Submarine Depot ships and Submarine Rescue ships

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Initially, submarine depot ships were decommissioned, obsolete warships or converted merchant ships then as the submarine technology developed so specialist, purpose-built ships were constructed. Submarines are small compared to most sea-going vessels (until the arrival of nuclear-powered submarines) and generally do not have the capacity to carry large amounts of food, fuel, torpedoes and other supplies nor to carry a full array of maintenance equipment and personnel. The tender carries all these, and either meets submarines at sea to replenish them or provides these services whilst docked in a port near the area where the submarines are operating. In some navies, the tenders were equipped with workshops for maintenance and as floating dormitories with relief crews. Early submarines were unreliable, bordering on dangerous and it became necessary to have some means of eventually recovering a submarine, possibly damaged, from the seabed. Their low profile when running on the surface made them particularly susceptible to accidents with other ships, especially at night. Submarine recovery ships and docks were built as submarine fleets increased in number and continued until the development of deep diving techniques both by divers and by remote controlled devices made them unnecessary (however, the Russian Black Sea Fleet still operates a twin-hulled recovery vessel commissioned as far back as 1915).

Catalogue number 34042

H.M.S. Thames and H.M.S. Camperdown

At the end of their lives as effective fighting vessels, H.M.S. Thames - a Mersey-class cruiser (commissioned 1888) - and H.M.S. Camperdown - an Admiral-class barbette battleship (commissioned 1889) - became, respectively, a submarine depot ship and a berthing ship for submarines. They are shown here with several submarines alongside, including what looks like E 33 and E 38.

9.8cm x 7.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 107086

H.M.S. Bonaventure, ca. 1909

This photograph taken around 1909 shows the depot ship H.M.S. Bonaventure with five C-class submarines alongside. Compared to the original Holland type, these submarines now have a conning tower worthy of the name and hence easing surface navigation in a rough sea.

Recto: “HMS “Bonaventure” (Parent ship) and C submarines alongside”

Credit: Cribb

13cm x 8.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 16032

Maintenance and repair ship, H.M.S. Adamant

The ship had two light lift and one heavy lift cranes as can be seen midships and aft respectively. The original complement was 520 ship’s company and repair staff but as the maintenance of modern submarines became more technically demanding, accommodation went up to 800 officers and men of the ship plus 550 others from submarines. In this photograph, H.M.S. Adamant still has its heavy guns in place - eight 4.5-inch quick firing high angle - they were removed in 1963.

20.7cm x 15.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 108004

S.M.S. Acheron and German submarines

The hulk Acheron (ex-S.M.S. Moltke) served as an accommodation ship for submarine crews in Kiel prior to the First World War. The submarine U3 sank in the harbour at Kiel in 1911 and the submarine recovery vessel S.M.S. Vulkan (cf below) was used to rescue the crew.

19.5cm x 12.4cm printed image


Catalogue number 55118

S.M.S. Moltke renamed S.M.S. Acheron

S.M.S. Moltke was a Bismarck-class corvette launched in 1877 and after a cruise to South America became a training ship from 1885 then a submarine accommodation ship being renamed S.M.S. Acheron. She was broken up in 1920.

13.6cm x 8.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 105020

U.S.S. Tallahassee with K-class submarines

The Arkansas-class monitor U.S.S. Florida (commissioned 1903) was renamed U.S.S. Tallahassee in 1908 and took part, as a gunnery test ship, in the ordnance firing trial on U.S.S. San Marcos (cf topic “Battle Damage”) before becoming a submarine tender prior to and during the First World War. Four K-class submarines are tied up alongside the tender. As well as the mooring ropes, note the power lines running out to each submarine for charging the batteries. Note also the prominent diving planes splayed out on the third port side submarine.

13.7cm x 8.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 25033

American submarines on a transport ship, 1913

Although not really a depot ship, U.S.S. Ajax is interesting - built 1890 as a navy collier in Glasgow, Scotland, commissioned 1898. In December 1912 she loaded the submarines B-2 Cuttlefish (submarine n° 11) and B-3 Tarantula (submarine n° 12) on her foredeck for transport to the Philippines via the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez canal. She is shown here at anchor in Alger. Nota: this photograph illustrates why submarines are called boats and not ships. The definition of a boat is a craft that can be carried on a ship. This was the case for the early submarines and the tradition has carried on.

