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Submarine Building 1921-1936

Submarine Building 1921-1936
Programme Britain USA France Italy Japan Russia
1921 1 3
1922 9 4
1923 3 1 10 9
1924 2 4
1925 2 9 8
1926 6 11 3
1927 6 9 6 1 3
1928 6 7 4
1929 6 1 11 7 25
1930 3 11 12 4
1931 3 2 5 9 6
1932 3 4 12
1933 3 4 5
1934 3 6 2 10 4 20
1935 3 6 20 25
1936 8 6 2 11 26
3 cancelled from each programme
These programmes were subsequently spread over later years

Swedish Sjölejonet. The Sjölejonet Class were ordered in 1934, and were the first fully Swedish design of submarine. They had an unusual arrangement of torpedo-tubes, with three in the bow (two over, one under), and one internal tube and an external pair of revolving tubes aft. They also mounted two short-barrelled 40-mm Bofors guns on disappearing mountings, as a defense against aircraft. Displacement: 650 tons (surfaced) 760 tons (submerged). Speed: 16 knots (surfaced), 9 knots (submerged)

An interesting feature of French submarine of this period was their external torpedo-tubes, fitted in training mounts in the casing and capable of being trained over a wide arc. The purpose of this fitting was to assist the submarine in sinking merchant ships, and the idea was extended by the provision of 15·7-in (400-mm) light short-range torpedoes for use against "soft-skinned" targets. Unfortunately this torpedo proved a total failure, and even the 24V 21·7-in (550-mm) proved unreliable on gyro-angling runs, although good on a straight run.

Two notable French classes of submarine were built between the wars. The six Saphir Class minelayers were of moderate dimensions, and had their mines in vertical wells in the saddle tanks. Although this was officially known as the Normand-Fenaux system it was actually a later version of the British system introduced in the "E" Class in 1915. The Rubis operated with great success under the Free French flag during the Second World War, and notched up a high score of victims. Thirty-one large ocean-going boats of the so-called "1500-tonne" type were laid down in batches each year under the 1924-30 programmes, and proved successful; two travelled over 14,000 miles from Toulon to Saigon in 1935 without mishap.

The most famous of the class was the Casabianca, which was the only vessel to escape the holocaust which ensued when the Germans tried to capture Toulon by treachery in 1942. She joined the Allies in North Africa and sank three enemy ships during the invasion of Corsica a year later. The next class of large submarines had only, just been started when their hulls were scuttled to prevent them from falling into German hands in June 1940, and a similar fate befell their 2nd Class contemporaries.

Russia rebuilds

The Russian Navy, or the Red Fleet as it became after the Revolution, took some years to recuperate from the aftermath of the Civil War and the anti-Bolshevik intervention by Great Britain and the rest of the erstwhile allies of the First World War. Many of the submarines which survived the vicissitudes of 1917-19 were unserviceable, and unfortunately the majority of the new construction had been scuttled. Only ten boats remained in the Baltic by 1922, one in the Arctic and five in the Black Sea. It was to be another nine years before the first new submarines joined the Fleet, which explains why the British submarine L55 was salvaged and incorporated into the Red Fleet; she had been sunk in 1919 during the Intervention, but was raised in 1928 and recommissioned in 1931.

The first of the new programme was the Dekabrist or "D" Class of six units, which came into service in 1931/32. Based on an Italian design, they displaced 989 tons on the surface, and were armed with a 4-in deck gun, a smaller 45-mm gun and eight 21-in torpedo tubes. The Leninets or "L" Class which followed were of similar size and characteristics, but based on L55, and took longer to build; it took from 1933 to 1942 to commission 24 units, and one was never completed. At the same time a smaller type was designed, known as the Shchuka (Pike) or "Shch" Class; 90 were commissioned in 1933-42, and three were scrapped ink complete. They displaced 580 tons on the surface, and had six 21-in torpedo-tubes and a 45-mm deck gun. A further intermediate type, the Stalinets Class (33 units) and a general patrol type known as the Pravda Class (3 units) came into service from 1936 onwards.

