BRITISH SUBMARINES IN TWO WORLD WARS

Reviewed by: RICHARD CHANNON

Norman Friedman needs no introduction to members of the Review – author of 40 or so books, mostly about US and British warships and their armaments from the late 19th century until today, and a deep thinker about strategy with many learned articles to his name.   Having already dealt with the development of American submarines in two volumes, he has turned his attention to the British submarine service, with the first of two planned books.

His theme is the technological development of the RN Submarine Service to 1945 and a little beyond:  very little space is given to operations at sea and personalities, though of course strategic and tactical thinking and plans for operations are well covered, as drivers for changes in technology. In just under 300 pages of text plus 44 of notes he provides an enormously detailed account of the thinking behind the way in which the Service grew, the strategic background, and the influence of what the engineers considered they could achieve.   It is obviously a chronological account, so starts with an overview of “The Royal Navy and the submarine 1901-1945”, pointing up the Navy’s deservedly high reputation for innovative thinking and action, which led to its being in 1914 the world’s leading submarine operator.    While by 1904 submarines were already regarded as the chief means of defending naval bases and very much part of the fleet, by 1912 there were moves to differentiate between coastal and “overseas” submarines, and to deploy the latter in the observational blockade of enemy bases (plus ca change!).   The following six chapters describe the almost unbelievably rapid and successful development of the submarine as a warship in the run-up to the First World War, and the two next chapters report on that conflict.

Post WWI, strategic focus shifted to war in the east, against Japan, where the enormous distances involved required larger submarines with better endurance and higher surface speed.   Developments included specialist minelayers and the submarine aircraft carrier, while the drive to improve radio capability assumed an importance which here is dealt with in a dedicated appendix.   In the 1920s and early ‘30s arms control negotiations were a constant influence on numbers, then rearmament started with entry into service of the S, T and U classes which fought WWII.   The final chapter is “A glimpse of the future”, with Allied engineers coming to terms with German developments such as the snort, the Walter HTP system, and larger batteries, coupled with the requirement for fast targets for ASW trials and training.   There are appendices on export submarines and the midgets, principally X-craft.

All this makes for a very dense text, not an easy read, though there are one or more photographs on almost every page (often with lengthy captions), and almost every significant class of submarine has a plan laid out over two pages – a magnifying glass should be at hand!   There are two folding sheets plus four single pages reproducing Admiralty general arrangement drafts in colour.   The notes are copious and informative, and at the end is a “Submarine Data” table giving the basic statistics (length, tonnage, armament, engine power etc. etc. etc.) of every class, and “Submarine List” with the dates of laying down and launch, yard of building, and eventual fate of every submarine on the Navy List.   The only word for this book is “encyclopaedic”, and for once the publisher’s blurb is right – “likely to remain the last word on the subject for many years”.   Indispensable – afford it!