Amazing Uses of Submarines in Warfare

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The chief advantage of the submarine in warfare is stealth. Their ability to approach a target and strike without detection was originally considered unfair by professional naval officers. Naval officers considered them ungentlemanly up to and during the First World War. Since then their operations have become ever more stealthy, and they can operate in all the world’s oceans, along and within coastal waters and estuaries, unseen and unheard. Submarines are not limited to striking enemy shipping, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles allow them to attack targets on land as well as sea.

They can also deliver troops and intelligence agents, conduct covert surveillance, lay mines and plant listening devices, and deploy divers for diverse missions. They can operate beneath the polar ice, and many have been built with the ability to surface through the ice cap. With each passing year, they become more difficult to detect and track. They have become so deadly that anti-submarine warfare is the primary mission of all the navies in the world. Submarines have completed some of the most stunning operations in the history of warfare, including during the Cold War. Here are ten amazing uses of submarines in warfare.

10. Operation Pastorius

In 1942, with the direct approval of Hitler, the German Abwehr and Navy launched Operation Pastorius. The operation delivered trained saboteurs, all former residents of the United States, to American shores. They planned the destruction of American infrastructure, including railroad yards and stations, dams, warehouses, docks and wharves, and targets of opportunity. It fell to German submarine commanders to get the teams into the United States. Two U-Boats sailed to the American coast, evaded US Navy and Coast Guard anti-submarine patrols, and stealthily crept to within a stone’s throw of land. U-201’s commander saw the lights of traffic and heard the sounds of the Long Island village of Amagansett as he deployed the team in his charge.

He then ran aground. As the dawn broke he could see the coastline clearly, though he remained undetected as he strained to free the U-Boat from the coastal muck off Long Island. He succeeded, and with the rising sun is his eyes he managed to sail away unseen. A second U-Boat dispatched to the Florida coast enjoyed similar success. The agents were captured after one turned himself in to the FBI; all but two were executed as spies. Operation Pastorius failed, but demonstrated the ability of German submarines to land similar operations in the United States and Canada, relying on the professionalism and skill of their submarine commanders and crews.

9. Entering enemy harbors and anchorages

World War I demonstrated the necessity of protecting fleet anchorages and harbors from submarine incursions. The Royal Navy’s main fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow in the Orkney’s gained protection from submarine nets, pulled across the shipping channels by fleet tugs, effectively closing a gate for the harbor. Naval mines floated outside the main shipping channels. Blockships acted to seal off less used channels into the harbor. Yet the German navy decided to strike the British fleet as it lay at anchor. U-Boat U-47, under Gunther Prien, moved to attack the anchorage just after midnight on October 14, 1939. He entered the harbor on the surface by carefully slipping past two anchored blockships only to find the British fleet was for the most part not there.

He did find the World War I era HMS Royal Oak, a veteran of the Battle of Jutland. Prien fired a salvo of three torpedoes, only one of which struck its target and exploded. Incredibly, the crew of the battleship and the other guard ships and sentries in the anchorage did not detect the German submarine. Aboard Royal Oak the crew assumed the explosion occurred in the forward flammables storeroom. While the British inspected their ship, Prien calmly reloaded his torpedo tubes, fired another salvo, and three torpedoes struck the battleship, sinking it quickly with heavy loss of life. Prien escaped via the way he came, to a hero’s welcome in Germany, having demonstrated the striking power of the modern submarine.

8. Espionage

Operation Mincemeat contained the drama and suspense of a James Bond story, unsurprisingly since Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, suggested a similar ploy in 1941. The goal of the operation? Convincing the German High Command the upcoming invasion of Sicily was a mere feint, with the real invasion aimed at Sardinia and Greece. A recently deceased Welsh tramp was dressed in a Royal Marine’s officer uniform, equipped with personal items including love letters, photographs of a fictional girlfriend. Given the identity papers for fictional William Martin, an officer in the Marines, he carried a sealed briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. It held “official” correspondence which contained the deception meant for the Germans. To deliver the corpse where the Germans would find it, the Mincemeat planners turned to the Royal Navy, which transported it by submarine.

HMS Seraph’s crew was told the canister which contained the body was a top secret weather monitoring device to be launched near the Spanish coast. Seraph arrived at the designated point and conducted one of strangest covert operations ever performed by a submarine. The ship surfaced, the canister brought on deck, and all the crew except officers were ordered below. The officers dropped the body into the water and the submarine’s screws created a wash, driving it towards shore. A fisherman found the body, which was turned over to authorities, the cause of death established as drowning, and the body released to the British for burial. Spanish authorities retained the briefcase containing fake papers, photographed them, and delivered the copies to the Abwehr. Mincemeat worked to perfection.

