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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 01:47 GMT
Underwater and 'damned un-English'
HMS Victorious
A visual treat in the open air for HMS Victorious' crew
By BBC News Online's Matthew Davis

The current world crisis has thrust the UK's submarine fleet back into the spotlight as it celebrates its centenary, after Royal Navy vessels launched cruise missiles in the first wave of strikes in Afghanistan.

But the technological precision of today's nuclear-powered underwater warships is a world away from the fleet's beginnings 100 years ago.

When the first submarines emerged they were widely condemned - famously by Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson - who labelled them "underhand, underwater and damned un-English".

Holland I
Holland I was raised from sea after 70 years
Despite the affront to conventional military etiquette, Britain could not remain the only major maritime power not to have at least an embryonic submarine flotilla and in 1901 the Holland I was launched, establishing the Navy's underwater warfare arm.

Early vessels had basic capabilities and a limited range of barely 50 miles - on some vessels, three white mice were kept aboard to warn of dangerous petrol exhaust gases.

But it was not long before submarines became more effective offensive weapons.

The Royal Navy's first diesel powered submarines - the E-class boats of World War I - established the silent service's credentials and lay to rest its reputation of being manned by "unwashed chauffeurs".

Operating in the Baltic and Dardanelles they sank 54 enemy warships, including 19 submarines.

Submarine progress
Max speed 10 knots
Could submerge for 20 hours
Depth no more than 300ft
Max speed more than 25 knots
Stay submerged until food runs out
Dive to more than 800ft
From their ranks emerged names like Horton, the first CO to fly the Jolly Roger, and Holbrook, the first Naval Victoria Cross winner in World War I and the first in the Submarine Service - later followed by 13 others.

Between the wars, design hardened into a diesel electric boat with torpedoes and a small bore gun for armament.

Such vessels had a good range but had to surface to keep up with surface ship targets. It was with this type of submarine that the warring factions entered World War II.

Wartime Royal Navy operations took a heavy toll on submarines and submariners' lives.

X-craft: A WWII mini-sub
X-craft: A WWII mini-sub
In addition to the hazards of inshore navigation and anti-submarine warfare forces, mines presented a huge danger and it is thought that 50% of the 74 RN submarines lost during the war fell prey to that weapon.

Winston Churchill described the life of the submariner as the most dangerous of all occupations, but British boats excelled in the conflict and sunk about 2 million tones of enemy shipping, 35 submarines and 22 warships.

Stories of submarine exploits during World War II are legendary. Cloak and dagger operations, which were immensely dangerous but always rewarding and vital to the war effort, figured largely in the tapestry of submarine operations.

There were also many achievements by the mini-submarines, the X-craft and the Chariots.

Life on board
No sunrises or sunsets
Bunks shared by on/off duty crew
No women submariners
Each man wears radiation monitor
After the war, the Royal Navy continued experimenting with power systems to enable submarines to stay submerged and at sea for as long as possible.

Britain's first nuclear submarine - or SSN - was commissioned in 1963 and over the next 20 years the Navy built up its SSN fleet at the rate of one every 15 months.

The Trafalgar class vessels - which still form the backbone of Britain's SSN capability - have superseded both the Valiant and Swiftsure classes.

The boats' primary role is to escort the larger Vanguard class vessels - the SSBNs based at Faslane in Scotland - which carry Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent.

Silent future

The laying of the keel for the HMS Astute in January 2001 took the Royal Navy into its second century of submarine operations.

The Astute class will be about 30% larger than the Trafalgar Class and will be equipped from day one to operate cruise missiles.

Royal Navy officials say the SSN community has made a "decisive break" from its Cold War emphasis on anti-submarine warfare to embrace the Navy's new operational concept of Maritime Contributions to Joint Operations - as witnessed off Afghanistan.

The introduction of new secure communications links will provide the improved connectivity essential for operating in conjunction with other task force units.

Advances in the technological areas of digitisation, miniaturisation and information processing, will enable the submarine to become an increasingly valuable asset in covert intelligence gathering operations.

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