Verso: “Photo of two submarines stowed on the foredeck of the transport ship “Ajax”. The American transport ship “Ajax” Alger 19th March 1913. Photo by Emile Durand” in French and in light pencil

8.2cm x 5.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 110033

F-class submarines with their tender U.S.S. Alert

In 1913, the submarine tender U.S.S. Alert and three F-class submarines were in the dry dock n° 2 at Mare Island, California. In this photograph we can see submarines F 3 (U.S.S. Pickerel) and F 2 (U.S.S. Barracuda), note the canvas-rigged, bridge-like structure on F 2. U.S.S. Alert was commissioned as a mixed screw and sail gunboat in 1875 later to be reclassified as a submarine tender in 1912.

12.9cm x 7.2cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 36227

U.S.S. Bushnell

U.S.S. Bushnell was commissioned in 1915 as a submarine tender to the Submarine Flotilla of the Atlantic fleet and followed the Submarine Division 5 to Ireland where she acted as tender to submarines operating out of Queenstown. She spent the inter-war years with various submarine divisions on the Atlantic coast, the Caribbean islands, the west coast of America and out to the Hawaiian Islands. In 1937 she was moved to the Hydrographic Survey being renamed U.S.S. Sumner. Alongside her is the U.S.S. submarine 107 (S-3). The submarine, commissioned in 1919, does not yet have a deck gun nor does it have a bridge structure so the photograph is prior to the early 1920s.

12cm x 7.7cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 41007

U.S.S. Holland

U.S.S Holland (AS3) was commissioned as a submarine tender in 1926 and went through the war in the Asian/Pacific area. She was removed from the Navy register in 1952. She had a complement of 74 officers and 724 men. In addition to booms with a 10 ton lifting capacity, she had heavy lift gear in the clipper bow that could be used to lift the bow or stern of a submarine out of the water for inspection and repair. Alongside is P-2, U.S.S. Pike (SS-173) which was a Porpoise-class diesel-electric submarine commissioned 1935. Both vessels are dressed over for some special event, note the 3-inch gun aft of the conning tower, the photograph is from the 1930s.

12.1cm x 8cm Photograph


Catalogue number 44255

Two L-class submarines with H.M.S. Lucia

These two L-class submarines are moored up to the submarine depot ship H.M.S. Lucia, an ex German prize Spreewald converted in 1916 and sold out of the navy in 1946. We have no date for this photograph but L16 and L26 were together with Lucia between 1927 and 1939 at Devonport as part of the Second Submarine Flotilla supporting the Atlantic and Home fleets. The L-class were said to closely resemble the 1914 - 1918 German ocean-going submarines but variations in the construction of the large class of 33 boats gave ten or more different types. Note the 4-inch gun at the level of the bridge to increase range and enable the gun to be fired when trimmed down or in a heavy sea, a marked improvement on deck-mounted guns. The saddle tanks characteristic of this class can just be seen at water level midships of each submarine.

Verso: "The English submarines "L.18" and "L26" in Spanish and in pencil

16.7cm x 11cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 94019

Italian submarine tender Alessandro Volta, 1925

Here is a mixed group of Italian submarines with an armed depot ship the Alessandro Volta- note the 4.7-inch gun under the aft canopy. From left to right, we have: a Fiat Laurenti type submarine, range 1100 miles at 9 kts on the surface and 110 miles at 1.5 kts submerged. Then two Holland type, commissioned in 1916/17 and built by the Canadan Vickers company, identification characterized by the aft gun. The other two submarines may also be of the Holland type, of the eight built, seven were still active in 1925.

Verso: “Volta at Siracusa 1924”

13.8cm x 9cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 02035

H.M.S. Vulkan and H- and R-class submarines

All the submarines - four H-class and one R-class - in this photograph were launched in 1917 to 1919 but none were in service after 1925 as being broken up. Note R4, an early hunter-killer submarine with a bulbous casing forward. The R-class were particular in that they were faster underwater (15kts) than on the surface (9.5kts). H.M.S. Vulcan was completed as a torpedo boat carrier - she could carry six torpedo boats on deck - in 1889 but with an armament worthy of a cruiser with eight 4.7-inch guns and twelve 3-pounders. She was partially disarmed and converted to a submarine depot ship in 1915, finally ending up as a training hulk in 1931.

Credit: Wright and Logan

13.3cm x 8.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 105053

H-class submarines with their tender

At the time this photograph was taken, the Royal Navy H-class submarines were obsolete (launched between 1915 and 1920) and were used nominally for training purposes and ocassionally for coastal warfare when needed. H.M.S. Alecto is shown here with part of her brood at Portland. She was ordered from the start as a submarine depot ship in 1911. This photograph is dated 1942 but it is known that H31 was mined in the Bay of Biscay on 24th December 1941.

