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Sunday Book Review: Hunter Killers

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This is a guest post by Dr. Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica.
The Cold War activities of the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet are the subject of a rather fascinating book, Hunter Killers by Iain Ballantyne. From the late 1940s onwards, British submarines were sent on regular intelligence gathering missions into hostile waters, cataloguing new naval vessels, eavesdropping on missile tests, and snooping on the Soviets from periscope depth.

With far fewer submarines available to it than its US cousin (which could afford to send a different sub each time), Royal Navy crews would often complete several cruises during their time with a particular boat. That resulted in already well-trained sailors earning a reputation as some of the finest submariners on the planet, even earning the respect of insurance salesman and sometime novelist Tom Clancy.

Hunter Killers follows the evolution of the Royal Navy’s fleet of attack submarines, beginning with post-war diesel electric boats which later gave way to nuclear powered feats of engineering (known by the shorthand SSN). Those early boats sounded like hellish places to spend several weeks. Foul air, cramped quarters, and the risk of running low on food days or even weeks before resupply were all features of the early Cold War submarine service, but at the same time Ballantyne describes it as a branch of the Navy where iconoclasts and non-conformists found a happy niche within which to serve their country.

The arrival of SSNs significantly enhanced the Royal Navy’s intelligence gathering abilities, since the much larger ships could loiter in Soviet waters without needing to frequently surface to let the crew and engines breathe. These SSNs were also tasked with finding and trailing Soviet counterparts, both attack subs and the missile-packed SSBNs that formed part of the USSR’s nuclear deterrent. Even in peace time these were dangerous activities, and more than once a British boat had to sail back into port under cover of darkness and wrapped in tar-painted tarps to conceal damage resulting from underwater collisions.

Ballantyne also details the punishing submarine school that potential sub captains had to complete, known as the Perisher. Officers would spend four weeks having their command potential, as well as their nerve, tested over and again in exercises stalking other ships, delivering special forces to beaches, and so on.

Much of the book is written from the perspective of British submariners (both officers and enlisted men), presumably from their notes and log books. This novel-like style may not sit well with everyone, particularly if you expect your history books to be on the dry side, but it’s an engaging device that—in my opinion—brings this particular slice of the Cold War to life effectively. It’s certainly a story that ought to be more widely appreciated.

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  • Murc

    With far fewer submarines available to it than its US cousin (which could afford to send a different sub each time), Royal Navy crews would often complete several cruises during their time with a particular boat.

    Er… wait, what?

    What was the logic at work, there, on the American side? “Congratulation, you’ve just completed a lengthy, difficult cruise into enemy waters to conduct covert surveillance. Rather than use this success as a resource to be built upon, we’re just going to send a completely novice boat and crew out next time!”

    That resulted in already well-trained sailors earning a reputation as some of the finest submariners on the planet, even earning the respect of insurance salesman and sometime novelist Tom Clancy.

    Now that’s an ice burn.

    • We probably did it that way to maximize the number of people in the crew force with that kind of experience.

      • Murc

        Experience that they would never again use?

        • A lot of what we did back then was “stockpiling” trained people in case a major war broke out.

          Just like having someone do a 3-year tour flying F-15s and then go to a staff job at the Pentagon.

          I’m not saying that was the best way to do it, but that was the reasoning.

          • Murc

            Given some of the Cold War era reasoning I’ve seen, I suppose that’s downright sensible.

      • Barry_D

        Or fo ticket-punching.

  • Vance Maverick

    Much of the book is written from the perspective of British submariners (both officers and enlisted men), presumably from their notes and log books. This novel-like style […]

    The really deadly word here is “presumably”. Does the author not make it clear what lies behind the narration? I would find that just about unforgivable.

    • Lee Rudolph

      You can read (what seems to be) a lot of the book in “preview” form at Google Books. A superficial scan found no indication whatever that the author anywhere between the two covers “make[s] it clear what lies behind the narration”; from what I read, I would call the style less “novel-like” than “Boys’ True Adventure-like”.

      But more adventurous boysreaders than I may find what I have missed.

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