Cold War Command – Review

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£11.17 Kindle    £21.99 Hardback

Hot on the heels of the excellent “Hunter Killers” (2013) comes “Cold War Command” also published by Pen & Sword. Both books describe the operations of RN submarines during the same intense period from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War. While Hunter killers covers the activities of a variety of submariners, this book is a biography of Captain Dan Conley who had a diverse and interesting career. The book provides another fascinating and imitate look at RN submarine operations at the cutting edge of the undersea war against the Soviets. A fine blend of technical analysis mixed with personal anecdotes, there is plenty of high drama and moments of humour.

Conley’s analytical mind is questions many aspects of RN policy and procurement. While professionalism, stoic service and bravery of submariners is plain for all to see, struggles with equipment failures and battle with inefficient shipyards and dockyards is also a constant theme. Starting out as a young officer in 1963, his first seagoing appointment was to the Far East in obsolete destroyer HMS Cambrian. Briefly going to sea in submarine convinced Conley that he would find a more professionally satisfying career beneath the waves where standards and mindset appeared far shaper than in much of the surface fleet.

Serving initially in conventional submarines HMS Odin, Sealion and Oberon, Conley gained in confidence and skill. His first nuclear submarine experience was aboard the brand new first-of-class HMS Swiftsure and he describes the demanding trials to discover what she was capable of. Passing the ‘Persisher’ submarine command course opened the door to a long career in submarines. His first command was HMS Otter and her “high-spirited” crew.

Conley was involved in the trails and testing of the Tigerfish torpedo. This sophisticated wire-guided weapon was supposed to replace obsolete straight-running WWII vintage torpedoes and be effective against Soviet submarines. Unfortunately Tigerfish was very unreliable and the moribund British industry of the 1970s, together with a complacent MoD took more than a decade to make Tigerfish anything like reliable. It is amazing to consider that despite enormous investment, superb submarines and well-trained people, if it had come to a shooting war RN submarines would have been almost toothless equipped with duff torpedoes. History repeated itself when the Spearfish torpedo (Tigerfish replacement and now the RN’s only heavyweight torpedo) entered the fleet in the late 1980s was not made fully reliable until the late 1990s.

Conley also spent sometime in an exchange posting with the US Navy where he helped develop submarine tracking tactics and the use of towed array sonars. His service in nuclear submarines included XO of HMS Spartan, bringing her out of build and eventually commanding HMS Courageous and HMS Valiant. Valiant was an older submarine and difficult to maintain. A very challenging ship for her engineers to keep running, nick-named “Black pig”, she still managed major successes in tracking Soviet submarines.

Conley had the fortune to serve during the period when the RN submarine force was at its peak, by 1989 there were 20 nuclear submarines, 12 conventional submarines plus the new Trident and Upholder class submarines under construction. The end of the cold War together with cracking discovered in the reactors of HMS Warspite, led to the premature decommissioning of Warspite, Valiant, Churchill, Courageous and Conqueror. They were never replaced and the steep decline in the RN submarine force leaves us today with just 7 attack submarines and 4 Trident submarines. Conley helped oversee aspects of the construction of the Upholder class which had significant design deficiencies and were decommissioned almost as soon as they entered service. Sold to the Canadian navy, it has taken more than a decade to make them operationally useful.

Conley served for a while in the MoD ‘madhouse’ in London working on the highly sensitive issues of targeting of nuclear weapons. Within the MoD he observed a dysfunctional organisation and a civil service with little incentive to ensure what they delivered was cost-effective in the long-term or in the best interests of those in the front line.

His final job was working with the UK Hydrographic office. Despite enthusiasm across the Navy for adoption of the relatively cheap digital chart system, MoD Civil Servants blocked their purchase insisting the navy must continue to make do with paper charts. In Conley’s view, if equipped with digital charts the grounding of HMS Nottingham off Australia in 2002 (£30M repair bill) as well as HMS Astute’s navigational mishap in 2010 could have been avoided. (The RN has now fully adopted the WECDIS digital chart system).

Richard Woodman has crafted Conley’s tale into an easy and exciting read. Cold War Command comes highly recommended.

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£11.17 Kindle    £21.99 Hardback