BBC Guide to Submarine Combat


This entry is for educational and informative purposes only. Please do not take it seriously. And if you do, be serious about safety. Remember to wear proper eye protection and treat every firearm as if it were loaded.

/ Disclaimer

So you've seen all the movies, you watch the Discovery Channel every night, you've read the stories, and taken a tour of an old diesel boat, but you still don't know what submarine combat is like? And for some reason you want to find out, without all the joining the Navy stuff?

Well, rejoice! It is really easy to simulate an intense underwater battle.

Some things you'll need:

Swearing like a sailor

Watching the Hollywood spin on the silent service is good, but before you begin, you'll need to bone up on the lingo involved.

Boat - a submarine is never called a submarine. It is instead called a boat.

Submariner - since a submarine is called a boat, the men who operate the submarine should be called boaters. But they're not, HA! They are called submariners. The pronounciation of this word is sub-marine-er. This is frequently confused with sub-marin-er. It is important to know the difference. A sub-marin-er is a classic action hero from the golden age of comicbooks. Talks to fish. A sub-marine-er is a stony-faced, fast paced, never say die, unless it's the other guy, rough, tough, bad enough, steely-eyed killer from the deep. Scares fish to death, if they even see him coming.

Fish - While submarine combat has come a long way since the Revolutionary War, the main weapon used by submarines has pretty much always been the torpedo. A torpedo is never called a torpedo. It is instead called a fish. Just think of Mr. Limpet, if that helps. And is fired out of a fish tube. No, they're not! HA! Fish get shot out of torpedo tubes. Whatever they are...

PD - When traveling to periscope depth, you...ok, check it out. You don't say 'periscope depth'. It's PD.

Chicken Switch - If you need to get to PD a lot quicker than normal, or have a fish following you and want to lose it (you DO want to lose it), or just like having your boat surge halfway up out of the water and scare any nearby sunbathers, you need to perform an emergency blow. This is done by pulling the chicken switches.

SCRAM - WAY beyond running away like a chicken. When your reactor is experiencing technical difficulties, such as overheating, or being "super critical", the reactor needs to be scrammed. This drops several control rods into the core to slow the reaction down. (When DEVO sang "We put the poles in the holes", they weren't talking about... You know. They were singing about nuclear engineering! WHAT?!) Scrams nowadays are fully automated, but in the early days of atomic energy, the rods were held up by ropes that needed to be quickly cut if anything went wrong. That is were the term SCRAM came from. It stood for Super Critical Reactor Axe Man. That's right. Dude sittin' up on top of the thing with an axe. Volunteers? Hello?

Nuclear Meltdown - When you lose the ability to cool the nuclear reactor core and it heats up until it melts through the bottom of the boat and drops a glowing green mass on the ocean floor, that is called a nuclear meltdown.

Haze gray and underway

O.K. You got your stuff, you're walking the walk, talking the talk, and you're ready to see if submarine combat is really as stressful and harrowing as you hope it will be. Unless you are the mother of a submariner, in which case all your worst fears about Jimmy never returning are about to come true.

Pass out all the equipment and head into the cave. When you get in the cave turn your pager on. (Pager, or whatever you are using to create that low friendly hum...)

Your tactical situation is this. You are a fast attack hunter-killer submarine. Simple enough. You are in a completely dark cave (under water) so you can't see anything, but with all the echoes zinging around at mach 1 you know there is someone out there, another submarine, and it is trying to kill you. In a real underwater environment, the ocean currents make noise as do all manner of undersea beasties, like whales and plankton. If the cave you selected is home to bats or insects, do not fear, this will add to the realism. If it is home to a cave bear, or a clan of cave bears, do fear. And find a suitable cave. To live, you will have to find the enemy before they find you. To do this, you have to hear them. This means being absolutely quiet yourself.

But you have this pager (...we'll just call whatever it is a pager from now on...) buzzing away. You now know the importance of SOUND SILENCING.

In the early days of undersea warfare, the submarine was essentially a surface ship that could occasionally dip beneath the waves to make an attack run or to try and escape when the attack didn't go so well (See Note 1). This is because they were diesel powered and had limited battery life and limited oxygen capacity, and a bunch of other factors that make the guys who lived in diesel boats think they were better than everyone. In those days, detection was essentially visible only. The only way you knew there was a sub out there was if you saw it, or more likely, it's torpedo track. So since sonar wasn't listening for all the internal machinery of a submarine, it didn't have to be quiet. You could do whatever you wanted. You could play your enemies' favorite songs on a record player, you could get your crew to sing their favorite songs.

