The Nangala Submarine Disaster and the K-Class Submarines of the First World War

May 2021

This episode has been inspired by the tragedy of the Nangala, a submarine of the Indonesian navy that disappeared earlier this month with 53 crew members on board and only 72 hours of oxygen to keep them alive. After 5 days of searching Nangala was found at a depth of more than 800 meters, split into three sections. This has led to a great deal of discussion in the press about submarine design. In this episode Dr Sam Willis talks with Andrew Choong Han Lin, curator of ships plans and technical records at the National Maritime Museum in London. They discuss the fascinating history of the British K-class submarines of the First World War that became infamous for their poor design. To go alongside this podcast episode we have animated the fabulous ship plans for the K-Class submarines that are held in the collections of the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum. Check it out on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast YouTube page.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Sam Willis 

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners mirror podcast. Today’s episode has been inspired by the tragedy of the Nanggala, a submarine of the Indonesian Navy that disappeared earlier this month with 53 crew members on board, and only 72 hours of oxygen to keep them alive. The submarine disappeared off the coast of Bali, 96 kilometres to the north, and debris from the sub, and an oil slick strongly suggested that she had sunk. Items recovered included a sponge from a thermal insulation sheet, a bottle of grease believed to have been used to oil the periscope, and debris from prayer rugs. All of which could only have come from inside the submarine. The submarine was designed with a collapse depth of 200 metres, but was operating in an area much deeper. After five days of searching, Nanggala was found at a depth of more than 800 metres. initial inspection of the sunken ship revealed that the wreckage was divided into three parts with the hull and stern separated. At this stage, it’s impossible to know what caused the incident, perhaps a material or mechanical failure that lead to catastrophic floods, perhaps a fire. This has led to a great deal of discussion in the press about submarine design. So I have taken the opportunity to talk with Andrew Choong Han Lin. Andrew joined the National Maritime Museum in 2004, and has held the post of curator historic photographs, ships, plans and technical records for about 17 years. His core responsibilities include researching, cataloguing, and facilitating access to this material. Although the collections in his care comprise a vast range of periods and subjects, Andrew’s particular research interests are, the Royal Navy, the US Navy, and Imperial Japanese Navy, during the period 1860 to 1945. This field of expertise has allowed Andrew to help us explore the fascinating history of British K-class submarines. These were steam driven submarines, designed and built during the First World War, and they were generations ahead of their time. But of the 18 that were built, six sank, and none of them through enemy action. Only one ever actually engaged in enemy U boat and its torpedo failed to explode. Their name K-class earned them the nickname calamity class. Among the many wonderful archives at the Caird library in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, is the magnificent ship plans collection, and one of the finest surviving plans of them all is of these K-class submarines. To go with this audio episode, we have animated one of these ship plans to help make sense of the infinite intricacies in this most beautiful, but very complicated drawing. So do please find that video on the Mariners mirror YouTube page, and also on the Instagram channel and the Society for Nautical Research’s Facebook. But for now do please enjoy listening to Andrew talk about this extraordinary moment in the history of submarine design and the troubled history of the British K-class subs. Andrew, thank you so much for talking to me this evening,