Polish Orzel. Two ocean-going submarines were ordered in 1936 from Dutch shipyards. As the Polish Sep and Orzel they were still brand new when war broke out in September 1939. Like the Wilk, the Orzel fled to England, but the Sep was interned in Sweden. They were similar to the Dutch O19 Class, but had an enclosed mounting for the deck guns

The Pravdas did not prove very successful, but the Stalinets Class were very satisfactory in service, because they were able, by a roundabout route, to make use of German expertise. This came about because the Russian dictator, Marshal Stalin, was anxious to help Germany to evade the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, which prevented Germany from building U-Boats. German design firms were set up outside Germany, in Spain, Holland and Russia to keep the nucleus of a design team together, and although the orders which resulted went to shipbuilders in the countries concerned, the know-how was German. As a price for their help the Russians obtained plans of the Type LA which was built in Spain for Turkey as the Gör, and this design became the basis of the Stalinets or "S" Class.

Norwegian B1. After ordering four boats from Germany before the First World War, Norway built six more to the American Electric Boat Company's designs in 1920-1930. B1 was scuttled to avoid capture when the Germans overran Norway in 1940, but she was later raised and towed to England. Displacement: 420 tons (surfaced) 545 tons (submerged). Length: 17 ft 6 in. Armament: Four 18-in torpedo tubes (2 bow, 2 stem); 6 torpedoes carried; one 76-mm gun. Speed: 15 knots (surfaced) 8·9 knots (submerged)

All these submarines were generally similar in dimensions to the submarines being built outside the USSR, but there were two more types which represented the upper and lower extremes. The "Malyutka" (small) Class displaced only 161 tons in surface trim, and had two 21-in torpedo-tubes; they bore some resemblance to the little "tin tadpoles" of the German UBI Class in 1915. Between 1933 and 1937 over 50 were added to the Russian strength, and two improved types were commissioned between 1938 and 1944. The "M" types were built in sections, the original Malyutka VI and VIbis series having four sections, the Malyutka XII series six sections, and the final Malyutka XV series seven sections, all small enough to allow shipment by rail and canal for assembly wherever needed.

The other Russian submarine type was the "Kreiser" or "Katyusha" type, a big cruiser submarine of 1,390 tons on the surface, armed with two 3·9-in (100-mm) guns, two 45-mm and ten 21-in torpedo-tubes.

French Rubis. The French Navy ordered ten minelaying submarines between 1925 and 1939. The Rubis was operating under British control at the fall of France in 1940, and, under the Free French flag she carried out over twenty successful minelaying trips between 1940 and 1945. Her sister Perle survived to be sunk in error by an Allied aircraft in 1944, but the rest were either scuttled incomplete or captured in a wrecked condition in 1942 by the Germans

The surface speed was 18 knots to allow them to operate with surface units, and 13 numbered units were commissioned between 1940 and 1942. As the numbers ran as high as K51 it must be assumed that a large number were not completed during the War. They could dive in 50 seconds, a good time for a large boat.

When Hitler gave the order to attack Russia in 1941, this was the approximate strength of the Red Fleet:


7 "K" Class (K24, K57-56) - some building
3 "P" Class (P1-3)
13 "S" Class (S1-13)
4 "L" Class (L1-3, L21)
1 "D" Class (D2)
1 L55
5 "B" Class (B2, B4-6, B8)
22 "Shch" Class (Shch 301-11, 317-320, 322-324, 405-408)
22 "Malyutka" Class

Far East

4 "S" Class (S52-53, S57-58)
12 "L" Class (L7-14, L16-19)
41 "Shch" Class (Shch 101-141)
30 "Malyutka" Class


6 "K" Class (K21-23, K1-3)
12 "S" Class (S14-16, S19, S51, S54-56, S101-104)
3 "L" Class (L15, L20, L22)
2 "D" Class (D1, D3)
8 "Shch" Class (Shch 401-404, 421-424)
17 "Malyutka" Class

Black Sea

8 "S" Class (S31-38)
6 "L" Class (L4-6, L23-25)
3 "D" Class (D4-6)
5 "A" Class (Al-5)
16 "Shch" Class (Shch 201-216)
28 "Malyutka" Class

