Research Paper: Sonar in WWI and WWII

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[. . .] That would be detrimental to the study, and would also be confusing. Larger cases make more sense for this study, and will be used to provide insight about, and examples of, how sonar made a difference in Naval operations.

Case One: World War I

World War I, or the First World War, was also called "The Great War" (Abbatiello, 2005). Centered in Europe, it was actually a global war that brought in a number of countries, including the United States and its Naval operations (Price, 2004). These Naval operations used sonar in order to find other ships and determine where to position themselves in order to have the best opportunities to protect their crews and stop enemy troops from gaining any ground. The main use of sonar during this time was from surface vessels, and it was only passive sonar (Abbatiello, 2005). Using active sonar can be risky, because it also lets others in the area who are also using sonar find the vessel more easily (Abbatiello, 2005). Sending out a signal is not always a good choice in wartime, when a vessel is attempting to remain stealthy and avoid detection (Price, 2004). That does not mean that passive sonar used by other vessels would not still find that vessel, but only that it would be more difficult to do so and the vessel would not be making itself obvious to others.

When WWI occurred, that actually led to a relatively rapid development of sonar. There was a need to detect submarines, because they could hide under the water and get close to intended targets before anyone knew they were coming (Howard, 2007). Naturally, that was a problem for those who were targeted by these submarines. There needed to be a way to stop them, or at least know where they were so people could have some kind of warning (Abbatiello, 2005). Because of that concern, more research was done into ways to use sound to find things under the ocean. This was not the first development or use of sonar, but it was among the first times that it was used in that manner and for an important purpose such as the protection of life and limb (Abbatiello, 2005). Without the use of sonar and without working to develop it as quickly as possible, many more lives could have been lost in WWI and in future battles. The development of sonar was a game changer for WWI, as it was able to find submarines before they got too close (Abbatiello, 2005). That gave people time to get away or prepare, as well as time to retaliate.

The British were among the first to place a focus on sound and how to get more value from it for the purpose of detecting enemy submarines (Howard, 2007). They created devices for listening underwater and called them hydrophones (Abbatiello, 2005). During that same time, Paul Langevin, a French physicist, was working with Russian immigrant and electrical engineer Constantin Chilowski on developing devices that could detect a submarine (Price, 2004). These were active devices based on sound, and they used quartz as a method of detection because of its vibrational properties (Price, 2004). This was taking place in 1915, long before the sonar that is used today was created or envisioned (Howard, 2007). Despite the fact that it was relatively primitive, both the French and the British were clearly onto something with the directions they were taking (Abbatiello, 2005). They used electrostatic transducers, which were later superseded by magnetostrictive and piezoelectric options (Abbatiello, 2005). Their work, though, did have a strong influence on the future of sonar and the designs that were used. It was the first use of sound to find submarines underwater, and very important not only to the troops in WWI, but also to what would take place in WWII (Abbatiello, 2005).

Both France and Britain had active prototype systems at work by 1918 (Price, 2004). The British system was tested in 1920 and production of it was begun in 1922 (Howard, 2007). By 1923-1924, many vessels were equipped with the version of sonar that was available at that time (Howard, 2007). It was not yet actually called sonar, but it was the ancestor of the current system. More important than what it was called, however, was what it did. Using sonar, Naval vessels were able to "ping" the waters around them and bounce sound waves off of objects in those waters (Price, 2004). This would provide them with information on things like the ocean bottom (depending on the depth), reefs, and sand bars (Price, 2004). That knowledge could help keep them from running aground or hitting anything. However, sonar did much more than that. It also provided these vessels with information regarding the location of other vessels -- including submarines (Price, 2004). That knowledge allowed vessels to change location, prepare to defend themselves, or simply report the location of other vessels to their commanders so choices regarding them could be made (Price, 2004).

It is important to note that, during WWI, it was the French and the British that had this technology. The United States had not yet developed sonar, and had not worked with other countries to create it or a version of it for their own use. While not necessarily a bad thing, per se, it did put them behind the times when it came to what they were capable of offering as an ally. They did not have the ability to find submarines in the ocean, because they had not yet mastered how to use sound waves to do that properly (Abbatiello, 2005). That would come, but not until the British provided what they knew to the United States -- and that did not occur until WWII, when sonar improved significantly in a number of ways. In WWI, there were still many problems with the sonar that was created, and one of them was a frequent loss of contact between the vessel using the sonar and the vessel it located (Abbatiello, 2005).

The depth-charge was the weapon used against submarines. A vessel would pass over the submarine, on top of the water, and drop charges over the stern (Price, 2004). The goal, of course, was for the charges to strike the submarine and disable or destroy it (Abbatiello, 2005). However, there was a problem executing this maneuver because of the way early sonar worked. In the few short moments leading up to the attack, the proximity and location of the two vessels would cause them to lose sonar contact (Howard, 2007). The vessel that was dropping the depth-charges was, in essence, firing blind because it could no longer see the submarine's position on sonar. During the few minutes that was taking place, the submarine crew could take evasive action and actually move out of the way (Howard, 2007). That rendered the depth-charges ineffective, and was a tremendous waste of effort, manpower, and ammunition. Problems of that nature were eventually remedied using multiple ships, but that did not develop until WWII (Abbatiello, 2005).

Even though WWI did not have good sonar, it did have rudimentary options that led to the development of much better choices for WWII and up to the present day. That is worth considering, because it had to start somewhere and would have been far less successful in WWII if the groundwork for it had not been laid in WWI by the French and British. Between WWI and WWII, developments continued to occur, but at a slower pace. Without a war taking place, there was no sense of urgency to the development of technology. As it became clear that WWII was inevitable, however, countries began working on sonar and other devices in earnest once again, in order to be prepared.

Case Two: World War II

World War II was far different from WWI in the sonar abilities that were available, how they were used, and what they provided to the countries who were involved in the war (Adamthwaite, 1992). For example, the problem of the vessel needing to fire blindly where depth-charges were concerned was solved. There are two issues that allowed for this. One was the coordination of multiple ships so where the target submarine was could always be determined (Lightbody, 2004). The other was the development and use of weapons that could be launched at a target ahead of the vessel instead of only directly underneath it (Lightbody, 2004). These two options changed many things for the countries that developed and used them, but the continued development and improvement of sonar was still very vital to the war efforts. As WWII began, the British gave the United States free use of their sonar technology, which at that time was called ASDIC (Barber & Harrison, 2006). Both the UK and the U.S. started researching what else could be done with the technology and how it could be further developed in order to be more valuable.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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