Best Submarines of WW2?

German submarines evolved during WW2 in the same way as the submarines of other nations did – possibly more than those of other nations because of the weight that the Kriegsmarine placed on submarines to conduct warfare on the high seas.

Compared to German or British submarines, the American Gato, Balao, and (later) Tench classes were Cadillacs. American submarines were quite a bit larger and had about twice the crew of German or British subs, so they were still crowded compared to surface ships. There was one head for the enlisted crew and one head for the officers. The evaporator to distill sea water into fresh water could only be operated when the sub was on the surface, and keeping the batteries topped off was the first priority, followed by the torpedoes (which were steam-powered during most of the war), then water for drinking and cooking. The cooks were encouraged to shower often, but everyone else usually showered only when the sub was about to put in to port (so they wouldn’t stink for the ladies).

USS Bowfin

Crew morale mattered, and the larger American boats had long cruises to areas of operation. So did the Japanese I-Boats, which were much larger than the American boats. A larger boat tended to offer a few more creature comforts.

American submarines were air conditioned which kept both the temperature and humidity down. They had refrigerators and freezers, so they had much better food. American subs even had an ice cream machine on board, an unthinkable treat on a U-Boat.

After action during World War 2 led to the Japanese reflecting that (#1) radar and (#2) submarines were the most effective weapons that the Americans wielded during the war – a Navy war. This is not to diminish the roles of others. But the Japanese war machine was not sustaining itself because the submarines were able to sink what ships they had that could bring oil and other necessary commerce to the home islands. Radar – of course.  The atomic bomb was a surprise and the firebombing of cities was devastating.  Midway, finished the serious offensive capability of the fleet.

The United States had 105 aircraft carriers of all types in World War II. Sixty-four of them were of the smaller escort carrier type. If the war had gone on, we would have built more.

The Japanese constructed and launched two aircraft carriers during the course of the war:

The Japanese launched the IJN Taiho during the war. It was a heavily armored carrier expected to withstand multiple bomb and torpedo strikes. However, design faults and poor damage control allowed it to be sunk with one torpedo from the USS Albacore on June 19, 1944.

The Japanese launched the IJN Shinano as well.  Initially laid down as the third of the Yamato-class battleships, Shinano was converted into an aircraft carrier due to the Japanese defeat at Midway. She was sunk on November 29, 1944 by torpedoes from USS Archerfish. Neither the Taiho or Shinano ever launched a plane in anger.

Back to the original question. The developing German air independent designs for submarines that were launched at the end of the war were visionary – but they were too little, too late. The Germans suffered from effective radar from land based aircraft that led to the sinking of many U-Boats (and many whales) and effective surface ASW. The American boats didn’t fall prey to ASW to the extent that the Germans did and they were able to starve Japan as the Germans almost did to Britain in the early days of the war.

British submarines in World War 2 were effective but didn’t have the targets available to the U-Boats or the American Fleet-type boat classes.

Japanese I-Boats had the range, were heavily armed with effective torpedoes, heavy deck guns and had seaplanes for scouting.  They were the first aircraft-carrying submarines. They scored hits on American aircraft carriers and other high value targets. But many cite that they were not used as effectively as they might have been. There were about fifteen different classes of I-Boat and I won’t distinguish between them except with the I-400, below. They were built and they were sunk, many of them unblooded as they sank to Davey Jones.

Japanese I-400 Class (Sentoku type submarine)  was designed with the range to travel anywhere in the world and return. A fleet of 18 boats was planned in 1942, and work started on the first in January 1943 at the Kure, Hiroshima arsenal. Within a year the plan was scaled back to five, of which only three (I-400 at Kure, and I-401 and I-402 at Sasebo) were completed.

The I-400-class subs were unwieldy and relatively difficult to maneuver while surfaced owing to their small rudders. The large superstructure also caused the sub to veer off course during any strong wind. The maximum safe diving depth of the I-400-class submarine was only 82% of its overall length, which presented problems if the submarine dived at too steep an angle in an emergency. Because of their large aircraft hangars and conning tower, all I-400-class boats had significant visual and radar signatures on the surface, and could be detected by aircraft relatively easily. Dive time was 56 seconds, nearly double that of U.S. fleet subs, which made the boats easier to destroy from the air when caught on the surface.

