Subtitled “The Definitive History of Submarine Warfare,” the British author describes not only past events but predicts what future wars may be like.
This is a long and well-documented story with notes, maps, photos, index and many anecdotes, a book well-worth reading to the end.
Island nations like Great Britain depend on sea transport for food and industrial materials not available in their homeland. British victory over the combined Spanish and French navies in 1805 made Britain a world power for as long as it could “rule the waves” with its powerfully armed sailing ships.
Then came the steam engine, and ships no longer need depend on wind or oars. Nor on guns. The early torpedoes were not movable weapons, but were anchored in the ocean, They exploded if a ship bumped into one. We would call them mines today. Good for defending a harbor, but not for pursuing a warship. But in the late 1800s, navies developed engines powered by gasoline, oil, or electricity. Now a properly balanced craft with ballast tanks holding either air or seawater, according to need, could submerge beneath the water’s surface, run on electric power for several hours, resurface and run on fuel, and at the same time recharge the batteries. Submarines could navigate by a periscope, which was hardly visible a few feet above the water’s surface, and fire a torpedo that could hit and sink a ship a thousand yards away.
John Philip Holland was one of the first to build a submarine. His first sub was 16 feet long and pedal-powered. In a later model with a combustion engine, we see a photo of this dude in a coat, tie, and derby hat, peering out of a small conning tower; he US Navy bought his boat in 1898, and named it USS Holland. But submarines didn’t grab much attention until World War I in l914.
Future author Aldous Huxley, then age 20, was one of the first witnesses to the new age of war when walking near the Scottish coast. He heard a tremendous explosion, with a white cloud towering above the horizon. Curious, he walked down to the shore, meeting the local lifeboat coming in. A British cruiser, Pathfinder, had been hit by a torpedo that exploded the ship’s munitions magazine. “Not a piece of wood left big enough to float a man,” a lifeboat man told him. It was said to be the first sinking by a submarine in the whole history of naval war. Only 18 men of her 268 crew survived.
Originally, the German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm had forbidden his U-boats to attack ships of neutral nations, but when the British-flagged passenger liner Lusitania sailed under an American flag while carrying both British and American passengers, Kaiser Wilhelm angrily declared British waters a war zone, and any ship therein could be attacked. (He didn’t mention that two German ships had recently taken refuge in neutral Turkey while flying the Turkish flag.)
German submarine U-20, patrolling British waters, met Lusitania and sank it with one torpedo. 1,194 people lost their lives, including 124 Americans.
This set the tone of hatred that would characterize 20th century war. Each side, Britain and France (and later USA) against Germany and Austro-Hungary, blockaded the seaports of the other, and sank ships suspected of carrying war supplies. Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers could defend cargo carriers against enemy vessels, but submarines could lurk unseen along shipping routes and sink freighters almost at will.
Britain and its allies barely won the first World War, and the following twenty years turned out to be more like an armistice than true peace. Germany, smarting under rigorous post-war penalties, was soon joined by Italy and Japan, who coveted the resources of neighboring nations in a bid for power. Military power no longer depended on battleships. Now submarines and aircraft carriers controlled the seas. Victories depended as much on decoding enemy radio messages, and on speed in replacing lost ships and airplanes.
Now, some seventy years beyond World War II, military strength has changed yet again.
Dozens of nations now own a few diesel-electric submarines, often retired from more advanced navies. Present top-of-the-line subs are nuclear powered, carrying nuclear-tipped missiles with a range of around 5,000 miles. The subs themselves can stay submerged for months at a time, creating oxygen and fresh water to sustain their crews of a hundred or more men and women. The officers are likely to have advanced college degrees. Modern nuclear-powered subs carrying nuclear missiles are said to cost between one and two billion dollars each, and will \need up-grading in several years at yet more cost. But even a minor nation with a good second-hand diesel-engine sub can be temporarily on almost equal footing with large nations in the on-going chess game of world powers:
In 1969, when Pakistan and India separated, the much smaller Pakistani navy would seem no match for the larger and better equipped Indian forces, but Pakistan had a sub with a commander who thought things out. Stationed off India’s west coast, nothing was happening in his assigned area, but he detected two ships on a course through coastal water too shallow for submarines, but headed toward Karachi, his own nation’s major port. He eased over into their path with only a few feet of water under his keel and lay in wait. Periscope confirmed them as small war ships, frigates. His first torpedo missed. His third destroyed the second ship, preventing an attack on his country.
Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, bought a dozen submarines from Russia in the 1960s, This prompted Australia to buy several subs from Britain’s navy, which had defended, Australia until the end of WWII. Argentina, Canada, Italy, and many other countries protect their shores with submarines as well as by air force nowadays.
Now, several nations, USA among them, each have many nuclear missiles. The world witnessed the horrifying effect of the atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945. Present-day missiles are more powerful and more numerous. A war with both sides using them risks “mutually assured destruction” of the nations on both sides, and possibly of the whole human race. Most governments understand this, and back away from actually using nuclear missiles in combat, but feel a need to have them ready and up-to-date “just in case.”
And so the world budgets huge sums to keep building more powerful submarines and missiles which no one in their right mind will ever dare use. Mr. Ballantyne’s book ends with this sentence: The submarine, for good or ill, seems destined to play a major part in world events, and indeed its activities could yet decide the fate of all humanity.