First World War Canadian Built British H-Class, Submarines In Montréal.

British H-boat under construction, May 1915.

British H-boat under construction, May 1915.

 

As they had done in the case of the CC-boats, the Canadian government sought the advice of the Admiralty. This time Whitehall advised they reject the offer on the grounds that the design was unsound and that the boats could not possibly be built that quickly. The Canadian government acquiesced and turned down the offer. This whole affair provided a precedent that would typify the performance of successive Canadian governments with respect to the acquisition of submarines, even to the present day. On 3 November 1914, Charles M. Schwabb, President and Chairman of the Board of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, struck an extraordinary deal with Admiral “Jackie” Fisher, First Sea Lord, to supply twenty submarines “of the latest design” to the Royal Navy. Bethlehem Steel subcontracted the building of the submarines to the Electric Boat Company. Electric Boat in turn proposed their latest medium sized submarine identified as Design 602. The Admiralty called them the H-class. Whether this came about because the trio of American boats built to a very similar design had been called that, or because “H” really was the next available letter in the British class identification system is not known for certain; but either reason is plausible.

 

First World War British H Class Submarine, built in Montreal.

First World War British H Class Submarine, built in Montreal.

 

A detailed-filled view of the interior of one of the Canadian Vickers Ltd. building sheds at Montreal. A very interesting photo of one of the British H-boats under construction. This shows the arrangement of the torpedo tubes and the structure of the bows particularly well. The circular opening in the side of the forward hull plating is the starboard Fessenden transducer. Only the ten Montreal-built British boats had this equipment. The conning tower and periscope standard arrangement is clearly visible. All of these sections were bronze castings. (RN Submarine Museum) At 440-tons dived displacement they were not the biggest available by any means, but boats of the type had recently been delivered to the USN and the parts could be produced quickly and in quantity. They were almost identical to the boats turned down by the Canadian government only two months before. The design was good enough for “Jackie” Fisher and his boss, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill, like Fisher, fully appreciated that secretly adding twenty submarines to the Royal Navy’s strength inside of six months would be quite a coup. Originally, the submarines were to be shipped to Britain in kit form for completion in British shipyards at a cost of $500,000 apiece. Electric Boat had perfected this system during the Sino-Japanese war of 1905 when they supplied both Russia and Japan with prefabricated submarines. Construction was begun almost immediately, some at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the rest at the Union Iron Works shipyard in San Francisco. When the American government threatened to take Electric Boat to court for possible violation of American neutrality laws, a new deal, and a new price, was negotiated with the Admiralty. The first ten boats would be built at the Canadian Vickers Shipyard near Montreal. As Electric Boat was fifty per cent owned by Vickers, their Canadian operation was the obvious choice. The first pair was to be built, tested and ready to sail in four-and-a-half months with the remainder following at a rate of two per month. The price was $600,000 per boat, or about double the price of a standard British E-class boat that was taking more than twice as long to build. The second batch of ten was to be built at the Fore River shipyard and handed over when the diplomatic situation permitted. On New Years Day 1915, the British Admiralty arbitrarily took over the Canadian Vickers Shipyard and stopped all other work which included an important icebreaker contract. An Admiralty Overseer’s Party and an Electric Boat Company management team arrived and, under their direction, the Vickers workforce began an around-the-clock submarine building program. Raw materials from Bethlehem Steel and castings and machinery from Electric Boat were shipped in from the United States. Contracts were let locally for parts that could be produced in Canada. The project was kept secret. A high fence was erected around the shipyard property and the Canadian Militia provided guards. The entire workforce was provided with identity cards and security at the gates was rigidly enforced. The first keel was laid in the building sheds at Canadian Vickers on 11 January 1915.

 

Launching a British H-boat, May 1915, Thought to be HMS H10, a fascinating view of the old Canadian Vickers Ltd. works at Montréal. (Source JD Perkins collection).

Launching a British H-boat, May 1915, Thought to be HMS H10, a fascinating view of the old Canadian Vickers Ltd. works at Montréal. (Source JD Perkins collection).

