Submarine technology has come a long way since the first experimental submersibles in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, despite improvements in design and construction, submarines have been involved in many tragic accidents throughout history.

Here are some of the most famous submarine disasters from different eras.

Early History

Submarines have been in the minds of men for centuries. They’ve been under the water for a lot less however!

The Turtle Submarine (1776)

During the American Revolutionary War, the “Turtle” was a one-man submersible designed by David Bushnell. On September 6, 1776, the Turtle attempted to attach a mine to the hull of the British warship HMS Eagle, which was anchored in New York Harbour.

A cutaway replica of the Turtle ‘Submarine’. The Americans failed to sink HMS Eagle with one. It sank!

However, the mine failed to explode, and the Turtle was unable to detach from the ship’s hull. The British crew eventually discovered the submarine and captured it, along with its pilot, Ezra Lee. The Turtle was later sunk while being transported to a British prison ship. Its ultimate fate remains unknown.

The Great War 1914-1918

Submarines came to the fore during WW1 with the German Navy leading the way. It wasn’t all plain sailing however.

HMAS AE1 (1914)

HMAS AE1 was the first submarine to serve in the Royal Australian Navy. The E-class submarine was commissioned in May 1914, and soon after, it joined the Australian fleet to serve in World War I.

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On September 14, 1914, HMAS AE1 disappeared without a trace while patrolling the seas off the coast of New Guinea. Despite extensive searches, the submarine was not found, and the fate of the 35 crew members remained a mystery for more than a century.

In 2017, a joint search effort by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments, as well as private companies, discovered the wreck of the HMAS AE1 in more than 300 meters of water near the Duke of York Islands. The discovery provided some closure for the families of the crew members. They had waited more than 100 years to learn what had happened to their loved ones.

HMAS AE1 seen here with other Australian Naval vessels in 1914. She sank with the loss of 35 lives.

The cause of the disaster remains unknown, but it is believed that the submarine may have struck a reef or had a mechanical malfunction. The HMAS AE1 disaster was the first loss of an Allied submarine in World War I and the first major tragedy for the Royal Australian Navy.

U-20 and the Lusitania (1915)

During World War I, the German submarine U-20 became infamous for its sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania. On May 7, 1915, the U-20 fired a torpedo at the Lusitania, which was carrying over 1,900 passengers and crew, including 159 Americans. The torpedo struck the ship’s starboard side, causing a massive explosion that led to the liner’s sinking in just 18 minutes.

Although not a submarine disaster as such it was unfortunate for the crew. Their actions pulled America into WW1.

The Lusitania was sunk by the German U-Boat, U-20 on May 7, 1915. A disaster for a number of reasons.

The sinking of the Lusitania caused a great deal of outrage, particularly in the United States, where it was seen as a deliberate attack on civilians. The event played a significant role in the U.S. decision to enter World War I two years later. The German government defended the sinking by claiming that the Lusitania was carrying war munitions. This was later found to be true, but this fact was not widely known at the time of the sinking.

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The U-20 itself was eventually sunk in the North Sea on August 4, 1915, after striking a mine. Its captain, Walther Schwieger, was hailed as a hero in Germany for his role in sinking the Lusitania. The sinking contributed to Germany’s increasing isolation in the international community and strengthened Allied anti-submarine measures.

WW2 1939-1945

Just like the Great War of 1914-1918, WW2 saw advancements in submarine design. Again it was Germany who were the main innovators.

HMS Thetis (1939)

The Thetis was a British submarine that sank during sea trials in Liverpool Bay in June 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of World War II.

HMS Thetis seen here surrounded by rescue boats. There were only 4 survivors.

The submarine had a crew of 103 onboard, and only four crew members survived the disaster. The cause of the disaster was a malfunctioning torpedo tube that caused flooding in the submarine

USS Wahoo (1943)

The USS Wahoo was a United States Navy submarine that sank in the Sea of Japan in October 1943. The submarine had a successful career, sinking several Japanese ships, but it was lost with all hands during its seventh patrol. The exact cause of its sinking remains unknown, but it is believed that it may have struck a mine or been sunk by enemy aircraft.

U-505 (1944)

U-505 was a German submarine that was captured by the United States Navy in June 1944. The submarine was boarded by American sailors after a daring raid, and its capture provided valuable intelligence on German submarine technology and tactics. It was disaster due to the amount of intelligence found aboard.

I-52 (1944)

I-52 was a Japanese submarine that was sunk by a United States Navy aircraft in June 1944. The submarine was carrying a cargo of strategic materials, including rubber, tin, and quinine, bound for Germany. Its sinking disrupted Japan’s war effort and provided valuable intelligence on German and Japanese collaboration.

The Cold War

The Cold War saw another rush of submarine advancement. Russia, America and Great Britain went to new depths in submarine design in order to protect their shores and fleets. Sometimes these had catastrophic outcomes.

HMS Affray (1951)

HMS Affray was a British submarine that went missing on April 16, 1951, while on a training exercise in the English Channel. The submarine, one of the most advanced in the Royal Navy at the time, had a crew of 75.

