BOOK REVIEW – Australian Submarines: A History

The following review appears courtesy of the Australian Naval Institute (ANI). It originally appeared 1 May 2016 in the review section of its online journal HERE.

Michael White, Australian Submarines: A History, Second edition. St Kilda West: Australian Teachers of Media, 2015. 1810 pp. (two volumes, includes bibliography, index and 22 Appendices).

Review by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
Australian Naval Institute

Michael White’s new 2nd edition of ‘Australian Submarines: A History’ bears only a passing resemblance to the more concise 1st edition of 1992. The 2015 version is a work of massive proportion that represents the lifelong research of its main author and the support of at least four other primary researchers who have exceptional knowledge of Australian submarine operations. It is an outstanding sourcebook of pertinent information written for Australian submariners by Australian submariners.

Some 1575 pages of text (including appendices) describe the acquisition and deployment of submarines by the Royal Australian Navy from the early Government debates in 1910 through to the lead up to the next generation submarine procurement activities of 2014. The book describes the many classes of submarine that have been in operation and lists many of the people who have served in them up to 2014. The second volume, which is essentially a volume of Appendices, includes detailed information on the men and machines from earliest times right up to 2014. Much of this information is not available anywhere else and could be useful as a source for future work. The Appendices were assembled from a number of different researchers and often appear to have come from a variety of electronic databases, regrettably there has been little effort (if any) to edit or otherwise standardize the entries while there is also no clear key to the acronyms and abbreviations.

Some of the operational narratives are exceptional stories although the author’s writing style is somewhat terse. The work of AE2 in the Dardanelles, although well known, is well worth repeating. The unlucky K9 is an interesting story of endurance despite the obstacles, and the remarkable bravery of the X-Craft men is a story of courage and professionalism which should inspire many of today’s crews. The less glorious but sustained bravery of the Oberon class submarine crews during Cold War operations are almost unknown in the Australian context. In recent years a number of US and British publications have described in detail Cold War submarine operations, however Michael White appears to have been severely restricted by others in what he could publish on such activities undertaken by Australian submariners during the Cold War. This is a little disappointing.

It has been a very interesting last 100 years or so – one which was either running red hot or stone cold. In fact the inability of the Australian nation to sustain its submarines over this time, despite the clear defense and naval requirement for them, is one topic that is worthy of further analysis. Indeed one might suggest that the greatest shortcoming of White’s volumes is that they are exceedingly light on historical interpretation and analysis. Often, within Australian Submarines, information is presented as factual when further historical analysis, from a wider perspective, would have revealed alternative explanations and possible worthwhile lessons of great value to the submarine and Australia’s defense community. Thus Australian Submarines: A History is somewhat misnamed as the lack of historical vigor has left this book exposed to the many myths that form part of the common narrative of Australian submariners. In my opinion, it is high time for the submarine myths to be exposed and overturned. Only then will we be able to learn from our past.

As an example the myth that non-submariners within the Australian Navy actively conspired to resist the introduction (or reintroduction) of submarines continues to resonate even today. Prior to 1907, when (then) Captain W.R. Creswell stated that submarines were ‘inadequate and inapplicable to the requirements of the Australian Defence Force’, he was very much correct. At that time the existing coastal submarine technology did limited their usefulness and it was not until the first six months of World War I that the full offensive capabilities of seagoing submarines was revealed. Later, and throughout much of the 20th Century the apparent reluctance to invest in an Australian submarine capability exhibited by non-submariners had more to do with how best to balance the nation’s naval and defense requirements within severely capped financial constraints. It is clear that whenever Defence spending permitted there was never any reluctance to developing and maintaining a limited force of Australian submarines.

This leads to another point suitable for further analysis which is only glossed over in ‘Australia’s Submarines’. It would be fair to say that, despite considerable effort and policy advice, Australia has tended to purchase a submarine fleet rather than invest in a navy (that included submarines). Let us consider the Australian Oberon Class submarines as an example as it was one of the success stories of our submarine history. The initial purchase of four ‘O’ Boats for Australia was as part of the British design and build program. Essentially the submarines were operated by the RAN (as part of the Australian submarine fleet) but the in-service design, maintenance and logistic support remains with the British – the RN were the lead for all ‘O’ Class submarines whether they were operated by British, Chileans or Australians. This class based support system had changed significantly by the 1980s. As the British submarine support offices focused more upon their nuclear submarines and as the Australian submarines independently went through a SWUP (submarines weapons update program), it became increasingly clear that the RAN had to manage its (now six) submarine fleet. It had to assume class ownership of what was called HMA Oberon Class Submarines. This involved a large team of Australians – civilian and uniformed submarine specialists – working in design, maintenance and logistic support. This in-house RAN submarine centre of excellence was involved in the initial and detailed evaluation of what was to become the future Collins Class submarines. Unfortunately this “Navy” component was slowly wiped out during the Departmental cost cutting measures of the late 1980s and early 1990s, while today nothing equivalent has survived whether in-house or contracted.

So what? The implications of not learning from the past is that we are forced to relive it. Let’s hope that SEA1000 the Future Submarine project does not have to.

Australian Submarines: A History will look good on every keen submarine officer’s office bookshelf. It may even be useful for generating good stories, individual submariner names, or operational trivia about the Australian Submarine Service. When you retire it will make a good doorstop.

(Return to August 2016 Table of Contents)

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