Warship Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017: Uncle’s only submersible aircraft carrier

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017: Uncle’s submersible aircraft carrier

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 99774

Here we see the S-class “pigboat” the early direct-drive diesel-electric submarine USS S-1 (SS-105) with her after deck awash, preparing to take a tiny Martin MS-1 seaplane on board during tests in October 1923. Note the tube-shaped sealed hangar behind the tower. The image was probably taken at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

As you can tell, S-1 was the U.S. entry into the oddball inter-war submarine aircraft carrier race.

The Germans first used the concept of a submarine that could support aircraft when SM U-12 helped support a pair of Friedrichshafen FF.29 reconnaissance seaplanes at Zeebrugge in 1915. Though the FF.29s were not housed on the primitive 188-foot U-boat, they did experiment with carrying on the deck of the surfaced submarine in a takeoff position, then launching an aircraft by partially submerging, allowing the seaplane to float off and fly away to strike its target– thus extending their range.

SM U-12 with a seaplane aboard in trials 1915. Note the lollygag under the deck gun. 

In the only German sub-air attack of the war, an FF.29 took off on 6 January 1916, motored around the Kent coast, and returned to Zeebrugge without accomplishing much.

The Brits later experimented with E-class submarines in the Great War and by the 1920s, the RN was joined by Italy (Ettore Fieramosca), France (the Surcouf as detailed in an earlier Warship Wednesday), and later Germany (the Type IX D 2-“Monsun”) and Japan (the I-15 Series and later the huge I-400 series, another WW past favorite) in crafting undersea aircraft carriers.

So why not the U.S., right?

The S-class submarines, derided as “pig boats” or “sugar boats” were designed in World War I, but none were finished in time for the conflict.

Some 51 examples of these 1,200-ton diesel-electrics were built in several sub-variants by 1925 and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online. At 219-feet oal, these boats could dive to 200 feet and travel at a blistering 14kts on the surface on their twin NELSECO 8-cylinder 4-stroke direct-drive diesel engines. Armament was a quartet of 21-inch bow tubes with a dozen fish and a retractable 3″/23cal popgun on deck for those special moments. Crew? Just 38 officers and men.

The hero of our tale, SS-1, has an inauspicious name and was a “Holland” type boat laid down at Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts on a subcontract by the Electric Boat Co. Launched on 26 October 1918, she was sponsored by none other than Mrs. Emory S. Land, just two weeks before the Great War ended.

The USS S-1 slides down the ways at the Fore River Ship Builders on October 26, 1918. Via Pigboats.com

USS S-1 (Submarine # 105) Off Provincetown, Massachusetts, on 17 April 1920, while running trials. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41988

She was commissioned on 5 June 1920 and was attached to Submarine Division (SubDiv) 2 out of sometimes-chilly New London.

(SS-105) Covered with ice while underway in Long Island Sound, January 1922. Note the retractable 3/23 deck gun at right. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation. Collection of Lieutenant O.E. Wightman. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 80576

On 2 January 1923, she shifted to SubDiv Zero, for “experimental work” involving a dozen all metal Cox-Klemin XS-1 (BuNo A6508-A6520) and six wood-and-fabric Martin MS-1 (BuNo A6521-A6526) seaplanes.

These small (1,000lb, 18 feet long, 18 foot wingspan) experimental biplanes were envisioned to fly off S-class submarines for over-the-horizon scouting and observation missions.

Martin MS-1 scouting seaplane (Bureau # A-6525) being assembled on the after deck of USS S-1 (SS-105), at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 24 October 1923. Note the entrance to the submarine’s small hangar, at left, booms used to erect the plane’s structure, and the seaplane’s metal floats and three-cylinder engine. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 71028

(SS-105) Hangar installed at the after end of the submarine’s fairwater, circa October 1923. This hangar was used during tests with the very small Martin MS-1 scouting floatplane. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1972. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 76124

XS-1, a seaplane housed in a hangar and operating when the submarine surfaced (NNAM photo)

The seaplanes were to be knocked down, sealed in a hangar attached to the deck behind the conning tower, then after surfacing in a calm area, the little doodlebug could be rolled out and assembled. Like SM-12, they would be launched by ballasting the sub until the deck was awash and allowed to float off and take air.

(SS-105) With a Martin MS-1 seaplane on her deck, circa the mid-1920s. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41986

(SS-105) Underway, while fitted with an aircraft hangar aft of her fairwater, circa the mid-1920s. Note the 4″/50 that has replaced her original gun. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41987

Curtiss HS-2L seaplane operating with and S-1 type submarine, 1924. These big flying boats were bought in quantity in WWI and were the backbone of the USN and Coast Guard until the late 1920s, but it was thought that submarines could refuel them– another experiment by SS-1. Catalog #: NH 60769

(SS-105) Martin MS-1 scouting seaplane (Bureau # A-6525) on her after deck, during the mid-1920s. Among the submarines docked in the background is USS K-7 (SS-38), at left. USS L-8 (SS-48) is at right, with USS L-9 (SS-49) just to her left. Original photo caption gives location as New London, Connecticut. However, the view may have been taken at Norfolk or Hampton Roads, Virginia. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 70979