When submerged and traveling at a slow speed of two knots, the offset superstructure forced the helmsman to steer seven degrees starboard in order to steer a straight course. When conducting a torpedo attack the captain had to take into account his larger turning circle to starboard than to port, again because of the offset design. Like other Japanese submarines, crew members in Japanese subs had no air conditioning to control temperatures in tropic waters and no flush toilets. Lack of cold storage greatly limited the crew’s diet, while inadequate sleeping quarters forced some of the crew to sleep on the decks or in passageways.


  1. We had the best subs. We had the worst torpedoes.

    If we had the Jap’s torpedoes, the Pacific War would have been over at least a year quicker.

    Now, combine the US boats with the German XXI design with the Japanese torpedoes and… you get a GUPPY.

    Add in the I-400 class ideas and you get the Regulus carrying GUPPYs,

    • That’s a good summary.

      GUPPY=Greater Underwater Propulsion Power (Y). The presence of deck guns gave an acoustic signature as water passed over them and the guns had limited value. If the guns were manned and the boat had to submerge quickly, it put the boat in jeopardy longer. So with GUPPY, all of that extra noise-making crap was removed from the hull, the sail was streamlined.

      It mystifies me WHY it took the US YEARS to perfect the torpedo. I know the story, it’s legendary at this point, but it’s inexcusable. The Japanese type 93 torpedo (called Long Lance by the USN) was fired from surface ships and was superb. Their type 95 torpedo, sub fired, was wakeless.

      One of the scandals of the war was how prepared and effective the Japanese fleet was compared to the American navy. Their naval doctrine was honed through constant practice and improvement. They lacked effective radar and that told the tale, but if they’d had it, wow.

      I highly recommend Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.

      • Well, the American Torpedo Scandal was all about featherlining certain people’s nest, no matter what the science and actual experience showed. In a fair and just world, the offenders would have just been shot, but nothing has ever been fair and just.

        The Japanese were seen openly training, constantly training. Just any American observer who tried to raise the alarm was shut down, quickly, and if they kept yapping, were demoted, shunted off to whatever the worst post was at the time and so forth. It’s all about power struggles. We see the exact same thing with the Zumwalts and LCSessessess… People hanging onto ‘their’ wunderweapon with a deathgrip, pushing it forward no matter how bad it is, because it’s theirs.

        If the Japanese had effective radar, well, we would have been toast. Effective radar to use both to target with naval gunfire and to warn of planes, would have made the surface war much harder.

        It was our radar that allowed us to do so well at night gunnery.

        • Correct.

          The US torpedo establishment was here in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. The purpose it worked to was graft and corruption; any torpedo work was merely a disguise. This is a long Rhode Island tradition which only worsens over time.


          • You tube has a video “Mark 14 torpedo – Failure is like Onions”, folks should have been held accountable.

          • Ernest, a lot of Americans died because of that systemic failure over YEARS and YEARS. A good hanging of those responsible would have sent a message. Kle is right, it was intentional, people profited from the wickedness. Hanging was too good for them.

            And you can put scumbags like Governor Cuomo on the hanging list too. Hang him, and leave him hanging until the head separates from the body. DiBlasio can join him on the scaffold.

          • I concur, if not for simple Justice than at least “pour encourager les autres”. That two years were and multiple reports from skippers (Lt Commander Warder’s experience may be the nadir) before anything happened is criminal in itself. It may be a toss up between the faulty torps or Representative May as to which sent more US boats on Eternal Patrol.
            But here we are today with LCS, DDG 1000, CVN 78, and the F35… to think what could have been.

      • To me our WWII torpedo scandal looks like the same kind of sickness that pops up now and then where some Top.Man. doesn’t think it’s necessary to test assumptions and so you end up with “it can’t be the torpedo the Captain didn’t execute the attack properly”. (We’re not unique in that, “RBMK reactor cores can’t explode” is the same problem in another country)

        In the last 20 years it has popped up in the form of the LCS and the aptly-named Zumwalt DDG. Great talking points but not much (or faked/massaged) exercise results.

