I’m finally writing a post about something that my friend James knows way more about than I do. (Be gentle, JY, if my facts go slightly off the rails here. This is your area of expertise, not mine.)
In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are tasked by the British government – or at least the manifestation of it that is Mycroft Holmes – to retrieve the stolen plans for a top secret submarine. Did you know, though, that at the time Doyle was creating the fictional version, the British government was working on an actual, real-life one?
(Okay, you may have known that already. I didn’t, though, and I find it pretty interesting. But, I’ve already demonstrated that I find very odd things interesting.)
The British Royal Navy began playing with submersible ships with the A-Class submarines which rolled out in 1902, but the idea of submerging a boat for tactical purposes dates back to the US Civil War and ships like the Confederate Navy’s H.L. Hunley. Early attempts had as many failures as successes – the Hunley sank off the coast of Charleston in February of 1864 with all eight of its crew; the A-Class subs tended to have issues with their petrol-based engines and every one of the 13 boats fell victim to some kind of fatal accident in their lifetimes. Failure just led to innovation: Britain rolled out the B, C, and D-Class in short order over the next decade, and finally unveiled the E-1, the first of the E-Class submarines, in November of 1912.
(Apropos of hardly any of my point: I need to remember to make use of the Hunley if I ever get back to things that aren’t Holmes adjacent.)
There is a lot of speculation that this submarine – or the rumored existence of it – inspired Doyle to have someone steal plans for a highly classified submarine in “The Bruce-Partington Plan.”
Nothing about the E-1 probably sounds all that revolutionary compared to modern submersible warships. It had a maximum recommended depth of only 100 feet, though some later models managed to hit the 200s. These weren’t exceptionally fast ships by our standards, either: surfaced, it could only manage around seventeen miles per hour; diving, it topped out around nine and a half. While it had four engines – two 800 horsrepower diesel-powered ones that did most of the heavy lifting above water and two six hundred horsepower electric ones for under water – it had a maximum range of somewhere around 3,500 nautical miles. Considering its predecessors were mainly stuck doing coastal missions, though, that was a monstrous leap in distance. For its time? The E-Class were some badass mothers.
E-Class subs performed admirably for Her Royal Highness’ Navy during World War I, primarily seeing battle in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Turkish theater, though some served – and then were scuttled – off the Russian coast. The Germans made wider, and more notorious, use of subs during the First World War, of course (does the Lusitania sound familiar?), but the rest of us weren’t far behind the curve there. World War II would see an increase in submarine warfare, as well as a broadening of its boundaries and its users, but those strategies began being tested more than twenty years earlier.
So, how much evidence is there that Doyle based the Bruce-Partington sub on the E-1? Well, there’s good old coincidence, and if Leroy Jethro Gibbs (random NCIS reference) has taught me nothing else, it’s that there’s probably no such thing as coincidence. Doyle published his fictionalized theft in 1908, just four years before the E-1 was launched and three years before construction began. The plans had to have been in existence by then. It’s not beyond possibility that Doyle heard about the ship’s future existence from one well-placed acquaintance or another and that it laid the groundwork for his imagination to run a bit amuck. Holmes and Watson had retrieved their fair share of national secrets by then, so giving them another opportunity to save the day and prevent nationwide scandal seems almost obvious.
This story also features one the cleverest bits of deduction I think Doyle ever wrote (and possibly the least possible plot point as well, though I’m not going to wait for a metro train to park outside my window so I can push a body out onto the roof and see if it’ll stay there), but I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil it for you (oops? Ignore the previous parenthetical). Needless to say, there’s a reason so many people enjoy this story, and why it made it into the number two slot on Doyle’s own list of his favorite Holmes and Watson adventures (he apparently made two of these lists in his lifetime, and “Bruce-Partington” made it onto the second one; it wasn’t written yet when he made his first).
If this all sounds familiar, and you’re only a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock,” this would be the case Mycroft keeps trying to give Sherlock but gets pushed off onto John repeatedly in that ever important subplot to “The Great Game.” That episode packed so many fantastic canon references in, it’s almost hard to keep track, but that one featured very prominently.
Now, let’s all sit back and see if James reads me up one side and down the other for my military knowledge/research, shall we?