The deeper secrets of Britain’s submarines

Peter Hennessy and James Jinks disclose facts about the Royal Navy Submarine Service that might once have landed them in the dock

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 Peter Hennessy and James Jinks

Allen Lane, pp.864, £30, ISBN: 9781846145803

The Silent Deep is a compelling and fascinating exposé of a service that for too long has had to remain in the shadows. Peter Hennessy and James Jinks are to be congratulated on producing what must be the definitive work on the Royal Naval Submarine Service from 1945 to the present day. In his inimitable way, Hennessy has gained unprecedented access all the way from able seaman to Prime Minister and been made privy to details that until recently were shrouded in secrecy.

His admiration and affection for the submarine service, his relish in being considered an honorary submariner, is clear; not least when he follows the make-or-break ‘Perisher’ course where candidates are tested to their limits for the exacting job of commanding one of Her Majesty’s submarines, or ‘boats’. (The term belies their lethal sophistication.) The tension and excitement of Perisher are palpable — it is the toughest such course in the world.

I noticed a number of pertinent, interrelated themes running through the book. First is the postwar development of quieter, more capable conventional submarines: the struggle to develop faster underwater speeds, and the convoluted processes that led to the fascinating realisation that only nuclear power would produce the first true submarines independent of the surface. Of critical importance was the United States’ role in enabling the production of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, launched over 50 years ago. Critical, too, is the continuing development of United Kingdom-designed nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) to the present day. For the first time in an easily digestible way the book highlights how the UK was at the very limit of what it could achieve in design and engineering capability.

The next theme is that of the nation’s deterrent and how the RN assumed the responsibility from the RAF in the 1960s with the Polaris missile system in the Resolution class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The authors reveal details of the top-secret Chevaline programme, embarked on without the knowledge of Parliament or indeed most in government. We see the decision-making process for the purchase of Trident and the D5 missile carried aboard the Vanguard class SSBNs. The book touches on targeting plans including the Moscow Criteria, and the principles of deterrence are clearly explained. The political shenanigans are laid out with a clarity I have never seen before. For anyone involved or interested in the forthcoming decision to replace our Vanguard class SSBNs this book is a must.

Another strand that weaves its way through the narrative is the most enjoyable stuff of Cold War drama, the real thing that movies like The Hunt for Red October gave a glimpse of. It is the covert war of aggressive intelligenc gathering by RN submarines against the Soviet Navy, initially by conventional submarines and then by SSNs. We can read of incidents and techniques that have been secret up till now. One can’t help relishing the details of terrifying collisions, never previously acknowledged, as these underwater leviathans fought a battle of stealth, operating by sound alone in the darkness under the Arctic ice and in the Barents and Norwegian seas.

The broader operational requirements for the submarine force are explained, and thus we see how nuclear submarines were the capital ships of the Navy by the early 1980s. Much is revealed about tracking Soviet nuclear submarines in the northern seas by means of SOSUS, the seabed arrays. Even to mention these a few years ago would have put one in the dock.With the new Nato Forward strategy in the 1980s our SSNs played a leading part in the military arms race. This kept the Soviets on the back foot, resulting ultimately in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A whole section on the Falklands war answers many questions about our submarines’ vital role in that conflict, previously unknown to the general public. Here are the facts and decisions in the sinking of the Belgrano and an account of how close we came to sinking the Argentinian aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo.

Alas, the catalogue of our failure over so many years to produce an effective torpedo sheds a bad light on our nation’s industrial base. Indeed, the fragility of so much of our industrial expertise in underwater warfare technology is grimly fascinating, and makes one very anxious. Have our leaders put the necessary resources into this crucial area of endeavour? What we clearly see is that building a nuclear submarine is more complex than putting a man on the moon.

It is obvious to me that Hennessy revels in the arcane lexicon of submarine tactics: de-lousing, clearing stern arcs, Crazy Ivan; and in much talk at the back bar of the Faslane submarine base. The authors have been into the farthest nooks and compartments of the submariners’ world: sea-riding the dreaded Perisher, crawling all over a Vanguard class in refit, witnessing the test firing of a Trident D5 missile, several dives in SSNs, visiting bases and the submarine building facility at Barrow; and, finally, discovering the nerve centre of the Trident firing chain in Pindar deep under the MoD main building. In conversation with David Cameron about the deterrent, we get his thoughts about having to write the letter to be opened by the submarine commander only in the unthinkable event that the leadership of the United Kingdom is wiped out in a nuclear attack.

Hennessy and Jinks have tracked the size, capability and decline of the Royal Navy’s submarine force from the end of the second world war. Starkly they show that we just don’t have enough boats to meet the tasks the nation demands of them. But what is most impressive, most heartening, is the quality and courage of our Royal Naval submariners, from those who remained at the end of the war to those serving today.

This meticulous history is no light read; but it is thoroughly rewarding, not just for submariners, who will love it, but for anyone with an interest in maritime affairs and grand strategy. There are riveting extracts to be mined for a wider audience, but for me it is a tour de force, a valuable resource for naval historians and future generations to wonder at. And I can’t help hoping that our current leaders will make themselves aware of some vitally significant issues that it raises.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Admiral Lord West was First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 2002 to 2006.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • boiledcabbage

    Is there a Russian edition planned? Or have they had an advance proof, as usual?

    • No need. They can read US Naval Institute Proceedings as well as we can read

      Морско́й сбо́рник.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    We might have no aircraft carriers any more, or at least none with aircraft to fly off them, but we do manage to retain both the ability to build good subs, and the expertise to sail them. For the moment. This book sounds worth reading: I heard Hennessy talking about it on the radio recently. I just hope it’s better written than his memoir about serving as a junior infantry officer in Afghanistan, an interesting book but so irritating in its style that I could read it only in stages, gritting my teeth.

    • Serenity Now

      I suspect you’re thinking of Patrick Hennessey. Peter Hennessy is a journalist and academic and has never been in the military.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Oh damn! How silly of me – I just assumed it was the same Hennessy… I shall read Peter H’s book. Thanks for the correction.

        • John P Hughes

          An amusing confusion. Peter (Lord) Hennessy the historian of modern British government and Britain’s policies on nuclear weapons since the Attlee era will enjoy being asked about his service in Afghanistan next time he speaks in the Lords…..

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Ah, Lord Peter Hennessy: wasn’t he the central character of that detective series written by Agatha Christie or someone…?

          • John P Hughes

            Nice one. Let’s hope that someone on the opposite benches in the Lords intervenes, when Lord Hennessy is woffling, that ‘The Noble Lord seems to have lost his thread. Is he Lord Peter Wimsey?’ That would get a few (small) headlines.

      • Roger Hudson

        His book on the secret state should be a test for every MP, if they’ve not read it and learned from it they should be kicked out.

  • Matt

    Have Rolls Royce been accidentally or deliberately insulted ? I’m sure they have had a very minor part in something to do with the propulsion but I may be wrong.

  • trace9

    Well there’s a Russian submarine curremtly cuesing our waters, pursued by French & Canadian airctaft because we haven’t got even one of our own that can do the job. Doubtless, though, RN submarines are a-swarmin’ up the Iron Ivan’s starn tubes as we speak…? That’s one thought that occurs, even without the help of a History Book.. Or rather a Big Fat Question.. England Expects Every Frenchman To Do Our Duty? Yo!

  • Roger Hudson

    I lost all respect for the Sub. service when i read how they never took prisoners in WW2, including an incident in the Med where prisoners taken by a British commando from a caique were machine gunned off the sub’s hull in to the sea.