Cold War Command –the Dramatic Story of a Nuclear Submariner by Captain Richard Woodman MN a

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  • To a submariner who joined up after the Cold War ended, the era evokes a time when submariners were the kings, and were the front line. It is always sobering and instructive to be reminded of the tensions that lay beneath the smooth Tom Clancy-like image of cold, calculated professionalism and skill.

    Captain Richard Woodman is an author and effectively a one-man naval historical branch for the Merchant Navy. His epic works on WW2 (‘The Real Cruel Sea,’ ‘Malta Convoys’ and ‘Arctic Convoys’) kept me going for an entire deterrent patrol. He brings a humane but unsentimental seafarer’s eye to his history that misses little. The grim Churchill Estate (Clyde Submarine Base’s Ratings Married Accommodation – if you’re not familiar with it, imagine Pripyat, the derelict, abandoned Soviet-era town near Chernobyl, which was abandoned for being too radioactive. The reviewer does not know know whether the Estate has been abandoned for being too depressing yet) is despatched swiftly and accurately thus: ‘…not very well built and in due course was to become very much a bleak, soulless place for families where the father could be away at sea…’

    Captain Dan Conley, the subject of the book, is a fisherman’s son who joined the RN of the ‘60s and was a part of its transition from its WW2 and immediate post-war flotilla of ‘T-Boat’ and ‘A-Boat’ diesel submarines to the current inventory of nuclear hunter-killer and ballistic missile submarines. His career is set out against a backdrop of a fighting service with over a thousand years of history struggling to adapt to new pressures and a new way of going about undersea warfare. Conley was a thinker with a good eye for detail, who came of age in the submarine world at a time when aggression and hard drinking were often the traditional outlets for the immense pressure which submarine crews were under. With the launch of the RN’s first nuclear submarine, HMS DREADNOUGHT, the course was set towards a different kind of service that would evolve from a raffish group of outsiders to the naval mainstream to a core fighting arm responsible for capital ships and the nation’s deterrent.

    ‘CWC’ is a shrewd look at this era that is even-handed with both successes and defeats. There is an interesting section on Conley’s experience of ‘Perisher,’ the Submarine Command Course. Notoriously hard since its inception, its relevance at the time of the RN’s first nuclear attack submarines was being challenged by the likes of Conley, who saw its focus on periscope attack runs and straight-running torpedos as an artifact of previous glories instead of training for the current threat. The era of the raffish ‘T-Boat’ CO at his periscope with his cap on back to front and a stopwatch around his neck was passing; the challenge for Conley’s generation of submariners was to preserve the fighting spirit and resilience of that age, along with the ‘eternal truths’ of submarine warfare (noise discipline and the highest professional standards when on patrol, among others) and transfer them into a new context with nuclear power, greatly extended dived endurance, under ice pack operations, dived anti-submarine warfare, more advanced weapons and sensors, and the like.

    Speaking of eternal truths, Conley has a nemesis that appears a lot throughout the book, and that is the Tigerfish homing torpedo. It seems that every submarine service, ever, has had to struggle with faulty torpedos and the RN of Conley’s era is no exception. Students of WW2 submarine warfare will be familiar with the troubles which British, American and German submariners faced with their torpedos, when the firing of a full spread achieved nothing except bringing down the wrath of a vengeful escort vessel. Apparently, nothing changes. Conley, in his shore drafts, had to deal with not only the tempermental Tigerfish (the reviewer understand that the sinking of the ARA GENERAL BELGRANO by the trusty Mk 8, the submariner’s version of the Webley service revolver, hinged on the general lack of confidence held in the Tigerfish at the time) but a fairly indifferent hierarchy.

    The book comes alive with the chapters about Conley’s command-qualified appointments, as CO OTTER, XO SPARTAN, CO COURAGEOUS and CO VALIANT. Particularly with the last roles, Conley was in the thick of Tom Clancy’s submarine Cold War, intercepting and trailing Soviet SSNs and SSBNs, and the relevant chapters are an excellent window into the doubts and pressures that weighed on the men paid to command nuclear submarines.

    CWC is a welcome and valuable addition to the growing body of Cold War military history. It sits alongside ‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’ ‘BRIXMIS’ and ‘By Any Means Necessary’ as a detailed and fascinating read which, by dint of its hard-headed and dispassionate approach to its subject, inspires far more respect for the submariners of that era. A cracking sea story.

    Read with: ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ ‘Red Star Rogue,’ Hunter Killers,’ ‘Dark Waters,’ or a trip to either the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport, HM Submarine OCELOT in Chatham or HM Submarine COURAGEOUS in Devonport.

    Don’t read with: ‘On the Beach’ or a trip to the peace camp outside Clyde Submarine Base.

    5/5 anchors.


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  1. Bandy_E
    I don't remember the Churchill Estate being particularly grim or "…not very well built and in due course was to become very much a bleak, soulless place for families where the father could be away at sea…", but then I did occupy one of the houses on Churchill Way not too long after the estate was built. There certainly was a comfortable and reassuring community spirit in the part of the estate in which my home was situated.
    A minor niggle, I know but still...
  2. Bad CO
    Don't forget 'Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of Cold War Submarine Espionage' which is a fascinating insight into the sort of things that the USN got up too.
    1. Subsunk
      Good call - it got a right slagging off in the annual OPSEC briefing we all got, which as far as I'm concerned is a 5 star recommend.

      I can also strongly recommend 'Dark Waters' by Lee Vyborny which is all about the NR-1, the USN's mini nuclear submarine and sets out the context for some pretty amazing stories to come in the future, I suspect.
      Subsunk, Oct 18, 2014