Numbers Names Numbers Names - 

Royal Navy - Submarine Naming Conventions

The start 1901

The very first class of Royal Navy submarines in 1901 were built under licence from the Electric Boat Company of the United Stares and named after the designer's surname 'Holland'. With each boat identified by a number. 1, 2, 3, etc.

These were followed by the first boats designed in Britain. Each Class was identified by a letter of the alphabet in sequence, and each boat by a number in sequence.
For example the first class was the 'A' Class. The boats named as A.1, A.2, A.3 etc.
Followed by the 'B' Class. With the boats being B.1, B.2, B.3 etc.

This continued but with the inevitable exceptions of a few experimental boats e.g. Nautilus, out of sequence 'R' class hunter-killers, and overseas designed boats.



Then in 1925, Admiral Sir David Beatty, the First Sea Lord, advocated that submarines should be named, as; "...there can be little loyalty to a number".
So the first post-war patrol submarines came into service and were allocated  'O' names, instead of 'O' numbers.
i.e.. The first 'O' Class boat came into service with the name Oberon instead of O.1.   

However although the boats were allocated names, the classes still tended to follow the alphabet, with each boat's name beginning with the appropriate alphabet letter. The 'O' Class (Oberon) was followed by the 'P' class (Porpoise), then came two named classes Rainbow and River.

By now the 1930's had arrived, the earlier classes needed to be retired, and so the 'S', 'T' and 'U' classes arrived, again each boat had a name bearing the appropriate letter. 

When the war clouds of WW2 gathered and broke, large numbers of boats of these classes were ordered. Although they bore names beginning with 'S', 'T' and 'U', they came in groups under various names such as 'improved', 'emergency war programme', '1942 programme', 'enlarged', 'further improved'. Some were improved to incorporate lessons learned, some bore simplifications to speed war time construction. 
Sometimes these later sub-classes were known by the name of the first boat constructed egg. improved 'S' class known as the 'Shark' class. 

All-in-all a system which tends to have order but which easily confuses the casual reader.


Outbreak of WW2

While this was going on, shortly after the outbreak of war the Hopwood Committee recommended a reversion to numbers 'to conceal the number of submarines being built'. Submarine names were abandoned, and instead 'P' numbers, corresponding to allocated pennant numbers, were used to identify vessels. eg. P.31, P.32, P.64 etc.



Allocation of 'P' numbers continued until late 1942, when, "according to tradition", Winston Churchill intervened, echoing the words of Admiral Beatty, "there can be no loyalty to a mere number. Names are important."  So the numbered boats received appropriate 'S,' 'T' or 'U' class names, but some were sunk before this was done.



In 1943 work began on a completely new class of large boat, designed for operations in the Far East, none of which saw wartime service. These were the 'A' Class (1945), or Acheron Class (1945), not to be confused with the ''A' Class of (1903), which is why this web uses (year dates) after class names to try to lessen confusion. 

During the mid to late 1950's surviving 'T' class boats received major modifications to what were known as 'Super T' standard. Followed by similar modifications to the 'A' class (1945) boats. 

A few experimental  boats were constructed during this time and each were given a unique name.


Post-WW2 Conventional Powered Classes

So the first proper post-WW2 class of boats were begun in the 1950's and incorporated experiences from WW2 operations, captured German material, and lessons from converting 'T's to Super T's.  Each class was known by the name of the first boat constructed, and received conventional submarine names. 
i.e. Porpoise Class; first boat HMS Porpoise, Oberon Class, first boat HMS Oberon
This continued for all conventionally powered submarines,


Nuclear Power

In 1958 the first nuclear powered boats began their design and construction, firstly, SSN fleet attack submarines, then SSBN Nuclear armed missile boats, each of which carried more destructive power than all explosives used during the entire WW2. This caused the naming convention to be changed again.

Each class was known by the name of the first boat constructed, e.g. Valiant Class. But each boat received a name appropriate for that of a major capital warship. Usually a named previously used for a Battleship, or Aircraft Carrier.



In 1978 HMS Sceptre, a Swiftsure Class Nuclear Fleet submarine was commissioned, this began another naming convention.

She was the first of a new generation of nuclear powered submarines to use names previously allocated to submarines.

This continues with the 21st Century Astute Class SSN of Fleet Attack boats. The first three being Astute, Ambush and Artful


(After all this you would be forgiven in thinking that the Royal Navy convention on naming submarines, is to not have a convention.  :-)  Ian M King.)


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This page last edited - 10 April, 2013.

Copyright Ian M King, except where otherwise indicated.