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    The Most Famous Submarines in History

    The Most Famous Submarines in History

    Submarines have played a pivotal role in naval warfare, exploration, and research since their inception. These incredible vessels, capable of operating underwater for extended periods, have captured the imagination of people worldwide. Some submarines have become particularly famous due to their historical significance, technological advancements, or notable missions.

    This article delves into the stories behind some of the most famous submarines in history, exploring their contributions to naval warfare, scientific discovery, and popular culture.


    Early Pioneers: The Dawn of Submarine Warfare

    The Turtle (1775)

    The Turtle holds the distinction of being the first documented submarine used in combat. Designed by American inventor David Bushnell during the American Revolutionary War, the Turtle was a one-man, hand-powered vessel. It was intended to attach explosive charges to the hulls of British ships. Although the Turtle’s missions were not entirely successful, it marked the beginning of underwater warfare and demonstrated the potential of submarines in naval combat.


    H.L. Hunley (1863)

    The H.L. Hunley, named after its designer Horace Lawson Hunley, was a Confederate submarine during the American Civil War. It became the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship, the USS Housatonic, in 1864. Unfortunately, the Hunley itself was lost shortly after the attack, sinking with all hands aboard. The Hunley’s success in combat and its subsequent recovery in 2000 have cemented its place in naval history.


    World War I: The Rise of the Submarine

    U-9 (1914)

    The German U-boat U-9 gained fame early in World War I by sinking three British cruisers, HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy, in a single engagement in 1914. This remarkable feat demonstrated the effectiveness of submarines in naval warfare and marked the beginning of Germany’s extensive U-boat campaign against Allied shipping. U-9’s success shocked the world and highlighted the need for improved anti-submarine tactics and technologies.


    U-20 (1915)

    Another notable German U-boat from World War I was U-20, which is best known for sinking the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, resulted in the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. This incident significantly influenced public opinion in the United States and contributed to the country’s eventual entry into the war. U-20’s actions underscored the lethal impact submarines could have on civilian and military vessels alike.


    World War II: The Golden Age of Submarines

    USS Nautilus (SS-168)

    The USS Nautilus, a Narwhal-class submarine of the United States Navy, played a crucial role in several key battles during World War II. Commissioned in 1930, Nautilus was involved in the Battle of Midway and other significant operations in the Pacific Theater. Its contributions to the war effort earned it numerous awards and commendations, highlighting the importance of submarines in achieving naval superiority.


    USS Tang (SS-306)

    The USS Tang was a Balao-class submarine of the United States Navy, renowned for its remarkable combat record. Commissioned in 1943, Tang sank 33 enemy ships, making it one of the most successful submarines of World War II. Commanded by Lieutenant Commander Richard O’Kane, Tang’s aggressive tactics and skilled crew set new standards for submarine warfare. Tragically, Tang was sunk by its own torpedo in 1944, but its legacy endures as a symbol of bravery and innovation.


    U-47 (1939)

    The German submarine U-47, commanded by Günther Prien, became famous for its daring raid on the British naval base at Scapa Flow in 1939. U-47 managed to infiltrate the heavily defended base and sink the battleship HMS Royal Oak, a significant blow to the Royal Navy. This audacious attack demonstrated the reach and effectiveness of German U-boats and cemented U-47’s place in submarine history.


    The Cold War Era: Submarines in the Nuclear Age

    USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

    The second USS Nautilus, launched in 1954, was the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine. This revolutionary vessel could remain submerged for extended periods, limited only by the crew’s endurance and food supply. In 1958, Nautilus made history by becoming the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole. This achievement showcased the capabilities of nuclear submarines and marked a new era in naval warfare and exploration.


    USS Thresher (SSN-593)

    The USS Thresher was a nuclear-powered attack submarine launched in 1960. Tragically, it sank during deep-diving tests in 1963, resulting in the loss of all 129 crew members. The Thresher disaster led to significant changes in submarine design, safety protocols, and the establishment of the SUBSAFE program, which has greatly improved the safety and reliability of subsequent submarines.


    K-129 (1968)

    The Soviet submarine K-129, a Golf II-class ballistic missile submarine, sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1968 under mysterious circumstances. The U.S. Navy subsequently launched a covert operation, known as Project Azorian, to recover parts of the submarine from the ocean floor. Although the full extent of the mission’s success remains classified, Project Azorian highlighted the intense rivalry and high-stakes espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.


    Modern Submarines: Cutting-Edge Technology and New Frontiers

    USS Seawolf (SSN-21)

    The USS Seawolf, commissioned in 1997, is the lead vessel of the Seawolf-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. These submarines are among the most advanced and capable in the world, featuring state-of-the-art sonar systems, quiet propulsion, and advanced weaponry. Seawolf-class submarines represent the pinnacle of modern submarine technology, capable of performing a wide range of missions, from intelligence gathering to anti-submarine warfare.


    HMS Astute (S119)

    The HMS Astute, launched in 2007, is the lead submarine of the Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarines of the Royal Navy. Astute-class submarines are designed for a variety of roles, including surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike missions. They feature advanced stealth capabilities, allowing them to operate undetected in hostile environments. The HMS Astute and its sister vessels represent the cutting edge of British submarine technology.


    K-141 Kursk

    The Russian submarine K-141 Kursk, an Oscar II-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine, tragically sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, resulting in the loss of all 118 crew members. The Kursk disaster was a significant event in Russian naval history, prompting widespread investigation and changes in submarine safety and rescue protocols. Despite the tragedy, Kursk remains a symbol of the complexities and dangers of submarine operations.


    Submarines in Popular Culture

    Submarines have also captured the public’s imagination through their depiction in literature, film, and television. Some of the most iconic representations include:


    The Nautilus (from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”)

    Jules Verne’s fictional submarine Nautilus, commanded by Captain Nemo, is one of the most famous submarines in literature. Featured in the classic novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” the Nautilus was depicted as a technologically advanced vessel capable of extraordinary feats. Verne’s imaginative portrayal of underwater exploration has inspired countless readers and contributed to the enduring fascination with submarines.


    Red October (from “The Hunt for Red October”)

    Tom Clancy’s novel “The Hunt for Red October” and its subsequent film adaptation introduced audiences to the Soviet submarine Red October, equipped with a revolutionary silent propulsion system. The story follows a high-stakes chase as the crew of the Red October attempts to defect to the United States. The Red October has become an iconic representation of Cold War-era submarine intrigue and technological competition.


    U-96 (from “Das Boot”)

    The German submarine U-96, featured in Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel “Das Boot” and its acclaimed film adaptation, provides a gritty and realistic portrayal of life aboard a World War II U-boat. “Das Boot” offers a harrowing look at the challenges and dangers faced by submarine crews, highlighting the human element of underwater warfare. U-96’s depiction has left a lasting impact on how submarines are viewed in popular culture.



    From the earliest experimental designs to the cutting-edge nuclear-powered vessels of today, submarines have played a crucial role in shaping naval warfare, scientific exploration, and popular culture. The stories of famous submarines like the Turtle, H.L. Hunley, U-9, USS Nautilus, and many others provide a window into the evolution of submarine technology and the bravery of those who served aboard these remarkable vessels.

    As we continue to explore the depths of the oceans and push the boundaries of what submarines can achieve, the legacy of these famous submarines will undoubtedly inspire future generations of submariners and naval historians.

    Thomas Dearborn
    About Author

    Thomas Dearborn

    I am honoured to share my experiences and stories for all the years of my service