  2. In the mid-1960s, I walked through the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. She is a IXc type. As a boy I found it difficult to scramble through the hatches, having to duck and raise my feet at the same time and to avoid impaling myself on the various handles and such which intruded outward into the passage. Brave, courageous men fought in those metal cocoons. The boat was still outside on the grass at the time.

    • German boats were spartan war machines, and though they carried the war to American waters, it was a long trip for the boats that were built before WW2. They used Milch Cows (supply boats) to UNREP but it was awkward and left them immobile on the surface. It worked until the Allies developed patrol aircraft that could span the Atlantic and they they started losing boats far more quickly than they could make them. The old U-Boat aces were all killed and the brain trust was diminished, making the better U-Boats that were developed without the skilled crews that they might have had, if losses weren’t so significant.

      • I, too, went through the U-505 many times as both a kid and an adult. As I kid, I did better than as an adult. Really cramped, and the last time I was in it (1981-ish) the young lady who was with me couldn’t believe people went out in them for months at a time.

        Our boats were De Luxe accommodations compared to the rest.

        And I agree about the radar. “The Invention That Changed The World” by Robert Buderi is an excellent overview of where radar came from. We owe a LOT to the British researchers for things like the magnetron that enabled greatly increased power at microwave frequencies, giving our radar it’s “bite”.

  3. “There were about fifteen different classes of I-Boat and I won’t distinguish between them accept/(except) with the I-400, below. They were built and they were sunk, many of them unblooded as the(y) sank to Davey Jones.”
    not a grammar nazi, but I had to read it several times. D4mn autocorrect again! The one that can read minds is on the way they tell me.

  4. I was lucky enough when I was very young to have been on the beach with my dad when they pulled the U505 out of the water in Chicago. Never realized the significance of it until years later, but that is when I became interested in subs. That museum was and still is one of my favorite places in the world and I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been on that boat. This goes down to taking my grandkids to it a couple years ago. Never loses fascination with me.

    Later on, my Electronics teacher in Waukegan had been a Chief of Boat in WWII and told us all kinds of stories about it. One of the things he said after going through the U505 was that an American sailor would have revolted if he had to serve on a Uboat. And he pointed out the differences that made our boats “luxurious Cadillacs” as compared to theirs.

    i do wonder what the inside of an Japenese Iboat was like though.

    Rick points out the boat was outside for years, which it was, They moved it indoors because fighting the rust was getting impossible to fight.

    • Early on, the Jap boats were, typically, neat and clean. As the war progressed and they were used more and more as troop and cargo carriers, I seem to remember reading that the boats got somewhat shoddier.

      The Japanese have always had a clean-weapon fetish. You see it in their navy now. Their destroyers, even on patrol, look so clean in comparison to ours just leaving the yard.

      • The Japanese put a lot of wood in their ships. The danger of a fire was always present and their aircraft carriers went up like torches. Akagi took only one direct hit and that was it.

        You’re right in that the I Boats were used to ferry troops and supplies to isolated garrisons or armies under siege as with Guadalcanal.

        I was on a Japanese submarine during a RIMPAC exercise and had a chance to watch how they used it, how their combat swimmers locked out and so forth. The Japanese are professional and have a lot of pride in anything they do as a culture. The one thing that I noticed was the difficulty they had adapting to new situations outside of the general orders they received. It’s not a criticism, only an observation. The Japanese are much better allies than enemies.

    • The IJN used at least five mini-subs in the December 7th attack on O’ahu. That mini-sub which beached at Bellows Field (windward side, or, opposite side of the island from Pearl Harbor) was for a time kept for public viewing at Pearl. It was small! Reading the description was inadequate. Standing next to it, one would wonder how in tarnation did two guys fit and for so many hours.

      And this is a very good segue into the previously mentioned book, Combat Beneath The Sea. It wasn’t only Japan which used fully enclosed mini-subs. The UK took that concept further than anyone else. Just the multiple attempts on the Tirpitz using X class mini-subs is a fascinating story.

