The Submarine Scare

By Park Benjamin

[The Independent, April 7, 1917]

If the German fleet, now bottled in the Kiel Canal and in Wilhelmshaven, can defeat, first, all the effective fleets of Europe and Japan, and second, our own battleships, then an attempt at invasion may perhaps be its next move. But it is certainly not necessary now to borrow trouble about "invasion" by Teutonic submarines, especially as exemplified by their "knocking down the tall towers of New York," as a nervous newspaper recently suggested. That sort of bombardment is about as likely as the anticipated attack upon the bathhouses at Nahant by the Spanish fleet, nineteen years ago, which is reported to have caused precipitate retreat of timorous souls to points as far inland as Worcester, Mass. "German U-boats," also, suddenly appearing off Florida playgrounds are the progeny of the "spook" ships of the Spanish war, and merely another name for stray logs and barrels. So long as submarines require at least fifty feet of water in order to dive—and much prefer sixty and over—it is safe to predict that no inducements will make them enter harbors or pervade shoals around, the coast where the soundings are less.

They will also sedulously avoid the channels, bays and seaports wherein thoughtfully disposed mine fields will be awaiting their arrival.

In order to get here, submarines starting from a base in Germany have to travel about 4800 miles. Many people think that they do this under water. They do not, and cannot. The "Deutschland," for instance (now reported tied up to an English pier), was submerged for only about ninety miles of this distance, and not longer than for about two hours at a time. A submarine is simply an automobile. She has a Diesel oil engine which propels her on the surface and also charges a storage battery, which supplies current to the electric motor by which she is driven when below the surface. When she dives, she shuts off the oil engine and starts the electric motor. How far she can go on the water depends primarily on how much oil she can carry in her tanks. She will not run above water when her tanks are empty, any more than an automobile will run without "gas." She will not run under water any longer than her current supply lasts, and she has storage battery troubles quite as bad as—in fact, worse than—those of the electric automobile, whereof any gasoline car salesman will readily supply full particulars. In fact, one of the great weaknesses of the submarine lies in her propelling machinery.

Above water, submarines can go long distances. Large ones have been planned 250 feet in length, of' 1200 tons displacement, with a speed of 20 knots per hour above and of 14 knots per hour below the surface, and an expected radius of action of 8000 miles. Whether they can do better than five per cent of this distance at the submerged speed—or, say, about 30 hours total submersion-—without replenishment of power is questionable. At all events, any submarine now known which has to cross the Atlantic before reaching her field of action must have extraneous means for renewing her fuel supply and for making repairs. That is, she must have a "mother ship," or a shore base within easy reach. Mother ships, usually surface steam vessels, are readily found and sunk, and we may be very certain that the United States Navy is seeing to it that no German bases are being established on the Atlantic seaboard, even in Mexico.

A submarine off the coast and 4800 miles from home and without available source of food and fuel is not much to be feared. The best she can do to protract her visit and give her people a rest from the dreadful noise of her machinery, the heat and the smells of her interior, and nerve-racking ever-present terror of destruction, is to find a place where the water is shallow, dive to the bottom and "go to sleep," in which condition she is not formidable.

Meanwhile consider what can be done to her while she remains our unwelcome guest, wallowing around in the ocean outside the ten-fathom depth.

Imagine an existence spent in a swarm of murderous hornets, for every mile of the coast will be soon closely patrolled by legions, of the speediest motor boats, each with a gun, little it is true, but quite sufficient to sink the intruder with a single shot the instant she shows above water. "We have been building hundreds of these craft and sending them to England. We are already at work on them for ourselves, and they are supplemented by everything available that can carry a small gun, from menhaden fishing boats to the fastest private motor yachts patriotically offered by their owners.

The new motor boats are of wood and very light, and just large enough safely to keep the sea. The submarine can not torpedo them, because she can not hit anything which is moving at a speed of 40 or 50 miles an hour. She can not torpedo one of them standing still, for the draft of water of the boat is far less than the depth at which a torpedo can run with any accuracy of aim, and, therefore, the torpedo will simply go under her. Besides, only a limited number of torpedoes can be carried on a submarine, and no more can be got without mother ship or base at hand. Moreover, it does not pay to sink a little boat with a missile which costs almost as much as the boat, itself. Of course, all the hornets are in communication— by wireless, if need be. If one of them spies a periscope out of hitting distance, the direction of travel is noted and the next hornet duly warned, and sooner or later another killing is effected. England is reported to have some five thousand boats of all sorts engaged in this business—and her sporting press is asserting that big game hunters are finding more real thrills in "potting submarines" from steam trawlers than in shooting tigers from elephants' backs in India.