In addition to these submarines, of which some were still under construction, the Russians took over four boats as a result of their "liberation" of the independent Baltic republics in 1940, but of these only the ex-Estonian Kalev and Lembit were commissioned as Red Fleet units. They were British-built, and rather similar to the British "P" Class. In 1944 the British Government transferred four submarines under Lend-Lease for use in the Arctic; these were the V1 (ex-HMS Sunfish) and V2-4 (ex-Unbroken, Unison and Ursula). In one respect the Russian submarine service was unique in that it assigned numbers according to the Fleet in which the submarines were serving. The two large numbered classes, the "Shch" and "Malyutka" types seem to have changed numbers when transferred from, say, the Baltic to the Arctic. Thus Shch 101-141 served in the Far East, but Shch 201-216 served in the Black Sea, and when a permanent transfer was made the number seems to have changed as well.

Normand-Fenaux Minelaying System. The Saphir Class used a system derived from the British method first used in the "E" Class in 1915. Eight wells on each side, in the saddle tanks, held two mines stowed vertically. The mines were armed and set mechanically from within the pressure hull, and the loss of weight was automatically compensated for. The supply of French Sauter-Harle mines soon gave out, but by a stroke of good luck Vickers were producing a mine of almost identical pattern for Rumania in 1939, and this was easily adapted

After their attempts to ban the submarine at the Washington Conference, the British settled down to serious submarine construction in 1923. The L52 Class of 1917 was chosen as the model, and the "O" Class which resulted was longer and beamier but carried the same heavy bow salvo of six 21-in tubes and two stern tubes. A drop in surface speed of two knots to 15.5 knots was more than compensated for a much increased endurance, and a reload was provided for each tube in order to extend the operating time. One unfortunate feature was introduced as a result of economy: because the dimensions were restricted, some or the fuel tanks had to be carried in the upper half of the saddle tanks. As it was virtually impossible in a riveted hull to have an oil-tight seam these external tanks tended to give away the submarine's position by leaving a tell-tale oil slick on the surface.

The "P" and "R" Classes were generally similar to the "O" Class but slightly larger. In 1929 a new design for a "fleet" submarine was produced, the "River" type with the unusually high surface speed of 22 knots. To accommodate a pair of 10-cylinder diesels the stern torpedo-tubes had to be omitted, and although the design proved successful in service it was soon realised that the concept was wrong. The speed of surface warships had risen since 1915, when the fleet submarine requirement had been put forward, and the only use for 22 knots' speed was in a campaign against commerce in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean.

Russian "Shch" Class. This class took its name from the initial letters of the prototype Shchuka ("Pike"), and was a medium-sized patrol type begun in 1932. By 1941 nearly a hundred had been built, and they continued in production until 1942. From what can be pieced together it seems that some thirty were sunk during the Second World War

As the result of the success of the M3, six submarine minelayers were built between 1930 and 1938, the famous Porpoise Class.

These 270-ft boats displaced. 1,520 tons on the surface and had a capacity of 50 standard Mk XVI mines in a full-length deck outside the pressure hull. The need for specialised submarine minelayers lapsed when the Royal Navy produced a mine which could be laid from a 21-in torpedo-tube, but the minelayers proved even more successful when used as supply submarines to run precious cargoes to Malta in 1941/42. Their capacious mine-decks were filled with such assorted items as machine-gun ammunition, glycol coolant for Spitfires, and food.

Under the 1929 Estimates a new type of medium patrol submarine was introduced, the 640-ton "S" Class. They were a breakaway from the large "O", "P" and "R" type, and were meant for work in European and Mediterranean waters which were too confined for large submarines. The result was a great success, and the "S" Class eventually ran to some 60 units, the largest single class built for the Royal Nayy. By positioning all fuel tanks inside the pressure hull they cured the worst fault of their predecessors, and had a good diving time. They were too small for overseas work, however, and had to he complemented by the equally famous "T" Class, which were 70 ft longer, and displaced just over 1,000 tons. Whereas the "S" Class had six bow tubes only, the "Ts" had eight bow tubes, including two in a bulbous how. casing, and an extra pair of tubes in the casing amidships, giving them the phenomenal bow salvo of ten tubes.

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