Le sous-marin Gymnote

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from Blackwood's magazine (1910-sep)




  THE critics of the first of my two articles under the above title have considerately enabled me to fill a good-sized scrapbook with their opinions, and I propose, in this paper, to answer them.

  For the benefit of inconstant readers of 'Maga' I will recall my argument. In my first article I endeavoured to show that the submarine menace promised to become so serious that in a few years' time there would be no place for any great ship in narrow waters. I noticed the new lines upon which naval strategy would probably be directed in order to consort with these new conditions, and I regretted that no means had yet been discovered to combat the submarine menace by naval means with any assurance of success. In my second article I discussed the military use of airships in naval war, and ventured to think that they would eventually assume much importance not only in reconnaissance but in the attack upon ships, fleets, and flotillas, including submarines, at sea and in port. I limited my inquiry to the North Sea and the Channel, and did not travel beyond them.

  So far as regards the strategical aspect of the naval question, the majority of my critics are agreed that we cannot now repeat our procedure in the old wars. But a minority dissents strongly from this view, and as Mr. W.H. Wilson in 'The Daily Mail' has made himself the chief exponent of this minority, I will begin by subjecting his opinions to a little scrutiny. If Mr. Wilson does not like the strategy to which I have referred, I assume he knows a better, and the talented author of "Ironclads in Motion" must, I feel, have thought the matter out before committing a paper with so wide a circle of readers to a hopelessly impracticable policy at sea.

  But, as I read Mr. Wilson's article of June 7, I become much less confident that he has fu11y considered the course of action which he favours. He begins by describing my ideas as "The Policy of Running Away." I suppose that this is considered an effective headline. I mark it down as a flat-catching appeal to vanity and thoughtlessness; but it is interesting as an example of the kind of influence which may be brought to bear upon a Board of Admiralty in time of war. Now what is it that Mr. Wilson desires? He says that we should "attack the enemy vigorously on his own coast and prevent his ships getting to sea." I have already shown that the Germans assure us that this is the only strategy which we can adopt; and I do not blame them, for I could not name any strategy were I a German, that I should prefer the British Navy to attempt. To wear out the British Navy by an attack upon an iron-bound coastline, completely equipped with mines, coastal ordnance, and all modern paraphernalia for coast defence, would be, of all others, an ideal solution from the German point of view.

  Our object in this strategy according to Mr. Wilson, is "to prevent the enemy's ships from getting to sea." Is this our true interest, or is it not? I think it is not. Nelson has left it on record that, so far from desiring to prevent the French from getting to sea, he had, on the contrary, offered them every opportunity and inducement to do so, because, in his opinion, it was at sea that he could "realise the hopes and expectations of his country." Has the situation altered in this respect since Nelson's day? I do not think that it has altered, or will alter, until we can destroy the enemy's ships in their ports by the attacks of squadrons of dirigibles which we have not yet built.

  What is required by Mr. Wilson for his strategy? "A base favourably placed from the strategic point," he says. But then he lets us down by declaring that "up to date no such base has been created." He also desires "a very large force of destroyers"; and again relapses into an attitude of dejection by adding that we require "a much larger force than we at present possess." His opinion of submarines varies according to the side with which these vessels act. He says that the submarine is "extremely vulnerable above water," "at the mercy of the weakest ship which mounts a quick-firing gun," "moves so slowly under water that it can accomplish nothing against modern warships on the open sea," and finally, "cannot easily detect an enemy." But then, when in need of submarines for the uses of his own strategy, Mr. Wilson veers round and declares that the submarines of our blockading squadrons will be "a tremendous menace to an enemy seeking to put to sea." He thus endeavours to get the best of both worlds. In short, Mr. Wilson flouts, not my strategy, but Nelson's; asks our Navy to act from a non-existent base; admits that his strategy requires forces which have not been created; and rates the submarine at one moment as blind, slow, useless, and vulnerable, and at the next moment as a tremendous menace. The fogs which prevail in the North Sea are not apparently limited to that interesting theatre.

  Now I will turn to another hostile critic, namely, Mr. Bellairs, who, like Mr. Wilson, has done good service for the State by his fearless criticism of naval deficiencies. Mr. Bellairs, I think, left the Navy in 1902, and as our first submarine had at that time scarcely taken the water, I am in doubt whether this critic is practically acquainted with this class of vessel. Very naturally, as an ex-sailor, Mr. Bellairs attacks me on a technical point. In his first article in the 'Pall Mall Gazette' of May 31, he says that before people can agree to my revolutionary conclusions, they must set one part of my article against another. He singles out my passing remark that "submarines may be able to lay lines of mines," and declares that this "deserves to rank with a mythical German ship" which was once said by a distinguished politician to carry 30,000 mines. I then find myself reproved in the heavy father style for suggesting an absurdity.

