The Canadian-built British H-boats

© J. D. Perkins, 1999

As early as the end of August 1914, Canadian Vickers placed a proposal(1) before the Deputy Minister for the Naval Service to build two or three Electric Boat Company submarines for the RCN at Montreal. At 400-tons dived displacement and mounting four 18-inch torpedo tubes in the bow, they were similar to CC1 but with improved engines. Vickers was offering to have the first two boats completed by the 1915 opening of navigation on the St. Lawrence River for a price of $572,000 each. This was $2,800 less than what had been paid for the CC-boats, plus a considerable return to the Canadian economy through wages and materials purchased in Canada. A further $50,000, it was claimed, would have been recoverable from customs duties. The third vessel, it was predicted, could be ready for trials a month after the first pair.

As they had done in the case of the CC-boats, the Canadian government sought the advice of the Admiralty. This time Whitehall advised they reject the offer on the grounds that the design was unsound and that the boats could not possibly be built that quickly. The Canadian government acquiesced and turned down the offer. This whole affair provided a precedent that would typify the performance of successive Canadian governments with respect to the acquisition of submarines, even to the present day.

On 3 November 1914, Charles M. Schwabb, President and Chairman of the Board of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, struck an extraordinary deal with Admiral "Jackie" Fisher, First Sea Lord, to supply twenty submarines "of the latest design" to the Royal Navy. Bethlehem Steel subcontracted the building of the submarines to the Electric Boat Company. Electric Boat in turn proposed their latest medium sized submarine identified as Design 602. The Admiralty called them the H-class. Whether this came about because the trio of American boats built to a very similar design had been called that, or because "H" really was the next available letter in the British class identification system is not known for certain; but either reason is plausible.

At 440-tons dived displacement they were not the biggest available by any means, but boats of the type had recently been delivered to the USN and the parts could be produced quickly and in quantity. They were almost identical to the boats turned down by the Canadian government only two months before. The design was good enough for "Jackie" Fisher and his boss, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill, like Fisher, fully appreciated that secretly adding twenty submarines to the Royal Navy's strength inside of six months would be quite a coup.

Originally, the submarines were to be shipped to Britain in kit form for completion in British shipyards at a cost of $500,000 apiece. Electric Boat had perfected this system during the Sino-Japanese war of 1905 when they supplied both Russia and Japan with prefabricated submarines. Construction was begun almost immediately, some at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the rest at the Union Iron Works shipyard in San Francisco. When the American government threatened to take Electric Boat to court for possible violation of American neutrality laws, a new deal, and a new price, was negotiated with the Admiralty. The first ten boats would be built at the Canadian Vickers Shipyard near Montreal. As Electric Boat was fifty per cent owned by Vickers, their Canadian operation was the obvious choice. The first pair was to be built, tested and ready to sail in four-and-a-half months with the remainder following at a rate of two per month. The price was $600,000 per boat, or about double the price of a standard British E-class boat that was taking more than twice as long to build. The second batch of ten was to be built at the Fore River shipyard and handed over when the diplomatic situation permitted.

On New Years Day 1915, the British Admiralty arbitrarily took over the Canadian Vickers Shipyard and stopped all other work which included an important icebreaker contract. An Admiralty Overseer's Party and an Electric Boat Company management team arrived and, under their direction, the Vickers workforce began an around-the-clock submarine building program. Raw materials from Bethlehem Steel and castings and machinery from Electric Boat were shipped in from the United States. Contracts were let locally for parts that could be produced in Canada. The project was kept secret. A high fence was erected around the shipyard property and the Canadian Militia provided guards. The entire workforce was provided with identity cards and security at the gates was rigidly enforced. The first keel was laid in the building sheds at Canadian Vickers on 11 January 1915.

All of this activity took place without the consent, or even the official knowledge, of Ottawa. Eventually the Foreign Office informed the Canadian Government via the Governor General, that Canadian Vickers had been commandeered by the Admiralty to build submarines for the RN. By that time, the work was already well advanced. Relationships between Ottawa and the British Foreign Office were severely strained by this blatant act of Imperial arrogance. However, Canadian Vickers was owned by the British parent company and there was nothing Ottawa could do about it without compromising the war effort. In the end, it was just one more incident that served to wean Canada away from its last ties with British colonialism.

The situation became even more strained when Ottawa asked that two of the boats be diverted to the Canadian navy for the defence of the Halifax area and was refused by Churchill. The First Lord curtly insisted that Halifax was not in any danger and, that furthermore, the RN would ensure its protection.

