The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – Peter Hennessy & James Jinks
My rating: ★★★★☆
The UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, delivered by four Vanguard-class submarines, is a hot topic that was recently debated and scheduled for renewal by Parliament. This has reopened deeply passionate and dividing debates which centre around the nuclear deterrent’s morality, cost, operational worth and its reflection of Britain’s place in the world. Within today’s increasingly fear laden global security arena these complex debates are afforded an emphatically thorough historical perspective by this behemoth of a book which looks at the history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service since the Second World War.
The book opens with the authors observing the Royal Navy’s famous “perisher” training course, renowned for it’s low pass rate, for potential Commanding Officers of submarines. It largely consists of war games off of the Scottish coast, where the recruits are pushed to their mental and physical limits by carrying out fictional missions with the main aims to evade capture and survive unnoticed. One memorable passage sees a senior officer, who observes and evaluates the officers performances, recognise the deadly trait of hesitation. His reaction is to send for the chef to bring in a raw steak from the kitchen and suggests the recruit should “eat more red meat” to improve their decision making.
After this humorous introduction the book then moves into its main focus on the history of the U.K. Submarine Service. The biggest shift identified since 1945 is the transfer of responsibility for the UK’s nuclear weapons from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This was born from the increasingly important role submarines played in WW2 and the subsequent race of the superpowers to develop nuclear powered submarines in the 1950s. This revolutionised them into highly effective weapons able to operate undetected for very long periods of time in the ‘silent deep’ of the oceans.
The so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a key part of this history. In 1958 the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, secured a bilateral nuclear treaty which saw the US give Britain all of its nuclear submarine technologies as well as the sale of a nuclear reactor kit to Rolls Royce and their customer the Royal Navy. This was achieved by Mountbatten’s courting of the “father of the nuclear US navy” Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was famously rude to his British counterparts, but was ultimately tolerated due to the need for his cooperation for the British to become a nuclear power.
Another common incidence through out this book is that by the time expensive, once cutting edge technology makes it into service it is almost obsolete due to the long term nature of constructing nuclear submarines and their weapons. The lifetimes of the UK’s submarines are planned for decades in the future, but this cycle obviously then has to restart to keep the deterrent credible and crucially for the UK ‘independent.’
One of the most thrilling passages of this book centres on the summit where this independence was stretched to its breaking point. In December 1962 the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the youthful US President John F. Kennedy met in Nassau, Bahamas for tense negotiations over the sale of the new Polaris missile system, which enabled nuclear warheads to be stored and fired from submarines, to the UK. Macmillan managed to secure a generous price for Polaris but was met with the American request that the deterrent be placed under the ultimate control of NATO causing great political unease to the British government. After much negotiation and playing with words, brilliantly charted by the authors, Macmillan secured the last minute qualification which maintained British national control in “severe national emergencies” akin to 1940. British Sovereignty, in a way, was upheld.
After this the book looks at the Cold War and the constant underwater battles with the USSR. A notable anecdote recalls an operation in 1964 where there were strong disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty about how close patrolling submarines should go to Russian waters. In light of this one officer describes his Commanding Officer, “a man with no respect for the Russians who patrolled as close to the coast as possible preferably with the radio aerial up so he could listen to the test match.” Breathtaking, but hilarious, arrogance in retrospect.
However the Submarine Service become much more covert and through out the 1970s and 80s the warfare evolved into cat and mouse like battles of nerve. The best description of this Cold War is from a former UK submariner:
“Since using even conventional offensive weapons could easily precipitate horrible and uncontrollable geopolitical consequences, undersea warriors measured victory in terms of surveillance, detection and constant monitoring. If you knew your enemy, his vehicle or ship, his location and capability and you could follow or ‘shadow’ him without betraying yourself, you claimed victory by Cold War standards.”
This style of Cold War does however beg the ultimate question are these fantastically expensive machines actually worth the money? The obvious answer to this question is that these weapons deter. It is at times difficult not to come round to this viewpoint under the relentless analysis from the authors and the historical commitment to this principle within the British establishment. However in the Cold War there was an obvious aggressor to deter, the Soviet Union armed to the teeth, but this argument meanders in the latter chapters when such a foe is no longer present.
The history is brought up to the present day. The potential nuclear threats of the 21st century are briefly analysed, with an increasingly hostile Putin-led Russia the main focus, which indicates a prevalence for an effective nuclear deterrent. However this is no overt conclusion on the worth of the deterrent’s renewal but as the authors are historians, and not politicians, this comes with little surprise. The real worth of this book lies in its remarkable levels of detail and breadth of a definitive historical account of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.