Book Reviews -- Stealth at Sea: The History of the Submarine by Dan Van der Vat

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DAN van der VAT. Stealth at Sea: The History of the Submarine. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. 374 pages. $30.00.

This book slices through the history of undersea warfare like a sleek craft with the engine room telegraph at "ahead full." Stealth at Sea is a pioneering book that traces the history of the submarine from the designs of William Bourne in the late 16th century to its role as a deterrent to nuclear conflict through fifty years of Cold War. Dan van der Vat, noted newspaper correspondent for The Times of London and, more recently, the Guardian, has emerged as one of the most prolific writers on naval warfare. Five earlier books deal with the Imperial German Navy and with World War II's deadly Battle of the Atlantic. Interested mainly in the operational histories of modern navies, van der Vat closely examines the impact of submarines on the two 20th century world wars. He concludes by briefly sketching the role of submarines in the Cold War era -- in Korea, Vietnam, Britain's conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, Operation Desert Storm, and, of course, in the sometimes dicey underwater cat-and-mouse operations of the Soviet and NATO navies. An adequate bibliography will guide interested readers to more specialized published sources.

Sensitized perhaps by his British background, van der Vat believes innovations in underwater warfare owe much to the supremacy of the British navy. It was no accident, he writes, that Britain's rivals -- the Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries and, later, the Germans in the 20th century -- devoted so much effort to finding ways to attack the greatest navy at sea by means of stealth. Proponents of surface fleets, of which there has been no shortage in Great Britain for the last three or four centuries, regarded submarines as cowardly and a technology appropriate for weaker naval powers. Admiral Sir Arthur Vickers, a future First Sea Lord, reflected the attitude of most senior British naval officers when he proclaimed that submarines were "underhand, unfair and damned un-English." This attitude was widespread even in the United States and Japanese navies on the eve of World War II. It is little wonder that those navies gave little thought either to how best to deploy submarines or how best to defend against them, although the Americans quickly learned.

After more than a century of experimentation, undersea warfare "made the transition from theory to practice during the American Civil War." An inferior Confederate navy struggled to find ways to overcome the blockade of southern ports. The Hunley, named after its builder, Horace L. Hunley of Mobile, became the first submersible to sink an enemy warship when it planted a 100-pound blackpowder mine, or what was known then as a torpedo, under the hull of the USS Housatonic that lay at anchor off Charleston, South Carolina, in early 1864. Moments later, when shock waves from the exploding mine swamped the departing Hunley, it became the first submersible to be sunk during an engagement with the enemy. In a footnote to this story, salvors recently discovered the intact hull of what is believed to be the Confederate vessel in the vicinity of Sullivan's Island off Charleston.

By the eve of World War I, the technology for offensive underwater warfare existed. Gyroscopes guided self-propelled torpedoes which were launched by compressed air from internal tubes on submersibles that were powered by diesel engines on the surface and by batteries underwater. Nonetheless, submarines played only a small role in the naval race before the outbreak of World War I. Dreadnoughts and cruisers were the darlings of the navies of the Great Powers.

Although Great Britain entered World War I with the largest submarine fleet, few were capable of operating on extended cruises in the open ocean. Antisubmarine defenses were virtually non-existent. On the eve of war, no navy in the world "could detect a submerged submarine," and, despite having formed a committee in 1910 to look into antisubmarine defenses, the Royal Navy "had no anti-submarine strategy, detector or weapon" when war came in 1914. …