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Sam, it’s a real pleasure to be here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s just start about talking about this this terrible tragedy in Indonesia. What are your thoughts about that?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Well, to be honest, I don’t really know what to think, it’s early days really I know very little about the specific submarine that has been lost. But I know she’s a derivative of the Old West German type 209 diesels which had have a wonderful reputation for reliability and serviceability. And I would be fascinated to know what the Indonesian investigation throws up when they’ve completed their analysis. I find the fact that the submarine has been found in three pieces rather shocking. I’m curious to know what happened there.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to be discovered that the good thing about it I suppose from our perspective is it allows us to talk about the design of submarines in the past. Particularly to focus on what we’re going to talk about today, which is the K-class subs.  I’m really fascinated by these because they were so far ahead of their time, But at the same time, they had had significant design problems, didn’t they?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Indeed, I’m a great admirer of the K-class and the efforts that went into making them work, but you are quite right. I won’t go as far as to say they were foredoomed, but it was very much an uphill challenge for the designers, particularly in terms of the technology that they were working with at the time, and what they wanted to achieve with that technology.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, let’s start with what they wanted to achieve because they wanted a high speed fleet submarine didn’t they. Tell me about that.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Well, that the idea that you could have a submarine that could accompany the battle fleet was a very attractive one because most senior officers still thought in terms of setpiece fleet battles. One of the great frustrations of submarine technology was that virtually all submarine designs were too slow, and they couldn’t keep up with the fast battleships and battle cruisers. Just prior to the K- class, the British had developed the J class, which showed a lot of promise, these were fast subs. They weren’t fast enough to keep up with the fleet,  but it gave the Admiralty the hope that something could be developed which could, and they wanted a submarine that could could exceed 24 knots, which at the time was regarded as an impossibility.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, if you think about that, that’s, that’s such a high speed to be able to achieve. And let’s just put this in the chronological context. So it they were thinking about these designs, just before the First World War, and that’s so far ahead of its time.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Unbelievably so, yes. The the earliest discussions take place around 1912, 1913, and they overlap with discussions for what they call the Polyphemus design, which was which is difficult to describe really, she’s a very low profile torpedo cruiser with an incredibly high speed. The dimensions and the sorts of things they wanted to get out of Polyphemus are very similar to what they ended up with with the K class, and although nothing is provable, because unfortunately, the paper trail is not as dense as we would like it to be. One wonders whether the abandoned Polyphemus design had a new lease of life in the K class.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well,  you mentioned their size there. That’s interesting, and they were trying to build an enormous submarine compared to what had ever been before.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Oh, yes, very much so, they were aiming at a design that would have been over, whichever design was adopted, all of the proposals exceeded 300 feet in length, which was enormous for a submarine. When the case finally went into production, they averaged over two and a half 1000 tonnes submerged, so these were enormous subs. I’ve just tried to think what would be a good example, as a size comparison, when the first k-class was launched, I would say it massed about three times as much as a contemporary German u boat.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wow. That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I came across a comparison recently that said that  the K-class submarine was basically as long as Big Ben, if you’re in the middle, if you’re in the middle of London, and everyone can visualise just how big Big Ben is. That’s how large these these subs were being being designed as, which is an extraordinary thing. One of the fascinating things I find about the mystery is the idea of having a retractable funnel, so it’s almost like they weren’t they were half surface ship, half submarine.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, you’re absolutely right there, they were a curious hybrid, and the designers were a bit stuck because the only engines that could produce the required power to give them their surface speed. Were the sorts of engines you found in surface ships. Contemporary submarine engines simply couldn’t do it. So the K’s are very odd hybrids in a sense, because they do have the machinery that allows them to creep along slowly as any other submarine underwater, but an enormous part of their hull is given over to surface ship style engines. Which of course need funnels to feed fresh air down into the boiler spaces. And a huge issue with the case was how on earth do you solve this issue of needing to put holes in a craft, which by its nature wants to have a minimum number of holes in it?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, how did how did they solve that? If you look at the ship plans, particularly it’s quite extraordinary the size of the funnels?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, they employed an ingenious system of hydraulically operated, telescoping funnels. This technology had been in the Navy for a long time the Victorians had had it, but they’ve never applied it to something quite as imaginative and off the wall as this. So in theory, from the control room, the office is in command of the submarine could hydraulically lower the funnels and seal two pairs of watertight caps over the over the funnel openings to render them watertight. The idea behind making everything automated was, you cut down the amount of time it took before you were ready to dive. So on paper, the whole process could be completed within 30 seconds. It’s sometimes took a bit longer than that, but not much.

