Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures) wrote,
Marcus L. Rowland

Another article - A Trip on a Submarine, 1903

Here's a 1903 article describing an early submarine trip. DO NOT READ IF YOU'RE CLAUSTROPHOBIC!!!

And I really mean that, it's uncomfortable reading if you are at all sensitive to enclosed spaces! As usual all comments gratefully received. The version on the FF CD-ROM will have larger illustrations, this is otherwise the same.

From The London Magazine, April 1903




OFF the coast, on board an up-to-date submarine, one of a little company to descend into the depths of the sea! The situation is sufficiently exciting for anyone, but no trace of it appeared on anyone on board, for your naval man is proverbially cool under all circumstances, and on the present occasion every tar—old torpedo craft men all—was on his mettle, zealous for his commander and his boat.

Grim, ugly, but workmanlike, looked the interior of the porpoise-shaped craft, reached by a circular hole which does duty for hatch-way, the apartment thus gained showing an almost bewildering array of gasoline and electric apparatus, charts, compass and wheel. Everything is, of course, compact—and it needs to be, for the entire dimensions of our rolling temporary home are but 118 ft. by 9 ft., the steel-walled space within which we are now standing being still smaller. As may have been gathered, electricity is our motive power for below-surface, and we have a combination of accumulators charged for a journey of 100 miles. At the stem we carry an aerial torpedo, which in time of war would charged with about 100 lb. of dynamite, as well as two others; one at the other end for using beneath the water, also a single Whitehead. Beneath the engine-room, and worked from that place, are the heavy detachable weights to be brought into use when we are ready to rise, should the machinery controlling the ballast compartment fail. Also, we carry the sections of a collapsible boat, which can be connected in a trice, should necessity for its use arise. Moreover, we have a series of speaking tubes from cabin to engine-room and conning tower, which carry instantaneous communication of weal or woe. Still, we shall presently be on that side of the water where all the precautions in the world may not avail us at the last minute.

A preliminary run out, the roll and vibration of which test the staying powers of any landsman's internal system who may be on board, and we make ready for submersion. There are two ways for the boats to go down—one is to come almost to a standstill and then descend, the other to do so when under way. Strange to say, the latter is the easier and better. To the lay mind this is the more inexplicable, inasmuch as the ballast compartments (which are situated in the hold) have to be filled with water in order to accomplish the descent.

But we are now hermetically closed in, and begin to notice with greater distinctness the queer sound of the waves washing overhead, heard from the interiors of all submarines.

We are standing in the midst of a brightness given out by the electric radiators which is almost like the glare of the midday sun, when a motion something like the slowing-down of a swing is felt, and presently the sound of the overhead wash ceases utterly and profound external silence takes its place. One or two of us—new to the sensation—glance covertly at each other and think of possible mishaps to the gear; all the bad disasters we have ever heard of flash like lightning through our brains.

The terrors of predicted mal de mer sink utterly into oblivion by the side of the uncanny sensation of going down to depths unknown for adventures of uncertain quantity.

The lieutenant in command stands steadfastly regarding his instruments and not a sound is heard save the movement of the machinery, when a sub. reports that the pale, green light which is apparent when only a few feet down has entirely vanished, and all without is now black darkness. The periscope, which is a telescopic tube-like arrangement fitted with lenses and mirrors like a camera-obscura, is gradually extended to the full length of twenty feet, and by this a practised eye can take certain observations as we descend. That is, the hull of a ship under which we may be passing can be describd; but it would bring to us a decidedly more comfortable feeling did we not know the range to be so limited. We are quite conversant with the fact that no vision can be brought to bear upon the surroundings—nothing can pierce the dense darkness, for more than a few feet, nothing can avert a catastrophe should we come upon a sunken ship or submerged rock.

But these cogitations occupy in reality only a few seconds, and meanwhile, in accordance with the indicator, we have reached a depth of forty odd feet, then cease our descent and proceed on a preconcerted course. We move slowly, about six knots per hour, in fact, though the boat is said to be capable of eight knots, or even mcre. The motor continues to thud, though quietly, and the silence is occasionally broken by a brief word of command or the sound of an electric bell—nothing more—and we stand with strained attention, almost holding our breath in wondering anticipation of the next change of movement or the next happening. For experimental purposes, we are still supposed to be moving beneath an enemy's ships and to the waters beyond, where we shall, if possible, reconnoitre when only partially submerged, use our torpedoes in the order which shall be presently named, sink again to our present level—or thereabouts—and do a test distance and time run. The officer in command continues to study compass and charts, and we keep steadily on for what seems to be an interminable time, but is, as a matter of fact, rather less than an hour. The atmosphere so far has not caused any great inconvenience, although fumes are distinctly evident, and it is rather too warm to be altogether pleasant.

But now comes a sudden change, the lever connections are again brought into active use, the water is released from the ballast compartments, we commence to rise to the surface and another such peculiar sensation is realised as cannot well be described.