18.9cm x 12.9cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 46221

H.M.S. Titania at Wei Hai Wei

H.M.S. Titania was built in 1915 as a merchant ship for the Austrians but with the outbreak of war she was commandeered and converted to a submarine depot ship. She was based in Hong Kong from 1920 to 1929 and the L-class submarines present in this photograph were all together with H.M.S. Titania from 1922 as part of the 4th Submarine Flotilla. The flotilla and the depot ship made several cruises away from Hong Kong and here they are shown at Wei Hai Wei. Note L33 seems to be painted a darker colour than the other boats.

Verso: "H.M.S. Titania at Wei-Hai-Wei." as printed text

12.4cm x 7.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 114080

H.M.S. Titania with several submarines alongside

A mixed bag of H-class submarines and an R-class are shown here alongside H.M.S. Titania - R4, H44 and H33 were all together with Titania in 1928. The improved H-class submarines were considered to be a successful design. R4 was broken up in 1937.

13cm x 7.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 36163 (detail)

H.M.S. Medway with submarines, Hong Kong 1932

H.M.S. Medway was the first of several depot and repair ships that were built in the late 1920s specifically for the task of serving submarines or destroyers. Prior to the Second World War, H.M.S. Medway was on the China Station and is shown here with three Parthian- or Odin-class long range patrol submarines moored alongside. Being far from home and with specialist needs, these patrol submarines needed the services of a well-equipped depot ship. The bilge keels of Medway were not very large (12 inches) to avoid damage to the submarines when moored close alongside. As a result, the ship was susceptible to roll, once going over 42° each way with a period of 9 seconds. The bilge keels were then increased to 36 inches.

Verso: "Hong Kong harbour from the Peak 1932" in pencil

26.8cm x 11.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 108077

H.M.S. Medway, Malta

We can see in this photograph two Odin class submarines with their characteristic forward sloped bow. The outside submarine is H.M.S. Otus which was with H.M.S. Medway as a depot ship from 1929 to 1939 being part of the 4th Submarine Flotilla, Hong Kong. The Odin class were the first British submarines to be fitted with Asdic. Note also the exceptionally high wireless masts as well as the high freeboard. H.M.S. Medway went out to Hong Kong during 1929/1930 and H.M.S. Poseidon was rammed and sank on 9th June 1931 so this photograph is post 1930 and prior to June 1931 even if H.M.S. Poseidon is not in the photograph as the author claims.

Verso: “H.M.S. “Medway” at Malta on the way out to the China station. Quite a floating hotel to the other one. (editor’s note: this is a reference to H.M.S. Titania, commissioned 1915, submarine depot ship, China station, replaced by H.M.S. Medway, 1929/1930.) Note the submarines alongside, one of which is the “Poseidon”, the one that was rammed, and sank at Wie Hai Wei.” in black ink.

12.7cm x 8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 24012

German depot ship Saar, Kiel

The German U-boat tender Saar is in harbour at Kiel with a large group of type IIB coastal submarines. She was the first purpose-built submarine depot ship for the German Navy and was commissioned in 1934. From 1935 to 1937 when she was moved to Wilhemshaven, the Saar was the depot ship for the Ist U-boat Flotilla. From the many rows of scuttles, we can see that Saar was capable of accommodating many submariners - complement 228 plus 253. The type IIB coastal submarine were small so living conditions were cramped, they carried only five torpedoes and range was short (1800 nm at 12 kts) so they could not operate far from a support facility. Their main role became the training of officers.

22.7cm x 9.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 43092

U.S.S. Fulton

U.S.S. Fulton was the lead ship of seven Fulton-class submarine tenders commissioned from 1941 through to 1945. They carried a complement of 59 officers and 1214 men. Fulton was on active service in the Pacific during the war and after continued supporting the fleet of submarines, diesel and later nuclear. Here Fulton is servicing four submarines, part of the large Balao-class brought into service from 1943. The second out submarine is U.S.S. Bergall (SS-320), commissioned in 1944 with a thicker and tougher hull of high tensile steel so this class could dive to deeper depths. Bergall is seen here after the fitting of a streamlined sail over the conning tower.

Credit: Wright and Logan

13.4cm x 8.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 63029

Converted passenger ship as H.M.S. Montclare

H.M.S. Montclare was launched as a passenger ship in 1921 and after being requisitioned by the Admiralty (1939) became an armed merchant cruiser then a destroyer depot ship (1942) during the war. After the war she was converted to a submarine depot ship (1946) and deployed with the 3rd Submarine Squadron on the Clyde from 1948 until decommissioned in 1954.