7. Refueling aircraft

The Japanese navy planned long-range bombing raids early in World War II, using Kawanishi H8K flying boats. Planners considered bombing missions to targets in Washington, Oregon, California, and the Panama Canal. None of the targets could be reached from Japan’s forward-most Pacific bases. The airplanes required refueling to complete the missions. The Japanese Navy had a solution to the problem. The airplanes would rendezvous at a predetermined time with tanker submarines for refueling. French Frigate Shoals, an atoll to the northwest of Hawaii, was selected as the rendezvous. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the mission changed to one of monitoring repairs at the American base, and harassing them whenever possible. The Japanese called the plan Operation K.

American codebreakers learned of Operation K and informed senior officers, who ignored them. The Japanese executed the plan just once, refueling the planes at French Frigate Shoals by tanker submarine. After the demonstration of the Japanese ability to refuel airplanes from submarines, American warships took up picket duties near the atoll. Japanese tanker submarines operated throughout the war, including delivering oil and fuel to bases beleaguered by Allied air attacks. Another operation similar to Operation K, planned to determine the whereabouts of American aircraft carriers, failed in May, 1942, due to increased US Navy diligence at the rendezvous point. The Japanese also built large tanker submarines to ship oil from the East Indies to the home islands but the war ended before they came into extensive use.

6. Submarines resupplying submarines

When World War II began the German Navy had several supply and refueling ships at sea, placed to service its surface raiders and submarines. Beginning in 1940 German shipyards built Type XIV U-boats, designed to refuel and resupply their fellow U-boats at sea, allowing the latter to remain on patrol for longer periods. The Type XIV reduced the periods of greatest risk for the German U-boats, entering or leaving port. The German submariners named the Type XIV the Milchkuhe (milk cows). Milk cows carried more than just fuel. They delivered torpedoes, lubricants, and food including fresh bread, baked onboard in bakeries designed for the purpose.


Other than anti-aircraft machine guns, milk cows had no means of defense. They lacked deck guns, and spaces for torpedo tubes on smaller submarines accommodated refrigerated storage space. Service in a milk cow was dangerous, as the Allies recognized that sinking the supply submarines curtailed the operations of the attack submarines. The Germans completed 10 Type XIV submarines during the war (out of a planned 24), losing all of them to Allied actions. The milk cows were, in essence, submersible submarine tenders, though both the Type XIV and the U-boat under resupply needed to surface to transfer materials. While on the surface both were at their most vulnerable. Today submarines use remotely controlled vehicles to exchange material and personnel while remaining submerged.

5. Covert delivery

In early 1942, American and Philippine forces on Corregidor faced shortages of nearly everything needed to wage war. In particular, mechanically-fused anti-aircraft shells to combat high-level Japanese bombers were in short supply. USS Trout departed Pearl Harbor in January, 1942, carrying 3,500 rounds of 3” anti-aircraft ammunition, stored anywhere on the submarine where space was found. To make more room the only torpedoes carried aboard were those in the tubes. Trout delivered the ammunition to Corregidor, docking at night and unloading the cargo by hand. Simultaneously the submarine took on torpedoes. Once the cargo was unloaded, it became apparent that ballast was needed to maintain the submarine’s seakeeping capability.

It received ballast, also loaded by the crew passing it hand-to-hand, Trout received 20 tons of ballast in the form of gold bars and sacks of silver pesos, the wealth of the Philippines. The crew passed the gold bars, which weighed approximately 40 lbs apiece, to each other and stowed them wherever they could. The silver pesos arrived at the pier in 630 sacks, each containing one thousand coins, each valued at about fifty American cents at the time. Just before dawn the submarine left the pier and spent the day sitting on the bottom of Manila Bay. That night it returned to the pier, loaded additional securities, checks, official mail, and cash, and departed from the Philippines. It completed its war patrol, sinking two Japanese ships while laden with gold and silver. Trout returned to Pearl Harbor in March, where the treasure carried by submarine was turned over to the Treasury. Not a coin was missing.