     

    Sam Willis 

    30 seconds. That’s extraordinary makes you think about the chaos that would have happened on board when they were preparing to dive.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Oh, yes, yes, and given the number of people who would have to be warned, because of course, you’d need to evacuate the boiler spaces anyway, when you were preparing to dive, so there’d be a lot of noise, there’d be a lot of people moving about, there’d be lots going on. And you’d have to be paying attention to this control panel waiting for a load of green lights to come on to tell you that the sub was sealed and ready to dive.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And you say that the the paper trail is quite limited. I’m fascinated by that. Because it’s one of these it creates a gap in history that historians will have to try and fill all their accounts of people sailing on these and struggling with the retractable funnels.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, there are quite a few accounts. The K’s seem a very divisive class of boats, some of their former crew and captains love them others absolutely lothe them. A couple actually changed their minds over the course of time. So in general, you get a favourable comment. There’s a lot of esprit de corps in the 12th and 13th submarine flotillas which were the K boats. But come the early 1920s in peacetime, a lot comes up to challenge the conventional wisdom that says that the boats were a success. The Admiralty, of course maintained that they were a success. But their record unfortunately speaks against them there. And there is of course, the terrible accident that befell K 13 when she was on her trials, and that was linked to a failure in the telescopic funnels which sank the submarine in the Garelock.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, tell me about that failure. When was that what happened?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    And she was undergoing her trials, it was 1916, I think and they had completed most of the manoeuvring trials and one diving trial successfully. And it was decided to do a second trial just to just to make sure the first one hadn’t just been a fluke. Unfortunately, what appears to have happened is that something obstructed one of the funnel caps, so it didn’t close properly. However, and this was a rather serious failure in the control room, the indicator board appears to have gone green across the board. So the poor fellows in the control room thought that everything was sealed up and ready to go. And so they dived the boat, not realising that there was a an open hatch. And because of the size of the aperture, it’s believed that the water when it began flooding into the boiler spaces came in at a rate of about 30 tons a second. So for men who are caught by surprise and a very little time to react, you’re not going to be able to close and shut a watertight door in the face of that amount of water. So K 13 sank very, very rapidly with 81 men aboard her. Where did that happen? Up in the Garelock in Scotland, where she was undergoing her trials.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And has her wreck been discovered.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    It was raised. They managed to salvage the hull a short while later and amazingly, they rescued something over 14 men. So there were a lot of fatalities, but many of the people aboard and this was a mix of submariners and civilian contractors who were trapped inside the submarine for quite a long time, but they managed to get them out in the end.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What a wonderful story.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, it was one of the more positive outcomes K 13, grim though it is, was hosed out refitted and put into service anyway.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I wonder I mean, one of the the real strands in the news was how long the poor Indonesian submariners had before their oxygen ran out. It makes me wonder how long they had to actually get the get the survivors of the K 13 up. Do we know that

