WW1 J Class Submarines

Text: Eric Langenberg
Researchers: Eric Langenberg, Garry Smith & Cate Venturoni


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The British J Class Submarines were built under an emergency war program caused by an erroneous report that the German Navy had U-Boats at sea or under construction capable of attaining speeds of 18-20 knots. At that time the British Navy was experimenting with steam driven turbine powered submarines which were later to become the K Class. As these vessels were only experimental they were forced to design a fast submarine using existing technology. The resulting J Class submarines were over 100 feet longer than their predecessor the E Class.

In January 1915, 8 J Class submarines were ordered however only 7 were built. Unique to British submarines the J class subs were designed with triple screws making them the fastest of their time with a surface speed of 19 knots.

J1submarine. LaTrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
LaTrobe Picture Collection,
State Library of Victoria.
The 3 propellor design was also an unsuccessful attempt to provide fast submarines capable of operating with surface ships particularly the main battle fleet (21 knots), the aim being to lure enemy vessels into a submarine trap. Equipped with a powerful long range wireless they were ideally suited to reconnoitre in enemy water. Prior to this the D and E Class boats patrolling in the Heligoland Bight could only transmit over a range of 50 miles. Stationed mainly at Blyth during WWI with the 11th submarine flotilla consisting of the 6 J Class submarines and the 6 G Class submarines. This unit was to see some heavy action with many enemy ships to their credit, including the battleships Grosser Kurfurst and the Magdeburg. In January 1915, 8 J Class submarines were ordered, however only 7 were built. Unique to British submarines the J class subs were designed with triple screws making them the fastest of their time with a surface speed of 19 knots.

The unit was to suffer very few casualties during the war however one of the most tragic incidences of the war occurred at 4.30 pm on the 15th October 1918 when the Royal Navy Decoy ship Cymric mistakenly attacked and sunk the J6 with the loss of 16 men. A court of inquiry verdict could not lay the blame on anyone 'as it was all part of the game!' (21).
J class sub foremost torpedo room. Photo authors collection
J class sub foremost torpedo room.
Photo authors collection.

At the completion of the war Britain offered the six remaining submarines and 6 destroyers (renamed as H.M.A.S Platypus (depot Ship), Sydney (light cruiser), Brisbane and Karumba) as a gift to Australia on the 13th February 1919, they were officially transferred to the RAN on 25th March 1919 (17). The total value of this gift was approximately 1.5 million pounds. This small fleet departed from Portsmouth on 9/4/1919 and arrived in Sydney on 15/7/1919 (18). Note Australia's first submarines were the AE 1(80) and the AE 2(81), these two were of the E Class. The AE 1and the AE 2 were sisters to the RN E Class. They possessed torpedo tubes at the bow, stern and on each beam. A maximum of eight torpedoes were carried. Both submarines were lost in WWI. AE 1 without trace near Cape Gazelle, 14 September 1914 and AE 2 in the sea of Marmora, Turkey, 30 April 1915 (19).

Upon arrival in Australia, all the submarines were in poor condition and had to undergo extensive refits. This was due to the fact that these boats were not refitted in England before being turned over to the Commonwealth and sailing for Australia (13). They were immediately refitted at the Garden and Cockatoo Island Commonwealth Naval Dockyards at a total cost of 407 000 pounds and the completion dates were as follows:
J1 and J4 February 1920,
J2 and J5 May 1920,
J3 October 1920 and
J7 June1922.
From Sydney they sailed to Geelong, where Osborne House, previously a rest home for nurses, was to be their base. In an easterly direction the house commands a magnificent view over Corio Bay. Early in the year 1900 the property was purchased by the State Government for the use of Premiers as a country residence A few years later Osborne House was vested In the Geelong Harbour Trust, and for a period was in use as a guest house. During the First World War Osborne House was utilized for training purposes. The pre-existing Flinders Naval Depot being some 60 miles from the proposed submarine exercising area was considered to far away to be useful as a base, the Ideal location for a base was Geelong, being only 22 miles from the exercising area. Sydney was considered unsuitable for training owing to the excessive depth of the water (1). From here J1,2,4 and 5 carried out a major, cruise in Tasmanian waters in January 1921, and J3 and 4 carried out a similar cruise in January 1922 (1).

Officers room J class sub. Photo authors collection.
Officers room J class sub.
Photo authors collection.
The ironclad Cerberus was renamed Platypus II on the 1st of April 1921 and acted as a depot ship to the J Class submarines whilst stationed at Geelong (1). The Platypus II is not to be confused with the H.M.A.S. Platypus which was one of the six gift vessels which escorted the J submarines from England to Australia (2). By May of 1922 all submarines except the J7 had been decommissioned, J7 completing her refit in 1922 was placed in reserve. On the 8/12/1922 the J7 under the command of Lieutenant J. Drinkwater was given sailing orders to tow the J3 from the Flinders Naval Depot and to berth the J3 near Swan Island in a position selected by the officer-in-charge of the Mine Depot at Swan Island. Where the said officer considered the use of the J3 as a power station and pier. The HMAS Cerberus was directed to be off Swan Spit buoy to assist in the berthing. On the afternoon of the 9/12/1922 the J3 was moored safely with shorelines shortly after which the J7 returned to Westernport.
 J Class Sub Control Room from aft - note the periscope and the comments HA HA HA HE HE HE I CAN SEE YOU BUT YOU CANT SEE ME! - bored? click on the picture for some fun
J Class Sub Control Room from aft - note the periscope and the comments HA HA HA HE HE HE I CAN SEE YOU BUT YOU CANT SEE ME!
Photo authors collection.

