Submarines Before Nuclear Power: The Submarine Revolution 1945-1955

Between 1945 and 1955, the submarine was transformed from a fast surface ship that could hide briefly underwater into a true underwater boat, able to move and fight for weeks on end without ever surfacing. The process began with German U-boats captured by the Allies at the end of World War II. Displaying a number of advanced features that greatly enhanced underwater speed and endurance, such as highly streamlined hulls and snorkels, these boats inspired new thinking in every major navy.

In the United States, the first step was upgrading existing submarines in a program called Guppy (greater underwater propulsive power). New hull designs followed, emphasizing better underwater performance. Nuclear propulsion was the final stage in creating the true submarine. The world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), went to sea in January 1955.

Last U.S. Diesel-Electric Combat Submarine
USS Blueback (SS-581) was the last American combat submarine that was not nuclear powered. One of three Albacore-hulled diesel-electric submarines built, she served from 1959 until 1990. Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute

USS <i>Tiru</i> Guppy Submarine
First Nuclear Submarine, USS <i>Nautilus</i>
Father of the Nuclear Navy
The Snorkel

A design model of a radically new whale- or teardrop-shaped hull, intended for USS Albacore (AGSS-569; AGSS indicates an auxiliary or test submarine), is readied for testing at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland. Completed in 1953, Albacore attained a remarkable submerged speed; exactly how fast is still classified, but it was well over 25 knots (46 km/hr).

Studies of captured German Type XXI submarines inspired revolutionary changes in submarine design after World War II.

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