BOOK REVIEW – The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945

Peter Hennessy and James Jinks, The Silent Deep. The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945. London: Allen Lane, 2015. xxxvii + 823 pp.

Review by Sarandis Papadopoulos, Ph.D.
Arlington, Virginia

Submarines are the most beguiling aspect of the maritime Cold War. At the cutting edge of innovation throughout the conflict, they received nuclear power and nuclear weapons, advanced sonar, cruise missiles, as well as pioneering navigation and communication systems. To captivate us further, these undersea craft also practiced intelligence collection and specialized tactics, even under the Arctic’s ice cap. But with notable exceptions, we mostly know post-1945 submarines through popular culture, especially from films, wargames and paperback fiction. In scholarly terms they are the least well known part of the Cold War at sea, largely concealed by a cloak of classified information. With The Silent Deep, historians Peter Hennessy and James Jinks have dramatically filled a void in the literature, answering many questions of how the Royal Navy (RN) conceived, built and used submarines during the 70 years since the end of World War II.

The work opens with a minute-by-minute account of a 2012 “Perisher” training course of four prospective RN submarine captains. Witnessed by Hennessy and Jinks and gripping in tone, it demonstrates the roots of the service’s core concept, stemming from the commander of the boat and his (until now) calculated aggressiveness under stress. The engineering challenges of a nuclear submarine, even a ballistic missile vessel, take a definitive back seat to leading crews under all circumstances and when needed to fight their boats. Such performance is what matters both to the British service and this narrative. The link makes sense, reflecting the book’s interviews with over four dozen RN officers, several of them retired First Sea Lords or Flag Officers, Submarines (the branch’s senior officer), all of whom appeared on the record. One suspects the wider navy’s reluctance to accept some of the technical changes posed by undersea developments and force structure choices (55, 234, 245) have been answered by the submarine branch’s continual embrace of leadership as its primary tenet.

Design and building of three classes of fast attack nuclear submarines, three ballistic-missile types and four Diesel classes takes up much of The Silent Deep. That portion in part reflects Jinks’s doctoral dissertation work on the Polaris missile system, with Hennessy as supervisor at the University of London. Crucial to the RN nuclear propulsion and missile programs was U.S. Navy help, which the authors depict as “a fantastic bargain” for Britain. (222) The arrangement was brokered by two navy chiefs, Admirals Lord Louis Mountbatten and Arleigh Burke, and eventually ratified in 1962 for Polaris in Nassau by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and President John F. Kennedy. Despite his initial reluctance the exchange was managed by Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover, USN, head of Naval Reactors, allowing the British to profit from American investments, and mistakes, at relatively low cost.

For over 50 years these and succeeding nuclear decisions have been subject to British domestic politics. Since 1968 the United Kingdom’s strategic deterrent has been solely submarine based, and the nation’s Labour Party has often resolved to abolish the mission. For Hennessy and Jinks that outcome is undesirable, even though the expense of investing in a submarine nuclear deterrent has reshaped the entire fleet. (216, 495) To date the deterrent has remained, but the authors suggest that if a British government gave up the capability, or skipped regular replacement of it every generation, the country would never restart the role. The force also remains dependent upon American support, but that nation also benefits from helping a complementary allied program, as the RN is about to start replacing its Trident boats before the USN does.

By 1982 the RN specialty lay in anti-submarine warfare, a role largely taken in a NATO context. When the service’s undersea arm had to complement the British campaign to retake the Falkland Islands, the changed contest became clear. Crews of four nuclear boats, headed south and shifted gears to breaking Argentina’s anti-access/area-denial effort, as we would today term it. Their direction remained centralized in Britain, however, which the overall task force commander, Vice Admiral Sandy Woodward (a submariner too), did not at first know. (412) Woodward’s request to change the rules of engagement for HMS Conqueror to torpedo and sink the cruiser ARA General Belgrano therefore needed approval by a committee chaired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself. (419) Current-day sailors should read this explanation of history’s most-recent naval war, for the Falklands probably anticipates most challenges they will face in a future conflict.

Where The Silent War is most captivating is in its chapters on hunting for Soviet and now Russian submarines. Throughout the work, lengthy trails of opponents and contesting the ocean with them proved the ultimate test of submariner mettle, at times becoming harrowing. As part of a concept seeking to deter the Cold War Soviet Navy, the RN and its USN counterparts admirably succeeded: Allied submariners’ professionalism won the peacetime subsurface contest. Tactically, Hennessy and Jinks also demonstrate much in The Silent Deep, for one can count no fewer than 12 trail actions by RN submariners here, partly revealing their tactics during missions which lasted for months. That the much larger US Navy has chosen to declassify just two of its lengthy trail missions of Soviet submarines seems meager in comparison.

This reviewer found almost no errors, with little detail omitted. At times, its lengthy quotations sometimes interrupt the narrative too much. The large book’s binding seemed lighter in weight than warranted, as my copy wore out from just one reading. Perhaps the sole spot needing exposition by Hennessy and Jinks relates to the RN’s last conventional submarines, the four Upholder-class Diesel boats built in the 1980s and ultimately sold to Canada in 1998. Despite reliably citing accidents and technical flaws elsewhere, on this class The Silent Deep largely affirms its title, noting building delays and torpedo-tube problems from before 1994, when they left RN service (539, 584). Unresolved design problems, or what happened when Vickers Shipbuilding (now BAE) preserved the decommissioned boats before their sale, do not appear in the book. Canadian readers, many of whom now despairingly view the four Victoria-class craft as British-made lemons, prone to flaws and pricey to maintain, will not find out here what went wrong.

To complain more would be unfair. The Royal Navy submarine force has its much- needed recent history clearly, professionally and compellingly told in The Silent Deep. Hennessy and Jinks have spoken to many participants or seen records other researchers have not reviewed, and read others still not generally available. With the tale taken into the 21st century, it will be a long while before readers will need to search for another general work on RN submariners and their boats. In that light and at the risk of being provocative, students of the U.S. Navy submarine force might well ask, “well, where’s ours?”

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