When within a few feet of the surface our periscope is again extended, the report "all clear" is obtained, and an officer springs up the narrow metal ladder of the conning tower to take observations from the glazed porthole as soon as the latter is exposed.

Then we are confronted with a happening to which all submarine vessels are liable. We are out of our reckoning! We should have come up within a few hundred feet of a friendly cruiser, representing an enemy, whereas we are a considerable distance away. No great matter in the present instance, but of much importance if the contest had been other than mimic! This, indeed, is one of the problems of submarine warfare—the difficulty, nay, almost the impossibility of keeping the bearings; one cause of failure being the fact that the electricity interferes with the compass needle; the other, the lack of vision-directing power. The use of the gyroscope may partly obviate this in keeping a given course, but the slightest deviation causes a total loss of whereabouts, and the instrument is, of course, useless in following a moving object.

However, here we are upon the surface, and for a few moments we pause for the next proceeding. Then we again sink, this time to a depth of only about 15 feet, and steer our way for the cruiser. Carefully we take the surface again with our conning tower, and then finding ourselves within the desired distance of about 500 yards, discharge our aerial torpedo—of course, with blank wads. This is ejected by compressed air, and the space is instantly filled with its equivalent weight of water. We are only just in time; the enemy has sighted and turned his guns upon us, and the sound of a distant report is heard as, with a violent oscillation, we sink swiftly and escape the charge which dashes into the water above us. Now we race at our best under surface speed for a .distance of about 100 yards, then fire our Whitehead through the water, sink a little lower, pass under the cruiser and fire the stern torpedo. The latter, in actual warfare, is only used in event of previous failure, and a smart command would consider it highly reprehensible to have to resort to it, unless under very exceptional circumstances. All this has been successfully carried out, and we come to the surface and watch our torpedoes being picked up, since they had previously been adjusted to float. We are more or less excited and warm to the work, but the very fact of firing the torpedoes causes us to conjecture as to our probable position in grim action!

We cannot lose sight of the fact that there would be great danger to our own craft when firing, for the simple reason that wholesale destruction is effected at a greater radius beneath than above surface—in other words, our slow speed of retreat might mean that we are ourselves involved in the destruction we have hurled at the enemy.

Then, again, sound does not carry to any distance underwater, even the firing of heavy guns not being easily perceptible. So that we might at any time find ourselves in very undesirable quarters when we least expected to be. Also, we must always stand the chance of encountering other submarines, either our own or those of our opponents. How are we going to act then, for there is not the slightest chance of distinguishing friend from foe. It comes to this—self-defence is out of the question; one must either make off and trust to being lost in the darkness, or must immediately attack regardless of the individuality of the other boat. In any case it is a vexed problem, and there seems to be no satisfactory
solution. Immediate attack has been advised, truly an ugly outlook for any submarine crew.

The vessel we are now experimenting with claims to be able to remain under water for twenty hours if necessary, but we are not seeking to cover that space of time on this trip. We are merely manoeuvring for three or four hours, one of which has already expired. So we again make the inevitable descent and take a fresh start. By this time the heat is becoming abnormal, but on we go in accordance with orders, and every minute we seem to get warmer, and a sense of suffocation begins to creep over us.

We wonder how much longer we can endure it, and if we shall survive the ordeal at all. We almost forget to wonder whether the unreal ghastly look on the faces that we see is due solely to the vivid white glare of electricity, or whether they, too, are feeling the sense of suffocation we are. On and on we go, we lose count of time, feel our heads swell, as it were, and our eyes grow misty. Suddenly, one of our number is seized with violent sickness, due to the fumes, and the rest of us look curiously at each other. We have just energy enough to conjecture as to our fate if the engineers are taken ill; we are conscious of a humming in the ears, a still more laboured breathing, and we grasp that we are registering a temperature of over 120 degrees, and we want fresh air!

We begin to feel an indescribable lassitude creeping over us, when suddenly one of our number falls heavily to the floor in a dead faint, and there is instantly as near an approach to a panic as there can possibly be among a well disciplined bodyof men! The lieutenant is prompt to act under such an emergency; he at once brought the boat to the surface, casting off the detachable weights for greater speed. Truth to tell, we were none too soon, for by the time we were well up, a matter of seconds only, another man showed signs of collapse, and each one looked the worse for the experience. The man-hole was hastily opened for the long-sighed-for fresh air, but so altogether strange was the effect of the sudden inrush that it seemed for the time to increase our breathlessness and uneasiness. In two or three minutes, however, this wore off, and the major portion of our little company began to revive a little. On consulting chronometers we found we had been below water exactly two hours and forty-five minutes. We made for our starting point as quickly as possible, but one of our number had to be carried to a room of the pier pavilion when we did arrive, where he was some time in regaining complete consciousness.

We all, without exception, felt some ill effects from our trip; for a sense of suffocation, an extreme temperature and perhaps nausea into the bargain, are not quickly and easily thrown off, to say nothing of the terrible nerve strain of the ordeal!

That the men are not able to do submarine duty for any length of time is not to be wondered at; the wonder is that any can be found to do it at all.


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