The real breakthrough with Submarine warfare, and the birth of the modern submarine, came courtesy of John Phillip Holland, near the end of the 19th century.
Holland became the first designer successfully to unite three new pieces of technology, the electric motor, the electric battery, and the internal combustion engine, to create the first recognisably modern submarine.
The Admiralty’s official position at the time was to give submarine development ‘no encouragement’. But it could not afford to ignore it completely, and in October 1900 five Hollands were ordered with the purpose of testing ‘the value of the submarine in the hands of our enemy’.
The Hollands were built under licence at Vickers’ yards in Barrow, which was to become the home of British submarine construction under BAE Systems.
The traditionalist view at the Admiralty thought of submarine warfare, in the words of Rear Admiral Wilson, as ‘underhand, unfair, and damned un-English’. Notwithstanding such views, the submarine gained a champion in Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Having watched the five Hollands ‘sink’ four warships in an exercise to defend Portsmouth Harbour, Fisher realised that naval warfare had changed. So when he became First Sea Lord (1904- 1910), he diverted 5% of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, despite strong opposition, to the construction of submarines.
From the beginning of Fisher’s tenure to the outbreak of the First World War, there was continual development of the submarine, from the Hollands through A to D classes. The D-class, with its decking and deck gun, represented a major change from the porpoise shape of earlier submarines, and introduced the form that would become familiar through two world wars.