The Silent Deep – Book review

£20.40 (Hardback)  £12.99 (Kindle)

2015 saw the publication of the latest in a string of fascinating titles dealing with the Cold War history of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. Secrets of the Conqueror (2012), Hunter Killers (2013) and Cold War Command (2014) were essentially based on stories told by RN submariners. The Silent Deep, the Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 is a lengthy and more encompassing work that tells the political, operational and personal stories of the service from the end of WWII up to the present day.

Peter Hennessy is a historian with a fine pedigree of chronicling the more secret aspects of the British state and is well qualified to write such a broad and in-depth book. Years of research and several trips to sea in operational submarines has produced a ‘doorstep’ of a book running to over 800 pages including maps, index, drawings and references. The narrative begins with the authors (Lord Peter Hennessy and research assistant, James Jinks) witnessing ‘Perisher’ (Submarine Command Course) training off Scotland aboard HMS Tireless in 2012, and later in 2013.

After the second world war the RN faced multiple challenges; a surplus of obsolete submarines, limited budgets and was scrambling to learn the lessons from captured German submarine designs. In the 1950s the RN had to overcome pay and manpower challenges and deal with traumatised war-veterans still serving. Gradually the service was reformed and began tentative operations against the Soviet Union. Diesel submarines began the pattern of challenging patrols in the Barents sea, gathering intelligence and experience that would eventually pave the way for an almost continuous presence by RN nuclear submarines in northern waters.

The book details the complex negotiations between Britain and the US that culminated in the construction of the RN’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought. This was soon followed by the realisation that the UK nuclear deterrent was best carried by submarines and the eventual agreement to buy the US Polaris ballistic missile submarines. The incredible challenge of building the 4 Polaris boats and their supporting infrastructure was successfully met. This is a timely reminder to the UK defence establishment that large projects can be delivered on time and on budget when managed with skill and determination. Hennessy is very much at home discussing the political dimensions of the story but also manages to weave the detailed technical and operational aspects into the narrative. The similarly demanding project to replace Polaris with Trident is also covered in great depth.

Although the Soviet submarine force had ballooned by the 1970s, the smaller NATO submarine force had three major advantages well into the 1980s; better crews, better submarines and seabed listening arrays. RN and US submariners were more highly trained and more professional than their Soviet counterparts. Their submarines were far quieter and had better sensors so could detect their adversaries more easily with little chance of counter-detection. Developments in passive sonar allowed RN submariners to listen for, and tail soviet boats, sometimes for days, without the need to reveal their presence. The US had built a network of undersea hydrophones (SOSUS) which could track many of the soviet submarines in the North Atlantic providing priceless intelligence, allowing submarines and Maritime Patrol aircraft to be ‘cued’ onto their targets.

The book recounts some of the hair-raising patrols conducted by RN nuclear submarines in the 70s and 80s, although not revealing quite the same level of detail in the very personal accounts in ‘Hunter Killers’. Also covered is the work of conventional submarines with special forces as well as the RN submarine command and control issues that were highlighted by operations in the Falklands War.

Royal Navy submarines types of the Cold War

  • HMS Dreadnought

    Britain’s first nuclear submarine built using a rector design provided by the United States.

  • HMS Valiant

    Affectionately known as ‘the black pig’, Valiant was the first all-British nuclear submarine using the PWR1 reactor design.

  • HMS Renown

    One of the 4 Polaris ballistsic missile submarines that conducted deterrent patrols between 1969 and 1996.

  • HMS Conqueror

    Famous for sinking the ARA General Belgrano in the Falklands War. However most of her crew regard her exploits against Soviet submarines as far more noteworthy.

  • HMS Onyx

    One of the 13 O-class diesel-electric submarines built for the RN between 1960 and 1967, Onyx was the only RN conventional submarine deployed in the Falklands War.

  • HMS Superb

    The Swiftsure class provided the backbone of the RN SSN force in the 1980s and were well-regarded boats.

  • HMS Turbulent

    The Trafalgar class were possibly the best SSNs built anywhere in the world during the Cold War period. Turbulent had a reputation for being aggressively handled, decommissioned now, but 3 of the T class remain in service today.

The qualitative edge enjoyed by NATO submarine began to be eroded in the late 1980s, mainly because the Soviets had access to technical secrets through the infamous Walker spy ring, culminating in the appearance of the very quiet Soviet Victor III SSN. The Cold War came to a timely end for the RN as the first generation of SSNs were showing their age. Serious engineering problems with nuclear reactors were discovered in late 1989 and this left the majority of the fleet unable to deploy for a period in the early 1990s (and again in 2000).

“I’ve been to two wars, the Cold War and the Falklands War, and won both of them. Not many people can say that” Cdr James Taylor, CO HMS Spartan, Falklands War

In the post-cold war period the RN continued to conduct patrols, watching the much reduced Russian submarine force while conducting more global operations, less focussed on the North Atlantic. As the government of the day sought savings from the so-called ‘peace-dividend’, regrettably the RN submarine force was cut rapidly, losing the 4 brand new conventional Upholder class submarines and the first generation of SSNs were effectively decommissioned without replacement.

In the final and perhaps most important chapter, Hennessy looks at the submarine service of today. Charting the troubled start to the Astute class submarines and the industrial and political failures that were the cause, it is good to note that there is a determination to avoid a repeat of these problems during the construction of the Trident successor submarines. The United States is very supportive of the project and will share a common missile compartment design with their SSBN-X. There is also reassurance that the Astute class are fundamentally excellent submarines and worthy replacements for the Trafalgar class.

The big picture is perhaps more concerning than any time since the height of the Cold War. The RN will have just 7 SSNs to field against a resurgent Russian navy. They would have their hands full, if only conducting ASW operations in the North Atlantic but will also be required to support the new carriers, deploy to the Gulf and even further afield where they may encounter Chinese and other Asian submarines.

As the book says, the ‘Silent Service’ is overlooked or misunderstood by many. This excellent publication should be welcomed, shining a light on one of the nation’s greatest assets. The level of access and co-operation from the MoD is remarkable and book even touches on usually taboo subjects such as diving depths of specific submarines. The RN service is instinctively uncomfortable with publicly and is often shielded from probing behind the standard line that “The MoD does not comment on submarine operations”. Let us hope this outstanding book contributes in some way to helping the submarine service being better appreciated, with the political support and funding that would follow.

All Images: © Crown copyright. Imperial War Museum

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