The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 
by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks.
Allen Lane, 823 pp., £12.99, June 2016, 978 1 84614 580 3
Show More
Show More

Warships​ are built for war, but not only for war. They have always had an eloquent symbolic value as expressions of power, wealth and resolve, as instruments of threat or reassurance. They speak this language in peacetime just as much as in war. But ‘language’ should really be in the plural. Different kinds of warship convey different meanings, in different languages, and the languages are not easy to translate. This applies to all warships, but especially to submarines. The range of ideas and associations linked with German submarines, for example, in the period of the two world wars and since, were not the same inside Germany as outside. For many episodes of Anglo-German submarine history there are at least three versions of the narrative: the British, the German and what actually happened.

During the Second World War, the British officially described all enemy submarines as ‘U-boats’, regardless of nationality, so that they would all be tainted by the sinister connotations of the German word, and so that the public would not confuse their activities with the heroic campaigns of British and allied submariners. Today, most books in English on the First World War still describe Germany’s adoption of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ as the critical point of the naval war, but what they imagine to have taken place bears only a slight resemblance to the reality. ‘Unrestricted submarine war’ implies the rejection of legal restraints that did not exist, for international law as yet had taken almost no note of the existence of submarines. The German submarine force was divided into different commands that followed different policies and operated different types of boat, but most of them were occupied with stopping cargo ships on the surface in daylight in coastal waters, then allowing the crews to escape in their boats before sinking the ships by shellfire or scuttling charges. This was a highly efficient form of attack involving minimal loss of life. In August 1916 Lieutenant Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, the captain of U-35, returned to his base having sunk 54 ships, still the record for the single most destructive submarine patrol in history. The quayside was black with cheering crowds, ‘and yet,’ he commented, ‘so far we had scarcely had any adventures. It was all rather humdrum. We would stop the ship, order the crew into the boats, check the ship’s papers, give the crew a course to the nearest land and sink the prize.’

This practice was economical and brilliantly successful, but German senior officers were not cheering. It was hateful to German admirals, and even more to generals, because to them it looked like a concession to civilian values that would ruin Germany’s reputation for Abschreckung (‘frightfulness’ or terror). They wanted the U-boats to torpedo passenger liners, which was difficult to achieve and had limited military value, because the mass slaughter of civilians, they believed, would frighten enemies into surrendering and drive neutrals into port. So they ordered the reluctant submariners to abandon surface attacks in favour of the more murderous, but much less effective, submerged attack. The German submariners knew (as did the British) that the economic blockade was Germany’s most effective weapon. But economic blockade was an alien concept to German senior officers, and had little to do with victory as they understood it: they weren’t fighting to win so much as to assert the social values of the German military and claim their rightful status in the command of society. In the final weeks of the war, the German admirals deliberately tried to provoke a fleet battle so that they could be defeated in a suitably Wagnerian style. This, in their view, would establish the moral superiority on which a future High Seas Fleet could be founded. The sailors vetoed this tactic, but in the postwar years German naval officers, in their pursuit of the same objective by different means, contributed powerfully to the creation of what became the Nazi party. The inscription on the 1923 naval officers’ war memorial at Mürwik read: ‘Nicht klagen, noch einmal wagen’ (‘Grieve not, but try again’).

In the 1930s, the German navy prepared to try again with a new submarine division, but the British continued to misunderstand its intentions. They knew how dangerous a weapon the U-boat had proved to be, and took it for granted that Germany would use it again. The Admiralty worked hard on anti-submarine weapons and tactics, and prepared to build a large class of anti-submarine vessels called ‘corvettes’. But there was a puzzling discrepancy between what they expected and what they observed. MI6 had an agent in the German submarine design bureau, but his reports did not confirm the large-scale U-boat building programme that the Admiralty ‘knew’ must be taking place. Popular authors can still be found writing about this building programme, and the mass U-boat attack of 1939-40, yet both are wholly imaginary. Germany went to war in September 1939 with 26 sea-going U-boats, and 18 months later the number was down to 22, more having been sunk than built. There was no mass U-boat building programme until much later in the war, because Hitler and his entourage had other priorities, and because until 1943 the German navy was still led by men for whom only battleships represented the kind of fleet, and the kind of Germany, they sought. Symbolic value was much more important to them than military effectiveness. Captain Karl Dönitz, who was appointed to command the U-boat flotilla in 1935, was chosen as an ardent Nazi rather than an expert submariner. He insisted on a U-boat design from 1918 that was too small for the open sea, and would not change his policy even after the fall of France. In late 1943, when the battle of the Atlantic was already lost, Germany finally adopted a modern long-range U-boat design, the Type XXI, but its construction fell into the hands of Albert Speer, who transformed it into another of his political-industrial propaganda shows. Speer and his thrusting young managers, alive with the Nazi spirit and ‘working towards the Führer’, would show the stuffy old shipbuilders how to do it. He convinced Hitler – perhaps he even convinced himself – but in fact his bogus prefabrication scheme wrecked the submarine programme so comprehensively that the first of the new boats didn’t set sail on its first war patrol until 30 April 1945, almost 12 months after the planned date, and three days before the European war ended.