4. Hit and run land raids

American Marines going ashore on Japanese held islands usually deployed from landing craft designed and built for the purpose. For the Makin Island Raid in 1942 they deployed from submarines. Ordinarily a submarine offers little elbow room for its crew, with every available space crowded with men, equipment, and food. For Makin Island, two American submarines, USS Argonaut and USS Nautilus, carried just over 200 US Marines known as Carlson’s Raiders. They deployed them using rubber boats powered by outboard motors. While the raid was conducted the submarines supported the Marines using their deck guns and antiaircraft guns.

The Japanese counterattacked with aircraft and both submarines were forced to submerge to escape air attacks. They then evacuated the surviving Marines and wounded, though 9 were captured by the Japanese, taken to Kwajalein, and executed. The Makin Island Raid, an early example of landing combat troops using submarines, failed to achieve its major objectives of gaining intelligence and prisoners. But it demonstrated the ability of submarines to deliver combat troops with little or no warning, achieving complete surprise. Modern submarines of all major navies retain the ability in the 21st century, working with special underwater equipment to deploy special forces.

3. Supporting guerilla operations

After the surrender of American forces in the Philippines in 1942, Philippine guerillas continued to operate against Japanese troops throughout the archipelago. In some cases American troops evaded capture and fought alongside them. To support them, American submarines delivered supplies, clothing, ammunition, weapons, and coordinated plans for airstrikes and espionage operations. They also provided aid to coast watchers in the Philippines, who reported Japanese movements and monitored the activity of troops. In January, 1943, USS Gudgeon delivered 2,000 pounds of supplies, and eight American volunteers. USS Tambor followed in March, delivering supplies and men to Mindinao.

After Tambor’s mission, submarines visited the Philippines on an average of one every five weeks. The incursions required considerable skill from the submariners, threading their way through the islands in the dark, landing supplies under the noses of the Japanese. They also evacuated the wounded when possible, and moved guerilla units around the islands. Four submarines were removed from normal war patrol duties and designated as guerilla support ships. The guerilla campaign against the Japanese in the Philippines continued through the end of the war, with submarines enabling the resistance up until the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay. 

2. Spying on communications

American nuclear submarines came into their own during the period known to history as the Cold War. They monitored Soviet submarines, tracking them at sea, and avoided detection by the enemy. The sea-based leg of the American nuclear triad operated from American missile submarines, beginning with Polaris and evolving into Trident II. They also conducted covert spying operations, monitoring communications within the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. One of the most successful, Operation Ivy Bells, involved tapping undersea communication cables within Soviet territorial waters. Submarines including USS Parche and USS Halibut carried divers to a site along the cable, who installed a tap which included the capability to record conversations on the line, considered secure by the Soviets.

Ivy Bells involved the American CIA, NSA, and US Navy. The tapped cable ran between the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s main base at Petropavlosvk to its headquarters at Vladivostok. Submarines visited the tap on a regular basis, obtaining the recordings and replacing them with new tapes. The missions were dangerous physically and politically. The submarines involved were prepared to self-destruct rather than be trapped by the Soviets. Ronald Pelton, an analyst for the NSA for over forty years, informed the Soviets of the program after resigning from the US government. He received $5,000 from the Soviets for the information regarding Ivy Bells, endangering the submariners involved in the then ongoing operation. In 1981 Parche visited the site of the tap, but failed to find the device. Today it is on display in a Russian museum in Moscow.

1. Attacking targets on land

The US Navy fired a little more than 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with about one-third of them launched from submarines operating in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. One American submarine involved in the operation to remove Saddam Hussein from power, USS Louisville, participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. During Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Louisville raced submerged from Pearl Harbor to the Red Sea – 14,000 miles across the Pacific and Indian Oceans – to launch the first submarine cruise missile strikes in history. Desert Storm demonstrated submarines can and do strike anywhere, from all the oceans of the world, while remaining virtually undetected.

Today’s submarines gather intelligence, disrupt communications, threaten the sea lanes, seal the harbors and ports of enemy nations, and deploy troops, agents, and special operations teams. They defend themselves from enemy missiles, torpedoes, mines, and airborne attacks. In wargames, American fast attack submarines demonstrated the ability to take on alone an entire carrier-based task force and destroy it piecemeal. They can and have circumnavigated the globe submerged, and traveled from the Pacific to the Atlantic under the polar ice. Few weapons in any nation’s defense arsenal are as versatile, reliable, and deadly to the enemy. The missions they’ve undertaken include some of the most amazing in history, and there are no doubt similar operations underway around the globe this very moment.


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