It is back to the real world of submarine forces following a highly subjective list of 5 favorite submarine films – all of which are either fictitious or highly-embellished retellings of true stories, this time to discuss history’s five deadliest submarines in terms of enemy shipping tonnage sunk. Now, to be brutally honest, if we’re gonna go strictly by pure tonnage numbers, then all five submarines on this list should be German – more on this shortly – but hey, that wouldn’t be as much fun to write about, as “Variety is the spice of life,” so instead we’re covering the most successful individual submarine from the five biggest players in submarine warfare during the two World Wars: Germany, the U.S., U.K, France, and Japan.
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This is the only WWI Unterseeboot to make the list, and in turn, she was part of the extremely deadly U-31 class. As noted by 19FortyFive’s Robert Farley. “Four of these eleven boats (U-35, U-39, U-38, and U-34) were the four top killers of World War I; indeed, they were four of the five top submarines of all time in terms of tonnage sunk (the Type VII boat U-48 sneaks in at number 3). U-35, the top killer, sank 224 ships amounting to over half a million tons.”
Most of these kills were obtained under the command of eventual Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral) Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, of partial French descent.
U-35 was one of the three ships out of the 11 total in her class that survived the war and was surrendered to the Allies; she was broken up for scrap in 1920.
United States: USS Tang (SS-306)
The “Silent Service” absolutely ravaged the Imperial Japanese Navy and Merchant Marine fleets during WWII, and the Balao-class submarine USS Tang skippered by then-CDR Richard “Dick” O’Kane, was particularly menacing, sinking 33 ships totaling 116,454 tons.
However, in a cruel twist of fate, during his fifth war patrol on October 25, 1944, Tang was sunk by one of her own torpedoes; after sinking the freighters Kogen Maru and Matsumoto Maru, the very last “tin fish” malfunctioned, making a circular run and slamming into the submarine.
O’Kane and seven of his men survived and escaped to the surface, thanks to the use of the Momsen Lung – the only known successful usage of this lifesaving device under combat conditions – and ended up as POWs. Dick O’Kane survived his captivity ordeal, was awarded the Medal of Honor, and retired from the U.S. Navy in 1957 with the rank of Rear Admiral, passing away in 1994 at the age of 83.
Great Britain: HMS Upholder (N 99)
“Under the command of Lt.Cdr. Malcolm David Wanklyn, (VC, DSO, RN), HMS Upholder was the most successful of all British submarines. She made 25 war patrols while based with the 10th Submarine Flotilla at Malta … Given our detailed history listed below, HMS Upholder sank one destroyer, two submarines, nine supply ships (including three large troop transports and no tankers. Total tonnage sunk was 93031 GRT … On 12 April 1942, HMS Upholder was ordered to form a patrol line with HMS Urge and HMS Thrasher to intercept a convoy. It is not known if this signal was received and the submarine failed to return to harbour on her due date. The cause of loss is unknown to this date though the most likely cause of her loss would be being mined near Tripoli.”
By “France,” we do mean Free France and not the Vichy puppet government that Hitler set up during the WWII occupation. The highest-achieving submarine of the Free French Naval Forces was the Saphir-class minelaying sub Rubis. According to Stefen Styrsky of Armchair General:
“The Free French admiralty was so happy with the Rubis’ performance a new decoration was created, the Croix de la Liberation just for her return. Admiral Muselier, the leader of the Free French Navy personally made the trip up from London to award the boat and crew the medal … In total, her mines sank 21,000 GRT (gross register tons) of shipping, more than the rest of the Free French Navy combined. This included 22 enemy ships, 12 of which were German warships … The Rubis was retired in 1946 and was sunk off the coast of France in 1958 for use as a sonar target. Divers can still visit her remains.”
In addition to that Croix de la Liberation, the Rubis was honored by no less than Charles de Gaulle himself, who issued a decree in October 1941 making the warship a companion of the Ordre de la Libération.
In the Time-Life Books World War II series, the volume War Under the Pacific by Keith Wheeler, published in 1980, holds an account with a formidable Japanese boat. Mr. Wheeler recounts that “On the afternoon of September 15 , Commander Takaichi Kinashi, already one of Japan’s submarine aces with six ships totaling about 40,000 tons to his credit, was in the I-19 in the waters of the Solomon Islands. Raising his periscope to reconnoiter his surroundings, Kinashi was awestruck.” From there the author describes how Kinachi and the I-19 ended up sinking the American aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) and the destroyer USS O’Brien, which displaced 19,423 tons and 2,246 tons respectively, bringing the I-19’s total tonnage tally to 61,669 tons.
In a show of Axis-to-Axis solidarity, Cdr. Takashi was actually awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class by no less than Adolf Hitler himself. On November 25, 1943, I-19 was sunk in a depth charge attack by the destroyer USS Radford.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.