X-1: THE ROYAL NAVY’S MYSTERY SUBMARINE

Reviewed by: RICHARD SHARPE

On reading the fairly horrific account of the brief life and early abandonment of this British submarine gun-armed cruiser, you can’t help wondering if it does not reflect the then Admiralty’s negative attitude to the whole concept of underwater warfare. No secret was made of the opposition to these “damned un-English weapons” and “dishonest way of fighting wars”.

The story of the submarine X-1 was of a single design laid down at Chatham in November 1921 and commissioned on 25 September 1925. In her short-lived career there were frequent problems. Endless engine failures, the occasional main battery explosions, trim tanks rupturing, poor dived controls, and inadequate accommodation. The final disgrace was when she fell over on her side while being dry-docked at Chatham. The outcome was that in December 1933, she was laid up in Fareham Creek, and three years later broken up at Milford Haven.

The submarine was classified as an underwater cruiser with two twin 5.2” guns, of which there is no record of their ever having been fired in anger. Although she did reach the stage of being deployed to the Med from 1927 to 1930, the narrative suggests that her most successful mission was to keep the dockyards at Malta and Gibraltar fully employed.

The concept of the gun as the primary weapon system on a submarine had almost as little appeal to the submariners as it did for their Lordships, but some fanatic must have been driving the concept forward and one senses it was the desire of the world’s largest navy not to be left behind while others were experimenting with the idea of submarine cruisers. Such was the unreliability of many of X-1’s components – particularly her main engines – that at the time the issue of deliberate sabotage was debated but never proven. For those brought up to serve in the concept of a Silent Service, the idea of a submersible gun-firing cruiser was also anathema.

After the failed Mediterranean deployment, proposals for a sister ship were abandoned and X-1 was laid up and scrapped after less than a decade in service. The mechanics of hydraulically raising the gun controllers on surfacing was abandoned and ultimately single guns were fitted and manned from adjacent upper deck hatches. The primary armament became torpedoes fired from fully submerged, until the advent of cruise and ballistic missiles, both of which can be launched at pre-determined targets from a dived submarine.

This story of one of the Navy’s greatest ship construction failures is meticulously laid out in detail by the author who writes and lectures on military history of the Second World War. He acknowledges the key role played in researching this account was provided by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport.

The book was first published in 2012.