  The trouble with some of our naval critics is that they have been spoilt. They seem to think, because they are so seldom tackled, and because they often write hastily and without weighing their words, that no one will ever question their dogma, and that every one else must be afflicted with their hasty temper. My first article was written in more or less popular style, and did not enter very much into detail, but for every statement in it upon matters of fact, and for a great number of the statements on matters of opinion, I can produce naval support. So far from mine-laying by submarines being mythical and impracticable, one of our leading submarine and torpedo experts namely, Captain Murray Sueter, R.N. declares in his masterly treatise on 'The Evolution of the Submarine Boat' that "the use of these craft for this purpose is quite practicable and could be developed." Captain Sueter shows that if the superstructure were recessed mines could fit in snugly, and that by arranging pneumatic releasing gear on the Drzewiecki system of firing torpedoes, "no insurmountable difficulty need be experienced in fitting submarines for this service, should it appear desirable to do so." Thus my myth is supported by the best expert opinion, and I recommend Mr. Bellairs, if he attacks me again, not to expose his vitals to return thrusts in such a careless manner.

  But I have not yet done with this critic. He says that the supporters of the submarine "almost despair of obtaining over 10 knots in the submerged position"; he says that we may "dismiss from our minds" my forecast that submarines may eventually be able to do much more than all that destroyers can do now; and he says that I "am not aware that surface speed can only be obtained at the expense of submerged speed."

  Now, as submersibles are at this moment under construction abroad designed for speeds of 12 knots submerged, the first of these notions was out of date at the moment when Mr. Bellairs rashly committed himself to it. I am certainly not aware that surface speed can only be obtained at the expense of speed submerged. The Gymnote had a speed of 6·5 knots on the surface and of 6 knots submerged. These speeds have both steadily risen, though according to Mr. Bellairs the submerged speed should have fallen as surface speeds increased. The latest type is designed for 20 knots on the surface and 12 submerged. It is obvious that the duplication in the source of power is not in theory advantageous. But the submarine must in practice carry ballast, and as electric accumulators which require no air, are noiseless, give out no gases, and allow an invisible course to be followed under water give this ballast in a form that is useful for many purposes, I am inclined to think that duplication of sources of power has certain compensations which we should not despise.

  I do not think that submarine officers are seeking just now for much greater submerged speeds. The question is a wholly different one. When naval architects first concerned themselves with the submarine, all energy was concentrated upon obtaining speed submerged. The lines of the salmon that is to say, a blunt head with a fine run aft naturally presented themselves as nature's model, and for several years attention was concentrated upon this type. I do not know whether Mr. Bellairs is acquainted with the report of the Philibert Commission, but I always date from the Report of that Commission in 1905 the birth of a quite dif ferent idea for the use of the submersible boat. The idea was that flotillas were not always engaged against the enemy, and that the submarine I retain our name, though I prefer the other should be so constructed that she might have better speed upon the surface, and only take cover in presence of the enemy. This idea, which is now in course of receiving its natural development abroad, is approved by all our officers of submarines who have spoken or written to me upon this interesting subject, and, for all that I know to the contrary, the Admiralty may concur with it.

  Now, I need scarcely point out that better speed on the surface requires a built-up forecastle, a line run aft, and great length compared to beam. Practical officers of submarines prefer this conception, because it enhances the offensive value of their vessels, improves their habitability, and adds to their sea-going usefulness. Navies are not always in contact with the enemy. For one day of battle there may be weeks or months of man&156;vre,** feint, or evolution. The rifleman does not take cover on the line of march, and why should the submarine?

  Only one or two of my critics appear to have the faintest conception of the coming type of submarine and of the extraordinarily interesting developments to which it must give rise. When I heard of the latest type of submersible under construction abroad a vessel of 900 tons surface displacement and 1200 submerged, giving the speeds to which I have already alluded I took stops to ascertain from our leading firm which constructs submarines, whether they could emulate or surpass this foreign model. I was informed that they were prepared to build submarines with speeds of 20 knots upon the surface; and when I inquired whether there was any technical obstacle to the increase of these speeds to 30 knots, I was advised that there was none, and that the only difficulty was financial. Submarine officers at the same time assured me that they would be well content if speeds submerged were only the half of surface speeds, so long as the latter enabled them to compete on equal terms with the destroyer upon the surface and to go one better submerged, while empowering submarines to catch, surround, and then dive and attack the sea-going fleet even when it took to flight.