Credit: Skyfotos

24.5cm x 19.1cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 73151

H.M.S. Forth, 1952

What a sight ! There are 18 submarines in the photograph taken in 1952 at Pieta Creek, Malta. The 1st Submarine Flotilla was based in Malta. In 1952, the Mediterranean submarine fleet consisted of H.M. ships Sturdy, Sanguine, Sentinel, Tabard, Teredo, Trump, Token and Trenchant, depot ship H.M.S. Forth. The NATO naval exercise Longstep took place in the Mediterranean Sea in late 1952 so we may suppose that there are several participants in this photograph. In the exercise, American, British, French, Greek and Turkish submarines formed the enemy Green Forces with the aim of disrupting an amphibious landing by the Allied Blue Force. Note the floating walkway between Forth and the quayside. There are still several buildings without roofs destroyed during the war.

Verso: Mauve stamped "H.M.S. Falcon 8 Nov 1952"

Credit: Crown copyright

20.5cm x 14.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 63030

H.M.S. Forth prior to converstion

This photograph shows H.M.S. Forth prior to reconstruction in 1959-1962 to become a parent ship for nuclear powered submarines.

Credit: Skyfotos

23.4cm x 17.1cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 94114

Malta submarine flotilla with H.M.S. Narvik

H.M.S. Narvik - ex Landing Ship Tank 3044, launched 1945 - was on the point of disposal when she was fitted out at Chatham as a submarine support ship to take the place of H.M.S. Forth (under reconstruction) in serving the First Submarine Squadron in the Mediterranean as well as acting as an accommodation ship. Narvik is seen here with six submarines in Msida Creek, Malta. The 1st Submarine Flotilla was in Malta 1960 to 1964. Tentative identification based on the deployment of submarines in Malta at the time, from left to right: 1, 2, 3 and 5 converted T-class (streamlining, removal of the deck gun, conning tower replaced by a symetrical “sail”), note short column on the starboard bow - sonar perhaps although reference photographs of the T-class show a distinct sonar dome on the bow however, see; 4 the modernised T class Taciturn; 6 not identified (no small submarine in Jane’s 1966-67) may be an unmodified S-class (Jane’s 1960-61).

16.6cm x 11.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 107100

H.M.S. Adamant and submarines, 1962

Those were the days! The submarine depot ship H.M.S. Adamant with fifteen submarines of the Ist, 2nd and 3rd Submarine Squadrons on the trot off Falmouth during anti-submarine training in the Devonport and Channel area, 1962. Commissioned in 1942 and twenty years later it was still able to offer a comprehensive range of services to the submarine flotilla - foundry, workshops for fitters, patternmakers, coppersmiths and shipwrights plus light and heavy machine shops, torpedo and electrical shops as well as all kinds of specific submarine repair facilities. With Adamant is a mixture of A-class - port aft, 3rd out Auriga S69, starboard forward 2nd out Alcide S65 or Tapir S35 or Thermopylae S55 and 1st out maybe Arthemis S49 - and T-class - port forward 3rd out Talent S37 - modified submarines including either the Ex-class Excalibur S30 or Explorer S40 starboard aft 4th out.

18.1cm x 22cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 95041

Depot ship with two submarines

This photograph is of either H.M.S. Forth or H.M.S. Maidstone with two submarines alongside. The photograph was taken prior to the late 50s early 60s modernization and partial reconstruction. Inner most, an A-class submarine prior to the reconstruction programme that began in 1955 and outer, a T-class submarine. Note the aft-firing torpedo tubes on the beam casing, there were also tubes in the bow and stern casing.

15.4cm x 11.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 63031

H.M.S. Maidstone

This is a fine view of the elegant stern of H.M.S. Maidstone, forming the hull plates for the stern was one of the most difficult tasks of shipbuilding. Photograph taken prior to modernisation to a nuclear powered submarine support ship pre-1958.

Credit: Studio Paul Legarré

23.1cm x 17.3cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 79058

Submarine depot ships in the nuclear age

Compare the facilities available in these ships with those of the earlier H.M.S. Adamant - medical and dental facilities; cranes, elevators and conveyor belts to move material between ship and shore as well as between decks; storage for refrigerated and dry food; nuclear system repair and testing; electrical/electronic repair; hull repair; sheet metal and steel work; pipe manufacture; foundry work; woodwork; printing; underwater diving and rescue; hazardous material management; repair of propulsion systems and weapon systems (reference Wikipedia). In this photograph of U.S.S. Frank Cable, a floating crane appears to be moving torpedoes between a loaded barge and the submarines.

