Although evidence of submarines in warfare date back as early as the American Revolution, it was in World War I that submarines became both respectable factors in warfare and instruments that shaped international policy. From a political perspective, attacks by submarines were largely responsible for tipping the United States over the edge from a stance of generous aid for the Allied powers to a state of full scale war against the Central Powers. However, the submarine would not have been so feared and despised if not for considerable advances in technology.
A far cry from past designs, it was during World War I that the submarine ceased to be a novel nonfactor and emerged as a lethal menace. With the increased use of submarine warfare, particularly by Germany, war at sea took on a new dimension. Whereas the outline of a conventional ship could be seen on the horizon with the plain eye or with binoculars, there was little advance warning for submarines.
Submarines are capable of partially or fully submerging through use of ballast tanks – hollow space filled with air that can be opened to let water in. When the water enters the tanks, the submarine controllably sinks until it reaches a depth with equal buoyancy to itself. The angle of the dive can be controlled by hydroplanes – horizontal fins on the front and back of the submarine. Once underwater, a World War I-era submarine used electric motors for propulsion. To surface, air was forced into the ballast tanks, and the submarine floated to the surface. While on the surface, submarines could use their diesel engines to move, and could survey their surroundings through use of a periscope.
Several factors made submarines particularly dangerous. First, submarines were very difficult to detect until they were within striking range. Second, the torpedoes fired by submarines could cause extensive damage below the waterline of the targeted ship as opposed to battleship guns which tend to strike the side armor or deck of a ship. However, once the submarine’s position was revealed, they were at risk of detection by deadly sub-hunting enemy destroyers. Despite the tight spaces, foul smells, and technical dangers faced by submarine crews, these machines proved to be powerful and deadly weapons feared by those who fought and traveled at sea.
How does technology change the way wars are fought?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the ways in which submarines changed war strategies.