BRITISH SUBMARINES IN THE COLD WAR ERA

March 3, 2022
Posted by: RICHARD CHANNON

Friedman Vol. II carries the story on from 1945 to the building of the Astute class. The first chapter is an overview of the entire period, looking at the evolution of the British Naval Staff’s organisation and thinking. It touches on the new concept of the anti-submarine submarine as well as on the use of ships and submarines in non-nuclear deterrence in the initial stages of a crisis. The author also introduces the Soviets’ adoption of a policy to deploy their SSBNs in heavily defended and remote ‘bastions’. Over four further chapters he chronicles the absorption of the lessons of the Second World War both in operations and in technology: overall, it presents a revolution as the submarine evolves from ‘intelligent mine’ to capital ship via the snort, streamlining, larger capacity batteries, advanced sonar and nuclear propulsion.

Sonar is then given a chapter to itself, which is followed by the excursion up a blind alley into High Test Peroxide, with passing reference to HM Ships Exploder and Exciter. From this point the theme is nuclear, starting with the revelation that the Admiralty first expressed interest as early as 1947, though the first formal paper on the subject is not until 1950. The evolution of Dreadnought’s design is described, and then that of the Valiant and Churchill with their raft-mounted machinery. After consideration of the R and V class SSBNs, the S and T classes of SSN are examined, giving emphasis to how finance and building capacity limited design options available and led in part to the construction of the Upholder class. The penultimate chapter of the main text is on submarines in action, including the experiments with the SSN as a ‘variable depth sonar’ in support of a surface formation. The ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesia and the Falklands campaign are covered: Friedman remarks that possibly the most striking lesson of the latter was that SSNs could operate so far from home almost without logistic support; comments on the unusual local conditions, including kelp forests, unusually clear water, and bioluminescence; and highlights the picket role undertaken off the Argentine air bases.  A section on reconnaissance and deterrence follows, showing that intelligence-gathering operations in the Barents Sea had started as early as 1952 and that by 1973 specially-fitted British submarines were incorporated in the USN Special Naval Collection Programme: success in trailing Soviet submarines is emphasised as an important factor in deterrence.

The final chapter of the main text is an acerbic account of the travails and expense incurred by disbanding the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors specialist submarine team and privatising the design of the Astute class. There follow four appendices: sonars; command and control systems; weapons; and midget submarines. This latter, a rather unexpected subject in 2021, stems from a project to arm a midget with a nuclear weapon to attack enemy bases. Nobody seems to have pointed out the kamikaze overtones of the idea! Voluminous notes, a bibliography, data sheet, submarine list and index complete the account. Perhaps its most intriguing aspect is that much of it has taken place within living memory and may yet be authoritatively challenged. As detailed and well-illustrated as the first volume, it is similarly not an easy read, but is every bit as encyclopaedic, and like it, is classed as ‘likely to remain the last word on the subject for many years’. If you have the first volume, you will not want to miss this one.