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    We don’t know for sure how long they would have had. It wouldn’t have been long if the salvage operation hadn’t been as quick as it was. One of the one of the senior officers was able to make the surface and make contact with the salvage ships, so he was able to direct their operations and and help them locate the submarine. That was crucial, because arriving on the scene was what really guaranteed the rescue of the men inside, They were able to connect an air hose to the end of the submarine that held the survivors and so keep them going that way. And Because of the unfortunate experiences the Royal Navy had had with submarines in its early days, they didn’t just have the capacity to send them in air, they were even able to send them rations as well. So it didn’t matter that they were trapped down there for work, it was a matter of days. In the end, they were able to keep them alive until they could refloat that side of the submarine.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It opens up a whole window into the history of sea trials for submarines about which I know nothing at all. But it but it makes you realise that there has to be so much infrastructure around it and preparing for the worst. Should we talk a little about the earlier failed trials that the sore experiences that the Navy had had?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, yes, were they for the most part, they we were quite fortunate, or at least the Navy was I should say. Most of the sinkings occurred in shallow water, it was easy to rescue the men. There were one or two cases with the early boats where they simply dived and did not come up again. And they weren’t found until it was too late. The other great danger for submarines in the early days was manoeuvres. And this never stopped being a danger. But very often merchant shipping  in the submarines operating area was not warned that there were submerged submarines. And so it was not uncommon for a submarine to disappear during an exercise. And a few days later, a merchant man would put in, to be docked for repairs because it had hit something that had damaged its hull. And of course, the crew of the merchant ship would have no idea what to done this. The one submarine disaster that is remembered most after the case actually occurs later, at a time when you’d have thought this sort of thing wouldn’t happen anymore. But in the late 1930s HMS Thetis was undergoing her trials. She’d been built at Lairds in Liverpool. She suffered an accident and sank in similar circumstances to K 13. uncontrolled flooding, and lots of people were trapped inside the submarine. Only this time tragically, none of them were rescued. And this was 1938, I believe.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it makes you realise that, you know, the early history of submarine warfare goes back to the 19th century and makes me think of what was going on to the American Civil War. The other examples of people really braving a new world and having the courage, if you compare it to people flying to the moon. It’s not that incompatible when you get into a craft, and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to you.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    No, I think it’s a very good comparison, actually. You’re right, that isolation when you’re in a submarine, it is very similar to the isolation that you would get in a spacecraft. Realistically, if you’re in a vessel that relies on secrecy, to ensure its operational effectiveness, the downside of that is if something goes horribly wrong, half the time your own side doesn’t know where you are.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, gosh, that’s something to think about, isn’t it? So not only was there a problem with sealing that the hole in the funnels, but they weren’t very manoeuvrable these K class, were they?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    No, they were not. And I personally believe that one of the reasons they did not do well is that their crews were rushed into service. Ordinarily, with a vessel of this complex, you would want a long period of training and familiarisation. And it’s not to say that the K class crews were not trained, but they were having to learn on the job because their submarines were being commissioned and put straight into combat flotillas. And so every time you went out, it wasn’t into a safe training environment it was into into an environment where you’d potentially meet an enemy. So you had the added stress of that. The received wisdom seems to have been that if you put a highly experienced submariners in command of the ships, then that would somehow solve the problem. But it didn’t really because even for a very skilled sub Skipper or a skilled crewman, this is something completely alien to you. You’ve never served in anything this big before. Their handling characteristics are very strange. Like any large submarine, they are sometimes prone to doing strange things. There are many accounts of K class submarines suddenly nose diving and heading for the bottom. And most of the time this this problem could be solved, it could be corrected, and the crews just came back with bumps and bruises and a bit of gallows humour about what they’ve just been through. But on one occasion, o K class sub just vanished completely. And the fear is I don’t think the mystery was ever solved. It nose dived but unlike the shallow North Sea, they couldn’t count on the fact that the submarine was longer than the depth of the Water.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, yeah, gosh. One of the real shocking tragedies of the K class subs is what happened at the Battle of May Island in January 1918. Tell me about that.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    The Battle of May Island was a terrible tragedy and it has stamped an indelible horrific mark on the memory of the K class. Essentially, it was a large scale fleet operation which involved both squadrons of K boats. It was a night exercise so that the grand fleet was putting out and they effectively operated in a night cruising formation, so destroyers went ahead, then one of the K boat flotillas, then battle cruisers five miles behind them, then more K boats, and then battleships behind those K boats.  Operating at night, in a formation like that, when you’re in submarines that one wag described as vessels that had the speed of a destroyer, the turning circle of a battle cruiser, and the bridge and command control facilities of a patrol boat. Is possibly asking for trouble and the misuse of this weapon that you have in your hands. But even then, arguably the collisions that followed, because that is what happened. It’s called the Battle of May Island, but there were no Germans present, the 2 K boats that were sunk and all the other vessels that were severely damaged in this so called battle, Were down to navigational errors, collisions, things going horribly wrong in the darkness. But when when one examines the sequence of events, it arguably wasn’t the K boats fault. There were two patrol boats who do not seem to have been aware of the exercise somehow, which got in the way of one of the K boat flotillas, and one submarine K 14 swerved to avoid them, at which point her rudder jammed, and she was then rammed by one of her sister K’s. And this starts a chain reaction of events whereby ships coming up behind either suffer near misses or actually ram the stoped submarines. To make matters worse, the K boats that have gone on ahead here that their flotilla mates are in trouble, and their command ship,  actually turns around to try and assist, which turns out to be the worst thing they could possibly have done, because they add to the collisions and the chaos. So by the end of it, 2 K, boats are sunk outright, several more vessels are damaged, and many, many men are killed and injured for  no real purpose and no real gain, the whole exercise was a disaster.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And it’s not long before the K’s are sold for scrap is it.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    They don’t survive long into the 1920s. It’s partly that the Navy is having to make huge economies after the end of the  First World War, and they don’t try very hard to find a role for the K class, but there simply isn’t one. They can’t really justify keeping them. They keep the most advanced boat, which was completed in the early 1920s. And they use her as an experimental testbed for most of that decade, and then she too disappears. But the majority of the K’s really don’t stick around for very long.

