“We come unseen”


Having made its mark in September 1914, the submarine has since proved a vital component of the Royal Navy. John Ash unpicks the key numerics

HMS Salmon sank the U-36 in the first submarine-vs-submarine attack of World War Two. She was herself lost in July 1940


Germany operated half of all submarines used in both World Wars and in World War One its 373 U-boats ranked supreme. Combined, they sank 6,000 merchant vessels (some 13,000,000 tonnes) and 90 warships, including ten battleships. The conflict’s 34 highest-scoring submarines were all U-boats, with the U-35’s 224 ships and 539,711 tonnes unsurpassed even today.

In World War Two, 1,170 U-boats sank 148 warships – including two battleships, five carriers, six cruisers, 52 destroyers, nine submarines and at least 2,779 merchant vessels (also some 13,000,000 tonnes). The US Navy’s 263 submarines sank 1,113 merchant ships (5,320,094 tonnes) on 1,587 patrols between 1941-45, as well as 201 warships including a battleship, nine carriers, 15 cruisers and 22 submarines. US subs accounted for 54.6% of Japanese ships (and 25% of Japan’s warships), but with 20% losses – 52 submarines and 3,506 men – the US Submarine Force had the highest casualty rate of any American service branch. Kriegsmarine losses were 784 U-boats and 30,000 men, amounting to 75%. It lost almost as many U-boats (42) in May 1943 as the Americans lost in the entire conflict. Conversely, Britain’s Submarine Service constituted just 4% of Royal Navy strength in 1939, beginning the war with 60 submarines. In 1945 it operated 130 vessels, despite having lost 3,160 men and 81 craft. It completed 3,000 patrols, sinking 158 enemy warships, including 41 submarines. British subs also sank 1,670,122 tonnes of merchant shipping.

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