Monday 9 May 2016

Book Review: The Silent Deep - The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945

The Silent Deep (Author's image)

As regular readers know by now, this blog is usually strictly devoted to events during the wartime years of 1939-45, so this particular article is going to break new ground as it deals with much more recent history including the Cold War and the Falklands Conflict amongst others. I've decided to break with precedent as the book in question is such an important and interesting piece of work about a group of men for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration - the men of the Royal Navy Submarine Service, or RNSS to use one of the many acronyms that appear in the book.

The Submarine Service is traditionally known as "The Silent Service", such is it's aversion to self-publicity. Indeed to this day, the standard response to any questions made through official channels is that "The Ministry of Defence does not comment upon submarine operations."

Peter Hennessy, one of our most respected historians and James Jinks, also an accomplished historian and former PhD student under Hennessy, have compiled an authoritative and well-reserched history of the post-war Submarine Service, in which they not only examine the men who commanded and manned the submarines but also look at the vessels themselves, the rationale behind the various policy decisions such as the procurement of Polaris and Trident, as well as describing in compelling detail some of the Cold War exploits of the submarines and submariners, as well as the actions of the RNSS during the Falklands War, thus far and hopefully, the only time that a nuclear submarine has fired torpedoes in anger against an enemy maritime target.

The book opens with a description of the 'Perisher' , or as it is correctly described, the Submarine Command Course, a five month ordeal held twice yearly through which any potential Royal Navy submarine commander must pass. It is designed to replicate the relentless pressures piled upon a submarine captain and failure to pass the course means that the candidate's career aboard submarines is over. He will never again set foot aboard a Royal Navy submarine. Faced with the ruthlessness of the course, it is no surprise that the Navy's submarine captains are universally recognised as being the best in the business. The authors describe some of the goings on aboard HMS Tireless during the 'Private War' which forms part of the course and during which the aspiring commanders are put through their paces.

The course is so well respected that allied navies, including the US Navy frequently send their own top commanders to take part and indeed the late Tom Clancy, author of The Hunt for Red October once wrote that Royal Navy submarine commanders are feared, even by the US Navy. He explained thus:

"Note that I use the word 'fear.' Not just respect. Not just awe. But real fear at what a British submarine, with one of their superbly qualified captains at the helm, might be capable of doing."

From an American, praise indeed but as the authors explain in this book, it was another American, Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was largely responsible for the Royal Navy going along the nuclear submarine route in the first place.

In the years immediately following 1945, the Royal Navy made do with it's fleet of wartime submarines, the diesel powered 'T' and 'A' Class boats (submarines are always 'boats' within the Navy) and these old warriors, such as HMS Totem found themselves being modernised by a cash-starved Navy and adapted for Cold War intelligence gathering missions, including early forays into the Barents Sea and beneath the Artic ice, operations which pushed these boats and the crews to the very limit. These diesel powered boats were known as SSKs (Submarine Killers) as apart from their intelligence gathering duties, their wartime mission would be to shadow and 'take out' Soviet submarines. It was soon clear though that these ageing boats would be no match for the newer and faster Soviet nuclear submarines and that an alternatives method of propulsion was needed, as well as developing a new class of diesel powered submarines, the Porpoise Class, which began to appear in the mid 1950s.

At first the Navy demurred from taking the nuclear powered route, partially on grounds of cost and partly because of worries about the UK's capability of producing sufficent fissile materials to power submarines and meet the country's weapons requirements. Instead, the Ministry of Defence at first explored the possibility of using Hydrogen Peroxide, or HTP as a means of propulsion. This method was being actively explored by the Germans at the end of the war and indeed a captured U-Boat, renamed HMS Meteorite was used for tests. This was followed by two experimental submarines HMSs Explorer and Excalibur, which given the fearsome reputation for the highly unstable and extremely dangerous propellant, were quickly given the nicknames Exploder and Excruciator. The Navy's HTP experiment came to an abrupt end when an HTP powered torpedo aboard the submarine HMS Sidon exploded on 16 June 1955, causing the loss of the submarine as well as the deaths of twelve men as the boat sank in Portland Harbour.

