Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Has One of John Holland's Submarines Been Found?

One of the problems with being mortal is that you do not know how some stories end and one might really want to know. In science of course, this is obvious but maybe more dramatic than people realize. For those of us of a romantic nature, in the classical sense of romance, there are an amazing number of such stories. Where lies a missing ship? What happened to that expedition. For those of us with a particular interest in matters that involve what is called “intelligence”, then we are well aware that it is unrealistic to expect to know the real story for at least 50 years or more and most of us will not be alive by then.

The age of exploration, however you might define it, is filled with such stories. War, for better or worse, is filled with such stories. Sometimes no one survived to tell what happened. A missing platoon, a missing airplane, no one knows what happened or where. Then 50 or 100 years later a wrecked airplane is found in a field in the middle of the Ukraine or at the bottom of a lake and we have closure.

Some mysteries are partially solved, of course. If an airliner goes missing for over a year and no person or piece of that airplane is found, then you can be quite sure that a tragedy has happened even if we do not know what it was, where, when or why. If a ship goes on patrol and is never heard from again, then unless it really did go to the Twilight Zone or on vacation with the Space Aliens then something very bad has happened.

Sometimes you know in general what happened but not exactly where, and the bodies of your friends are never recovered.

Last week something happened off the coast of Sweden that helps to complete one of these stories. It happened in a somewhat amusing way (assuming the death of sailors can ever be said to be amusing). Sweden has recently been troubled by what they believe are incursions by Russian submarines up to some mysterious activities in Swedish waters. Their Navy believes that they tracked such a submarine for quite a while and that it may have escaped. The defense budget has been increased, people are on the lookout, there have been all kinds of false sightings.

Then, a week or so ago, a diver found a wrecked submarine off the coast within Sweden territory. A private firm was engaged by Sweden to investigate and found the wreck of a Russian submarine which went down with all hands. They thought the submarine looked modern, and they assumed it was a modern Russian midget / spy submarine, perhaps on a mission, perhaps being tested, and that it had experienced some disaster.

They were right that the submarine was Russian and that it had gone down with all hands.  Two officers and 16 crew.  Furthermore, the submarine was approximately 20 meters by 3 meters in size, very cramped quarters.

But it was not a modern Russian submarine. It is almost certainly a submarine in the Imperial Russian Navy which went down and which was lost with all hands in 1916. Not only that, but this may be a very famous submarine.

A model of the Royal Navy's Holland 1.  This would not be the same submarine design as the one that has been found, but it would be similar.  .

As readers of my blog know, the history of submarines is deeply interconnected with our culture, especially the tradition of American Musical Theatre. What you may not realize is that the people who built the original Russian submarines were Americans (well, immigrants to America) from Connecticut.  Designed in America, the first of class was built by Holland's Electric Boat Company, shipped to Russia, and assembled there.   

To briefly recap the history of submarines, they were a technology that came to fruition very early in the 20th century and which saw a lot of contributions from all over the world.  One of the pioneers of this field was John Holland, an immigrant to America from Ireland, who designed and built what is recognized as the first modern submarine.  That is, it was the first to have the important design elements that a modern submarine would have for the next 50 years.  Furthermore, he founded the company that built these submarines for many different countries, including the United States, Great Britain, and Imperial Russia.

In many ways the development of the submarine was similar to the development of the airplane.  It was an international development that achieved success at the beginning of the 20th century and was being used in a major war within a decade.  Airplane use has wildly expanded of course but submarine use, although in most navies worldwide, remain an eclectic tool used mostly for military and research purposes. 

Here is a biography of John Holland in the US Navy's Undersea Warfare magazine:

The first of the Som class was built in Connecticut, shipped to Russia, and assembled there. This may be that submarine. If so, there is other history here as this submarine may be the repurposed Fulton, an early Holland design that was built and then sold to Russia.   The articles suggest that is the case, but I am withholding judgment until we know more.

The sailors who manned that submarine are almost certainly still inside having gone down with the ship. In a submarine, this is fairly easy to determine without looking very hard.  If a submarine is at the bottom of the sea and its hatches are still closed, then very likely no one got out.  When leaving a distressed submarine, very few sailors bother to close the hatch behind them.



John Philip Holland on Wikipedia

Wikipedia articles on the discovery and the Som Class of Submarines

News story on a possible fragment from Amelia Earhart's plane

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