The decision to scrap the submarines J1-5 was taken on the 19/11/1923 following a cut in the defense budget by some 500,000 pounds. The decision to scrap the J7 came on the 16/l/1924. The J7 though in fairly good condition after just being refitted was described as the last survivor of an obsolete class. She could not be used for training unless a crew was obtained from England. In any case it was decided that future crews should be trained on modern submarines. In January, 1924 the Melbourne Salvage Company (also referred to as Melbourne Salvage Syndicate and Melbourne Salvage Pty. Ltd.) of 60 Queen Street, Melbourne purchased the J1,J2,J4 and J5 for 10,500 pounds. The purchasers were under a bond of 1,000 pounds to the Defence Department as guarantee of the final destruction of the submarines. The contract also included the sinking in deep water or breaking up or otherwise disposing of the submarines to the satisfaction of the government contract board. The Melbourne Salvage Company also purchased the Cerberus which it later sold to the municipal authorities at Sandringham. In 1926 the Cerberus was towed to her final resting place at Half Moon-Bay where she now serves as a breakwater (10). The J4 prior to being scuttled in Bass Strait had spent two years on the harbor floor after sinking off Nelson Pier, Williamstown, after a supposed severe storm on the 10 July 1924. The J4 had already been purchased by the Melbourne Salvage Company and had only been delivered that day to the Williamstown dockyard by government officials. The Melbourne Salvage Company entered into an agreement with Williamstown Dockyard (Prime Ministers Department) to dismantle the J4. Several attempts were made to raise the submarine but with mixed success. The J4 was partially raised on the 26 November 1926 only to sink again a short time after. On the 6th December 1926 the J4 was successfully raised.

Photo authors collection.
J class submarine
Photo authors collection.

The Melbourne Salvage Company contracted McBain and Morwick to sink the hulls of J1, 2 and 5 outside the three mile radius of Port Phillip Heads. Prior to scuttling target practice was made of the J5, eight bombs were dropped from a height of 3000 feet by five planes and two sea planes which circled overhead. The nearest bomb being 150 feet short of target. After the unsuccessful bombing a boarding party opened the seacocks and J5 went to the bottom (12). A Mr. Hill of 77 Chapman Street, North Melbourne purchased the hull of the J3 and some fittings off the Countess of Hopetoun (11). In January 1926 the hull of the J3 was sunk off the northeastern tip of Swan Island where it had been moored since 1922. The hull was to be used as a pier. The two bronze propellers (the battery powered ones opposed to the main diesel driven propeller were removed and are on display opposite the Queenscliffe Maritime Center (4).

Folk history relating to the Swan Island site indicates that the vessel was run onto the shore of Swan Island so that the diesel powered generators could be used to provide an auxiliary power supply to the military establishment on the island (12). The J3 lies upright on the seabed in 6 meters of water with the upper deck and superstructure protruding above the water at all times. The bow of the submarine faces eastnortheast and is approximately 100 meters from the shore of Swan Island. Strong tidal conditions exist on the site at 90 degrees to the long axis of the vessel. Diving is safely carried out on the lee side of the vessel during the running tide which can run upto 2 knots at full tide. Visibility on the site ranges between 0.5 - 4.0 meters. Note the site lies within the Swan Island Prohibited Area (4). Note the site is marked but not named on the 1981 version of AUS 158 (4).

Photo authors collection.
J class submarine
Photo authors collection.
The J7 was the last of the J subs to be broken up. She stayed in service for the longest period providing electricity for the Flinders Naval Depot (13) (the J3 also served this purpose prior to scuttling). The J7 engines were later to be removed and continued to provide secondary lighting, and were still to be seen as late as 1972 (9). Prior to dismantling the J7 had been lying at anchor at Cowes, she was towed to Melbourne by the tug Minah to be broken up at Footscray (6). The J7 was sold to Morris and Watts Machinery Merchant in October 1929 (7). After dismantling the J7, Morris and Watts sold the hull to the Ports and Harbors Department Melbourne who proposed to utilize the hull as a breakwater and sunk the J7 at its present location at the Sandringham Yacht Club in August 1930 (8).

J class sub main engine room. Photo authors collection.
J class sub main engine room.
Photo authors collection.
The conning tower of J4 was removed and erected on St.Kilda pier as a starting tower for the club and was used until 1956 when the old pier was demolished. It has been suggested that the starting tower was in fact the conning tower of the HMV Torpedo boat Childers not the J4 (9) however this is disputable.

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Last modified: March, 2011