Detail on the Royal Navy Submarine Memorial (Author's photo)

Following this disaster, the Royal Navy turned to their American allies for help in producing their own nuclear powered submarines, or SSNs to use another of the many acronyms in the book. Admiral Hyman Rickover was known as the 'Father of the Nuclear Submarine' and it was indeed largely down to his remarkable drive and single mindedness that the US navy had gotten the USS Nautilus into service in 1955, the same year that the Royal Navy finally abandoned their ill-fated HTP project. Rickover was rude, arrogant and an extremely unpleasant man to deal with but one who recognised the importance of encouraging the Royal Navy to join the 'Nuclear Club' and thus provided every assistance to them in achieving this aim, albeit sometimes a seemingly grudging assistance. However, he did form a close relationship with Lord Louis Mountbatten, at that point First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy. 

Rickover agreed to supply the British with an American reactor for the first Royal Navy submarine, named HMS Dreadnought, in order to give British industry a chance to catch up and perfect techniques of manufacture for their own reactor, which would go to sea in the second British SSN, HMS Valiant. Dreadnought, a hybrid British and American design with a 'British' fore end and an 'American' aft end, which contained the reactor, entered service in 1963. Despite some quirks, including a 'Checkpoint Charlie' sign that provided the demarcation point between British and American methods of working in the boat's two halves, Dreadnought proved to be a success and a quantum jump over any previous British submarine. Her appearance began a slow but steady stream of British SSNs coming into service which were able to take over the task of shadowing Soviet submarines and intelligence gathering, invariably in the Soviets' own backyard, the Barents Sea and Arctic Circle.

The book then concentrates on the Nuclear Deterrent, the acquisition of Polaris and the transfer of the UK's independent deterrent from the RAF to a new class of ballistic submarine, or SSBN and the establishment of what has been a continuous series of patrols beginning with that of HMS Resolution in 1968, which continues to this day with the Vanguard class and which is likely to continue into the 2050s with the so-called and as yet un-named Successor class boats (even a 17,500 tonne 'bomber' submarine is called a 'boat' in the Royal Navy!)

The authors tell of an amusing story describing the uncertaintly as to whether the incoming Labour government in 1964 would continue with the programme and a contingency design to convert the as yet unbuilt SSBNs into SSNs by using as much of the already procured materials as possible, thus averting waste. The nickname for this hastily redesigned submarine (and one which was never revealed to the new Prime Minister) was HMS Harold Wilson but it was a vessel which never sailed as the new government, largely driven by then Defence Secretary Denis Healey, decided to continue with the programme, albeit reduced from five boats to four, the minimum number that could safely constitute a continuous at sea deterrent.

The book continues to describe the design and entry into service of the next class of SSN, the Swiftsure class, followed by the Trafalgar class before going on to describe in some detail the submarine operations around the Falkland Islands in 1982, which culminated in the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano and the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to locate and sink the aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo.

The authors go on to describe subsequent submarine operations following the end of the Cold War, including actions against Libya, Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars before covering the latest class of SSN to enter service, the Astute class and gives some useful insight into the Successor SSBN programme.

The book closes where it began, aboard HMS Tireless and provides a quite moving description of the decommissioning ceremony of one of the Royal Navy's Cold War warriors and tells us something of the difficulties in disposing of nuclear submarines that have been taken out of service.

This volume is a truly magisterial piece of work and the casual reader should not be put off by what at first glance may appear to be a mass of diagrams, acronyms and naval jargon, for this book contains a great deal more than that and indeed a great deal more than my brief descriptions shown above. It tells the stories of the reasons behind the decision making, the ships and most importantly of the men - the submariners themselves. Truly a breed apart and a group of men to whom we should be profoundly grateful for helping to keep us safe over the past seventy years or so. I thoroughly commend this book to you.

The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 is written by Peter Hennessy & James Jinks and is published by Allen Lane in hardback at a price of £30.00