Why is the British WW2 Submarine fleet so hidden from public history?

The British are good at praising the armed forces. Valor is recognised. Heroic struggles, even in defeat, are lauded, praised and held up as a symbol of British resolve. The men of the RAF are held up as heroes for their efforts in the Battle of Britain. Bomber Command sees raids such as the Dambusters operation turned into a blockbuster film. The army has Monty on a pedestal, with his men praised for courage where the objectives were never met. The Royal Navy and Merchant Fleet see the Battle of the Atlantic portrayed, rightly, as a critical victory over the U-Boat threat. Yet what of the British World War 2 submarine fleet? They seem almost as invisible in the history of the war as they were while operating in it.

British S Class Submarine

It’s possible that most people would assume that at the beginning of the war in Europe, that Germany had the most submarines in operation. That would be driven by the popularised stories of the Battle of the Atlantic and the fight against those submarines. It isn’t actually the case though. As Britain declared war on Germany, she had exactly the same number of submarines as the Kriegsmarine. More, once those of other nations came under British command. So why are the 57 submarines of the Royal Navy in 1939 forgotten? Why is there no public acknowledgement of the role they played? Why is the expansion of that fleet and the role that submarines from the fleets of the Empire are barely mentioned in popular histories and the media?

Related Links: The Second World WarThe Battle of the Atlantic

The story of the British World War Two Submarine Fleet isn’t as widely broadcast as other parts of the armed forces. There are various reasons for this:

  • Submarine warfare is, by its very nature, harder for people to see.
  • It is a far more secretive form of warfare. Submarines do things that are covert, the plans for which are sensitive as they could feasibly be reused or diplomatically sensitive.
  • There are fewer survivors from the sinking of a Submarine. If you consider the accounts of famous Battleships, many are from those who escaped the vessel. In the Second World War there were just four individuals who escaped from a sinking British submarine.
  • There are fewer eyewitnesses to the actions of a submarines efforts. If a submarine attacks at night, in open waters, and sinks the enemy, who has seen it happen? It’s limited, at best.

All very logical. Secrecy, hidden from sight, it all adds up to the Submarine fleet being hard to portray in the media. The same would apply to the submarines of the Kriegsmarine though, or the Japanese Navy, or the Italian Navy. Yet those accounts are quite well known. There are feature films about U Boats. Why not about the British successes? It seems odd that some combatant nations would utilise the heroics of their submarine fleets and others don’t. The captains of U-Boats who were successful were national heroes, yet in Britain the names of Submarine heroes were not public. That remains the case to this day. Why?

The reason may be quite simple. To have a hero to use for propaganda purposes, you have to have success. The British Submarine fleet in the early days of the war didn’t enjoy the successes of the U-Boats. They were active but the role they played was not as significant to the bigger picture. Crucially, they were also suffering heavy losses. It was an area to be kept from public thoughts.

At the beginning of the war the submarine fleet was to lure the Wehrmacht into invading Norway through mining operations. Strategically this would weaken the Wehrmacht in other theatres. The Submarines arrived after the German High Command had invaded for other reasons. Minefields were laid but the impact was limited.

Submarines were also deployed into the Mediterranean. Here the story was not of too little, too late. It was one of desperation. Of the submarines sent by the British into the Mediterranean, 2 out of every 5 sank. Added to this was the frustration at the enemy not being severely hampered. With Allied Merchant Shipping being hit by U Boats, the thing that was needed for morale was the same in return. It simply didn’t happen until well into the war. In 1940 less than 1% of Italian shipping to North Africa was sunk. The British lost 9 submarines in the Mediterranean in this period.

Things did improve for the Submarines of the Royal Navy. Comm. Malcolm D. Wanklyn is credited with sinking 21 Axis vessels. However he was killed in action in 1942 and remained the most prolific British submarine commander until the wars end.

Successes did happen though. The British Submarine fleet engaged in underwater combat against the U-Boats. Over the course of the war 12 U Boats were sunk by British submarines, 4 British ones being sunk by U Boats. 1942 saw the Submarine Fleet enjoy more success in the Mediterranean. In October, submarines sank 13 enemy ships, including a Destroyer. By 1943 the Allies had dominance of the skies over the Mediterranean and air attacks and submarine attacks became much more effective. Key to the improvement in Submarine attacks was the breaking of the German codes. This allowed a picket line of British submarines to be place in advance of any Axis convoy. The Axis presumed that convoys were spotted from above and regularly failed to evade the waiting Submarines.

The successes were still relatively limited compared to those that the U Boats had enjoyed at their height. The submarine force was stretched until mid 1943 in the Mediterranean. Malta became virtually unusable as a naval base. Vessels sailing from Gibraltar or Alexandria were limited in what they could achieve. It wasn’t until combined forces enabled the use of docks in Algeria that things really improved. Then, there was the Far East, adding further pressure to the Submarine fleet.

The Japanese entry into the war in December 1941 led to logistical problems for the British submarine fleet. Many of the Far Eastern fleet had moved to European and African duties. Now, war was being waged in  Asian waters as well. Submarines were needed there as well. Consequently both theatres were left short of the numbers of submarines that would be ideal.

Building replacement and addition submarines was important. Losses of submarines were low in number when compared to the surface fleet. Proportionally the figures remained high though. 11 out of 15 submarines that were deployed to the Mediterranean in 1940 were lost by the end of the war.

Major success for the submarine fleet came through the use of midget submarines. These did receive acclaim. The Highly prized target of the Tirpitz was attacked by this new form of submarine. Designed specifically for this operation, midget submarines entered a Norwegian Fjord and struck the ship, rendering her unseaworthy. Midget submarines then went on to play a role in other operations. They attacked Japanese positions, including inflicting serious damage to a floating harbour. They were used in the build up to D Day to collect samples from beaches and on the day of the invasion they were used as beacons to guide the invasion fleet.


UBoat.net – entry on British Submarines of World War Two

Madmonarchist – excellent article covering the history of the British Submarine during the war.

War History Online – X-craft, the British Mini submarines.

Operation Outbreak – the British Fleet in the Far East.