     

    Sam Willis 

    But the idea behind them did, didn’t it? Oh, it did.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, I find it quite tragic that after all the effort put in to make this concept work, it didn’t work for them at the time. se, Now look at our nuclear attack submarines, and in terms of what we expect them to do, their capabilities, their speed, they basically are the fulfilment of the K class. So really, what what the poor Admiralty designers really wanted in 1915/16 was the ability to build nuclear powered submarines. But unfortunately for them, the technology simply wasn’t there. But it does illustrate just how far sighted they were.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, let’s just talk about the the the plan for the K class subs that you guys have at the Caird library at the National Maritime Museum. It’s a truly magnificent document. And I’m fascinated by ship plans full stop, but particularly ones that are kind of extraordinarily magically bewildering, and I don’t think there’s a finer example than the the plans of the K class subs.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    I think you’d be quite right there. Yes, I know what you mean. I recall the first time I ever unrolled any of the K class plans and even though I knew what they were, and I had a vague idea of what to expect, I looked at this thing and I just thought what on earth am I looking at, it’s like nothing on God’s earth which I suppose in some way is quite correct?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Exactly what it was? Yeah. Completely new

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes., a completely odd  way of trying to solve a problem. I love the  way the Admiralty’s draughtsman just embrace the challenge. It doesn’t matter how complicated it is, it doesn’t matter how downright weird it is. They’ve been told what to draw, they’re going to draw it. And they’re going to draw it in the most loving detail that they can.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it’s a work of art, isn’t it more than anything else. And you kind of get the sense that the people who were drawing it were thinking, this is this is better as a picture, than it is as a craft.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    I think that must have crossed at least some people’s mind. But I suppose orders from on higher are orders from on high.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, let’s talk about a few of the features that you can see on the plan because it’s really worth picking them out. And the guns are fascinating there. They are really lovingly picked out as well. Tell me about the guns on the K close.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, as designed,  the armament that is chosen for them says a lot about how people imagine them being used. And so the basic K class armament, as designed is two four inch guns for fighting on the surface, and a three inch anti aircraft gun. The latter I find very forward thinking,  but I suppose they were aware of the threat posed by German Zeppelin’s and sea planes at the time. So it wasn’t unreasonable that you’d want a gun capable of bringing down aircraft. The four inch guns do surprise me a little bit though, because the last thing you want to do when you’re on a submarine is engaged surface ships. And I can understand what they’re for. If you’re a commerce raiding submarine, then yes, by all means employ these things against merchant ships that have no chance of fighting back, it lets you save your stock of torpedoes. But the K’s are designed for fleet work, so I’m not entirely sure what was going on there because their main strength is in their torpedo batteries. The guns almost seem to be a bit of a Forlorn Hope to me that if you’re if you’re running on the surface, and you’ve had the misfortune to be caught by enemy surface ships, then perhaps you can at least make a spirited fight of it before you go under, but being a submarine you have no armour to speak of, you have no survivability to speak of, and you’re a whopping great target if you’re a K class submarine.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it’s a very good point. I’m  fascinated by the fact that on the drawings there, there are quite there are several aspects of the drawings, which actually didn’t exist in practice. So you’re looking you’re looking at a drawing or something was never actually used. And the four inch guns are one great example because they were so it was so wet that they weren’t actually used.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, yes, it was impossible to use them at speed. And that was another argument against having them because the poor fellows attempting to use them would have either been soaked or washed away, especially if your  batting along at 24 knots at the time. But it doesn’t stop the very odd experimentation, and as the war progresses, the K’s go through several armament changes. There’s a photograph from about 1917 showing one of them I believe it’s K 22. They’ve taken away her after four inch gun and replaced it with a depth charge thrower. Which is a fascinating thought that you’d somehow use a submarine as a surface patrol boat to sink a U Boat.