Adoption of the submarine
Henry Jackson, British naval attaché in Paris, had been instructed to report on submarine developments which had been underway in France for several years. In 1898 he witnessed trials of the privately developed
, a small 11-ton submersible designed to be carried on board a warship. In January 1899 he informed the Admiralty of exercises with the 270-ton experimental submarine
Gustave Zédé which had been used to launch a torpedo attack on the battleship
Magenta. The Board of Admiralty considered whether it needed to act, but rejected further reports that the French had ordered up to a dozen submarines in the light of other reports on the trial suggesting that its outcome had been stage-managed for political reasons.
In January 1900, the Washington attaché Captain
Charles Ottley reported that the US government was considering purchasing a submarine-boat designed by John Holland and provided the Admiralty with US Navy reports on the boat's performance and a set of blueprints. In February the new Paris attaché submitted further favourable reports on the capabilities of Gustave Zédé. Meanwhile, Admiral
Fisher commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, which might be required to fight the French, asked the Admiralty for instructions on the best defence against submarines and suggested the use of defensive mines. In May the Admiralty responded by instructing the torpedo school to investigate means of combatting submarines, whereupon they requested a submarine with which to experiment, while in the same month news arrived confirming the US purchase of a Holland boat,
USS Holland. First Sea Lord
Walter Kerr and the Controller, Rear Admiral
Arthur Knyvet-Wilson, were convinced of the need to obtain a submarine for the Royal Navy to investigate its capabilities and means to combat submarine attack.
No British shipbuilder had experience of constructing submarines, so the Admiralty began negotiations with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company and Vickers Ltd, which was a major shipbuilder for the Admiralty. It was agreed that The Electric Boat Company (having purchased the rights from Holland) would license Vickers to build submarines in Britain and an order was placed for five. The Board of Admiralty now considered that the submarines might also be useful in an offensive role, not merely to practice defence, and if trials of the boats were successful further orders would be placed with Vickers.
A general election in November 1900 led to a change of First Lord of the Admiralty from
George Goschen to the
Earl of Selborne. The new Parliamentary Secretary to the board was
Hugh Oakley Arnold-Forster, who as a backbench Member of Parliament had criticised Goschen for failing to adopt submarines. Now he discovered that the Admiralty had been doing so in secret. Selborne became concerned that even so the Admiralty was lagging some way behind the French in development and the first boat, whose contract was finally signed December 1900, would not be delivered until October 1901. Arnold-Forster proposed involving other companies in constructing submarines, but this was opposed by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Archibald Douglass, as well as by Wilson, on the grounds that it remained unwise to encourage the general development of the submarine, which might be of more benefit to smaller navies rather than the RN. Wilson considered that the limited range of existing submarines meant they would only be able to operate in French waters, whereas if further developed could become a weapon to threaten British home ports. He recognised the potential of the submarine to prevent maritime trade, which was essential to the survival of an island nation like Britain. Any steps possible to slow down submarine development should be taken while the navy worked on means of defence against the submarine.
In the event, the story that Vickers was building submarines was leaked by a Glasgow newspaper in February, and confirmed by the Admiralty in March. Arnold Forster continued to press for more submarines to be built, considering that the navy either needed a great many or none, but although Selborne was inclined to agree, the two were opposed by the Sea Lords. It was agreed that only three per year would be ordered which was the minimum number needed for Vickers to continue their specialist construction team. It was known that the French design was technically superior to the Holland boats ordered, but the Admiralty had no better design available at that time.