Warship Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Philly L boats: The Retractables
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time 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, March 10, 2021: The Retractables
Abbreviated Warship Wednesday as I am traveling for work this week!
Official caption: “U.S. Submarines return after submarine guard duty off the coast, League Island, Philadelphia, Pa. SC 89642” listed as received in 1918.
The U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command list this image as NH 51167 with the description:
L class submarines tied up at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, with a harbor tug outboard, circa February 1919. Submarines are (from left to right): USS L-3 (Submarine # 42); USS L-9 (Submarine # 49); USS L-11 (Submarine # 51); and USS L-2 (Submarine # 41).
The 11 L boats were small, just 450/550 tons surfaced/submerged and 167 feet in length but they carried a 3″/23 deck gun and a quartet of 18-inch tubes with eight early unguided MK7 Bliss-Leavitt torpedos, making them deadly.
An interesting aspect of their gun was that it was semi-retractable, able to (partially) stow in a compartment then be erected for surface actions. I say partially because, when stowed, the gun shield and barrel extended skyward, looking like a stovepipe. A tampion and greased gasket around the shield made the mount somewhat watertight while submerged.
Sent across the Atlantic in 1918 to assist the Royal Navy’s operations around the British Isle, they worked from Queenstown, Berehaven, and Portland. To differentiate them from the RN’s own L-class subs, the American boats picked up”AL” hull numbers on their fairwaters for “American L.” One, (A)L-2 (SS-41) claimed a kill against SMS UB-65 on 10 July 1918 off Fastnet Light, Ireland.
They cleared on 3 January 1919 for the United States via the Azores and Bermuda, reaching Philadelphia on 1 February, making the NHHC’s caption for the lead image at the top of this post likely more correct. This is more so reinforced with the fact that papers across the country carried the image in April 1919 with the caption:
“American U-boats Back from the War: After 15 months hunting of German U-boats in the Irish Sea, the flotilla of submarines shown above returned to the League Island navy yard at Philadelphia. The L-11 (SS-51), (third from left) had many desperate encounters with the enemy boats, including a fight below the surface with a Hun sub, which L-11 subsequently vanquished.”
After post-deployment overhaul and repairs, most of the above shifted to the Hampton Roads Submarine Base, headquartered onboard Eagle 17 until the summer of 1920 when they were sent as a group back to Philly. Most were out of service by 1923 and sold for scrap within a decade after.
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