But these days you have to be quiet. Because everyone is listening. All your noisy machinery will be supported by rubber mounts, so that none of it actually comes into contact with the hull. The outer hull itself is covered with a special hull treatment called SHT, which is short for Special Hull Treatment (imaginations, BAH!!) to further dampen sound. And yes, SHT comes in any color you could want. As long as you want black. So if anyone thinks that Cary Grant and Tony Curtis should make a group of nurses feel better by painting their boat pink, or if you feel that a submarine would look good, oh, say, YELLOW, then you will be needing a different three letters. cough *LSD*!, ahem. So take that pager, look around real sneaky-like, realize you can't see anything so neither can anyone else, and wrap it in your coat or hide it in your pants; anything to get it to be quiet. But it's still going to make noise, so just do your best and get in the hunt.

Moving around, you'll soon realize that the faster you move, the more noise you make and the more air in the cave you disturb. So pick a nice easy pace. Ahead 1/3 will do. Patrol your area until you start hearing noises that you don't think are yours. Try to track the noises and mentally compare them to other noises you know. Is that a bear? Mountain lion? Ravenous bug-blatter beast of Traal? Invading hostile nuclear-powered fast-attack hunter-killer submarine? This function is normally done by the computers up in sonar, but a good assumption is that you are smarter than those computers. When you think you have found a submarine, you now need to perform the fire control task of TMA. TMA stands for Target Motion Analysis. Basically try to figure out which direction the enemy sub is moving and how fast it is going. From this you can get an idea of where you need to go to get into a good intercept position.

Ain't no slack in a Fast Attack

The recommended tactic is to get around in front of the enemy, than stop and wait, listening as he slowly passes by you. You should then have a good fix on his range, bearing, and mark (where he is and where he is going). You will also be behind him, which means he can't hear you as well, because his sonar is up front and his noisy propeller (called a screw) is between the sonar and you. He will also have to turn around to be able to shoot at you, so it looks like you've got the drop on him (See Note 4). You can then begin to press an attack, assuming you have authorization. Let's just say you have been tasked to terminate with extreme prejudice, so it's time to get it on. Load a fish into tubes 2 and 4. Basically, take your shotgun and load a couple shells. You already have a firing solution (where to put your fish to turn your opponent into fish food) on the target, so now you'll need to flood the torpedo tube. To do this, work the slide to chamber a round. The sound should make you cringe, and with good reason, because you've probably alerted your prey to your existence, position, and intentions. Which means you have only seconds to attack before he attempts a snap shot at you.

Blast a shot in your enemy's direction, while trying to listen to what he is doing. He should be accelerating to full speed (running like a wuss) while turning out of the way and hoping that all this running and turning puts you in range of return fire. So you should turn away from him and run to try and get out of range of his fish. And try to restrain the desire to shout "Conn, sonar! Crazy Ivan!" It's not a Crazy Ivan, and it won't help you to stay hidden. You don't have to worry about him playing a fantastic game of underwater chicken and having the fish swing around and hit you, enabling your pretentious Executive Officer to berate you for being arrogant and killing you. This just doesn't happen. In real life, because shotgun shells have no homing capabilities, being purely ballistic weapons, and in submarine warfare, because torpedoes are quite crafty and will click off if they find they have turned around. They then sink harmlessly to the sea bottom, to be exploded years later by a hapless scuba diver.

Good job. You put some firepower on time, on track, on target. But what if you didn't? Let's pretend.

Your fish got shaken by his evasive maneuvers, and only damaged but did not destroy him. This is the reason for using shot type ammunition. A slug or bullet is a hit or miss entity, but a mass of small beads more accurately illustrates the effects of a near miss. If a torpedo misses your boat but explodes anywhere near it, it will damage the hull. This is because water does not compress, but the hull of a submarine will. Send a pressure wave into the water, and something will have to give. If you've ever wondered if throwing a stick of dynamite into a pond will kill all the fish, it won't. But if the dynamite is lit first and about to explode, then yes, it will cause the water surrounding the fishies to crush them into jelly.

So now you are hunting a wounded submarine, but what with all the running and turning, you lost track of where he went. It's time to go active.

"Captain Ramius: Re-verify our range to ping only.

Capt. Vasili Borodin: But Captain, I've already....!

Captain Ramius: Just give me the ping, Vasili.

Capt. Vasili Borodin: Aye, Captain."

