Book Review: The Deadly Trade - The complete history of submarine history from Archimedes to the Present

Book Review: The Deadly Trade - The complete history of submarine history from Archimedes to the Present

by Stuart Crawford
article from Monday 12, March, 2018

AS AN EX-ARMY MAN I am hardly an expert in naval matters in general, let along submarines in particular.  But as an ex-tank soldier I do feel a certain affinity for the submariners who fill the pages of Iain Ballantyne’s comprehensive account of the history of submarine warfare. We have all experienced the same claustrophobic confinement of space, the smells, sights and sounds of clanking, enclosed machinery, and the close camaraderie of those we shared it with. There are no airs and graces allowed in the informal bond of a tank crew, and I suspect the same applies to submariners. So perhaps I have a little insight into the world of undersea warfare.

Be that as it may, as one who has enjoyed a lifelong interest in things military I found this a most enjoyable and inspiring read. Always a keen reader of military history, my previous knowledge of submarines and submarine warfare was limited to general histories of both World Wars and watching films like Das Boot and Hunt for Red October, both classics in my opinion.  And I’m old enough to have grown up with men who had actually been on the Murmansk convoys in the Second World War and so was well aware of the mythology of the U Boat “wolf packs” and the Battle of the Atlantic, which was the longest continuous battle of that particular conflict.

Understandably, a sizeable chunk of Ballantyne’s book deals with the struggle in 1939-45 to keep Britain’s sea lanes open to the rest of the world, and there is much new detail here of which I had been previously unaware. The success and then ultimate failure of the German U-Boat wolf packs in the Atlantic is, I think, particularly well described.

However, for me much of the interest lay in what happened in other time frames. For example, I was unaware that “the father of the modern submarine” was an Irishman, John Philip Holland, most of whose early development work took place in the USA in support of the Fenian movement there who wanted a “diving boat” to attack the Royal Navy.

Nor was I aware, until now, of the enormous success that British submarines had in the Baltic Sea during the Great War. The parts played by Royal Navy submarine officer Francis Cromie and his charges makes for fascinating reading, as does the career of Lieutenant Commander (and later Admiral) Max Horton in his submarine E9 off the Heligoland Bight and in the North Sea. As an aside, it was the latter who inaugurated the custom of fling the skull and cross bones flag on the conning tower after a successful patrol.

A number of interesting themes run through the book. Most important of all, perhaps, is the value that the ability to read the enemy’s communications proved to be, for all sides. The Germans could intercept and decipher the Royal Navy’s coded messages early in the Second World War, the British were able to do the same with the well-known cracking of the Enigma code used by Germany, facilitated by the capture of the coding machine from the sinking U-110 in May 1941 by HMS Bulldog. The Japanese never suspected that the Americans could read their signals throughout the naval war in the Pacific. The advantage this gave was priceless.

Another theme that surprised me was the unreliability of torpedoes used by different navies. U-Boat commanders complained bitterly that their torpedoes were “useless”, either detonating prematurely or failing to detonate at all. Even after German torpedo scientists advocated the use of contact fuses only (as opposed to magnetic ones) the problems persisted. This was particularly galling for German submariners during the Norway campaign in 1940, when they found themselves in a target rich environment but were unable to do anything about it.

The Americans also had torpedo problems. The performance of American submarines in the Battle of Midway in June 1942 was hardly an unqualified success despite the outcome of the clash overall. On top of the majority of the American boats deployed being old, as the author puts in “a huge problem was the number of torpedoes that were duds, either going astray, failing to detonate or exploding prematurely”.

The most interesting philosophical point made in the book, I think is Ballantyne’s assertion that whilst once the submarine was the weapon of the weak it is now most definitely the weapon of the strong. The German Navy saw it as the best way to attack the overall superiority of Britain’s Grand Fleet in 1914 as they quickly realised they could never match it in terms of surface warships and warfare. Nowadays, the submarine is the ultimate sanction of would-be global and regional powers, particularly in the form of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and their awesome firepower. Which, we all hope, will never be used.

I could go on, but I think it far better that you read the book for yourselves. I found it a thoroughly comprehensive, informative and enjoyable history of this lesser known aspect of military conflict. At 730 pages it’s a fairly long read, but well worth it. It should be on every serious military historian and enthusiast’s bookshelf.

© Stuart Crawford, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment who served in the First Gulf War

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