It is by no means easy for a submarine safely to cross the Atlantic in full view, without being seen by the cruisers and converted fast merchant ships which are on the constant watch. To meet this difficulty, some people have suggested that an innocent-looking tramp steamer flying a neutral flag might bring over several small submarines on her decks and launch them at appropriate places. That resembles the alleged "secret" which, one of the "wilful" senators is charged with revealing when he talked about our sending motor boats in the same way into the German danger zone to help England, besides being reminiscent of Mr. Henry Ford's proposed submarine "jitney." As to these small fry, it may be sufficient to say that France, some twelve years ago, built a lot of them of only 40 tons-displacement, known as the "Guèpe class," and found them entirely too weak, enormously expensive in upkeep, useless even in a moderately smooth sea, unbearable to live in and impossible to launch safely in choppy waves. None the less, twenty more were built, called the "Naiade class," and discarded for about the same reasons, after trials extending over some six or seven years. Then M. Pelletan—who, as minister, worked such stupendous havoc in the French Navy—saw a congenial opportunity to do some more harm, and proposed to construct a perfect cloud of them, and, what was worse, make every battleship clutter her decks with them and get them overboard, somehow in the middle of a fight. Then we came along with our "Professor Parker" hardly two years ago, who exploited his infant submarines with illustrations in newspapers which did not know any better. And after that the "jitney"—and "the rest" let us hope, "is silence."

The submarine, being a mechanical fish, is just as catchable in nets as a shad. Great Britain has been using such nets with notable success. Sometimes they are of chain, sometimes of wire, sometimes of wrought iron frames linked together—with meshes from 10 to 15 feet square. They make the lane across Dover Straits, thru which millions of men and millions of tons of munitions have been safely ferried. They are laid across roadstead and harbor entrances, and in all sorts of places thruout the "danger zone." We are already establishing them. The submarine that gets caught in them usually remains. Off the coast of Britain one may see long strings of floats with the fast motor boats running constantly up and down the lines. If a float disappears, the first boat noting the fact circles around the spot, with her gun trained and ready. If the submarine comes up, she is instantly sunk. If not, because, entangled, the Watcher grimly waits five days to make certain that no life remains and then tells a destroyer which raises the victim and tows her into port. But even more dramatic is submarine catching by a couple of motor boats, a net and an aeroplane working together. The aeroplane assumes the role of hawk, and sees the submerged submarine as a hawk sees a fish, or else if the U-boat be too deeply submerged, recognizes the line of regular wave's which the latter always makes on the surface. A puff of black smoke trailing from the aeroplane or a wireless signal warns the boats, who rush ahead of the submarine and spread the net across her coming track. The victim's captain, seeing nothing, steering by compass, goes blindly on, only to find suddenly that something is wrong. The bow of his boat wants to do down, her rudders refuse to obey the helm; her screws may stop turning. He does not know what the matter is, down there in the dark. He may, shudderingly, suspect the great net in which he is enmeshed. If he cannot move, he knows that his buoyancy is only due to what air there is in his air tanks. He must go up or else go down, and stay there. Human nature prevails, and he goes up for daylight, and then the shots ring out. And after that—nothing but some bubbles and a long slick of oil on the restless sea.

Last summer the British Admiralty said that 127 German U-boats had been netted—the number since then is not announced.

There seems to be some apprehension lest our coastwise commerce be seriously menaced by German submarines. Torpedo attacks on steamers succeed best when delivered from the submarine in ambush, and gun-fire attacks when the victim is unarmed and slower than the assailant. It is reported from the British Admiralty that the very large majority of surface attacks on armed merchant vessels have failed. The actual figures show, that unarmed merchantmen have escaped in but twenty-four per cent of the gun-fire attacks, while armed merchantmen have escaped in the ratio of seventy per cent.

The surface ship, in many respects, has a natural advantage over the submarine, not only because she can carry bigger guns, but because her spar-deck being much higher out of water than the submarine periscope, a greater range of vision is possible, so that the U-boat may find herself sunk by an enemy which she cannot see, but which can see her. Recently steamers traversing the danger zones have completely screened themselves from submarines by the production of immense quantities of heavy black smoke. A submarine on the surface is a much less steady gun platform than the deck of a steamer, and hence guns on-the latter can be more accurately aimed. A six-pounder quick-fire gun can deliver twenty-two aimed shots per minute, which will penetrate the thin hull of a submarine over two miles distant as easily as if it were of pasteboard. Larger projectiles like four- and six-inch shells burst into many pieces, any one of which may end a U-boat.

Meanwhile, the inventors are not idle. After the position and direction of movement of a submarine are known, the chances of her destruction are great. It is already possible to make a submarine, entering or leaving a channel or roadway signal automatically her course and speed to a watching vessel in ample time to enable the latter to prepare for her. It is but a step beyond to cause a U-boat to reveal her own proximity to a ship on the open sea. So good people who fear that we may overlook the provision of a suitable reception committee for the Kaiser's submerged missionaries may take heart of grace and rest assured that there is no present reason for shivering over what thy may be able to do.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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The Headlong Fury