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Combat Divers: An Illustrated History of Special Forces Divers

11 Jul 23


(Osprey – £35.00)

ISBN 9781472856005

304 pages

This volume is a fact-packed survey of the world’s special forces, combat divers and similar capabilities. Written largely from a position of personal knowledge, and with some evident input or cooperation from operators serving in many of the world’s military underwater organisations, it is an enjoyable read.

Michael Welham breaks his subject down into 19 manageable chapters. The first three focus on the history of SF diving before he plunges deeper in to, among others, selection/training, mine disposal, counter-terrorism, and sabotage. Even marine mammals get their own chapter.

Often broken down into further sub-sections by examining country-specific elements of capability or training, one theme that shines through is that many nations have developed their combat diving capabilities along lines that are niche to the way that nation envisages future fighting. Small and often elite organisations, such as SF divers, have to be adept when integrating into their bigger military picture and these national adaptations can be quite telling regarding their country’s views of the future. Welham’s use of historical operational details to illustrate some key points and developmental epochs further adds to the context of the narrative.

A significant part of the book is devoted to the selection and training of combat divers.  Welham has obviously engaged with some national organisations, whilst entries for other countries have a slightly more colloquial or open-source feel to them. As a UK diving officer, I can also clarify one small matter in his section on female divers – the longstanding prohibition on females becoming Royal Navy Clearance Divers was due to concerns regarding mixed gas diving and the potential effect on an unborn foetus, rather than (as listed in the book) gender differences in decompression sickness. (Two years of your reviewer’s career was spent leading the work to successfully overturn this prohibition).

This survey of national training courses also generates one of the archetypical quotes from the book: for students undergoing arduous diver training “the option still remains to opt out, or for the training team to terminate the volunteer”. Even after witnessing some of the motivational methods used during such courses, the potential for students to be ‘terminated’ by their instructors does feel a tad extreme!

The later sections of the book on infiltration techniques, counter-piracy, autonomous craft, equipment, and (especially) swimmer delivery vehicles are all sound primers for people interested in this topic. As stated above, many such chapters benefiting from the breaking down of the subjects into country-specific themes; if one ignores the author’s occasional forays into subjectivity and current politics, this provides what is probably the greatest single benefit of the book – it is a lovely one-stop digest of the key elements of combat and SF diving, which many non-specialist staff officers would benefit from reading.

Overall, this is a positive addition to the library of combat diving, and should be of great interest to civilians who are intrigued by this clandestine genre of warfare, as well as useful to non-specialist officers and senior ratings who interface with the organisations who employ such personnel. Certainly one to browse through.