'The Ministry of Defence does not comment upon submarine operations' is the standard response to enquiries about the most secretive and mysterious of Britain's armed forces, the Royal Navy Submarine Service. The Silent Deep is the first authoritative history of the Submarine Service from the end of the Second World War to the present. It gives the most complete account yet published of the development of Britain's submarine fleet, its capabilities, its weapons, its infrastructure, its operations and above all - from the testimony of many submariners and the first-hand witness of the authors - what life is like on board for the denizens of the silent deep.
Dramatic episodes are revealed for the first time: how HMS Warspite gathered intelligence against the Soviet Navy's latest ballistic-missile-carrying submarine in the late 1960s; how HMS Sovereign made what is probably the longest-ever trail of a Soviet (or Russian) submarine in 1978; how HMS Trafalgar followed an exceptionally quiet Soviet 'Victor III', probably commanded by a Captain known as 'the Prince of Darkness', in 1986. It also includes the first full account of submarine activities during the Falklands War. But it was not all victories: confrontations with Soviet submarines led to collisions, and the extent of losses to UK and NATO submarine technology from Cold War spy scandals are also made more plain here than ever before.
In 1990 the Cold War ended - but not for the Submarine Service. Since June 1969, it has been the last line of national defence, with the awesome responsibility of carrying Britain's nuclear deterrent. The story from Polaris to Trident - and now 'Successor' - is a central theme of the book. Today's Russia is, once again, deploying submarines off the UK's shores. As Britain continues to develop and renew its submarine fleet and submarine-carried nuclear deterrent, The Silent Deep provides an essential historical perspective.
The ‘must read’ book for anyone interested in Royal Navy submarine operations since WWII. Superbly written by two master historians, the book is powerful, commanding and constantly fascinating with a light and easy to read tone. Written with unprecedented access to classified documents, naval archives, serving and retired personnel, The Silent Deep is the definitive history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service. If you served in submarines, worked with submarines or ever wondered what submarines did; this book is for you.
'Spellbinding ... unprecedented" The Times
Riveting, definitive, a tour de force' Spectator
'The definitive work for future generations to wonder at' Admiral Lord West
A well-researched, unclassified study of post WWII submarine operation review by The Naval Review on 18/05/2017
This review was first published in The Naval Review in May 2017.
Having been published in late 2015, The Naval Review is somewhat remiss in not providing a formal review of this groundbreaking book until now. Groundbreaking because within its 682 pages it explores the limits of what can be said about submarine operations during the Cold War and more recently, as well as taking the lid off the political and diplomatic negotiations surrounding our relationship with the United States in the formation of our nuclear fleet. All done with the full sanction of the Ministry of Defence, which is no mean task.
Before you read on, I must declare an interest. As the First Sea Lord at the genesis of this book, I was particularly keen to have a well-researched, unclassified study of post WWII submarine operations put into the public domain. The operational legacy and exploits of many submariners are held in dusty, top secret files governed by rules that needed probing. Today’s submarine operations clearly need to be protected, and many of these files must remain top secret, but there was much that had been declassified. Unfortunately, frustrated, well- informed authors, keen for the story of the SSN to be told, were testing the limits. What better authority than Peter Hennessey, assisted by James Jinks, to officially research the history and tell the story, guided by those in the know to ensure the classification system was tested but, where needed, our secrets remained secret.
The Evening Standard in its review of The Silent Deep stated, ‘if you were taking Britain and her submarines since 1945 as your Mastermind specialist subject, this is the book for you’. One has to agree. Whilst in hardback it is a weighty tome, it presents a highly readable account and the most comprehensive coverage yet published of the post WWII British submarine story and, most specifically, the challenges associated with going nuclear. I have heard minor criticism from the conventional submariner community that the story of the SSK is not given detailed enough exposure, particularly the exploits of the Seventh Submarine Squadron in Singapore during the Indonesian confrontation of the early ’60s. There clearly had to be a limit on the contents and coverage (and thereby weight!) of the book and compromise was inevitable. Responsibly covering the key procurement decisions and operations of the SSK’s journey in the post WWII era and the difficult judgments that resulted in its ultimate demise, I have sympathy with the authors’ editing in not including more.