 

In an attempt to employ the submarine building capacity that had been established at their shipyard, Canadian Vickers submitted another proposal to the Canadian Government(3) at the beginning of June 1915. This was for the construction of two Design 602 submarines at a cost of $600,000 apiece with a further bonus of $50,000 per boat for finishing construction before freeze-up. NSHQ fully supported the proposal and passed it on the Minister who forwarded it to the Prime Minister. Overcome by the enormous cost, lacking the will to again consult with the Admiralty and beset by an impending investigation into the purchase of the CC-boats, the Prime Minister abruptly terminated any further discussion about building submarines.

 

British H-boats and HMS Carnarvon, 29 May 1915: All six of the H5-H10 group fitting-out and undergoing trials. H7 has laid-off and is preparing to make a test dive. The cruiser HMS Carnarvon is in the Duke of Connaught floating dock undergoing repairs to her bottom received through an accidental grounding. Carnarvon would eventually escort this group of boats to England. (Source: RN Submarine Museum, Charman collection).

British H-boats and HMS Carnarvon, 29 May 1915: All six of the H5-H10 group fitting-out and undergoing trials. H7 has laid-off and is preparing to make a test dive. The cruiser HMS Carnarvon is in the Duke of Connaught floating dock undergoing repairs to her bottom received through an accidental grounding. Carnarvon would eventually escort this group of boats to England. (Source: RN Submarine Museum, Charman collection).

 

In the autumn of 1915, James Paterson, who had built the CC-boats and sold them the premier of BC, started an enterprises known as The British Pacific Construction & Engineering Company. He had a contract to build and to assemble five Design 602 submarines in kit form on the Canadian West Coast. These were built to fulfil an Electric Boat Company order from the Russian government. Construction took place in a temporary building yard at Barnet, on the south shore of Burrard Inlet near Vancouver. These submarines were to be shipped to Russia as prefabricated kits. The steel plate and rib sections for the hulls were cut to dimension, punched for riveting, rolled or bent to shape and then assembled using nuts and bolts instead of rivets. The parts were checked for fit, labelled, then disassembled, crated, and loaded onto railway cars for delivery to Vancouver along with the remaining machinery and other fittings sent to Canada from Electric Boat Company suppliers all across the United States. Shipped to Russia, these five submarines were completed before the end of 1916 by the Baltic Works shipyard in St. Petersburg to become AG11 to AG15 in the Imperial Russian navy.

 

 

An intriguing view of the old dockyard, the location is roughly where Jetty 4 now is. Three of the H5-H10 group alonside during their 2-week stopover before making the crossing to England. (DHH No. CN-6391).

An intriguing view of the old dockyard, the location is roughly where Jetty 4 now is. Three of the H5-H10 group alonside during their 2-week stopover before making the crossing to England. (DHH No. CN-6391).

 

 

HMS H5, Yarmouth, July 1916. H5 under the command of Cromwell H. Varley, RN, has just returned from her patrol in the Bight where she torpedoed the U-boat U51 (14 July 1916). Although this is not the first time a British submarine flew the Jolly Roger to celebrate her victory, it is the first known photograph of one. (Source: RN Submarine Museum)

HMS H5, Yarmouth, July 1916. H5 under the command of Cromwell H. Varley, RN, has just returned from her patrol in the Bight where she torpedoed the U-boat U51 (14 July 1916). Although this is not the first time a British submarine flew the Jolly Roger to celebrate her victory, it is the first known photograph of one. (Source: RN Submarine Museum)

 

Following completion of the British order, a further six hulls were completed by Canadian Vickers and shipped to Vancouver along with the remaining parts, also for delivery to the Imperial Russian navy. These were completed by Baltic Works at Nikolayev becoming AG21 to AG26. Some of the Russian H-boats survived both World Wars, the last one being scrapped in 1947. Canadian Vickers then proceeded to build eight more complete H-boats for the Italian navy. This contract was actually brokered by the Admiralty, which convinced the Italian government to take advantage of the capability available at Canadian Vickers. These were commissioned in two groups. The first pair left Montreal in the autumn of 1916 ahead of the St. Lawrence River freeze-up and completed their trials at Halifax. They sailed for Italy in December. The remaining six commissioned at Montreal in the spring of 1917. A final lot of six kits were built for another Russian order by the British Pacific Construction & Engineering Company in a temporary yard on Canadian Pacific Railway property at Vancouver. The Russian revolution precluded delivery of these kits, which were to have been AG17 to AG20, AG27 and AG28. After languishing in storage in Vancouver for over a year, they were eventually purchased by the USN. Completed in the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, Washington, they were commissioned in 1918 as USS H4-H9.

