Fleet submarine

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Gato class fleet submarine USS Wahoo

A fleet submarine is a submarine with the speed, range, and endurance to operate as part of a navy's Battle Fleet. Examples of fleet submarines are the British K class and the American Gato class. Within the modern Royal Navy, the term is used for the British nuclear powered attack submarines. In the United States Navy, the term came to be used primarily for the long-range submarines that served in World War II.


United States

The term was used by the United States Navy to distinguish submarines suitable for long range patrols in the Pacific Ocean from earlier classes such as the United States S-class submarines. The initial goal, pursued with frequent interruptions since the AA-1-class (aka T-class) launched 1918-19, was to produce a submarine with a surfaced speed of 21 knots to operate with the Standard-type battleships of the surface fleet.[1] Most of the nine "V-boats" launched 1924-33 (V-1 through V-6) were either attempts to produce a fleet submarine or were long-range submarine cruisers. Eventually, a long range of 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) was combined with high speed, beginning with the Salmon-class launched in 1938, to allow sustained operations in Japanese home waters while based at Pearl Harbor.[2] These qualities also proved important in the Pacific commerce raiding of World War II, but the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty's prohibition on unrestricted submarine warfare precluded inter-war planning in this area.[3] Although the Gato-class was considered the fully developed archetype,[4] the earlier Porpoise, Salmon, Sargo and Tambor-classes were incrementally improved prototypes distinctly different from the two contemporary experimental Mackerel-class coastal submarines. The Tambors were fully developed and similar to the Gatos except for diving depth and separation of the engines into two compartments.[5][6]


Japanese I-boats were a conceptually similar long-range differentiation from smaller "medium" or "sea-going" Ro-boats, although some I-boats had features like aircraft hangars and large-caliber deck guns more often associated with submarine cruisers.[7]


In order to get the speeds - over 20 knots while surfaced - required to match their capital ships and to be able to screen ahead of the fleet or flank the enemy, the British initially used steam propulsion. The K-class entering service in 1916 were large for their time. Although able to reach 24 knots the complexity of shutting down boilers and stowing funnels made them slow to dive.[8]

As the speed of capital ships increased, the United Kingdom abandoned the fleet submarine concept following completion of the three 21-knot Thames-class submarines of the early 1930s using supercharged diesels, because the size required for range and speed decreased maneuverability.[9]


Continental European nations sometimes used the terms "ocean-going", "long-patrol", "type 1" or "1st class" submarines, generally referring to Atlantic or Indian Ocean operations in the absence of anticipated need for Pacific patrols, and often without the speed for fleet operations.[10]

Comparison of World War II submarines

Name Type Nation Surface Displacement Submerged Displacement Speed Torpedo Tubes Crew Reference
Gato class fleet submarine United States 1,525 tons 2,415 tons 20 kt 10 80 [11]
Thames class fleet submarine United Kingdom 1,850 tons 2,723 tons 22 kt 8 61 [12]
Kaidai class fleet submarine Japan 1,833 tons 2,602 tons 23 kt 6 80 [13]
Type IXD2 ocean-going submarine Germany 1,616 tons 1,804 tons 19 kt 6 57 [14]
Redoutable-class ocean-going submarine France 1,570 tons 2,084 tons 17 kt 9 61 [15]
Kaichū type medium submarine Japan 1,115 tons 1,447 tons 19 kt 4 80 [16]
Type XB minelayer Germany 1,763 tons 2,177 tons 16 kt 2 52 [17]
Cagni class submarine cruiser Italy 1,461 tons 2,136 tons 18 kt 14 85 [18]
Type B1 submarine cruiser Japan 2,584 tons 3,654 tons 23 kt 6 100 [19]
O 21-class medium submarine Netherlands 888 tons 1,186 tons 19 kt 8 55 [20]
Type VIIC medium submarine Germany 769 tons 871 tons 17 kt 5 44 [21]
Pietro Micca minelayer Italy 1,371 tons 1,883 tons 15 kt 6 66 [22]
600 series medium submarine Italy 615 tons 855 tons 14 kt 6 41 [22]
S-class medium submarine United Kingdom 715 tons 990 tons 14 kt 6 44 [23]
Grampus class minelayer United Kingdom 1,520 tons 2,157 tons 15 kt 6 59 [12]
Minerve class medium submarine France 662 tons 856 tons 14 kt 9 41 [24]
Narwhal-class submarine cruiser United States 2,730 tons 4,050 tons 17 kt 6 90 [25]
Surcouf submarine cruiser France 3,250 tons 4,304 tons 18 kt 12 118 [26]
Argonaut minelayer United States 2,710 tons 4,080 tons 15 kt 4 89 [25]
S-boats medium submarine United States 840 tons 1,150 tons 15 kt 4 42 [27]


  1. Friedman, pp. 99-104
  2. Friedman, p. 310
  3. Friedman, p. 163
  4. Potter & Nimitz, p.797
  5. Silverstone, p.176
  6. Friedman, pp. 310-311
  7. Watts, pp.161&186
  8. Edward C. Whitman "K for Katastrophe" Archived 2015-09-24 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Lenton & Colledge, p.135
  10. le Masson, p.143
  11. Silverstone, p.195
  12. 12.0 12.1 Lenton & Colledge, p.138
  13. Watts, p.188
  14. Taylor, p.104
  15. le Masson, pp.152&153
  16. Watts, p.189
  17. Taylor, p.106
  18. Kafka & Pepperburg, p.790
  19. Watts, p.185
  20. Lenton, p.43
  21. Taylor, p.101
  22. 22.0 22.1 Kafka & Pepperburg, p.793
  23. Lenton & Colledge, p.139
  24. le Masson, p.161
  25. 25.0 25.1 Silverstone, p.186
  26. le Masson, p.157
  27. Silverstone, p.183


  • Alden, John D., Commander (USN Ret) (1979). The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy: A Design and Construction History. London: Arms and Armour Press. ISBN 0-85368-203-8.CS1 maint: ref duplicates default (link)
  • Friedman, Norman (1995). U.S. Submarines Through 1945: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. ISBN 1-55750-263-3.
  • Kafka, Roger; Pepperburg, Roy L. (1946). Warships of the World. New York: Cornell Maritime Press.
  • le Masson, Henri (1969). Navies of the Second World War. The French Navy 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.
  • Lenton, H.T. (1968). Navies of the Second World War. Royal Netherlands Navy. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.
  • Lenton, H.T.; Colledge, J.J. (1964). British and Dominion Warships of World War II. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.
  • Potter, E.B.; Nimitz, Chester W. (1960). Sea Power. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Silverstone, Paul H. (1968). U.S. Warships of World War II. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.
  • Taylor, J.C. (1966). German Warships of World War II. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.
  • Watts, Anthony J. (1966). Japanese Warships of World War II. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.