That's right. Time for everyone's favorite overused sound effect. Most people think it sounds like a PING or a BAH-WAH. Not anymore. Nowadays oceanographic science has revealed the existence of THERMOCLINE LAYERS. A thermocline layer is a boundary between two different temperatures. The water from the surface of the ocean down to 10 feet may be 85 degrees F, but from 10 feet down to whatever it may be 82 F, eventually closing in on freezing near the oceanfloor. Try to imagine one of those clever mixed drinks, with all the separated layers, each a different color. Pretend each lower color is a slightly lower temperature.

Who cares, right? Well, if you know anything about optics or prisms, or just happen to be a big Pink Floyd fan and were alive in 1973, than you know that when light passes through a substance other than air, it will bend. A prism will actually separate white light into a rainbow, but that is off topic. The same thing can happen when sound passes through water. If it comes to a region that is sufficiently cooler (a few degrees, normally), the sound can actually bounce off the layer. So if your submarine is hiding beneath that layer, than active sonar will be unable to locate you.

So nowadays, several different pitches are used, because each pitch is affected by different temperature. In the early 1990's, the Soviet surface fleet used three pitches that sounded just like the first three notes of the song "Three Blind Mice". It was believed by many a submariner that they did so out of spite, since the next three words of the song were "see how they run". Squid humor; cute, huh?

Let's say your opponent goes active first. He is wounded and anxious to find you. Suddenly, click, his flashlight comes on and does a quick sweep of the cave, lastly landing on you. The light bounces off of you and is absorbed by his retinas, and turned into an image he interprets as "image of a shotgun-toting psycho who is pretending to be a submarine". This is the idea behind active sonar. He now has a very good idea of what's going on around him, namely, your location and range. With a second quick sweep, he can determine, with TMA, if you are moving and where. But luckily for you, active sonar works both ways. Your retinas absorbed some of the light coming at you, and gave you an image of "a flashlight pointed at me, held by someone standing behind it who I cannot see, but probably thinks he is a damaged submarine". Since you have both found each other, and should have loaded a couple fresh fish during all the frantic running about in the dark, let's say you both line up and fire at roughly the same time. Your fish pass each other very dramatically, missing by only inches on their way to their respective targets. Hey, Hollywood isn't all flash. So now you got a fish on your tail. You have several options. You can either make the thing miss you with some fancy flying, try to get it to turn around and disable itself, run like the coward you are until it runs out of fuel, or pull a Hollywood and make it run into something that doesn't resemble you.

"Fast Relief of Acid Indigestion, Heartburn, and Pain"

The fish is getting closer, so you're running out of time. Pull out a beer can. No, you're not giving up! As you run away, you gotta shake that thing like it ain't no thing! Let the fish get a little bit closer, then open up the can, and force yourself to throw it one way while you run another. Good job, you just released a decoy. Since you will be accelerating very quickly in the wake (no pun intended) of a torpedo being fired at you, your screw (propeller, remember?) will be churning the water to foam. This is called CAVITATION. It is the formation and subsequent collapse of vapor bubbles in a liquid caused by a rapid change in pressure. The cavitation you will be making will sound like a bunch of marbles in a tin can being rattled around. A sound that torpedoes are made to hunt and follow. A sound that is simulated by a decoy very admirably. A decoy is a 3 inch diameter cylinder filled with a chemical that immediately begins to foam when it gets wet. A common joke to tell the new sailors to a submarine is that they are full of Alka-Seltzer tablets. Then post a guard in case any of them get sick... let's face it, if they were rocket scientists, they'd be rocket scientists.

Your only concern right now, though, is that the fish took the bait, and has now lost track of you. A quick listen, or maybe a flashlight scan, should give you cause for relaxation. The enemy sub, damaged by your first warshot, was unable to dodge your second. You now hear the bulkheads and hull breaking up. Sounds strangely like a blood-soaked death gasp, but try not to think about it. You did not just kill 140 some idealistic and scared young men, or for that matter just one. What you did was defeat a personification of evil and tyranny. It is important to justify your actions in this method. Makes it easier to go put some warheads on some foreheads the next time you are told to. So grab your enemy's beer and enjoy. You've earned it, hero!


Once again, I am neither condoning nor glorifying warfare. It is not my intent to encourage you to try to kill anyone. My intent is to inform and educate in an off-beat and fairly humorous and memorable style. Any questions, comments or complaints will be appreciated and addressed as soon as possible.

/ Disclaimer



1. In those days, the hull configuration allowed installation of torpedo tubes in the aft end (See Note 2) of the boat which meant you could fire at any pursuers. Nowadays the hull is shaped like a tube (See Note 3) which doesn't allow positioning of weapons that fire backwards.

2. Back end

3. Although it is called a 'Teardrop'

4. See? Now you're glad for the Teardrop hull!