 

HMS H10 diving off Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, H5-H10 were assigned to the 8th Flotilla based at Harwich. because of the crowded conditions there, the depot ship HMS Alecto, the H-boats and two V-class boats were based at Yarmouth. In a later re-organization, the Yarmouth flotilla became the 8th while Harwich became the 9th Flotilla. (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

HMS H10 diving off Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, H5-H10 were assigned to the 8th Flotilla based at Harwich. because of the crowded conditions there, the depot ship HMS Alecto, the H-boats and two V-class boats were based at Yarmouth. In a later re-organization, the Yarmouth flotilla became the 8th while Harwich became the 9th Flotilla. (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

 

 

HMS H1 on passage from St. John's to Gibraltar, July 1915. An incredible photo of an H-boat at sea, things look pretty relaxed. The engine room hatch is open with a sentry standing in the hatchway, honeying is lashed to the guardrails for'd and aft, the full suit of canvas has been rigged around the bridge, a temporary mast with a masthead steaming light has been rigged forward of the bridge. On the fore casing the seamen's "haversack" is getting an airing draped over the for'd guardrail. This was a padded, canvas, communal sleeping bag that was spead on the deck in the fore-ends for the seamen. (Hey you lot - don't you know there's a war on??) (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

HMS H1 on passage from St. John’s to Gibraltar, July 1915. An incredible photo of an H-boat at sea, things look pretty relaxed. The engine room hatch is open with a sentry standing in the hatchway, honeying is lashed to the guardrails for’d and aft, the full suit of canvas has been rigged around the bridge, a temporary mast with a masthead steaming light has been rigged forward of the bridge. On the fore casing the seamen’s “haversack” is getting an airing draped over the for’d guardrail. This was a padded, canvas, communal sleeping bag that was spead on the deck in the fore-ends for the seamen. (Hey you lot – don’t you know there’s a war on??) (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

 

HMS H2 in the Adriatic, 1916. An excellent view of the 6-pdr gun. The mountings for these were made in the dockyard at Malta. The officer in the middle is Lt. David Fell, RN, captain, and on his left is Lt. Ronald C. Watson, RCN, the first lieutenant. The third officer is not identified. (Source: JD Perkins collection).

HMS H2 in the Adriatic, 1916. An excellent view of the 6-pdr gun. The mountings for these were made in the dockyard at Malta. The officer in the middle is Lt. David Fell, RN, captain, and on his left is Lt. Ronald C. Watson, RCN, the first lieutenant. The third officer is not identified. (Source: JD Perkins collection).

 

HMS H4 Submarine, picture of one of the Mediterranean-based Montreal-built H-boats as they appeared at the end of the war. Particularly noticeable is the permanent sheet metal bridge screen (chariot bridge). At the rear of the bridge is the portable wireless aerial that would have to be disassembld prior to diving and re-assembled upon surfacing. (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

HMS H4 Submarine, picture of one of the Mediterranean-based Montreal-built H-boats as they appeared at the end of the war. Particularly noticeable is the permanent sheet metal bridge screen (chariot bridge). At the rear of the bridge is the portable wireless aerial that would have to be disassembld prior to diving and re-assembled upon surfacing. (Source: RN Submarine Museum).

