The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service Since 1945
James Jinks & Peter Hennessy, Allen Lane, London, ISBN 978-1846145803
This is a heavyweight book in every sense, notably in the £30 hardcover edition. It has already paid for itself as it provided a welcome distraction from the festive disruption to the daily harbour routine at Subsunk Towers.
Hennessy’s previous researches into the secret British State allowed him to build up unparalleled levels of confidence and trust from the Submarine Service, which still remains the most secretive by far of the Royal Navy’s 5 fighting arms.
This has allowed him and his protégé, James Jinks, to put together an unofficial regimental history of the submarine service during the Cold War. Reading ‘The Silent Deep’ reminded me strongly of Tony Geraghty’s ‘Who Dares Wins’ or ‘BRIXMIS’ books, in that it is a shrewd outsider’s look at a previously hermetically-sealed world that will leave a strong impression on the reader. The story starts and ends with the present day submarine service, on board a TRAFALGAR-class attack submarine conducting the grueling ‘Perisher’ or Submarine Commanding Officer’s Qualifying Course, and on board a VANGUARD-class missile submarine conducting a Demonstration and Shakedown Operation (firing a dummy missile down an instrumented test range prior to re-entering the continuous at sea deterrent patrol cycle). The bit in the middle bridges the gap between the present day and 1945.
In 1945, the submarine service was equipped largely with S and T boats of prewar and wartime design. All had been rendered obsolete by advances in German submarine design, notably in Kiel by the designs of Helmuth Walter. Snorkels, homing torpedos and advanced propulsion systems would have given the German U-Boat arm a decisive technical lead over the Allies, who were fortunate in that bombing raids had fatally slowed production and development, and submarine hunters at sea had killed or captured the more aggressive and skilled German U-Boat captains. The design team was taken in by the Royal Navy (by Ian Fleming’s 30 Assault Unit. Walter comes across as cold, fanatical and brilliant and very much a template for many Bond villains) who then tried to take these advances further.
With very limited resource, the service had to soldier on with the kit it had, refining and adapting to the new era. New roles such as intelligence-gathering were trialled – the results of a covert submarine surveillance exercise on RN surface ships off Gibraltar were dramatically successful, and resulted in submarines being sent north to spy in Soviet waters. These patrols went down in legend as grueling, grim tests of fortitude for the crew and a test of nerve and judgement for the CO. This marked the start of exciting times for the submarine service. New technology led to new roles and new tactics – active homing torpedos and active/passive sonars led to submarine on submarine dived Antisubmarine Warfare and nuclear power led to a revolution in how submarines went to war, including under-ice operations becoming a matter of routine. This book makes clear that the rest of the RN took a while to appreciate how profound these changes were, insofar as SSNs and SSBNs were rapidly becoming the new capital ships of the fleet.
Jinks and Hennessy do not flinch from presenting uncomfortable truths in this book, such as the loss of HMSM ARTEMIS alongside at DOLPHIN in the early ‘70s, squarely attributable to skill dilution and poor submarine standards, or the shipyard politics that saw Cammell Laird lose the trust of the MoD in its ability to construct nuclear submarines on time and on budget. The impact of the Portland spy ring, and the far more catastrophic Walker spy ring are laid out clearly in this book.
This book is highbrow but very, very readable. Over and over again, this reader had frequent ‘so that’s why…’ moments as this book provided the background to the submarine service that he could recall.
5/5 Anchors. This is likely to stand as the definitive history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service in the Cold War, setting all other books on the subject into a deeply-researched and well-written context.