A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War

Respected naval author Iain Ballantyne recently published Hunter Killers telling the incredible, true story of the Royal Navy ‘s submarines confronting the Soviet Union. 

Hunter Killers – reviewed

Hunter Killers
The story starts in the aftermath of WWII when the RN was applying lessons from captured  German submarine technology, pushing to give diesel submarines (SSKs) greater underwater speed and endurance. Meanwhile the, then backward, Soviet navy was embarking on a race to become a naval giant which would see it fielding a vast and fearsome array of submarines by the mid-1980s. The author neatly paints in the political and historical backdrop to operations without hampering the flow of the submarine stories which will keep you gripped. While the world was often focused on the superpower space race, a more exciting, secret and ultimately more consequential duel was being fought in inner space. As submarine-launched nuclear weapons proliferated during the 1960s, NATO forces aimed to track and record as many Soviet submarines as possible. The Soviets built ever-increasing numbers and varieties of ballistic missile (SSBN) and attack subs (SSNs). The RN and even the US could not hope to match the sheer quantity but were far ahead in technology and in particular, the quality of the crews. The technological edge was largely maintained until undermined by the 1980s through the work of naval spy rings in the UK and the US. Also weaved into the narrative is the development of the RN’s submarines. From the first nuclear powered HMS Dreadnought, followed by the Valiants, Churchills and the world-beating Swiftsures. Also the very efficient Polaris programme to get the UK nuclear deterrent to sea and a glimpse of the wide-ranging operations of the diesel Oberon class are covered.

Although the books They Come Unseen and the US equivalent, Blind Man’s Buff gave fascinating glimpses into this world of undersea duelling, being published more than a decade earlier, they lack the level of detail Hunter Killers reveals. The book is mainly based on the tales of a few key RN submarine commanders who talk candidly about their experiences for the first time. What is clear is that for most of the Cold War period RN submariners were effectively operating on a war footing, on occasions taking extreme risks in getting close to other submarines, operating in the Barents Sea and penetrating Soviet waters. The book details many amazing operations some of which were supreme triumphs as well as some near disasters. The collision of HMS Warspite with a Soviet submarine (1968) rolled her over to 65° and traumatised many of the crew. HMS Sceptre sustained severe damage in another collision (1981) which ripped off her forward casing and part of the fin. For all the publicity around RN submarines operations in the Falklands War, most submariners regard their exploits in Northern waters as more daring, demanding and rewarding.

Make no mistake, the constant pressure on the Soviet navy from the RN and USN not only acted as an ongoing deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons but helped win the Cold War. The intelligence gathered was invaluable in keeping NATO ready to strike back in the event of Soviet aggression. The Soviet response to Western superiority was to try to out-spend them, ultimately bankrupting and hastening the collapse of the Communist bloc. The book concludes fittingly with specialist intelligence-gathering Frigate HMS London, commanded by a submariner entering Murmansk for a friendship visit with the old foe at the end of the Cold War. The author was aboard and witnessed the ship having to take avoiding action to dodge a ‘friendly’ practice torpedo fired at the ship by a Russian sub! This book is a ‘must-read’ for naval enthusiasts and historians, it will probably become required reading even for serving personnel. There is no better book on the submarine aspects of the Cold War.

Paperback, £7.99

Kindle Version, £9.99

Precious few hunter killers in the 21st Century

As has historically has so often been the case, victory was the reward for the Royal Navy’s dedication and sacrifice in the Cold War. With scant gratitude or foresight, politicians in the early 1990s, foolishly thinking that the era of conflict was over, started slashing defence spending. This foolishness has continued pretty much until the present day and the RN submarine force has declined proportionally, losing all its SSKs and now down to around just 7 SSNs. (See previous post for more on this sorry tale). Today the RN’s attack submarine force has its hands full with a wide variety of tasks. Its primary job of escorting and protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent carried aboard the SSBNs ensuring they are not trailed by other subs remains. On top of that, the advent of the submarine-launched Tomahawk missile means the UK tries to keep at least one boat East of Suez ready to launch Tomahawks and this commitment is a big stretch. There are many other very useful tasks that RN subs undertake on a daily basis – gathering intelligence on potential foes (and probably allies too), listening to communications, photographing coastal installations and providing information back to the UK on criminal, terrorist, and military activity. While they may not have to take quite the risks they did against Soviet submarines, tracking and recording the unique acoustic signatures of other submarines and warships helps maintain a data library vital to a submarine operations. In the event of a future naval conflict it is likely submarines will pose by far the greatest threat to the vulnerable merchant ships that the UK is so dependent upon. The Cold War may appear to be over but Putin is determined to restore superpower status to Russia and is building new generations of SSNs and SSBNs. At a time when many nations across the world are investing in greater numbers of new submarines, particularly quiet SSKs, the case for building more than the 7 Astute class submarines planned, or even some conventional submarines, is stronger than ever. Meanwhile the RN does what it has always done and make the best of its very limited resources. A sign of the RN’s professionalism is that despite constant dangers, calculated risks and daring operations, the RN has not lost a submarine at sea since HMS Affray in 1951. Furthermore it is an incredible achievement that no Royal Navy SSBN has ever been detected since patrols began in 1968.

No shortcuts…

As a footnote to the amazing story of the RN’s Cold War efforts, every single one of its retired nuclear submarines remain intact today. Currently there are 7 decaying hulks in Rosyth and a further 8 in Devonport with more decommissioned T class subs coming soon. The MoD has been dismally slow to dispose of these vessels, which have been hanging around far too long and pose a small risk of radiation leaks. A plan to dismantle them in both locations looks to be inching slowly forward. On top of a string of reports of minor failures on nuclear safety in recent years, an electrical failure at Devonport in 2012 created a serious risk of a nuclear incident with reactors deprived of coolant supplies. This kind of  incompetence and negligence puts lives at risk and gives CND, the Greens etc a field day to undermine our nations defence. This must be a top priority for the MoD and its contractors. There can be no shortcuts, no economies and no excuses on nuclear safety of RN submarines and their supporting infrastructure.