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After several days of unsuccessful attempts to contact the submarine, a massive search and rescue operation was launched involving personnel from multiple countries. The search continued for more than a week. the submarine was eventually found on June 14, 1951, when a French fishing trawler caught its net in the wreckage at a depth of about 270 feet (82 meters).

The once proud HMS Affray before she sank with the loss of all hands in April 1951.

The exact cause of the disaster remains unknown, but it is believed that a mechanical failure or flooding caused the submarine to sink. The investigation revealed several shortcomings in the submarine’s design and maintenance, including inadequate training and safety procedures.

The loss of the HMS Affray was a significant blow to the Royal Navy, leading to a renewed emphasis on safety and training measures. The disaster also raised concerns about the safety and reliability of submarines. This facilitated the development of new technologies and safety protocols in the field.

K-19 (1961)

K-19 was a Soviet submarine that experienced a reactor coolant leak while on patrol in the North Atlantic in 1961. The crew had to make urgent repairs to prevent a nuclear accident, and many of them were exposed to deadly levels of radiation. Although most of the crew survived, the incident was a major embarrassment for the Soviet Union and highlighted the risks of nuclear-powered submarines.

USS Thresher (1963)

The USS Thresher was another nuclear-powered submarine that sank during a deep-diving test off the coast of New England on April 10, 1963. The submarine was the first of its class and had undergone extensive testing before its final deep-diving test. The cause of the disaster was later attributed to a failure of the submarine’s saltwater piping system, which led to a loss of power and control. All 129 crew members died in the incident, making it the deadliest submarine disaster in American history.

USS Scorpion (1968)

USS Scorpion was a United States Navy nuclear-powered submarine that sank in the Atlantic Ocean on May 22, 1968, while on a mission in the Mediterranean Sea. The submarine had a crew of 99 onboard, and its mission was classified at the time of the disaster.

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After the submarine failed to arrive at its designated port on schedule a massive search and rescue operation was launched. The search continued for several weeks. The submarine’s wreckage was found in October when a deep-sea survey ship located it at a depth of about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) near the Azores.

A U.S. Navy photo taken in 1968 of the bow of the Submarine USS Scorpion as she lays on the seabed.

The exact cause of the disaster remains unknown, but it is believed that a torpedo malfunction caused an explosion that led to the submarine’s sinking. The investigation into the disaster revealed several technical and maintenance issues that may have contributed to the tragedy.

The loss of USS Scorpion was a significant blow to the US Navy, and it raised concerns about the safety and reliability of nuclear-powered submarines. The disaster also highlighted the importance of safety and maintenance protocols in the operation of such advanced and complex vessels.

The USS Scorpion disaster remains a subject of interest and speculation, and numerous theories have been put forward to explain the cause of the tragedy.

Modern Day Disasters

The continued use of submarines in the present day still brings the occasional disaster. Although the technology is far better in sub design some countries still use outdated boats. This causes problems.

The Kursk (2000)

The Kursk was a Russian nuclear-powered submarine that sank in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000, during a naval exercise. The submarine was a Project 949A Antey-class submarine. It was one of the largest and most advanced submarines in the Russian Navy at the time, with a crew of 118 sailors.

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The cause of the disaster was a torpedo explosion in the submarine’s torpedo room, which caused significant damage and led to the submarine’s sinking. The Russian Navy initially denied that there had been an explosion and delayed asking for international assistance. This lead to criticism both domestically and internationally.

The wreck of the Kursk lies dockside in Russia after being brought up from the deep.

Despite international rescue efforts, all 118 crew members on board the Kursk were declared dead within a week of the disaster. The Russian government faced criticism for its handling of the tragedy, particularly for its slow response and lack of transparency.

The Kursk disaster was a significant blow to the Russian Navy, which was already struggling with aging equipment and insufficient funding. The disaster also highlighted the dangers of nuclear-powered submarines and the need for improved safety measures.

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The recovery of the Kursk wreckage was a massive undertaking, and it took almost a year to raise the submarine from the seabed. The investigation into the disaster revealed a lack of safety measures, poor maintenance, and training, which contributed to the tragedy.

ARA San Juan (2017)

ARA San Juan was an Argentine Navy submarine that went missing on November 15, 2017, while on a routine mission in the South Atlantic Ocean. The submarine had a crew of 44 onboard and was traveling from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, to Mar del Plata, a naval base located about 250 miles (400 km) south of Buenos Aires.

After several days of unsuccessful attempts to contact the submarine, a massive search and rescue operation was launched involving more than a dozen countries. The search included naval vessels, aircraft, and underwater robots. The submarine was found a year later on November 17, 2018. A private company hired by the Argentine government discovered the wreckage at a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet).

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The cause of the disaster remains unclear, but it is believed that a battery malfunction caused a fire onboard the submarine, which led to an explosion and the vessel’s rapid descent to the ocean floor. The tragedy was a devastating blow to the Argentine Navy and the families of the crew members.

The search and recovery of the submarine’s wreckage was a difficult and complicated operation, and the Argentine government faced criticism for its handling of the disaster. The tragedy also raised concerns about the safety and maintenance of the country’s aging fleet of submarines.

So, as the World’s navies continue to employ submarines we can only hope that such disasters become a thing of the past. The bravery of these sailors must never be forgotten however. True gods of the deep.