 

Torpedo tubes and stowages. USS H5, 1919. Photo of an H-boat fore-ends fully fitted-out. Most of the features are self explanatory. The large object in the centre of the deckhead is the capstan-windlass gearbox. The electric drive motor is on the other side of the gearbox housing. According to the drawings, bunks could be rigged in this space for 16 seamen. For fairly obvious reasons, this was seldom done during the war. The space under the forward half of the compartment was occupied a group of four main fuel tanks. (USN Historical Centre, NH-46745, J. E. Hogg)

Torpedo tubes and stowages. USS H5, 1919. Photo of an H-boat fore-ends fully fitted-out. Most of the features are self explanatory. The large object in the centre of the deckhead is the capstan-windlass gearbox. The electric drive motor is on the other side of the gearbox housing. According to the drawings, bunks could be rigged in this space for 16 seamen. For fairly obvious reasons, this was seldom done during the war. The space under the forward half of the compartment was occupied a group of four main fuel tanks. (USN Historical Centre, NH-46745, J. E. Hogg)

 

Planesmen's position, USS H5, 1919. The hydroplanes handwheels, after planes angle indicator and clinometers are clearly shown here as also are the deep and shallow depth gauges. Below the fore planes handwheel is the reservoir for the periscope desiccating gear. The electric pump for this equipment is behind the after planes handwheel. The object stowed against the after bulkhead appears to be a Lewis gun. It is interesting to note that although the boat is afloat, the gauges read a depth of zero-feet which indicates that the depth reading datum was the waterline, unlike today when the depth datum is the underside of the keel. (Source: USN Historical Centre, NH 46751, J. E. Hogg).

Planesmen’s position, USS H5, 1919. The hydroplanes handwheels, after planes angle indicator and clinometers are clearly shown here as also are the deep and shallow depth gauges. Below the fore planes handwheel is the reservoir for the periscope desiccating gear. The electric pump for this equipment is behind the after planes handwheel. The object stowed against the after bulkhead appears to be a Lewis gun. It is interesting to note that although the boat is afloat, the gauges read a depth of zero-feet which indicates that the depth reading datum was the waterline, unlike today when the depth datum is the underside of the keel. (Source: USN Historical Centre, NH 46751, J. E. Hogg).

 

Engine Room, looking forward. H1, 4 November 1916. The photographer is standing between the main motors, the covers of which have been removed giving a good view of the, and motors their brush gear. These are single armature, Electro Dynamic HP/2, DC motors each with a continuous rating of 160 HP. Immediately above each motor are the engine circulating-water pump starters with their discharge valves just beyond. On the after end of each engine are the polished cam-shaft interlocks and throttles. Above these are the engine cylinder temperature gauge boards. On the deep frame in the centre of the deckhead are mounted the battery charging ammeters and between them, the engine order indicator and gong. The large levers between the engines are for operating the engine clutches. (DHH PAC C-32161).

Engine Room, looking forward. H1, 4 November 1916. The photographer is standing between the main motors, the covers of which have been removed giving a good view of the, and motors their brush gear. These are single armature, Electro Dynamic HP/2, DC motors each with a continuous rating of 160 HP. Immediately above each motor are the engine circulating-water pump starters with their discharge valves just beyond. On the after end of each engine are the polished cam-shaft interlocks and throttles. Above these are the engine cylinder temperature gauge boards. On the deep frame in the centre of the deckhead are mounted the battery charging ammeters and between them, the engine order indicator and gong. The large levers between the engines are for operating the engine clutches. (DHH PAC C-32161).

 

Auxiliary machinery space H1, 4 November 1916. The photographer dated April 30th 1917, is standing between the main motors facing astern. Running aft from the two bottom corners of the photo are the main shafts. The lubricators for the pedestal bearings located here are apparent. To port can be seen the 5 HP electric motor connected to the 2,000 gpm (rated at 20 ft) centrifugal ballast pump with the starter overhead and the main line connection valve below. On the deck opposite is the 200 gpm (at 200 ft) rotary bilge and ballast pump. This was driven off the starboard shaft and its drive is enclosed inside the prominent, white painted, casing. Beyond the pumps are the rectangular covers of the two HP air compressors which were also driven off the shafting through gear trains and clutches. The two cylinders in the deckhead are the compressor intercoolers while behind the bilge pump can be glimpsed one of the separator columns. The short stemmed valve in the deckhead is No.4 main vent. Running along the hull to starboard is the trim line leading to the after trim tank in the stern. The main line aft ran under the deck plates and the two valves in the deck right aft were for the after bilge suction and the after trim tank. The bell-mouth pipe in the deckhead is an air intake for the port engine and the control rodding for the steering and after planes can be seen overhead. (DHH PAC C-32012).