(SS-105) With a Martin MS-1 scouting floatplane (Bureau # A-6525) on her after deck, probably at Norfolk, Virginia, on 24 October 1923. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 72793

Control Force submarines and their tenders at Christobal, Panama Canal Zone, circa 1923. Description: The tenders are (from left to right): Savannah (AS-8), Bushnell (AS-2), Beaver (AS-5) and Camden (AS-6). Submarines are mostly R type boats, among them R-23 (SS-100) and R-25 (SS-102), both in the nest alongside Savannah’s port quarter. The larger submarine alongside Savannah’s bow may be S-1 (SS-105), with her large seaplane hangar. Photographed by A.E. Wells. Courtesy of Commander Christopher Noble, USN (Retired), 1967. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 42573

Over the next three years, SS-1 was busy with the project until finally, the “first full cycle of surfacing, assembly, launching, retrieving, disassembly, and submergence took place on 28 July 1926 on the Thames River in New London.”

Deemed unproductive for the outlay in slim peacetime funds, the aircraft experiments were canceled and the tiny seaplanes scrapped.

By July 1927, SS-1, with her hangar removed, was back in regular squadron work. First transferred to SubDiv 4, then SubDiv2, she made regular training cruises in the Caribbean, East Coast, and Canal Zone until 1931 when she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet, operating from Pearl Harbor.

At the same time, many of her classmates were retired and scrapped, replaced by newer and much larger fleet boats. Accordingly, SS-1 was given orders to proceed to Philadelphia where she was decommissioned on 20 October 1937 and mothballed.

With tensions rising at the start of WWII in Europe, the old SS-1 was taken out of storage and brought back to life, though she was in poor shape. Carrying new and would-be bubbleheads, she made two cruises to Bermuda, training submariners, and returned to Philadelphia from the second cruise on the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ironically, as noted by Capt. Julius Grigore in his work on Surcouf, the two submarine carriers may have crossed paths at this time.

Though several S-boats served the Navy well in both the Atlantic and Pacific, six were transferred to the Royal Navy as Lend-Lease. USS S-1 was in this lot and swapped to the Brits at New London on 20 April 1942, to be struck from the Navy List on 24 June 1942.

In her new career, with Lt. Anthony Robert Danielle, DSC, RN, in command, she was known as HMS P-552.

Just out of New London on 1 May she encountered three survivors from the Norwegian steam ship Taborfjell (1,339GT), which had been claimed by the German submarine U-576 under Hans-Dieter Heineken. Saving Radio Operator Olaf Alfsen, Second Officer Erling Arnesen, and Third Engineer Officer Ole Karlsen Svartangen after a two-hour search about 95 nautical miles east of Cape Cod, P-552 diverted to St. Johns and landed the men ashore 7 May.

The sub arrived in Durban South Africa, via Gibraltar and Freetown, in December 1942 where she was used for training for several months.

She was paid off by the RN 11 August 1944 and given back to the USN while still in Durban two months later. She never left the harbor again and was scrapped in September 1946.

None of her sisters endure though Pigboats.com keeps their memory alive.

The Navy revisited the possibility of submarine aircraft carriers again during World War II and the early 1950s but nothing came of it. They did experiment with refueling large seaplanes via submarine as well as using them in helicopter landings for special operations into the 1950s, using the abbreviations AOSS — submarine oiler, and SSP–submarine transport.

USS Guavina (AGSS-362), refueling a P5M-1 Marlin flying boat off Norfolk, Virginia (USA), in 1955. Prior to World War II several submarines were fitted to refuel seaplanes. During the war, Germany and Japan used this technique with some success. After the war this technique was experimented with within the US Navy. It was planned to use submarines to refuel the new jet powered P6M Seamaster flying boats. As part of this program Guavina was converted to carry 160,000 gallons of aviation fuel. To do this blisters were added to her sides and two stern torpedo tubes were removed. When the P6M project was canceled, there was no further need for submarine tankers. This concept was never used operationally in the US Navy.

USS Corporal’s emergency helicopter op

And today, there are several programs to put UAVs on subs, for scouting and observation missions–proving that everything old is new again.

Still, SS-1 was the only U.S. Navy submarine to have the capability to submerge with a manned aircraft aboard and then successfully launch it. For that, she will be immortal.


Displacement: Surfaced: 854 t., Submerged: 1062 t.
Length 219′ 3″
Beam 20′ 8″
Draft 15′ 11″(mean)
Speed: surfaced 14.5 kts, submerged 11 kts
Complement 4 Officers, 34 Enlisted
Propulsion: New London Ship & Engine Co (NELSECO) diesel engines, HP 1200, twin propellers
Fuel capacity: 41,921 gal.
Electric: Electro Dynamic Co., electric motors, HP 1500, Battery cells 120, Endurance: 20 hours @ 5 kn submerged
Armament: 4 21″ torpedo tubes, 12 torpedoes, one 3″/23 retractable deck gun–later fixed 4″/50
Aircraft: 1 tiny seaplane

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