Submarine Improvements

By the time Vickers Son & Maxim, now known as VESL (Vickers Engineering & Shipbuilding Limited), were contacted by the Admiralty to begin building the first of the ‘E’ boats, the company had already gained much experience in what was still a relatively new field of Naval engineering.

Vickers first venture into submarines was the building of the ‘A1’ at Barrow in Furness in 1901, which was launched on the 9th July 1901, 1, and was, “… the first of a new British designed class.”2 Vickers had also built the ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ class boats before taking on the new ‘E’ class in 1910.

We have already mentioned some of the features that were designed into the ‘E’ class that helped to make it a fairly popular boat amongst submariners.

Cross Sections - Plans AE1

One of these innovations that directly reflected on Vickers was the motive power installed in these boats. The Admiralty opted for the Vickers designed and built diesel engine. Two of these eight in-line cylinder engines were installed. Diesel, or heavy oil engines as they were called, had already proved to be infinitely safer for submarines than petrol engines. An interesting note is that “the first submarine with a diesel plant was the British ‘A13’ and, with a Vickers fuel-injection system, it was running successfully by 1905. It proved more efficient and more economical than petrol engines of the period but it was three years before the first of the ‘D’ class, specifically designed with twin screws for diesel propulsion, was launched.”3 This of course was the ‘D1’, launched in 1908.

Underwater propulsion was by means of electric motors powered by battery storage. The batteries were very large, as can be imagined, of 112 cells each and transferring 550 hp to the propellers via a star clutch connected to the drive shafts. Unfortunately, the ‘E’ class boats suffered from serious malfunctions in the star clutch, drive shaft and propellers. As is the wont of anything mechanical, some of these problems could be permanently repaired, but others were prone to re-occurrence. “ … the star clutch was stiff when they changed over to the electric motors for entering harbour. This was a serious defect. A submarine runs on the surface on her powerful and economical diesel engines and submerged on electric motors. Before she can dive, the diesels have to be disconnected to allow the electric motors to be operated independently of them. Sometimes this has to be done in a hurry for a crash dive, so it was vital that the clutch be in perfect order.” 4

On the voyage out to Sydney, both the AE1 and AE2 suffered their fair share of mechanical breakdowns and AE2 lost propeller blades, not once but twice. The first blade was lost from the port propeller boss at 1700 hrs on the 4th March 1914, just as she was clearing the Bay of Biscay, which meant that the escort vessel, HMS Eclipse, had to tow her to Gibraltar where she steamed in under the power of her starboard engine and the AE2 was docked and repaired. The second blade was lost when AE2 was approximately 90 miles out of Aden. This time four of the crew who were also divers replaced the propeller blade underwater, the task taking two days.

The problems with the propeller blades were eventually attributed to poor casting techniques at Vickers.

Although AE1 remained free of this fault on her voyage, Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Fleming Besant, RN, - captain of the AE1- had this to say about the mechanics of the AE1 in his summary of voyage report to the Naval Board in Melbourne.

“The engines ran satisfactorily, with the exception of the exhaust and intake valve springs, which were constantly breaking, it being found that the springs with fewer coils lasted longest: … The engine clutches (toggle-clutch type) gave trouble after leaving Singapore owing to the coupling bolts becoming bent and in some cases breaking, this causing an undue strain to be put on the toggle-bolts and causing stems to break. … The battery temperatures were excessive in the tropics, and it was frequently necessary to stop a charge owing to the motor shaft overheating and affecting the bearings.”5

Lieutenant-Commander Besant paid tribute to his Chief Engine Room Artificers, Thomas Lowe and Joseph Wilson, (double check this fact and see whether both were on the AE1 at the same time) by saying in his report “I consider that great credit is due to the C.E.R.A.”6

So these new and innovative submarines, even after exhaustive trials and tuning up in England, were less than perfect.

" ... The 'D' class and the 'E' boats which followed, together bearing the brunt of World War I, were very successful and had few teething troubles. External main ballast saddle tanks were fitted for the first time allowing more space inside the submarine and enabling the reserve buoyancy to be increased from 10% or less in previous boats to a dryer and safer 25% on the surface. The radius of action at 11.5 knots was nearly one-third greater than the 'C' class at 9 knots; but the hull diameter was no larger and with only a 20 ft increase in length and crew of 25 - 9 more than in a 'C' boat - the accommodation was poor." - "Submarine Boats" - Richard Compton-Hall, pp 170

The AE1's escape apparatus was most likely to be the Hall-Rees type.

"It consisted of a helmet attached to an open diving frock belted at the waist with a canister of sodium peroxide hung from the chest. It could go through a hatch but its storage took up almost as much room as a man himself. It was not popular amongst submariners, nor was it used." - from "Submarine Boats" - Richard Compton-Hall, pp 165-166

Footnotes -
1. Richard Compton-Hall, "Submarine Boats" - pp 118
2. Antony Preston, "Submarine Boats" - pp
3. Antony Preston, ibid - pp 169
4. (check author), "Dardanelles Patrol", pp 17
5. Australian Archives, Victoria - MP 472. Dept of Navy, cf, asus, 1911 - 21
6. Australian Archives, Victoria - ibid