United States S-class submarine

S-class submarine S-44
Class overview
Name: S class
Preceded by: R class
Succeeded by: V-boats
Subclasses: Holland, Lake, Navy Yard, 2nd Holland, 2nd Navy Yard
Built: 1918–1925
In commission: 1920–1946
Planned: 65
Completed: 51
Cancelled: 14
Lost: 9
Retired: 42
General characteristics
Type: Submarine
Displacement: At most 906 tons surfaced, 1230 Submerged
Length: 219–240 ft (67–73 m) (S-2 207 ft (63 m))
Beam: 21–22 ft (6.4–6.7 m)
Draft: 13 ft 1 in–16 ft 1 in (3.99–4.9 m)[1]
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)-15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) surfaced
Range: 5,000 nmi (9,300 km; 5,800 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph) surfaced
Test depth: 200 ft (61 m)
Complement: 38

The United States' S-class submarines, often simply called S-boats (sometimes "Sugar" boats, after the then contemporary Navy phonetic alphabet for "S"), were the first class of submarines with a significant number built to United States Navy designs. Others of this class were built to contractor designs.

The United States Navy commissioned 51 S-class submarines from 1920 to 1925. The first S-boat, USS S-1 (SS-105), was commissioned in 1920 and the last numerically, USS S-51 (SS-162), in 1922. The last of the class actually commissioned was USS S-47 (SS-158) in 1925. The S class is subdivided into four groups of different designs:

S-2 was a prototype built by Lake, and was not repeated.

S-1, S-2, and S-3 were prototypes built to the same specification: S-1 designed by Electric Boat, S-2 by Lake, and S-3 by the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R) (later Bureau of Ships).[2] The S-2 Lake boat was considered inferior. The Electric Boat and BuC&R designs were put into production as Group I and Group II.

SS-159 to SS-168 (2nd Holland) and SS-173 to SS-176 (2nd Navy Yard) were cancelled and, contrary to later practice, the hull numbers were used for subsequent submarines.[3] Some of the material for these was used by Electric Boat to build the Peruvian Navy's four R-boats.

The first S-boat, S-1, was launched on 26 September 1918, by Bethlehem at Fore River, but not commissioned until 5 June 1920.[4]


There were three distinctly different prototypes for the S-boats. The Electric Boat (EB) design formed the basis for the Group I and Group IV boats and were essentially enlarged versions of all their previous designs. A single hull design, all of the ballast tanks were contained within the pressure hull. The hull was a rounded spindle shape and the rudder was placed at the very end of the hull, aft of the twin screws.[5] Compared to the previous R-boats, Group I S-boats were 33 feet (10.1 m) longer, with 3 feet 3 inches (1.0 m) more beam, 2 feet 3 inches (0.7 m) more draft, and 60% greater displacement. This allowed for greater range, larger engines and higher speed, and more torpedo reloads, though the number of forward torpedo tubes was unchanged.

The Lake design, S-2, was a modified double hull type, with ballast tanks wrapped around the inner pressure hull. The stern ended in a flat "shovel" shape which gave the stern needed buoyancy. The rudder was mounted beneath the stern and the pivot structure also supported the stern diving planes. To gain surface buoyancy, the superstructure atop the boat was partially watertight. Sea trials showed that the bow tended to burrow into the waves so Lake added a buoyancy tank to the bow, which gave it a humped appearance. This boat suffered from poor maneuverability and was overcomplicated. It proved to be unreliable and was not well liked by its crew. The Navy did not choose it for mass production and no further boats were produced to this design.[6]