Both the Russians and the Western allies captured the new German submarine technology, and in the 1950s and 1960s the US, Russian and British navies swelled with fleets of modern submarines, all bearing a family resemblance to the Type XXI. By the mid-1950s the Russians were building more than fifty a year, and by the early 1960s they had 427 in service. The British realised that these Russian submarines could cut the transatlantic supply routes on which the survival of Nato, and Britain in particular, would depend. Once again a battle of the Atlantic would determine Britain’s fate. Meanwhile, the US Navy, which had never taken much interest in anti-submarine work, was urging Nato to abandon convoys altogether, since Russian submarine-launched missiles would make both merchant ships and surface warships dangerously vulnerable. (John Nott, for one, was persuaded.) The Americans assumed that the Russians were aiming for a great fleet battle – what other purpose could a large navy have? – but a battle fought largely by submarines and aircraft. Only later did it become clear that the Russians had never been very interested in a convoy war, or in justifying the US Navy’s faith in Alfred T. Mahan, whose The Influence of Sea Power upon History was published in 1890. For the Russians, the missile-armed submarines were the homeland’s last line of defence, and the rest of the submarine fleet was there to defend the missile boats.

The U-boat threat is what kept British policy-makers awake at night, but different kinds of submarine posed different kinds of threat in Russian and American nightmares. Moreover, Russian plans to deploy their submarine fleet in the North Atlantic changed drastically around the end of the 1970s. Until then, it seems, the Russian submariners hadn’t realised how vulnerable their noisy nuclear submarines were to interception, or how regularly they were tracked on their patrols by American or British boats. The Walker spy ring, which for almost twenty years (1967-85) betrayed the US Navy’s (and the Royal Navy’s) submarine secrets and revealed the contents of more than a million signals, showed the Russians how far behind they were. This led to a massive effort to make up the technological gap, and a sharp withdrawal of Russian submarines into defensive ‘bastions’ in home waters under the ice.

In The Silent Deep, Peter Hennessy and James Jinks recount the history of the Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945. Naval history as such is a new departure for Hennessy, but in his extensive writings on politics and society, nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and intelligence and state secrets, he has already shown himself to be an expert on much of this story. That is another way of saying that the Submarine Service is bound up with many of the most important themes of postwar British history. Its importance has not often been examined by other historians, and never with such elegance and authority. The Royal Navy, once known as the ‘Silent Service’, has frequently talked too loudly for its own good, but the submariners really were discreet, and nowadays are more so than ever. Much of this history will be little known even to the well-informed. The Silent Deep is not an official history, with the characteristic reticence and blandness of the genre; it is an unofficial history written with all the candour and judgment Hennessy is master of, supported by a great deal of friendly help from current and retired submariners. Until late in the book, its references are mainly to sources in the public domain, and it runs almost to the present day with decreasing detail but surprisingly little of the judicious vagueness that such circumstances encourage. The book integrates high policy and low politics, and the internal life and personalities of the Royal Navy with the affairs of the nation. It gives an evocative account of life aboard submarines, and the human cost of very long submerged patrols.

In wartime, the British economy became a highly specialised machine, largely devoted to the armed services and the production of weapons, while the US supplied the requirements of the civilian economy. The abrupt withdrawal of Lend-Lease in 1945 did damage to the British economy from which some would say it has never recovered. The British population, well fed throughout the war, now suffered owing to rationing so reduced that in the late 1940s schoolchildren began to display signs of serious malnutrition. With the McMahon Act of 1946 the US confiscated the joint US, British and Canadian atomic programme and ejected its allies from the joint establishments, almost all of which were on US soil. For at least the next ten years, up to and including the Suez Crisis, the Anglo-American relationship viewed from Whitehall was one of betrayal and exploitation. The Royal Navy was still large, but most of the ships were of prewar design and worn out. For submariners there was a prospect, at once enticing and alarming, of building the first true submarines, capable of maintaining high speeds for long periods underwater. The classic submarine’s short range and slow speed underwater had made it little more than a ‘locomotive mine’ that had to wait for targets to approach before it could attack. The Type XXI and its progeny had already doubled underwater speed and range with conventional engines, and two revolutionary new technologies were now available: ‘high-test peroxide’ (HTP) and nuclear power. HTP had been developed by the German engineer Hellmuth Walter during the war. Hydrogen peroxide is, in effect, a very powerful and unstable liquid explosive that detonates on contact with nearly all known materials except glass. This exceedingly expensive and dangerous fuel had only one overwhelming attraction: it requires no external source of air, and a given quantity contains 35 times as much energy as a battery of the same weight. The British wasted several years trying to make it work, and only abandoned it after the explosion of an HTP torpedo sank the submarine Sidon in 1955. (The Russians persisted: it was an HTP torpedo that sank the Kursk in 2000.) Meanwhile, the British nuclear establishment was concentrating on the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor, and was reluctant to go back to the relatively primitive technology of the Pressurised Water Reactor, which the Americans had established as the only suitable type for a submarine.