The ten submarines were all built, put through their trials and commissioned well within the time-frame stipulated in the contract, thus earning Electric Boat a considerable sum in early completion bonuses. The boats were completed in two groups. H1 to H4 were finished first. They completed builder's trials in the St. Lawrence with 200-foot deep diving trials being conducted at Murray Bay (La Malbaie). On 25 May 1915, the Governor General, accompanied by HRH Princess Patricia, presided at the commissioning of HMS H1 at Quebec City. Following a short stopover at St. John's, Newfoundland, the four boats sailed for the Mediterranean in company with the AMC HMS Calgarian carrying a contingent of Newfoundland infantry.

The remaining six boats, H5 to H10, also completed their trials in the St. Lawrence and commissioned at Quebec City about a month later. They sailed to England by way of a two-week stay at Halifax. They were escorted across the Atlantic by the cruiser HMS Carnarvon and accompanied by two freighters carrying spare gear, emergency fuel and general cargo. These boats arrived in England on the first anniversary of the beginning of the war. The transatlantic crossings made by the H-boats were the first ever undertaken by submarines. The construction of these submarines was an extraordinary industrial accomplishment and much of the credit must go to the workforce at Canadian Vickers.

As their submarines neared completion the two officers and fifteen men in each H-boat crew were drawn from among the flotillas in England and sent over by steamer. In order to alleviate the heavy demand on British manning resources, NSHQ offered one complete passage crew. When the Admiralty indicated that they preferred to keep the crew for the duration of the war, the offer was withdrawn on the Prime Minister's insistence. Three Canadian officers joined the second group of boats and one Able Seaman was borrowed by the RN to help steam the H-boats to England. During construction three diesel mechanics were recruited into the RNVR as Engine Room Artificers at Montreal but it is not known whether they sailed in the submarines. As far as is known, no Canadian navy ratings served in RN submarines overseas. Intriguingly, Commander John G. Bower, RN(2), himself a submarine captain, mentions that Johnson's crew in H8 contained a high proportion of Canadians and Scots, but this has not been substantiated.

More H-boats

In an attempt to employ the submarine building capacity that had been established at their shipyard, Canadian Vickers submitted another proposal to the Canadian Government(3) at the beginning of June 1915. This was for the construction of two Design 602 submarines at a cost of $600,000 apiece with a further bonus of $50,000 per boat for finishing construction before freeze-up. NSHQ fully supported the proposal and passed it on the Minister who forwarded it to the Prime Minister. Overcome by the enormous cost, lacking the will to again consult with the Admiralty and beset by an impending investigation into the purchase of the CC-boats, the Prime Minister abruptly terminated any further discussion about building submarines.

In the autumn of 1915, James Paterson, who had built the CC-boats and sold them the premier of BC, started an enterprises known as The British Pacific Construction & Engineering Company. He had a contract to build and to assemble five Design 602 submarines in kit form on the Canadian West Coast. These were built to fulfil an Electric Boat Company order from the Russian government. Construction took place in a temporary building yard at Barnet, on the south shore of Burrard Inlet near Vancouver. These submarines were to be shipped to Russia as prefabricated kits. The steel plate and rib sections for the hulls were cut to dimension, punched for riveting, rolled or bent to shape and then assembled using nuts and bolts instead of rivets. The parts were checked for fit, labelled, then disassembled, crated, and loaded onto railway cars for delivery to Vancouver along with the remaining machinery and other fittings sent to Canada from Electric Boat Company suppliers all across the United States. Shipped to Russia, these five submarines were completed before the end of 1916 by the Baltic Works shipyard in St. Petersburg to become AG11 to AG15 in the Imperial Russian navy.

Following completion of the British order, a further six hulls were completed by Canadian Vickers and shipped to Vancouver along with the remaining parts, also for delivery to the Imperial Russian navy. These were completed by Baltic Works at Nikolayev becoming AG21 to AG26. Some of the Russian H-boats survived both World Wars, the last one being scrapped in 1947.

Canadian Vickers then proceeded to build eight more complete H-boats for the Italian navy. This contract was actually brokered by the Admiralty, which convinced the Italian government to take advantage of the capability available at Canadian Vickers. These were commissioned in two groups. The first pair left Montreal in the autumn of 1916 ahead of the St. Lawrence River freeze-up and completed their trials at Halifax. They sailed for Italy in December. The remaining six commissioned at Montreal in the spring of 1917.

A final lot of six kits were built for another Russian order by the British Pacific Construction & Engineering Company in a temporary yard on Canadian Pacific Railway property at Vancouver. The Russian revolution precluded delivery of these kits, which were to have been AG17 to AG20, AG27 and AG28. After languishing in storage in Vancouver for over a year, they were eventually purchased by the USN. Completed in the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, Washington, they were commissioned in 1918 as USS H4-H9.