Auxiliary machinery space H1, 4 November 1916. The photographer dated April 30th 1917, is standing between the main motors facing astern. Running aft from the two bottom corners of the photo are the main shafts. The lubricators for the pedestal bearings located here are apparent. To port can be seen the 5 HP electric motor connected to the 2,000 gpm (rated at 20 ft) centrifugal ballast pump with the starter overhead and the main line connection valve below. On the deck opposite is the 200 gpm (at 200 ft) rotary bilge and ballast pump. This was driven off the starboard shaft and its drive is enclosed inside the prominent, white painted, casing. Beyond the pumps are the rectangular covers of the two HP air compressors which were also driven off the shafting through gear trains and clutches. The two cylinders in the deckhead are the compressor intercoolers while behind the bilge pump can be glimpsed one of the separator columns. The short stemmed valve in the deckhead is No.4 main vent. Running along the hull to starboard is the trim line leading to the after trim tank in the stern. The main line aft ran under the deck plates and the two valves in the deck right aft were for the after bilge suction and the after trim tank. The bell-mouth pipe in the deckhead is an air intake for the port engine and the control rodding for the steering and after planes can be seen overhead. (DHH PAC C-32012).

 

Another novel feature was a ventilator pipe that was enclosed within the periscope fairing. Originally installed to provide for the redundant tactic of running on the surface in a trimmed-down condition, it proved particularly useful for running on the surface in rough weather. When the shut-off valve at the top of the pipe was opened, the submarine was able to continue running the engines with the upper lid shut to keep the sea from pouring down the conning tower. In this condition, the boat was conned using the conning tower periscope. Before joining their flotillas, all of the boats were provided with Sperry gyrocompasses, a small, enclosed, wireless office and a 1 kW Marconi wireless set. A portable aerial was fitted on the back of the bridge. The British later installed improved periscopes, enclosed bridges and made other modifications as the war progressed. The four H-boats in the Mediterranean were all fitted with a 6-pounder gun on the fore casing.

 

Engine room. H1, 4 Nov. 1916. The photographer is standing just inside the engine room under the escape hatchway. The engines are NLSECO (New London Ship and Engine Company) 8-cylinder, 4-cycle, 480 HP diesels. The large, bell-mouthed pipes either side are part of the engine air supply system which runs down the inboard side of both engines and continues aft with another intake in the auxiliary machinery space. These intakes supplied combustion air to the crankshaft driven, tandem, 2-stage air compressors located at the forward end of each engine. The compressors discharged to the engine air-start bottle group and to a large HP resevoir which in turn supplied the spray valves with compressed air. Immediately behind these pipes can be seen the water-cooled engine-exhaust pipes leading from the exhaust manifolds along the outboard side of each engine, through the deckhead and to the mufflers under the after casing. The two valves are not identified. The muffler shut-off valves are in the deckhead just beyond the two light fixtures. The camshafts run along the inboard sides of the engines and can be seen at the bottom left and right leading forward. The crankcase doors are fully exposed along the bottom of each engine and the rocker arms do not have covers. These engines were "driven" from the after end. The white, curved, objects projecting into the passageway are the covers for the main motor. (Source: DHH PAC C-32161).

Engine room. H1, 4 Nov. 1916. The photographer is standing just inside the engine room under the escape hatchway. The engines are NLSECO (New London Ship and Engine Company) 8-cylinder, 4-cycle, 480 HP diesels. The large, bell-mouthed pipes either side are part of the engine air supply system which runs down the inboard side of both engines and continues aft with another intake in the auxiliary machinery space. These intakes supplied combustion air to the crankshaft driven, tandem, 2-stage air compressors located at the forward end of each engine. The compressors discharged to the engine air-start bottle group and to a large HP resevoir which in turn supplied the spray valves with compressed air. Immediately behind these pipes can be seen the water-cooled engine-exhaust pipes leading from the exhaust manifolds along the outboard side of each engine, through the deckhead and to the mufflers under the after casing. The two valves are not identified. The muffler shut-off valves are in the deckhead just beyond the two light fixtures. The camshafts run along the inboard sides of the engines and can be seen at the bottom left and right leading forward. The crankcase doors are fully exposed along the bottom of each engine and the rocker arms do not have covers. These engines were “driven” from the after end. The white, curved, objects projecting into the passageway are the covers for the main motor. (Source: DHH PAC C-32161).

