A few submarine books

Sort of a three dot lounge from my collection of submarine military history books….

I’m not sure where my interest in submarine operations came from. In high school, one of my post-graduation options I considered (and quickly rejected) was submarine ops. A combination of claustrophobia in tight spaces and childhood asthma made that (practically speaking) impossible, so it got crossed off the list early (Ringling’s Clown College survived a lot longer, but that’s another tale, another time).

But a fascination with the submarine stuck around in the back of my head, and when I started reading history and military history seriously, I naturally migrated towards the submarine corps.

Tom Clancy, Submarine

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If you’re curious about how a submarine operates, a good introduction is Tom Clancy’s Submarine. It (like all of the non-fiction book written under his name) have a distinctly pro-military bias to them (like this is a suprise?) but he also has good access to sources and does good, solid research. I also thought his books on Carrier, Armored Cav, and Fighter wing were good introductions to how these military forces operate.

Submarines are different beasts. The survive and kill by stealth. Lose that stealth, and they’re sitting ducks. They can’t outrun the enemy, they can’t outmuscle the enemy, they can’t hold off the enemy. They’re an assassin, appearing out of nowhere, disappearing into the shadows.

Submarines were also key components of both WW II and the Cold War, and it’s no suprise that a key strategic component of submarine warfare was finding ways to make them quieter and more powerful, and finding ways to improve your ability to hear them, find them, and kill them.

Blind Man’s Bluff

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The Silent War

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The story of the submarine in the cold war has been for the most part kept rather quiet, but an interesting look at the games superpowers play is Blind Man’s Bluff. Blind Man’s bluff is a series of stories of modern submarine operations, each of which tells the story of the submarine in a different way. Most interesting to me is the chapter that re-visits the loss of the submarine Scorpion using new information originally suppressed from the original investigation, and the tale of the Halibut as it repeatedly sneaks into soviet waters to tap, and then monitor, an undersea phone cable from a remote military base.

One of the people at ground zero of the cold war battle under the surface was John P. Craven, Chief Scientist for the US Navy’s submarine office. His memoir, discussing things now declassified, is The Silent War, and it dovetails and illuminates (and somtimes contradicts) what Blind Man’s bluff says. the two books cover the same timeframe for the most part, and Blind Man’s Bluff does so from thew view of the investigative reporter, while Silent War does so from the insider/personal view. Both are interesting snapshots into a mostly unseen aspect of the cold war, and interesting reads.

Salt and Steel

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Silent Running

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Moving back in time to WW II, I can recommend two other memoirs: Salt and Steel by Edward Latimer Beach, and Silent Running by James Calvert. Beach was a long-time skipper of submarines, including the Triton, the first sub to circumnavigate the globe without surfacing. From the battle of Midway to his retirement in 1966, Beach was part of the navy’s submarine establishment, and discusses it’s strengths, weaknesses and flaws (Beach is a very good writer, and also the author of the fictional work Run Silent, Run Deep). Latimer started in the service with the Jack in 1943, skippered the Skate to the North pole, the first naval vessel to reach it, and in this book, tells the stories of his service in World War II in the Pacific. It might be the best description (absolutely pants-wetting) of what it’s like to sit in a small metal tube and be depth-charged that you’ll find. Both are interesting books by interesting people in similar times, but both are different enough to be more than worth reading…

Karl Donitz, Memoirs

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Operation Drumbeat

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To try to get an understanding of submarines from the German side, there’s Memoirs, by Karl Donitz, commander of the wolf packs for Hitler. Personally, I found it very dry and not very engaging, and somewhat self-serving. Better for trying to understand the german submarine strategy would be Operation Drumbeat by historian Michael gannon, which attempts to show the impact of the German attacks on American shipping off of the east coast during 1942.

A differing view of Operation Drumbeat comes from Clay Blair, however. For those with a strong interest (and some background in submarine ops — I certainly would’t start with these books) in this field should check out his two books:

Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

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Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945

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Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942 and Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945. A combnied 1700 pages, Blair analyzes the German Submarine operations from the start of war in 1939 to the end of German involvement. Using both US and German records, Blair pieces together the history and strategy of the German U-boats, discussing where the wolf-pack strategy came from, the impact of Operation Drumbeat and other operations, and goes into great detail (sometimes almost excruciatingly so), chronologically discussion every submarine, every mission, every battle, and where available, even down to every torpedo used. He evaluates military records to assign kills, both by and of submarines, and what each boat and captain accomplished.

The data presented can be very overwhelming — I spent over six months intermittently working through the books. The overall picture, however, is a scary one of one country (Germany), clearly unable to keep up with the production of it’s larger enemies (Britain, Russia and the US, and it’s clear that even before the US was officially in the war, that Germany understood the inevitable). While struggling to meet it’s own production goals, Germany saw the submarine corps as a key resource to starving Britain and Russia of needed supplies, and as a terror vehicle to attempt to keep the US population convinced it needs to stay out of the war.

Ultimately, it was a losing proposition. Allied losses were horrible early on, but as the allies figured out how to defense against the submarines, the wolf packs were forced to innovate, move further away from support lines and into more difficult waters. Fascinating stuff, but to be honest — you have to really be interested to make it through both books. I found myself drawn into it, however, in an almost horrified way.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Blair books was the insight just how important the Commander of the submarine was. There isn’t likely a boat in the service where the caliber of the Commander and how he interfaces with his crew is crucial: literally, life and death. A Commander has to be tactically sharp and fearless, but at the same time, cautious and not foolhardy. To be successful, a submarine has to take risks. Take the wrong risk, or guess wrong, and you have a dead submarine, and a dead crew. Succeess in that narrow band between too careful (and off to a day job) and dead requires a bit of a cowboy mentality (because once you head off on patrol, you’re on your own), but at the same time, a knowledge and gut feeling for when to draw the line and not cross it.

Das Boot

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Living conditions in any submarine are, in a word, cramped. But living conditions in a German U-boat were horrendous. There’s no better way to bring this home than to grab a copy of Das Boot. I strongly recommend watching it in german with subtitles, it adds a different and scary aura to the film. It catches the gritty reality of the wolf pack wonderfully, and will likely leave you horribly depressed.

It might well be the best single introduction to submarine warfare there is. and it’ll guarantee you’ll never, ever understand what makes people crawl into one of those machines and go sailing off to war (or die).

On the other hand, don’t waste your time with the excrable U-571 factually bogus, dramatically biased and simply not very well done, it’s more a testiment of what happens to a good film (Das Boot) when the Hollywood Marketing machine gets done with it. You’re better off spending your time watching re-runs of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.