H-Boats at War

The H-boats were popular among the crews. The British sailors dubbed them "Ford submersibles" because of the way they were mass-produced and for the reliability of their engines. As designed the H-boats provided a bunk and a small locker for every man. In British service the canvas bunks in the wardroom area were soon replaced by built-in wooden bunks. Other well liked features were the fully enclosed head located in the forward battery compartment, which even boasted its own exhaust fan that was trunked into the battery ventilation exhaust system. A novelty for the British was the cafeteria-style messing with full galley facilities in the after battery compartment.

Another novel feature was a ventilator pipe that was enclosed within the periscope fairing. Originally installed to provide for the redundant tactic of running on the surface in a trimmed-down condition, it proved particularly useful for running on the surface in rough weather. When the shut-off valve at the top of the pipe was opened, the submarine was able to continue running the engines with the upper lid shut to keep the sea from pouring down the conning tower. In this condition, the boat was conned using the conning tower periscope.

Before joining their flotillas, all of the boats were provided with Sperry gyrocompasses, a small, enclosed, wireless office and a 1 kW Marconi wireless set. A portable aerial was fitted on the back of the bridge. The British later installed improved periscopes, enclosed bridges and made other modifications as the war progressed. The four H-boats in the Mediterranean were all fitted with a 6-pounder gun on the fore casing.

There were several wartime casualties among the Canadian Vickers-built H-boats. The first one in trouble was H6. During the night of 18 January 1916, she strayed off course and went aground on the sands of Sheirmonikoog off the Dutch coast. Half the crew was taken off by a British ship while the rest were picked up by the Dutch and spent the remainder of the war in an internment camp. The Dutch salvaged the boat, bought it off the British and commissioned her in their own navy as the O8. She survived to be taken over by the Germans when they invaded and occupied Holland early in WW2. As UD-8, the German navy used her as a training boat. She was scuttled at Kiel towards the end of the war and ultimately scrapped.

On 22 March H8, under the command of Lieutenant B. L. Johnson, RNR, of Vancouver, almost met her end on the sandy bottom off the same stretch of Dutch coast. While dived on the last day of a weeklong coastal reconnaissance patrol, she snagged the mooring cable of a stray British mine and set it off. Fortunately the mine detonated outside of lethal range but considerable damage was done to the forward part of the boat. H8 settled nose down onto the bottom at 80 feet with water pouring into her battered fore-ends at several points. Her cool headed captain and determined crew managed to stem the leaks, get their boat surfaced and back to England in a hair raising overnight passage of the North Sea. Even the Germans admitted it was a gutsy escapade.

In July 1916, H3 hit a mine while trying to make a dived penetration of the well-protected Austrian anchorage in the Gulf of Cattaro on the Dalmatian coast. A sentry on shore spotted the disturbance caused by an exploding mine. A cutter sent to investigate retrieved papers and woodwork that provided the proof.

H10 was the next to go. Like so many of her ilk on both sides, she failed to return from a routine patrol in the North Sea. It is presumed she hit a mine around 19 January 1918.

The next to succumb was H5 when she had the misfortune to be mistaken for a U-boat. The submarine was run down by the British freighter SS Rutherglen while charging her batteries on the surface in the Irish Sea on the night of 2 March 1918. Although the steamer reported that she passed through a group of survivors struggling in the icy water, no attempt was made to pick them up. Among the casualties was an American officer(4) who was aboard for familiarization. The captain of the steamer was decorated for destroying a German U-boat and the true circumstances were not divulged until after his death.

On 16 April 1918, while proceeding on the surface in the Mediterranean, the Italian H5 was mistaken for a U-boat and torpedoed in error by the submerged British H1. The Italian boat appears to have been considerably off station.

Some of the remaining H1-class(5) with a Canadian connection were long-lived. Those in RN service were scrapped after the war when the Admiralty decided to standardize on submarines fitted with 21-inch torpedo tubes. The six American boats with hulls made in Vancouver were all broken up in 1931. However, a few of the Russian and Italian H1's survived WW2. So too did six of the ten boats originally built for Britain at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. These had been ceded to Chile in 1917 as part exchange for some Chilean ships taken over in British shipyards when the war began. Two of this group survived until the mid-1950s.


1 PAC RG 24 Vol. 4018, 1062-4-2. Canadian Vickers tender to build Design 20E Holland boats for the Naval Service of Canada. (Return to text)

2 In his book The Story of Our Submarines (London) 1919. (Return to text)

3 PAC RG24, Vol. 4020 1062-12-2. Canadian Vickers proposal and description of Design 602E submarines. (Return to text)

4 Lieutenant (j.g.) E. W. F. Childs, USN, junior officer aboard the USN submarine L-2. (Return to text)

5 H1-class because the Admiralty later produced an improved H-boat of their own known as the H21-class. (Return to text)

Last Updated: 12 July, 1999.

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