  It has been suggested to me that the Admiralty, after being so severely rated for initiating the rivalry in Dreadnoughts, may be very unwilling to take the lead in this new development of naval warfare. This depends upon the amount of backbone in the Board of Admiralty. The question is, what would the critics of the late Board of Admiralty have said if some other Power, and not England, kind possessed our existing fleet of Dreadnought ships? I presume that the critics would have demanded the impeachment of the Board, and I am not sure that they would have been wrong. So long as we evade the first duty of citizenship at home, we are bound to be first in every conceivable new development of war at sea. If I were in a position of any authority, I should ask for submarines of 20 knots surface-speed this year, 25 knots next year, and 30 the year after, and I should rest content with submerged speeds of one-half these figures, or thereabouts. If we encourage our great firms now, they will carry out this work; but if not, some other Power will give us the go-by in submarines, as two or three have already done in airship design and use.

  Now I will turn to a somewhat different aspect of this problem. I am asked by several critics why I limit myself to the North Sea. Your argument, they say, must extend to the waters of the world, and your submarine must become the battleship dominating all seas. Well, it may; but I prefer to limit my inquiry to the North Sea and the Channel, because the sea-going qualities, speed, and range of submarines existing or in project do not at present authorise me to extend my argument beyond narrow waters. What developments the distant future may contain I do not desire to forecast, but I think it is clear that flotillas of submarines of the type which I have indicated may greatly enhance the advantages we possess from the ownership of the keys of the maritime world.

  Your theories are all very fine, say another batch of critics, but they have their counterpart in those of the "Jeune École" in France, and every one knows that this school wrecked the French Navy. I can only suppose that these critics are not well aware of the facts. Fifteen years ago, in the pages of 'The Nineteenth Century,' I described the naval policy of France', and gave my reasons for disagreeing with the ideas which lay at the base of the proposals of Admiral Aube and M. Gabriel Charmes. These authorities and their followers hoped to assail England with success by the war against commerce, and they expected to control the Channel by the action of torpedo-boats. I showed in my article my reasons for believing that these ideas were fallacious. It is a longish argument, which I cannot repeat now, but it was based on the fact that the means of that day did not appear to justify the hopes of Admiral Aube and his disciples. Neither the submarine, nor the modern mine and torpedo, nor the airship, had then appeared, and, differing in this from the naval critics, it is with these new means of war that I am concerned, and not with those that are out of date.

  I do not think that the "Jeune École" wrecked the French Navy, because this Navy is still formidable. The ills from which the French Navy has suffered date back to the Restoration, to the failure to carry out first Baron Portal's programme of 1820, and then in succession all the principal programmes, including those of 1871, 1879, 1881, 1891, 1894, or so on till the present day. With the greater part of this backsliding the "Jeune École" was not concerned, because it did not exist.

  When I began this reply to my critics I thought I should have a bone to pick with certain papers whose contributions on naval subjects are usually very well weighed and written by competent hands. I am referring specially to 'The Glasgow Herald,' 'The Western Morning News,' 'The Naval and Military Record.' These papers have done me the honour to comment at some length upon my article on submarines, and in a critical vein. But, after reading their comments again, I find myself so much in agreement with them that it is hardly worth while now to take up the few points upon which I differ from their talented correspondents. They have not given me any valid reasons for altering the opinion which I ventured to express on the future rocirc;le of the submarine, but I have weighed their comments very carefully, and am very grateful for them. As for the naval editor of 'The Army and Navy Gazette,' I notice that he declares that the functions of the Dreadnought are to keep the ring, and to leave the preliminary struggle to swarms of small craft. As this is also my argument, I do not feel greatly concerned when he tells me that my assumptions are whimsical and my conclusions absurd. He ought to know best how to describe the views which he holds.

  I have kept till the last a criticism which is certainly serious and deserves a serious answer. In the words of 'The Midland Evening News' my arguments "will be readily seized upon by those politicians whose sole concern is the reduction of naval and military expenditure at any cost whatever." This is quite true. They have been so used. I am plastered with Radical flatteries. To 'The Nation' I am "a diligent student of all warfare." To 'The Sheffield Independent' I am "one of our ablest strategists." To 'The Daily Chronicle' I am "a pre-eminent authority on problems of naval and military strategy," and I am even, for the nonce, in Mr. H.W. Massingham's good books. All this is most alluring, and I can only hope that when I ask for one hundred 30-knot submarines, and as many dirigibles with 1500-miles range and 40-knots speed, I may still be all to the Radicals that their fancy paints me. It will be a mere bagatelle of twenty-five millions or thereabouts, and I am confident that no good Radical could refuse this little trifle to my "pre-eminent authority."

  Naturally, I knew quite well that the anti-armament party would make play with my arguments and use them for its own ends. I thought it just as well that it should, so that our new problems might be more seriously thought out than they have been by our popular naval critics. It seemed to me that the hour had arrived for an examination of naval consciences. If there was nothing in the arguments that I used, I made sure that they would quickly be answered and disposed of. If there was anything in them, I hoped that adequate steps would be taken by the Admiralty to meet the new situation. I think that I have been criticised but not answered, and that in five years' time most people will hold the views which I have ventured, very inadequately, to express.