Such an authoritative and highly researched book might be mistakenly consigned to the reference section of a library. This would be a very big mistake. It is an enjoyable read, is jargon friendly, anecdote rich and a compelling tale. The reader is introduced from the first chapter to the realities of life aboard a nuclear submarine through Hennessy’s own observations of witnessing the Commanding Officers Qualifying Course, the Perisher, at sea. This tees up numerous very vivid and personal accounts of operational activity as well as heartfelt personal opinions, from seasoned submariners, on decisions that have been made over the many years covered. A real insight into the world of the submariner awaits the reader. It is these stories that truly bring the realities of submarine operations to life. Using many detailed accounts of intelligence gathering operations, it starts with those of conventional T boats at the beginning of the Cold War and then to Warspite’s collision with an Echo II class Soviet submarine, for years spun as a collision with an iceberg. Through such stories the true realities of SSN operations are explored. The Falklands SSN story is also covered in great detail, as it should be, as the only shooting war to date that has included SSN tasking against creditable ASW opposition. Again the personal accounts speak volumes for the excitement and tensions of everyday submarine life. And to bring the story right up to date, accounts of operations East of Suez and the challenges faced by today’s submariners are included. Certainly for me it is these personal reminiscences and insights that are at the real core of my enjoyment of the book and I feel sure this will be the case for most readers.
But the people story is only one part of this book. A very full account of policy and decision- making, infrastructure projects, structural change to the Submarine Service and the build programme of all submarine construction since the Second World War are included. It also details the complex negotiations between Britain and the US that resulted in the building of the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought and also the agreements struck by Macmillan for Polaris and Callaghan for Trident. The authors expose the fierce defence, RN and political debates that were a feature of the judgments made for each of these crucial procurement decisions.Alsoexposedaretherelationshipsthat marked the policymaking and diplomacy that underpinned the success of these negotiations. The tensions between The First Sea Lord, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Admiral Hyman Rickover are fully documented, showing, for example, Mountbatten’s formidable personality and rare patience to get what he wanted from the rather aggressive and complicated Rickover. Hennessy as a respected expert in the workings of the British State drills down to great depths to ensure we are fully enlightened on the details here and maybe to the casual reader is a little too thorough. The layout of the book that neatly splits the narrative into separate ‘histories’ nonetheless facilitates skipping such sections as required.
The SSBN procurement and operational story as well as the rationale for, and history of, CASD (Continuous At Sea Deterrence) are covered in great detail and the full ramifications of the decision to host the nation’s strategic deterrent at sea fully analysed. There is also a comprehensive explanation of the Command and Control structures and procedures that support the strategic weapons system and its firing chain. This includes rare insight into the ‘letter of last resort’ written, in private, by all Prime Ministers since HMS Repulse’s first patrol in 1969 after the Royal Navy assumed full responsibility for strategic nuclear deterrence from the RAF. The Silent Deep was of course published just before the parliamentary vote in the Commons last summer and is right up to date in covering the political and strategic battles for the Successor (now Dreadnought class) programme including the underpinning logic for the replacement policy.
Although not without its challenges the creation of a truly credible strategic weapons system was a success story that was repeated some years later with the adoption of the land attack cruise missile. The path followed for torpedoes was a less glamorous story, indeed somewhat of a saga. For a nuclear SSN fleet whose primary role was ASW, the slow pace of development of a true anti-submarine weapon that was fast enough and had sufficient explosive power to be credible was a very long time in coming. This programme rightly attracts justifiable criticism.
Many charts, maps and relevant photographs, which enhance the narrative admirably, complement a book that has already become something of a classic across the submarine fraternity. It certainly gives acceptable credence for an answer to the question, ‘what did you do in the war, Daddy?’
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope (First Sea Lord 2009 - 2013)
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