 

 

There were several wartime casualties among the Canadian Vickers-built H-boats. The first one in trouble was H6. During the night of 18 January 1916, she strayed off course and went aground on the sands of Sheirmonikoog off the Dutch coast. Half the crew was taken off by a British ship while the rest were picked up by the Dutch and spent the remainder of the war in an internment camp. The Dutch salvaged the boat, bought it off the British and commissioned her in their own navy as the O8. She survived to be taken over by the Germans when they invaded and occupied Holland early in WW2. As UD-8, the German navy used her as a training boat. She was scuttled at Kiel towards the end of the war and ultimately scrapped.

 

After battery compartment looking forward.

After battery compartment looking forward.

 

On 22 March H8, under the command of Lieutenant B. L. Johnson, RNR, of Vancouver, almost met her end on the sandy bottom off the same stretch of Dutch coast. While dived on the last day of a weeklong coastal reconnaissance patrol, she snagged the mooring cable of a stray British mine and set it off. Fortunately the mine detonated outside of lethal range but considerable damage was done to the forward part of the boat. H8 settled nose down onto the bottom at 80 feet with water pouring into her battered fore-ends at several points. Her cool headed captain and determined crew managed to stem the leaks, get their boat surfaced and back to England in a hair raising overnight passage of the North Sea. Even the Germans admitted it was a gutsy escapade.

 

 

Sperry gyro installation, 30 May 1917. An excellent illustration of this equipment. (DHH PAC C-32299).

Sperry gyro installation, 30 May 1917. An excellent illustration of this equipment. (DHH PAC C-32299).

 

In July 1916, H3 hit a mine while trying to make a dived penetration of the well-protected Austrian anchorage in the Gulf of Cattaro on the Dalmatian coast. A sentry on shore spotted the disturbance caused by an exploding mine. A cutter sent to investigate retrieved papers and woodwork that provided the proof. H10 was the next to go. Like so many of her ilk on both sides, she failed to return from a routine patrol in the North Sea. It is presumed she hit a mine around 19 January 1918. The next to succumb was H5 when she had the misfortune to be mistaken for a U-boat. The submarine was run down by the British freighter SS Rutherglen while charging her batteries on the surface in the Irish Sea on the night of 2 March 1918. Although the steamer reported that she passed through a group of survivors struggling in the icy water, no attempt was made to pick them up. Among the casualties was an American officer[4] who was aboard for familiarization. The captain of the steamer was decorated for destroying a German U-boat and the true circumstances were not divulged until after his death. On 16 April 1918, while proceeding on the surface in the Mediterranean, the Italian H-5 was mistaken for a U-boat and torpedoed in error by the submerged British H-1. The Italian boat appears to have been considerably off station. Some of the remaining H-1-class,[5] with a Canadian connection were long-lived. Those in RN service were scrapped after the war when the Admiralty decided to standardize on submarines fitted with 21-inch torpedo tubes. The six American boats with hulls made in Vancouver were all broken up in 1931. However, a few of the Russian and Italian H1’s survived the 2WW. So too did six of the ten boats originally built for Britain at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. These had been ceded to Chile in 1917 as part exchange for some Chilean ships taken over in British shipyards when the war began. Two of this group survived until the mid-1950s.

 
Footnotes:

  1. PAC RG 24 Vol. 4018, 1062-4-2. Canadian Vickers tender to build Design 20E Holland boats for the Naval Service of Canada.
  2. In his book The Story of Our Submarines (London) 1919.
  3. PAC RG24, Vol. 4020 1062-12-2. Canadian Vickers proposal and description of Design 602E submarines.
  4. Lieutenant (j.g.) E. W. F. Childs, USN, junior officer aboard the USN submarine L-2.
  5. H1-class because the Admiralty later produced an improved.

 

 

Spañard

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