Magazine article The Spectator

'The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945', by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945', by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks - Review

Article excerpt

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. …

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