Reported in Scientific American this week in World War I, November 7, 1914
Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the man who built up the Imperial Navy of Germany, had dismissed submarines as a waste of money back in 1901. By the time the Great War broke out the British had at least three times as many submarines afloat as the Germans had. And yet the first notable success for the submarine as a weapon came on September 22, 1914, when a single German U-boat, later identified as the U9, sank three British cruisers, HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy in the space of about 47 minutes.
By the November 7, 1914, issue of Scientific American (the third “War Issue” focusing on the European conflict), the Allied naval powers-that-be were still trying to figure out how the Germans had accomplished this incredible feat with a weapon that had originally been envisioned as some sort of minor harbor defense vessel, more suited to skulking like a crab than hunting like a shark. It seemed inconceivable that a single submarine could cause so much damage.
One article in the issue noted, “It is reported that the loss of the three British cruisers of the ‘Cressy’ class was brought about by the co-operation of a scouting Zeppelin with the submarine which made the attack.” Not so. Our October 3, 1914, issue said, “the survivors of the ship seem to agree that the attack was made by a flotilla of five or more submarines.” Again, not so. It was simply good luck for U9 and bad luck for these three obsolete cruisers, whose destroyer screen had been driven off by heavy weather over the previous few days. Worse, inexperienced lookouts failed to see the submarine’s periscope or torpedo tracks, and the British captain therefore believed that HMS Aboukir had struck a mine. When the two other cruisers closed in to aid the stricken ship, the German captain pressed home his attack and torpedoed and sank them, too.
The cover wrap for the issue of November 7, 1914, has an overly dramatized painting of the event. When I first saw it I thought that all that drama seemed more National Enquirer than Scientific American. After all, a German torpedo in 1914 had about 300 pounds of explosive. That warhead is certainly enough to punch a hole in an armored hull, and in the case of HMS Hogue, witnesses thought that the torpedo detonated the stores of ammunition for the 9.2-inch guns aboard the ship. Yet I doubt that the 12,000 ton armored cruiser flew apart like a popped balloon. But it isn’t the technical details of the image that make it significant. Sometimes images are windows into the narrative that people weave about their understanding of the way things are. And here, the vigorous rendering of the subject makes it a visual testament to the new understanding of the submarine, which “at a stroke,” as we wrote in 1914, had established itself in a new place of prominence as a lethal naval weapon.
Extensive coverage of naval technology can be found in the full archive of our coverage of World War I, which we call Scientific American Chronicles: World War I. It is available for purchase a www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi.