How The French Helped Pioneer Modern Submarines

When we think of submarines, we’re likely to conjure in our mind photos and videos of German U-boats sinking British transports in the Atlantic, accidents with Russian subs or American nuclear submarines. But it was actually the French who first went all-out for submarines. And it was France to which most of the world looked in 1870-1900 for guidance on what to do with the mysterious and deadly underwater vessels.

Vice Admiral Théophile Aube was a strategist who, like most French navy officers, pondered how France would ever be able to measure up against the British Royal Navy. One thing he did not believe in was building what he called ‘mastodons’: a large fleet of large ships, like the British had and which they were now modernizing with large, steel battleships. France could never hope to compete with the British and beat them on the high seas.

Admiral Aube. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, Aube argued, the French should use agile ships for quick attacks and pounce on Britain’s main weakness: the fact that it is an island nation and thus vulnerable to supply issues. One such agile boat, Aube argued, was cheap torpedo boats using the new invention, Whitehead torpedos, to quickly strike at slow moving enemy hulks. It was Aube, stationed in the main southern navy harbour city of Toulon in the south of France and who had taken notice of the Goubet submersibles, the first French boats experimentally fitted with electric engines, who commissioned a design for an underwater torpedo vessel from Henry Dupuy de Lôme.

While in Britain, Dupuy de Lôme had learned a great deal about iron and metal hulls and steam engines, and back in France working for the arsenal in the navy harbor of Toulon, he designed the nation’s first ship-of-the-line with steam engine and screw and ironclads. But he had also taken notice of the antics of the Plongeur, that big submersible with compressed air propulsion, and the Goubet submarines.

And so Dupuy de Lôme went to work on designing what would later become the Gymnote, a futuristic looking submersible that from the outside looked like a smooth speedboat with a cover on it.

The Gymnote submarine. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Dupuy de Lôme died before he could finish his work. Later on, Gustave Zédé, a pupil of his, and Arthur Krebs, also a pretty famous inventor and designer of military vehicles, picked up where De Lôme left off and completed the Gymnote.

She would be a testing platform. She was almost 8 meters or 60 feet long, had a diameter of close to 2 meters or 6 feet, housed a crew of 5, had a surprisingy light electric engine of 55 horsepower for propulsion, three hydroplanes for balance, an optical tube – basically a prototype periscope – and the first electric gyrocompass. It also carried two torpedos. The light weight of the electric engine designed by Krebs is probably explained by the fact that Krebs had been designing airships, which by definition can carry only lightweight machinery. So in almost every respect, the Gymnote ticked off the list of ingredients for a proper submersible.

Unfortunately, like the Nordenfelts, Gymnote didn’t solve both the underwater stability issue and the range problem. Gymnote could make a decent speed of about 8 knots surfaced and close to 5 knots submerged, but its range was 70 miles, maximum. That made it a coastal submersible for defense purposes only, at best.

Like said, admiral Aube was liked by the French press, for he never minced words. The British government even filed an official protest with Paris after the French press reported about a strategy piece Aube had written, in which he suggested bombarding British cities into ruins to keep the Royal Navy occupied and damage the British economy. As a result of the fawning press, reports about the Gymnote were glowing, even though test dives did not go so smoothly. Like the men in the Nordenfeldt, the crew and visitors of the Gymnote often found themselves grabbing onto anything that could hold them when the Gymnote keeled over 30 degrees or more.

The Gymnote was an unarmed test boat. Next up came the Gustave Zédé, named after its main designer, which would be bigger and hold an internal torpedo tube. Originally the boat was to be called the Sirène, but like with Dupuy de Lome, Zédé passed away during construction, leading the navy to name her after her main designer.

The hull was laid down in 1890 and construction finished in 1893. The Gustave Zédé was a much larger boat, some 159 feet or almost 50 meters long, a beam of 12 feet or 3,5 meters and a displacement of 266 tons. She held a crew of 19 and three Whitehead torpedos. And she held the distinction of being the first submarine to be officially commissioned into the navy by a government.

The Gustave Zédé. Image: Marius Bar, Wikimedia Commons licence

Now I can imagine you going “Wait, what’s that, you say? The Hunley, the Intelligent Whale…?” I admit there’s still some debate among purists, but technically the CSS Hunley was seized, not commissioned by the Confederate government, which was never recognized as an official government anyway, and the Intelligent Whale was never commissioned as a sea-going affair. Remember, she was put in a museum.

The Gustave Zédé was a formidable submarine. If you look up photos of her, widely available on the net, you’ll see that she really was a precursor to the submarines of World War I and II in most respects, in both design and specifications. She was longer, for instance, than the German type U-1 submarines, which was launched in 1906, while the Gustave Zédé put to sea in 1893. In many respects, she was also way ahead of the Holland-type submarines, which we’ll talk about in our next episode.

