The Deadly Trade – Book Review

£17.00 (Hardback)  £12.99 (Kindle)

5 years after the compeleting Hunter Killers which revealed exploits of Royal Navy submarines during the Cold War, respected naval author Iain Ballantyne has published The Deadly Trade. This epic 729-page tome is an ambitious attempt to chronicle the entire history of submarine warfare until the present day.

From the humble, even comical beginnings, submarines have evolved to become the most feared of vessels, some of which are the most destructive weapons ever created. The Deadly Trade takes us on the journey from submarines being the choice of the weak, the first asymmetric weapon for use against the great sea powers, to the present day when the ballistic missile submarine is the ultimate weapon owned only by the elite.

The little-known early history of submarine ideas and development is brought to life. The first faltering attempts were made at submarine construction during the American civil war but they were more of a danger to their crews than the enemy. Surprisingly the first viable submarine was invented by John Phillip Holland, an Irishman working in America and funded by Fenians intending to attack Royal Navy ships. The Fenian plan never succeeded but Holland continued his work and eventually provided the design for the RN’s first submarine, HMS Holland 1, commissioned in 1901.

World War 1 proved the submarine had come of age. Every surface ship was a target and early British attempts to counter submarines were haphazard and largely ineffectual. On 5th September 1914, HMS Pathfinder achieved the unwanted distinction of becoming the first warship to be sunk by a submarine when she was torpedoed by U-21 within sight of land in the Firth of Forth. Submarines delivered a strategic shock to Britain, in reality doing more than Germany’s battleships to challenge its maritime supremacy and coming close to strangling the Atlantic supply lines. Britain’s own submariners made their first real mark on naval history led by Max Horton in action during the Dardanelles campaign.

Inevitably the large part of the book is devoted to the struggle to contain the German U-boats in World War II. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was arguably the most important contest of the war. Managing to keep up a narrative of the campaign that spanned the full 5 years of the conflict, the author describes plenty of individual actions in vivid detail. From the terror of being a submariner subject to depth-charging to the grim satisfaction of U-boat kills by the allied escorts, support groups and aircraft that began to decimate the U-boats after May 1943. The stoic bravery and success of WII RN submariners in the face of appalling losses, particularly in the Mediterranean, is astounding and helped inspire the high standards the service still expects today.

Where the Germans failed twice to strangle Britains shipping lifeline, US Navy submarines, once they had addressed torpedo problems, strangled the Japanese island conquests in the Pacific. Failure by the Japanese to take ASW seriously saw their merchant fleet swept from the seas, leaving their empire cut off from supply and their occupying forces doomed to defeat.

The submarine story continued unabated as WWII developed into Cold war and a new kind of undersea confrontation. In the space of 20 years, the relatively simple diesel-electric submersibles had evolved into true submarines that could stay underwater and travel at the speed of the fastest surface ship, thanks to nuclear power. Nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles and the new submarines soon led to the SSBN ‘bomber’ the most terrifying, although ultimately stabilising, weapon the world has ever seen.

The undersea duels of the Cold War are better documented in the previous book, but coverage of the ‘sideshows’ is illuminating. The Pakistani submarine Hangor sinking the Indian frigate INS Khukri in 1971 and, of course, submarines decisive influence on the Falklands War.

Each of these individual campaigns already have many complete books devoted to specifically to them, for Ballantyne perhaps the biggest challenge must have been deciding what to leave out. The Deadly Trade has managed to deliver a narrative that is both a sound historical record but has pace, personality and excitement. The dry facts of technical developments are enlivened by plenty of personal accounts.

In truth, no complete history of submarine warfare can ever be written. Even now, under the sea submarines maybe making history, gathering critical intelligence, shadowing ships and other submarines or tapping under cables. So much remains hidden, even decades after the events, The Deadly Trade is the first valiant attempt to paint the available history on a very broad canvas. For submariners there is always less distinction between peacetime and war, than their ’skimmer’ counterparts, they must be ever vigilant, listening covertly and ready to strike and short notice. The recent publications, Hunter Killers and The Silent Deep revealed more of what the Royal Navy did in the Cold War but great gaps in the public record must remain. The exploits of Soviet and Russian submarines, in particular, would fill several volumes, yet only relatively small scraps of this history are in the public domain.

Lessons from submarine history remain very relevant today. Britain’s sea lanes of communication are perhaps now even more vulnerable than in the 20th Century. Just a few well-handled submarines could wreak havoc on the global trade, yet the UK is unwilling to fund anything like enough hunter-killer submarines or ASW assets. The book closes with a timely warning “The submarine, for good or ill, seems destined to play a major part in world events, and indeed, its activities could yet decide the fate of all humanity”


£17.00 (Hardback)  £12.99 (Kindle)