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.

NARA 165-WW-338B-3A

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. 

A similar design used on USS M-1 (SS-47) the world’s first double-hulled submarine. Unlike this gun, the 3-inchers on the L-class still left the gun shield and barrel above water. 

Alongside L-3 (Submarine No. 42) at Berehaven, Ireland, 1918. Nevada (Battleship No. 36), which arrived in Ireland with Oklahoma (Battleship No. 37) on 23 August 1918, is in the background. L-1’s 3/23 deck gun is visible in the foreground in the erected position. Also, note the “AL” identification mark on her conning tower. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 752)

Caption: View on AL-3’s deck, looking aft toward the fairwater, while the submarine was underway off Berehaven, Ireland, in 1918. Note L-3’s 3-inch/23 caliber deck gun in retracted position just forward of the fairwater. The giant wingnut screw on the end of the tampion is interesting. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 63176)

L-1 alongside Bushnell at Portland, England, 1918. Note L-1’s 3/23 retracting deck gun trained out to starboard, and Y-tube hydrophone immediately behind her open foredeck hatch. Also note the boat boom attached to Bushnell’s side, with the pivoting mechanism at its end and walkway board on its upper surface. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 51159)

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.

American L class submarines in Ireland 1918, sailing in a column. NH 51130

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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They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

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