Seven of the Group II and all the Group IV boats had an additional stern tube. Group IV was also longer and had less draft. The Electric Boat designs (Groups I and III) were single-hulled, the others were double-hulled. All S-boats had a 4-inch (102 mm)/50 caliber deck gun, a significant increase over the 3-inch gun of previous US submarines. This was due to observations that the German U-boats frequently used their deck guns, and many U-boats were equipped with 105 mm (4.1-inch) deck guns. Another improvement was the conning tower fairwater. Previous US submarines had small fairwaters to reduce drag and improve submerged speed. Experience gained on North Atlantic patrols during WWI showed that the boats would be spending considerable time on the surface and thus needed better protection for the bridge watchstanders. Examination of captured U-boats after the Armistice also showed that a larger fairwater with permanent grab rails was preferable when surfaced in the North Atlantic, so S-boats were built or backfitted with an improved and much larger fairwater.[7][8][9]

Future admiral Hyman G. Rickover was assigned to USS S-48 (SS-159). He later credited the "faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering" of the S-class boats with inspiring his obsession for high engineering standards.[10]

In 1923, USS S-1 (SS-105) experimented with a float plane (an idea the Japanese would later adopt). A cylindrical hangar was installed on the after deck to house a single Martin MS-1 float plane. Tests showed the concept to be unworkable, and the equipment was subsequently removed. The hangar was later reused and rebuilt as the prototype for the McCann Rescue Chamber, a diving bell for rescuing crewmen from sunken submarines.[11]


These boats saw service in World War II in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Smaller and slower than the later fleet submarines produced for war service, and lacking the range for Pacific Ocean patrols (as well as being 20 years old), they were used in reconnaissance and supply roles, as well as for coastal defense. S-boats operated in the Alaska theater during the aftermath of the Battle of the Aleutian Islands, based out of Dutch Harbor. Some also operated out of Australia in the Southwest Pacific Area. They were withdrawn from front-line service by late 1943 as more Gato-class fleet submarines became available, and were relegated to ASW training. Most of the surviving boats were scrapped in 1946.

In World War II, S-class boats did not use the newer Mark 14 torpedo, standard in fleet submarines, due to shorter torpedo tubes, relying on the World War I-vintage Mark 10 instead. (Due to production shortages, many fleet boats used Mark 10s, also. Since the Mark 14 suffered from a high failure rate early in the war, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.)

Some S-class boats were transferred to other navies, such as the six transferred to the British Royal Navy. These were mostly used for training in anti-submarine warfare and removed from service by mid-1944.

S-boat fates

All S-boats were scrapped after World War II except those listed below.

Lost at sea between wars

4 submarines

Scrapped between World War I and World War II

6 submarines

Transferred to the Royal Navy during World War II

6 submarines

Lost during World War II

7 submarines (1 to enemy action)

General characteristics

Group I

(1st Electric Boat (aka Holland) design)

Group II

(1st Navy Yard design)

Group III

(2nd Electric Boat (aka Holland) design)

Group IV

(2nd Navy Yard design)


(Lake Torpedo Boat Company design)

See also

Notes and references

  1. Gardiner, p. 130-131
  2. Lenton, H. T. American Submarines (Doubleday, 1973), p.17.
  3. Friedman, p. 124
  4. Lenton, p.16.
  5. Johnston Part One pp. 2-3
  6. Johnston Part One pp. 5 & 12
  7. Lenton, p.15 & 17.
  8. Silverstone, Paul H., U.S. Warships of World War I (Ian Allan, 1970), pp. 144-150
  9. Johnston Part One pp. 3
  10. Duncan, Francis (2012). Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1591142218.
  11. Johnston Part One pp. 11 & 13
  12. 1 2 Lenton, p.18.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Lenton, p.19.
  14. Campbell, John Naval Weapons of World War Two (Naval Institute Press, 1985), ISBN 0-87021-459-4, p.143.
  15. Gardiner, p. 130-131
  16. Lenton, p. 21.
  17. 1 2 Lenton, p.21.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Campbell, p.143.
  19. 1 2 3 4 Lenton, p. 23.
  20. Lenton, pp. 19, 23.
  21. Lenton, p.23.
  22. 1 2 3 Silverstone WWI, p. 148.
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