does not know from where and I cannot discover) a fascinating submarine pamphlet. This pamphlet seems to include material from submarine history (reference above and run by Brayton) and came from a Thailandese site. A few things came out of this. First the use of rams on submarines in a plant from 1653. Second, a claim that the Turtle would screw on explosives with a screw run by a foot treadle. Third, Fulton’s use of ‘torpedoes’ i.e. mines.’  Thanks Mike, Brayton and Southern Man!