World War Two: Submarines return to War

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Submarine operations in World War Two

The British submarine fleet steadily shrank throughout the interwar period due to the various appeasement policies agreed between the major naval powers. Only around 30 British submarines were ready for service at the start of World War Two, although about another ten were also under construction. An Emergency Building Programme began in order to increase these numbers. Rear Admiral B C Weston commanded the Five Submarine Flotillas, until succeeded by Vice Admiral Sir Max Horton in January 1940.

'The Submarine Sets Out on Patrol' poster, World War Two
'The Submarine Sets Out on Patrol' poster, World War Two (RNSM)

The major operating arenas for British submarines were mainly in the Mediterranean, as well as the North Sea, Norwegian waters and Barents Sea. They also served in the Far East in the East Indies and Indian Ocean, posing an unrelenting threat to Japanese shipping operating in the Malacca Straits and the coast of Malaya. In addition to hunting for other submarines and shipping, the boats laid mines and towed midget submarines. They also assisted with clandestine operations, such as landing agents, small raiding parties and beach reconnaissance teams.

Painting of Operation Hatch
Painting of Operation Hatch (RNSM)

At the outbreak of hostilities, Britain was convinced that enemy submarines no longer posed the same threat as in World War One. The Navy's confidence emerged from technological developments such as ASDIC and more efficient depth charges.

However, the Royal Navy's operations during the war still took a heavy toll on submarines and also submariners' lives. Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that "There is no branch of His Majesty's Forces which in this war has suffered the same proportion of total loss as our Submarine Service. It is the most dangerous of all services". Many of the volunteer crews paid a heavy price during the conflict, with one in three submariners killed. In addition to the hazards of inshore navigation and Axis anti-submarine forces, crews faced the ever present danger of mines. Estimates state that half of the 74 British submarines lost during the war fell prey to mines.

Follow the links to find more about...

Northern operations

Operation Source

Mediterranean Campaign

Far East Campaign

HMS Trenchant


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