24cm x 19cm Colour printed image


Catalogue number 49063

U.S.S. McKee

Time has moved on and so has the needs of a submarine fleet. Both U.S.S. Frank Cable and U.S.S. McKee were commissioned in 1980 and 1981 respectively to provide repair and support facilities to 12 nuclear-powered and diesel, fast-attack submarines with four submarines moored alongside at a time. Both were specifically configured to support Los Angeles nuclear attack submarine and carried 50 officers and 1108 crew.

Credit: Marine Photos & Publ

25.3cm x 20.5cm Colour photograph


Catalogue number 40269

S.M.S. Vulkan, 1908

The submarine rescue ship S.M.S. Vulkan was commissioned in Kiel 1908 which is interesting given that the German Imperial Navy only had 30 or so submarines in its fleet at the time. Its presence is probably a measure of the poor safety margin of the early submarines. The principle was to either send a diver down to hook up chains and cables to the submarine in distress or to use grapple hooks in the hope of fixing on to something solid.

13.1cm x 8.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 35097

Vulkan passing through the Kiel canal, 1916

Chains or cables were lowered from the gantry positioned midship and hopefully, the lost submarine would be lifted up between the two hulls. She had a lift of 500 tons, two screws and two rudders. Two Zoelly steam turbines generated electricity for two electric motors - a boiler room, turbine and motor per hull. Complement was six officers and 99 men.

Verso: Postcard with text in German sent from Wilhelmshaven 22 March 1913 from a officer abord S.M.S. Kaiser to a friend in Freiburg.

13.6cm x 9cm Printed image


Catalogue number 107067

The dock of S.M.S. Vulkan

This photograph shows the twin-hull layout of S.M.S. Vulkan being joined fore and aft. In this photograph Vulkan is moored fore and aft to buoys whilst three submarines are moored alongside - one to starboard and two to port. Despite a low lift capacity, Vulkan made several successful rescues. The 30-man crew of U-3 (see above) was saved after it sank in Heikendorfer Bay near Kiel, 1911. Otto Weddigen (famous for sinking H.M.S. ships Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy in one day) and Paul Clarrendorf (Commander, U-boat recruitment command) were part of the crew. U-30 was lost with all hands and was salvaged by Vulkan in 1915 and UC-45 was salvaged in 1917.

13.2cm x 8.1cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 64055

S.M.S. Vulkan going into internment, 1919

As could be expected from a 1595 ton displacement, twin-hulled ship, it had poor seakeeping qualities and was difficult to keep in place in a tide or to work in a swell (Gröner, 1968). However, its successful submarine recoveries probably encouraged other navies to design similar ships including the Russian Navy (Volchov) and Spanish Navy (Kanguro, see below). This photograph show the Vulkan on its way to internment in 1919 and before she sank during a storm.

13.4cm x 8.3cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 29007

S.M.S. Cyclop

The German submarine rescue ship Cyclop was commissioned in 1917 to be handed over to the British in 1919 then broken up in Germany in 1923. Having a displacement (4010tons) more than twice that of Vulkan, she had a lifting capacity of 1000 tons and was powered by two triple expansion engines. Note the light lifting gear over the stern (left).

10.7cm x 8cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 26018

Spanish rescue ship Kanguro

During the inter-war years, Spain built up a considerable submarine fleet and Kanguro was built with the idea of a submarine rescue and tender but when she entered service in 1920, the existing submarines were too big to enter the space between the two hulls (dock length 46 meters). It was never called upon to rescue a submarine and only served to salvage the guns from the stranded battleship Espana in 1923. Built by Werf Conrad of Haarlem, Netherlands, ordered 1915 but construction was delayed because of the Great War and legal problems. Lifting capacity was 650 tons to a depth of 50 meters

Verso: Blue stamp “Casau, Mayor, 10, Cartagena”

13cm x 8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 26032

Submarine rescue dock, French Navy

The French Navy had a submarine recovery dock in 1913 (see photograph by Marius Bar, Arsenal de Toulon - la Base des Sous-Marins 1913). It appears in photographs of the Toulon naval base during the interwar years and up until it was scuttled in 1942. The dock was built by the Chantiers de la Loire dockyard and was moved by tugs as is shown in this photograph.

Verso: “Dock de sauvetage p.s/m & marins. Le dock en remorque sortant des bassins." typed text

17.4cm x 12.4cm Matt gelatin silver print

Catalogue number 30022

View of the docking space

This view shows the gantry structure and open dock into which the submarine would be raised. The dock could lift 1100 tonnes, it was 98.40m long, beam at the widest point was 25.60m with 6.30m between each hull (data kindly provided by A. Delambily via Marine Forum).

Verso: “dock de sauvetage pp.s/m. J.P. vue prise du gouvernail Tb regardant vers l’avant.” typed text

17.3cm x 12.3cm Matt gelatin silver print