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Greek Submarine ‘Delfin’ Was the First in History to Launch a Torpedo Attack

Greek submarine
The Xifias, sister ship to the Delfin, built to the same specifications. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Delfin (“Dolphin”) was a Greek submarine in service with the Hellenic Navy during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the First World War (1914-18).

As well as representing a notable part of Greek maritime history, being the second submarine ever put into service by the Hellenic Navy, it also holds an important place in the broader military maritime history of the world.

In fact, the Delfin was the first submarine in world history to launch a torpedo attack against an enemy warship. This little-known but interesting chapter of maritime history is arguably an overlooked milestone in the progression of naval warfare, given the prominence submarines would gain in the Second World War and as nuclear-armed deterrents in the Cold War and contemporary eras.

Construction and specifications

The Delfin was ordered by the Hellenic Navy in 1910, just before the outbreak of the Balkan War. It was laid down the following year in the Schneider Shipyards in Toulon, France.

The Delfin was a French-built Schneider-Labeuf class submarine. Its length was 49.5 meters and it had a displacement of 360 tons when surfaced. When submerged, its displacement was 452 tons.

Submerged, the Greek submarine had a top speed of 8 knots (15 km/h), whereas on the surface it could reach a faster speed of 12 knots (22 km/h). It was powered by two Schneider-Carels diesel engines.

The sea vessel’s main armament was one 1 x 450mm torpedo tube at the bow. A total of six 4 x 450mm Drzewiecki drop-collar torpedoes were carried on board.

The Delfin was crewed by 24 submariners, as was her sister ship, the Xifias.

The Delfin is commissioned

Neither the submarine nor the torpedo were entirely new technology when the Delfin entered service with the Hellenic Navy on August 21, 1912. Nevertheless, submarine warfare was still very much in its infancy during the early 20th century.

The first officer in charge of the Delfin, Lieutenant Commander Stefanos Paparrigopoulos, was dispatched to France alongside a 17-man crew to receive training on the submarine’s operation.

However, Paparrigopoulos and his crew were unable to complete their training as the seemingly inevitable outbreak of the First Balkan War necessitated their immediate deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean theater of combat.

Thus, on September 29, the Delfin set sail from France, arriving at Corfu on October 4, just four days before the beginning of the war.

According to Zsis Fotakis, a Greek scholar of Naval History at the Hellenic Naval Academy, the crew of the Delfin raced back to Greek waters in a non-stop journey of 1,100 miles (1770 km). This confirmed the crew’s ability to effectively operate the submarine despite their relatively short training, but it also left them exhausted and less able to perform their tasks efficiently.

The First Balkan War

From Corfu, the Delfin sailed to the port of Piraeus. Here the submarine remained until October 19, which gave the crew more time to complete their training and make preparations.

The Delfin joined the main Greek fleet at its forward anchorage in Moudros Bay in Lemnos. It remained within the vicinity of Lemnos to complete diving exercises until November 20. Despite having to deal with several mechanical issues, the crew set out to patrol the waters outside the Dardanelles by day, before retiring to Tenedos at night.

On December 22, 1912, the Ottoman light cruiser Mecidiye was conducting a scouting mission in the waters surrounding the Dardanelles when it was spotted by the Delfin.

At 10:40, the Delfin launched a torpedo against the Mecidiye at a distance of 800 meters. However, the torpedo broke the surface of the water and passed the Ottoman vessel without sinking it.

Nevertheless, this was the first recorded torpedo attack by a submarine against a warship in recorded history. Earlier weapons referred to as “torpedoes” had been used by submarines before. However, these were not the same as the self-propelled ranged weapons classified as torpedoes today.

After the attempted torpedo attack, the submarine suffered further misfortune and ran aground on a shoal north of the island of Tenedos. The vessel was able to escape but could no longer submerge and was therefore forced to return to Piraeus for repairs.

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