First British Naval Submarine A-1 Rammed And Sunk
By James Donahue
Someone once compared the early submariners to contemporary astronauts. They volunteered
to operate dangerous experimental craft and go where no man went before. And many of them died for their cause.
The submarine was first conceived, constructed an used during the Civil War, but often
with disastrous results. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, submarines were beginning to be a proven technology an
the British Royal Navy began building them for naval service.
The first British designed submarine was HMS A-1, the lead ship of the first British A-class
of submarines. (The A stood for Amphion.) The A-1 was the only submarine to have a single bow torpedo tube.
The A-1 was a very unlucky ship. It was sunk twice, the first time taking its entire crew
to the bottom with it in 1904. The sub went down in shallow water, however, was recovered, rebuilt and put back in service,
only to be sunk a second time in 1911. The second time the vessel was unmanned so there were no casualties.
The first disaster occurred on Friday, March 18, 1904 while participating in a mock Naval
battle off the Isle of Wight. During the exercise, A-1 was tasked with "attacking" HMS Juno, a navy cruiser.
As the submarine moved into position for its fake torpedo shot, it was struck by the passing
steamship Berwick Castle on the starboard side near the conning tower. The A-1 was fatally damaged in the crash and sank in
37 feet of water taking all 11 hands to the bottom with it.
The Berwick Castle was steaming from Southampton to Hamburg, Germany, that day and its
pilot had not been informed of a submarine operating in the area. During an inquiry that followed, the ship's master said
he believed that he had been struck by a practice torpedo and continued on his journey.
The disaster went unnoticed until A-1 failed to return to the harbor that evening. An investigation
revealed the full scale of the disaster that had occurred under the waters, but right before the eyes of Naval officials.
Thus the A-1 is remembered as the first naval casualty involving a submarine at sea.
One result of the disaster is that all Royal Navy submarines built after that were equipped
with a watertight hatch at the bottom of the conning tower, to give the crew a chance to escape in the event of a similar
The submarine was raised, rebuilt and utilized by the British Navy until August, 1910,
when A-1 was severely damaged in a fuel explosion. It was repaired once more but never used as an active submarine. Instead
it was use as a testbed for the Admiralty's Anti-Submarine Committee. It was lost in 1911 when running submerged but unmanned
under automatic pilot.
Efforts to find the wreck failed until 1989 when it was discovered by a local fisherman
in Bracklesham Bay, about five miles from where it was believed to have sunk. It was theorized that the vessel only partially
flooded at first and was moved by the currents to its final location.
The wreck has since been designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act an is a favorite
visiting site for sport divers.
The A-1 was a very small ship compared to modern submarines. It measured about 100 feet
in length and displaced about 200 tons when submerged. It was propelled underwater by battery-powered electric motors and
on the surface by diesel engines.
The armament for A-class submarines included two 18-inch torpedo tubes with four torpedoes.
The A-1, however had only one tube an carried three torpedoes.
There were 13 A-class submarines built for the British Navy between 1902 and 1905. Of these,
two others, the A-7 an A-3 were sunk, and A-13 was laid up in 1914 because of engine trouble. The other subs were used for
harbor defense during World War I. All survived the war an were used for training until they were retired.