Key point: These specific submarine designs were revolutionary.
There have been three great submarine campaigns in history, and one prolonged duel. The First and Second Battles of the Atlantic pitted German U-boats against the escorts and aircraft of the United Kingdom and the United States. The Germans very nearly won World War I with the first campaign, and badly drained Allied resources in the second. In the third great campaign, the submarines of the US Navy destroyed virtually the entire commercial fleet of Japan, bringing the Japanese economy to its knees. US subs also devastated the Imperial Japanese Navy, sinking several of Tokyo’s most important capital ships.
But the period most evocative of our modern sense of submarine warfare was surely the forty year duel between the submarines of the USSR and the boats of the various NATO navies. Over the course of the Cold War, the strategic nature of the submarine changed; it moved from being a cheap, effective killer of capital ships to a capital ship in its own right. This was especially the case with the boomers, submarines that carried enough nuclear weapons to kill millions in a few minutes.
As with previous “5 Greatest” lists, the answers depend on the parameters; different sets of metrics will generate different lists. Our metrics concentrate on the strategic utility of specific submarine classes, rather than solely on their technical capabilities.
· Was the submarine a cost-effective solution to a national strategic problem?
· Did the submarine compare favorably with its contemporaries?
· Was the submarine’s design innovative?
And with that, the five best submarines of all time:
The eleven boats of the U-31 class were constructed between 1912 and 1915. They operated in both of the periods of heavy action for German U-boats, early in the war before the suspension of unrestricted warfare, and again in 1917 when Germany decided to go for broke and cut the British Empire off at the knees. Four of these eleven boats (U-35, U-39, U-38, and U-34) were the four top killers of World War I; indeed, they were four of the five top submarines of all time in terms of tonnage sunk (the Type VII boat U-48 sneaks in at number 3). U-35, the top killer, sank 224 ships amounting to over half a million tons.