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Death From Below: The 5 Most Lethal Submarines

With sub movie Phantom out today, we’re taking a look at history’s most dangerous, dong-shaped divers. 

5. The H.L. Hunley [Civil War]



On February 17, 1864, the Union ship USS Housatonic was attacked and sunk by an unseen enemy from below. The attacker? The H.L. Hunley - the first-ever submarine to successfully attack an enemy warship. Built for the Confederate Army in 1863, she packed one torpedo, carried a crew of seven, and could be submerged for short periods of time. Unfortunately, despite the success of the mission - with no confederate casualties, a sunken Union warship and five dead Yankees - there was a major downside to the H.L Hunley: It was way more dangerous to be in the submarine than it was to be attacked by it.

During her first test run in 1863, five of the seven crewmembers drowned. The Hunley was hauled out of the water, fixed up and then manned with eight more guys: This time, all of them drowned. Finally, following the successful attack on the USS Housatonic, the H.L. Hunley sank a third and final time, killing another eight crew members. It’s very clear that there were still some design flaws in the earliest true submarine - perhaps the hatches were faulty, or the ship couldn’t surface quickly enough, or maybe it was that ill-conceived screen door they put on it. Whatever her shortcomings, it’s important to note that the H.L. Hunley was a huge achievement in military technology and would pave the way for all future submarines.

4. The SM U-9 [WWI]



In WWI (that was the one without Hitler), the British employed three ships with the duty of protecting the English Channel - the HMS Aboukir, the HMS Hogue, and the HMS Cressy. Despite numerous requests from their respective crews to find another name for the mission, the fleet was jokingly called the “Live Bait Squadron.” Tragically, on September 22, 1914, they more than lived up to their name when all three ships were sunk by the most powerful submarine the Germans had: the SM U-9.

The U-9 is the submarine that put subs on the map, militarily speaking: Up until this event, they were, like tanks before them, considered more of a novelty than a weapon (it didn’t help that so many of them had sunk and killed their whole crews that nobody wanted to use them). The SM U-9 changed everything: Like other German U-boats, she had a crew of 25 men and could stay underwater for about 12 to 16 hours. She could carry six torpedoes and shoot two at a time, but what was special about the U-9 was that she was the first submarine with the ability to reload underwater – a talent the Germans made great use of, sinking all three of those British ships in under an hour. Following the battle, the U-9 and its crew were awarded the Iron Cross, while the British decided to reconsider the other fleet names they’d been using, like “Disaster Waiting To Happen” and “Big, Slow, Thoroughly Moist Target.”

3. The I-201 [WWII]


The Japanese Submarine I-201 was the most ridiculously badass submarine type of WWII (the one with Hitler). They were so advanced that when the Americans discovered them at the end of WWII, they sunk them just so the Soviets wouldn’t have the technology (that’s what they said, anyway. For all we know, some drunk Navy guys sunk them by accident and said they did it because of the Commies). Anyway, this massive ship was three times the size of a modern submarine, carried a crew of 144 and could stay underwater for a month without coming up. She could hold 10 torpedoes and featured the first retractable deck guns on a sub. And believe it or not, she was intended to be used for aerial attacks: The Japanese actually planned to have planes docked on the water over this behemoth to launch attacks from. Because the first thing you think when designing an aircraft carrier is whether or not it can submerge, obviously.

The amazing thing is, that wasn’t even the most ridiculous plan the Japanese had for the I-201. No, that award goes to the plot to carry big cans of plague-infested rats to throw at the United States and kill its citizens with disease. Luckily, they never got the chance to carry out this plan (we dropped a couple things slightly scarier than rats on them first), although this does raise the question of whether or not the Japanese military had ever actually seen a New York City subway. One more incredible fact about this vessel: She was covered in a layer of rubber, making her basically undetectable by radar. Which has got to mean that using a condom makes you invisible to radar. It has to, right?

2. The USS Nautilus [Cold War]



The first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus was built in 1954 and named after the ship from the Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Because she used nuclear power, she could do things that no other sub could up until that time, including staying submerged for almost 100 days and traveling at higher speeds than any sub before her. She featured six torpedo tubes and carried a crew of around 110 men. 

All in all, the USS Nautilus was a stunning achievement that set many naval records. The sub’s technology easily overcame all of the anti-submarine tactics used during WWII, rendering radar all but useless with her speed, while the sheer volume of her armaments would overpower any other underwater vessel. After years of showing her off, the US Navy got bored and decided to send the submarine to the North Pole, which was just about the most expensive way ever conceived of to disprove the existence of Santa Claus. The mission was a huge success, sufficiently spooking the Soviet Union, although its operation name may have undermined its intended show of strength: Rather than giving the mission a cool name like “Operation Icebreaker” or “Operation Polar Bear Extinction”, instead they went with “Operation Sunrise”, which is just about the wussiest name they could have chosen.

1. The HMS Ambush [Present Day]


Photo by Le Deluge

In 2012, the British Royal Navy launched the most badass submarine ever built, the HMS Ambush. Aside from the cool name, the Ambush has countless awesome features that make her just about the deadliest thing in the water (and that’s including the plane-eating shark from Jaws 4). Carrying a crew of 98 and able to cruise up to 500 miles a day, she’s equipped with dozens of cruise missiles, with which she’s capable of hitting targets 1,200 miles away. She can also detect other ships all the way on the other side of the ocean, while the nuclear reactor that she runs on is so powerful, the ship could run continuously for 25 years!

The only problem is, the British don’t really have any good wars going on right now (at least, not one where this beast would come in useful). So rather than kill people and sink ships like God intended, the Ambush is currently running sea trials to test just how long she can stay submerged for. That sounds like a good use of taxpayer money, right? 

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