In 1957 the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, exercised with the Royal Navy, demonstrating clearly that the Royal Navy would have to give up serious submarine or anti-submarine warfare unless it could enter the nuclear age. The launch that year of both the Sputnik and the first Russian nuclear submarine persuaded the Americans that they too were seriously behind, and encouraged Eisenhower to get the McMahon Act modified in Britain’s favour. Britain was now in a position to profit from the help of the US Navy, but not without surmounting some formidable difficulties. Hyman G. Rickover was a brilliant engineer who became an admiral and gained control of the US naval reactor programme, having enjoyed enough Congressional support to overcome the US Navy’s deep hostility to Jews. He was possibly the most hated officer in the US Navy, and certainly the most aggressive and unreasonable. He refused to have any contact with the designer of the first British nuclear submarine, the Dreadnought, though in his friendlier moments he was prepared to speak with Mountbatten, the prime minister and the queen. To forge an alliance with him, without losing the friendship of anyone else in the US Navy, required superhuman tact and forbearance. But it paid off: a US reactor design got the Dreadnought to sea in 1959, at least two years earlier than would otherwise have been possible. Working with it also gave British engineers the experience they needed to produce the first entirely British-designed nuclear submarine, the Valiant.

In 1960, the cancellation of the British ballistic missile Blue Streak provoked another crisis. Britain decided to buy the American air-launched missile Skybolt instead, but it had technical trouble too, and in December 1962 it was cancelled. Many in Kennedy’s administration welcomed the opportunity to force Britain out of the nuclear club, and the 1962 Nassau negotiations between Kennedy and Macmillan were very tense, but in the end the US agreed to allow Britain to buy the submarine-launched Polaris missile. The Fleet Air Arm was almost as unhappy as the RAF, the US Navy wasn’t consulted at all, and the Royal Navy had to design and build a new class of missile submarines, to a very tight timetable, based on the design of the as-yet unfinished Valiant. The end result was both a technical and a political triumph. In October 1964 Labour won the general election with a majority of four seats. Harold Wilson told the cabinet that it was too late to cancel the Polaris programme – though it wasn’t – and carried his point. Two years later, the fleet carriers were scrapped by the defence review. Then the crisis following the devaluation of sterling in 1967 forced Denis Healey, the defence minister, into a choice between Polaris or the RAF’s new F-111 aircraft. He cancelled the bomber. From 1968 the British nuclear deterrent depended on submarines.

At the same time, unknown to the public, British and US submarines were monitoring their Russian counterparts, participating in their exercises uninvited and usually unobserved, quietly trailing and watching them closely until they reached their bases. By the 1980s there were many Russian submarines in the North Atlantic. In one patrol in 1981 Superb encountered 12 of them in 26 days, as well as a group of surface warships. The sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands campaign, though it generated so much media attention, was not the kind of work submarines usually performed. Hennessy and Jinks reveal, however, that it did much to reinforce deterrence. In 1982 the Soviet leadership were confident that Nato no longer had the resolution to stand up to an aggressor. They were sure (as the US Navy was) that Britain would not fight Argentina and that it couldn’t win if it did. The outcome of the war was a severe shock to Moscow. The Polaris submarines didn’t finally wear out until the 1990s, but the US had long come to see the deterrent advantage of presenting an enemy with independent decision-making centres; President Carter had agreed with Callaghan as early as 1979 that Britain should be allowed to share in Trident.

Today the Russian submarine force receives the bulk of Putin’s new money, and after a long interval it is building new classes of attack and missile submarines. For the first time the US Navy is having to rely on older, outdated submarines. The British have a lot of experience in this, which is why the US Navy has removed the restrictions on sharing technical information first imposed by Admiral Rickover. Financially, industrially and technically, maintaining a nuclear submarine force is extremely demanding. It is likely to remain controversial politically, and the fact that it has survived so many government crises does not mean that it always will.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences