- Historic Sites
The ‘Holland’ Surfaces
The U.S. Navy’s first submarine was scrapped half a century ago. But now we have been given a second chance to visit a boat nobody ever expected to see again.
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
The war ran its brief course without any help from Holland, who continued to demonstrate his boat for anyone who cared to see it. In July of 1899 the seventy-seven-year-old Clara Barton came aboard, went for a short cruise, and then chided the inventor for creating so frightful a weapon. Holland replied with the logic that has become all too familiar in this century: the submarine was potentially so devastating that it would demonstrate the futility of war.
A month later the United States Navy bought the Holland VI for $150,000. The boat had already cost her owners $236,615.
Now it was a question of how many more of these submarine torpedo boats the Navy should have. This meant Holland’s undergoing a daunting amount of questioning from the House Committee on Naval Affairs. But on his subject the inventor was lucid, calm, and utterly convincing. Speaking of the subsequent boats the Navy should purchase, he said they would be “slightly altered” and gestured to a model on the table before him. “We call this and the Holland the same type. This is the Holland with its defects eliminated. … The boat is a little longer, and she has much more power…”
That summer, the Navy ordered six of these boats; with the original HoLland VI they would make up our first submarine fleet. And across the sea the world’s most professional navy was beginning to take reluctant notice.
The British admiralty was, if anything, more resistant to the idea of submarine warfare than was its American counterpart. Royal Navy men loathed the thought that the superb fleet that guarded their Empire might be brought low by a skulking iron lozenge. These were “damned un-English” weapons, they said, “weapons of the weaker power”; and in 1900 the controller of the navy declared that in wartime captured submariners should be hanged as pirates. But that same year the British navy ordered five Holland submarines, to be built under license by the Vickers works at Barrow-in-Furness. HM Submarine No. 1 , which instantly came to be known as the Holland I , was launched on October 2, 1901; she displaced 122 tons submerged, and was sixty-four feet, four inches long—just one yard shorter, the press explained, than a cricket pitch.
The boat made a formidable showing in fleet exercises the next year. The great admiral Jacky Fisher saw, as he always did, which way the wind was blowing, and wrote a furious and eloquent warning: “It’s astounding to me, perfectly astounding , how the very best among us absolutely fail to realise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish! Here … is the battleship Empress of India , engaged in manoeuvres and knowing the proximity of submarines, the flagship of the Second Admiral of the Home Fleet, nine miles out in the open sea, so self-confident of safety and so oblivious to the possibilities of modern warfare, that the Admiral is smoking his cigarette, the Captain is calmly seeing defaulters down on the half-deck, no one caring an iota for what is going on, and suddenly they see a Whitehead torpedo miss their stern by a few feet! And how fired? From a submarine, from a submarine with no periscope at all —it having been carried away by a destroyer laying over her—and yet that submarine followed that battleship for a solid two hours underwater, coming up gingerly about a mile off every now and then, like a beaver, just to take a fresh compass bearing of her prey, and then down again.”
Despite this performance the Holland I was a primitive craft; the crew’s only warning of toxic fumes, for instance, came from the cage of three white mice that was hung above the engine during each cruise. Submarine development progressed rapidly, and the Holland I was declared obsolete after a scant twelve years of life. On October 30, 1913, while under tow to be broken up for scrap in the port of Milford Haven, the HollandI’s line parted, and she sank three miles southeast of the Eddystone Light.