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, yeah, but it existed and then obviously, you’ve got the the drawings of the funnels themselves. Do you see there’s such a curious shape? In they look a bit like a pizza oven, an enormous pizza oven kind of input in the middle of a submarine?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, they do. And they look very, very weird indeed. Especially as I if I recall correctly, they’re drawn half, half lowered on the plan, aren’t they? There’s a profile of them straight and they’ve also got the hinge bringingthem down into the casing. So it leaves you in no doubt as to how they’re supposed to work. But it does look very, very peculiar, that there’s something I don’t know whether it’s just because we’re so accustomed to seeing submarines, but there’s something about the profile that just strikes one as intrinsically wrong.  I’m reminded of a comment one of one of the midshipmen made when he trotted up to join I think it was K 17, he took one look and he remembers asking another sailor. That’s not a submarine surely, is it?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do you know what I think? The beauty of these plans is that they kind of they bring out the inherent submarine designer in all of us. I am not a submarine designer but I take one look at it and that’s not gonna work.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Brave efforts brave effort fellows, but no, no. What do you what you don’t mind me asking? What did you make of the broadside? torpedo tubes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, also Extrardinary. And it made me what just opened up a whole kind of can of worms about about tactics and what they were trying to do. So let’s talk about those torpedo tubes. And they got 10. I was amazed at how many there were 10, 18 inch torpedo tubes. And as you say they were, they were, well, four in the bow, but you’ve got four more abeam for broadside fire.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    There’s various reasons for that. In the case of the K class, we’re covering all the bases. But you might be surprised to learn that broadside torpedo tubes have actually been a feature of British submarines for a very long time. They appear in the famous E Class, which did very well. And they actually in some weird ways, seem to have been the preferred one to use. I’m not entirely sure why that was. But pour designers tended to favour broadside tubes, we put bow ones in as an afterthought, but really, you know, broadside was the way to go. And it’s only when we started examining foreign designs just before the First World War and we realised a lot of other people were putting most of their efforts into bow tubes and doing something else with the middle of the submarine. And that’s when our design is beginning. Well, that’s novel, but all right. So it’s a broadside tubes carry on in British submarines throughout most of the First World War, the K’s aren’t the only ones to have them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s interesting, isn’t it? I like the fact that he’s had to had a pair on a revolving mount on the superstructure as well, which is yet another feature which didn’t kind of work in practice.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Yes, it would have been washed to blazes by the spray. And the the the sheer interference from wind and wave made the operation of those tubes impossible, because of course they weren’t automated, there had to be some poor fellows there actually, man handling the things around. So you’d never fire those underwater as well. This is another interesting commentary on how people envisioned the K’s being used. I have a sneaky suspicion that in a surface battle, they almost wanted them to be high speed torpedo boats running on the surface, because that would make more sense of their speed in terms of keeping up with an enemy battle line. So that so the submerging would only take place if you got there ahead of the enemy fleet and wanted to set up an ambush. But if you turned up and they were already there, and you needed to chase them down, then for the poor Kay crews it would be a matter of pursuing them on the surface and trying to get into torpedo range. Weirdly enough, that’s the concept behind the aforementioned polyphemus type cruiser that this thing would just charge along and rely on its very low profile to ensure its survivability, at least until it could get into range to launch its torpedoes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, let’s talk a little bit about the poor people on board. What was the crew like on the K class considering it was so huge?

