This National Interest article is mostly of interest because of what it has to say about naval traditions and naval procurement, and actually less so about the actual subs.
Except for the story of Britain’s K-class boats, of which I was entire ignorant. Read:
Designed in 1913, these boats were meant to range ahead of the surface fleet, screening the fleet’s battlewagons and battlecruisers against enemy torpedo craft. Or they could seize the offensive, softening up the enemy battle line before the decisive fleet encounter. A solid concept. But to keep up with surface men-of-war, such a boat would need to travel at around 21 knots on the surface, faster than any British sub yet built. Diesel engines were incapable of driving a boat through the water at such velocity. The Admiralty’s speed requirement, therefore, demanded steam propulsion.
However sound the tactics behind the K-class, outfitting subs with steam plants was a bad idea. Ask any marine engineer. Boilers gulp in air, they generate prodigious amounts of heat, and they emit exhaust gases in large quantities. Trying to submerge a steamship, consequently, means trying to submerge a hull with lots of intakes and smokestacks. Unsurprisingly, the K-class leaked. The heat was torrid while underwater. It wallowed in rough seas, and displayed a troublesome reluctance to pull out of a dive. Of 18 K-class boats, none was lost to enemy action. But six — a full third of the class — were lost to accidents.
The irony of course is that SSN’s are in a sense steam-powered.