      • The US Navy has had a lot of experience with mini subs/SEAL Delivery Vehicles. I was assigned to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One for a time. We had MK-8 and MK-9 subs then. They were carried on submarines in Dry Dock Shelters.

        Since that time, they’ve become more advanced.

  5. Should you make it to Michigan the USS Silversides, SS-236, is now a museum ship and worth the tour, along with the Coast Guard Cutter McLane, (USCGC McLane, WSC-146)which sank a Japanese submarine in ’42.

    The Cobia’s in Manitowac, WI, if you want to stay on the other side of the lake.
    I visited both, and served on Skipjack class boats, which weren’t much bigger than either.

  6. Couple of other little things just popped back into my mind. If memory serves, the agreement between the Museum and the NAVY was the boat had to be displayed in such a way so as the NAVY could quickly restore it to operational status if they deemed it was needed. The two holes were cut through the boat in a way so they could easily be sealed up again, (also the tanks that were cut through).

    I also seem to remember that for quite some time, they would actually fire up the remaining engines once a month as they were required to be in running order.

    i might be foggy as to the exact factum on that, but I do know they were fired up regularly. Don’t know if they do that anymore, especially with her being inside now

    • The modern air independent propulsion (non-nuke) submarines are pretty good based on what I have read in open source. I tell the story of having taken a ride on a P-3 from a place in the South Pacific to Hawaii and having seen a snorkeling submarine. I asked a crew member what a snorkel looked like. He told me, and I pointed down. The P-3 did a constructive kill on it and it turned out to be an Aussie boat in the middle of nowhere (literally) on the way to Pearl Harbor for a RIMPAC. I think it was 1988.

      Anyway, a snorkel worked early in WW2, but in the modern era, it’s like having a big neon sign on your submarine. You wouldn’t want to go to war and have to snorkel.

  7. As a teen, I read everything I could find about USA submarines in the Pacific. I was enthralled by the exploits but not to the point I wanted to join the Navy.

    Late 70’s was marginally involved in building up the sub base at Bangor, WA and happened to be along Hood Canal when the Ohio made her initial voyage into the base. That was a scary sight!

  8. Anecdotally Captain Von Trap , of Sound of Music Fame was supposed to have been a WW1 decorated submarine commander.
    It is also said he brought his family wealth back to Austria from England , just before the Anschluss. He must have been a better submariner than political observer.

  9. Definitely a different ‘breed’ of sailors on all sides. My cousin was on Bowfin in WWII, made the first 2 patrols on her our of Australia before he transferred. He was an MM, and couldn’t stand music in the key of G after that. Said the engines ‘ran’ in that key. 🙂

  10. War is the ultimate big government program. For example, the English and German kings, cousins, meet at their equivalent of Bildererberger. They agree to tell their population the other king was going to attack them. Then each king received a lot more tax revenue to prepare for a war, then the kings sent off the most-capable of their populations to die killing each other, which prevented those persons from forming into a middle class from business and competing with the nobility.

    Who gave the order immediately prior to Pearl Harbor to stop sending spotter airplanes out to keep track of what the Japanese Navy was doing? This was after the US national command gave the order to stop selling petroleum to Japan, which was technically not a blockade, an act of war, but close.

    • Why were there eight Movietone film crews at Pearl Harbor on December 7? They got a LOT of good footage for the American people to view.

        • They were film crews and don’t you think that they did a great job filming the conflagration in real time? The equipment was heavy and in that era, Honolulu was a back water where not much happened. There were many film perspectives of that attack on a Sunday (when most people had the day off) and they were able to spark outrage in the hearts of Americans.

          I don’t take sides on whether it was “ethical” to have the film crews there, hanging out, waiting for something. These matters are complicated. However, if the fleet had been warned by USGOV, it would have sortied and would not have been so easy to sink. The battleships, sunk in a shallow harbor almost all returned to service, and the aircraft carriers were — elsewhere and the aircraft carriers and submarines were all that mattered.

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