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    Well there wasn’t much space, you would expect a submarine like that to have relatively luxurious accommodation for its crew, and sadly, that was not the case. They needed just under 60 men 59, I think was the exact number. And 59 people is very hard to jam into even something as large as a K class submarine. Simply because it’s very nearly twice the number of crewman that you’d get in a conventional submarine. So all that apparent extra space vanishes very quickly. So for the ordinary men, you would have your bunks, which are little more than wire racks. very uncomfortable, I’m sure. In between the torpedo tubes forward in between the stowed torpedoes everywhere you could jam a human being in the machinery spaces aft just after the engine room, you’d you’d have some limited space where you could stick more people. The officers accommodation would have been roughly amidships near the control centre. And their accommodation would have been better as befitted men of their rank, but not much better. Looking at the plans and going over them with with a ruler, I can understand why you’re not advised to become a Submariner if you’re any taller than five foot five, because you’re in for a very uncomfortable time. If you are.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, go Yeah, and then got to hope that it doesn’t sink because someone forgot to shut the hatch on top of that. How do we how do we end this? I mean, is it are they the best subs ever designed because it was so ingenious what they were trying to achieve or were they the worst because they failed.

     

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    I think there has to be an element of both there. The executions of a brilliant idea was sadly lacking, but I think I think that the admiralty’s constructive departments history was probably not wrong when it said the boats were successful in a technical sense, but failures in an operational sense.  I think they were put in too quickly into situations they were not designed to handle, their crews were not given enough time to properly familiarise themselves with them. And in another sense, the intended use of them was wrongheaded. They were brilliant craft, but the tactical situation they were designed for was so specific, that the chances of them being able to prove themselves in ideal circumstances, were probably about as frequent as the chance the grand fleet got to show what it could do. And they’ve only got that one chance at Jutland.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hmm. It’s a very good point as well, that you know, that this this the same problem actually applies to the surface fleet as well.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    It does, yes, but I think it’s worth leaving the last word with the Germans, because like every other Navy, the Germans had considered the idea of the high speed cruiser submarine. And their designers had been given a similar set of specifications fairly early in the war, and rather flatteringly for their British counterparts, the German designers looked at the resources they had available, looked at the specs for this class of submarine and their answer basically boils down to, you cannot do this, it’s impossible. It is beyond the capacity of human technology to achieve such a device, it cannot be done. And yet in 1918, to their surprise and horror, because they don’t know what happened at May Island. They see the British fleet has these enormous high speed submarines, which a few years before they told their own Navy were utterly impossible for anyone to create. So I think some credit must go to the Royal Navy for attempting it, even though it was a terrible, terrible failure in the end that costs the lives of nearly 300 people, both Royal Navy submariners and civilians who were we’re working on them. But it was a brave effort. And perhaps some would say maybe worth trying. If they had been a success. We would have been singing their praises ever since. But it was not to be.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful, thank you so much for talking to me this evening. It’s a new chapter in the history of the maritime world that I really want to find out more about. Thanks, Andrew.

     

    Andrew Choong Han Lin 

    It’s been a real pleasure, Sam, thank you for the opportunity.

     

    Sam Willis 

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