This is not to say that the Gustave Zédé was without problems. First, of course, having only electric engines limited her range to 200 miles on the surface and some 100 submerged. On her first test voyage, some of the 720 fuell cells burst into fire. The number of batteries was halved, cutting her speed to 5,5 knots on the surface and 4,5 submerged. When that problem was solved, it turned out the early fuell cells were unhealthy for the crew. The batteries were highly chemical affairs, releasing fumes into the closed environment, frequently causing crewmen to fall ill.

And like the Gymnote and all the submarines we’ve talked about before this, the Gustave Zédé suffered from – you guessed it, balance and trim problems. She had rudders at her stern, but this clearly was not enough. There was a close call for the submersible’s future during one of her first test dives. An important Committee of Engineers had come along for the ride to report on her when the same thing happened as with the Nordenfeldt Abdul Hamid submersible: she keeled over forward, causing everything and everyone to slide to the fore.

As Farnham Bishop recorded in his book:

“At first nothing would induce the Gustave Zédé to quit the surface, and when at last she did plunge she did it so effectually that she went down to the bottom in 10 fathoms of water at an angle of 30°.”

Farnham Bishop

Promises for balance improvement were made, adding rudders to her fore, which took care of many balance and trim issues.

After a number of further testing and improvements, the Gustave Zédé sailed from Toulon to Marseille, some 40 miles to the west, and arrived with enough juice in her batteries to make the return trip.

By this time, it must be said, the patriotic French press was going absolutely mad. Reporters had clearly fallen in love with the new naval marvel. Influential newspapers published glowing articles and rave reviews of the Gustave Zédé. This turned into a frenzy in 1898 when it was reported that the Gustave Zédé had succesfully taken part in exercises that saw her – quotation marks – “sink” the Magenta, an ageing battleship, using dud torpedos. The Gustave Zédé had made the 40 mile trip to the exercise area and then twice attacked the Magenta, first when she was at anchor and a second time when she had left port.

This was the first time in history that a submarine had succesfully torpedoed a warship while submerged. The raving and somewhat embellished newspaper reports culminated in a national drive to collect sums to build more submarines. “We can never have enough submarines”, wrote a reporter. Another newspaper commented that now that France had these submarines, it could take on any nation with a big navy. It was lost on no one which nation that would be.

Submarine fever now held the nation in its grip. And the country needed some positive news. France had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and 1871, which had seen Prussian troops march through Paris and the region of Alsace and part of Lorraine, in the notheast of France, annexed by what was now Germany, severely bruising French pride.

Soon after the launch of Gustave Zédé, another submersible was ordered, the Morse, which many of the same characteristics, only smaller. Trials with the Morse convinced navy officers and engineers that something had to be done to somehow create a second propulsion system, aside the batteries. Yet with gasoline engines still being problematic, a solution wasn’t readily at hand.

In the meantime, the French attempted to solve the problem by approving the construction of the Narval, which was neither a submersible nor a submarine. It was supposed to be a combination of a surface torpedo boat and a submarine. It had dual propulsion, so electric engines, and still a steam engine for surface propulsion, fired by liquid fuel. Although the Narval was another advancement in design in many respects, diving it took a long time, as the steam engine’s chimneys had to be folded down, the steam engine had to cool off first and vapors had to be expunged before the Narval could dive.

The Narval. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1899, the Gustave Zédé repeated her feat of a year before, attacking another battleship with a dud torpedo. This time the French government minister for the Navy was on board, as were some journalists. Newspaper reports of the time describe that the Gustave Zédé had been spotted before her attack. Although the submersible had a prototype periscope on board, it wasn’t sufficient to gauge proper distance and so the submersible momentarily broke through the surface, like a porpoise, only to immediately dive again. Some time later, a loud THUD rang through the battleship’s hull, announcing that the dud torpedo had struck home.

The newspaper drive mentioned earlier to collect public money for new submarines and push to force the government to commit funds worked. A whole new class of submersibles was designed, the Farfadet class, with construction starting in 1899 and consisting of 4 submersibles. The hulls for two sister submarines of the Morse, the Francais and the Algerién, were laid down in 1900.

At this time, France was clearly in the vanguard of submarine invention and implementation. In 1901 the French government appropriated funds for yet another new class, the Perle class, consisting of 20 submersibles. No other nation was at that time was putting so much time and effort into submarines. In Germany, some navy officers were only just starting to take notice – and starting to steal and copy designs.

On the other end of the English channel the British lion looked on with only a slight concern while Italy and Russia were starting to take a serious look at submarines after the widely reported escapades of the Gustave Zédé.

And yet. The French may have been in the lead, the real trigger that would get the entire world and even the British seriously interested was pulled in the United States. More about that in the upcoming podcast episode 2.4: ‘John & Simon’.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

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