The Untold History of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service
Pegasus Books, New York, 2019, 496 pages
Book Review published on: January 3, 2020
On 2 May 1982, the Argentinian naval light cruiser ARA General Belgrano, with two destroyers in escort, was skirting the southern boundary of the two hundred-mile Total Exclusion Zone established by the United Kingdom around the Falkland Islands. The cruiser was within range to interdict a British marine, air, and ground task force that was approaching the islands from the east. Undetected by the Argentinian ships was HMS Conqueror, a nuclear-powered attack submarine captained by Cmdr. Christopher Louis Wreford-Brown. He and his crew had tracked the Belgrano since the previous day and reported the threat. Recognizing the danger, the British War Cabinet authorized him to attack. Wreford-Brown brought the Conqueror within two thousand yards and fired three Mk8 torpedoes, striking the Belgrano in its bow and stern. The crippled warship foundered, but most of her crew was able to abandon the vessel in life rafts. The Argentine Navy withdrew to their homeports afterward, enabling the British task force to land ground forces on the islands.
Wreford-Brown is the only nuclear submarine captain to have sunk a ship in combat; he and other notable Royal Navy submarine skippers are featured in Iain Ballantyne’s Undersea Warriors: The Untold History of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service. As the author of numerous books and articles about naval warfare, Ballantyne presents an intriguing historical account of the Royal Navy’s submarine force. From post-World War II operations with diesel-electric boats through the advent of nuclear-powered vessels in recent military operations, readers will gain an appreciation for the undersea battlespace. Much of the book is focused on operations during the Cold War and the submariners who served during this period.
Central to the book are the commanders and their experiences. After several chapters, it becomes evident that their missions were far from routine. They ran the risk of attack with depth charges when reconnoitering Soviet naval activities or colliding with one of their opponents during patrols. The author renders a particularly harrowing account of the HMS Warspite that accidently collided with a Soviet Echo II submarine in the Barents Sea in 1968 while stalking an adversary. The commanders’ recollections of operations and the training they underwent provide the reader personal insight into the challenges and demands of serving in submarine forces.
Ballantyne complements the commanders’ accounts of operations with discourse on the technical evolution of their submarines. Without getting immersed in technical details, he explains the general design and functions of the diesel-electric and nuclear boats. The post-World War II diesel-electric submarines are described in discomforting detail; crews endured stale air and extreme temperatures while captains had to carefully manage battery life when cruising unfriendly waters. It is very clear in the book that the introduction of nuclear propulsion was a significant leap in submarine design, enabling boats to remain submerged for durations once believed impossible. However, the one aspect of submarine operations that remains a challenge is noise—the ability to remain quiet—and it is counterintuitive to learn that diesel-electric boats are inherently quieter.
With their ability to run nearly silently, submarines are the “stealth fighters” of a navy. Their ability to “fly” in the depths of the oceans and seas with little chance of detection provides a significant capability for projecting naval power. In the example of HMS Conqueror, she and two other submarines neutralized Argentina’s surface fleet to protect their naval task force during the Falklands War. In turn, the Argentine Navy’s submarine, the ARA San Luis, remained at sea and kept the British on guard throughout the conflict.
Those who enjoy classic films such as Ice Station Zebra and The Hunt for Red October will find Undersea Warriors fascinating. It is an engaging historical piece on undersea warfare that also offers some perspectives on leadership. Upon completing the book, readers will be satisfied with what they have learned about submarines and submariners, and their unique environment.
Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas