It was the first submarine ever used in combat
Today’s naval warfare is both mind-boggling and frightening, especially when you consider the submarines. The United States alone has 18 submarines that are considered Ohio-class ships. In a nutshell, this means that each of these ships is capable of sending both nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Thanks to these capabilities, submarines have never been as deadly as they are today.
While today’s submarines are obviously very technologically advanced, there was a time when they were quite primitive. To put this in perspective, the first time a submarine was put into service for military fins was in 1775.
The ship in question was called the Turtle and was used by the United States Continental Army during the War of Independence to fight the British. As you might expect, this submarine was quite different from the ones we are used to today.
This is the story of the world’s first submarine that was officially used for military operations.
Build the turtle
Towards the start of the American Revolution, an inventor by the name of David Bushnell recognized that the various American militias had extreme difficulty pushing back British ships. The reason for these problems was that the British Navy was at its peak when the conflict broke out; thus, it is quite difficult to win naval battles.
As a result of this, Bushnell decided that the best way to remove ships from Britain would be through stealth operations. In order to accomplish this momentous task, Bushnell pooled his expertise in underwater explosions and his limited knowledge of submarines.
The end result was an acorn-shaped submersible that (in practice) would be able to attach explosives to the hulls of England’s best ships. To build the experimental craft, Bushnell used two wooden hulls painted with tar and consolidated them with steel brackets. To operate the submarine warship, propellers and a hand pump were installed which allowed the submarine to rise and fall underwater.
The turtle’s mission
In August 1776, after months of training and testing, Bushnell and an American general by the name of Samuel Holden Parsons decided it was time to put the Turtle into action. The target in question is said to be the HMS Eagle, considered by many to be the flagship of the British fleet in New York Harbor. The person who would pilot the submarine on its maiden voyage would be a soldier named Sgt. Ezra Lee.
Lee’s mission would be to approach the Eagle underwater and to the surface at the rear of the ship. Once there, Lee would screw the explosive into the ship’s hull and flee to safety. If all went according to plan, the explosives would sink the ship and seriously damage British morale.
The attack on HMS Eagle
On the night of September 6, 1776, Sgt. Lee went to the Eagle from the New York coast. It took him over 2 hours to reach his destination, which unfortunately left him only 20 minutes of oxygen to work. Due to the lack of time, Lee frantically attempted to screw the explosive into the hull to no avail.
While making another attempt on the side of the hull, Lee was spotted by soldiers who were stationed ashore. As English troops rowed to investigate, Lee lit the explosive fuse, threw it into the harbor, and escaped underwater. Although the explosive was detonated, no one was injured and no ship was damaged.
A month later, Lee made another attempt on another ship off the coast of Manhattan. This time around, however, he was spotted almost immediately; thus, forcing him to abandon the mission. A few days later, the British discovered the Turtle while on another mission and destroyed it.
Bushnell is responsible for today’s submarines
Despite the Turtle’s apparent failure, that didn’t stop George Washington from praising Bushnell’s design. Washington even called the Turtle a stroke of genius; although too many factors oppose it.
While Bushnell would never successfully sink a ship with a submarine throughout the American Revolution, it will continue to inspire future inventors like that of Robert Fulton and John Holland. Historians would also award him the title of “founder of modern submersible warfare.”
Over time, a number of powerful armies would eventually grow and add their own submarines to their naval fleets, all of which were inspired by Bushnell’s Turtle design. Today, even the most powerful nuclear-capable submarines owe Bushnell a big thank you. For without his revolutionary designs and ideas, the world’s combat-ready submarines would not be where they are today.
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