Manning a variety of vessels, the British submarine service performed superbly in several wars.

By Robert Guttman

The very nature of a submarine’s operational environment, beneath the surface of the ocean, renders it extraordinarily hazardous to its crew, even in peacetime. When the chips are down a soldier can retreat, a sailor can abandon ship and a pilot can bail out, but when worse comes to worst in a submarine, there is usually no way out for its crew.

The complex skills required of submariners are highly technical, and their safety often depends upon their ability to function coolly and efficiently under the most adverse physical and psychological conditions–to do otherwise uses up precious oxygen. In addition, they live and die out of the public eye and, more often than not, out of sight of the rest of the navy as well. For those reasons, it is small wonder that the all-volunteer submariners have tended to form a close and exclusive group, and are known in the U.S. Navy as the “Silent Service.”

Up to now, the submariners of Britain’s Royal Navy have, if anything, constituted an even more silent service than their American colleagues. Indeed, of all the major naval powers, Britain was the most reluctant to adopt the submarine. At the turn of the last century, most naval experts regarded the submarine as an inexpensive defensive weapon for weaker nations to counter the great surface fleets of wealthier nations. Many officers in the British Admiralty, who controlled the world’s largest surface fleet at that time, considered the development of more efficient submarines to be of greater benefit to their potential enemies than to themselves and, consequently, counterproductive. “Underwater weapons they call ’em,” thundered Rear Adm. Arthur Wilson in 1902. “I call them underhand, unfair and damned un-English.” The old sea dog then proposed to “treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and…hang all their crews.” In the real world, however, new technology cannot be dismissed that easily. By the time Admiral Wilson delivered his caustic remarks, Britain had already built and commissioned its first practical submarines–based, ironically, on the design of John P. Holland, an Irish-American whose earliest prototypes had been developed for the Irish independence movement with the intention of sinking the Royal Navy.

During the past century, Britain’s submarine service was never as large or as strategically important as those of Germany, the United States or the Soviet Union, but it has always been extremely active and technologically innovative. In The Submariners: Life in British Submarines, 1901-1999 (Constable and Co., Ltd., London, distributed by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, Vt., 1999, $40), author John Winton, himself a former Royal Navy lieutenant commander with seven years’ experience in submarines, has compiled an excellent collection of firsthand accounts of service in British submarines, from the first crude little Holland boats to today’s gigantic nuclear-powered submarines armed with Trident ballistic missiles. Taken from personal memoirs, official reports, logbooks and private journals, these stories paint a vivid picture of a life that few people have experienced or, for that matter, would ever want to experience.

Although The Submariners is full of the obligatory tales of suspenseful missions, attacks by depth-charge and terrifying narrow escapes, there is a great deal more to the book than that. Through the years, the Royal Navy has developed a variety of unusual submarines, from the gigantic steam-powered K-Class vessels of World War I to the tiny, four-man X-Craft midgets of World War II. The Submariners includes personal reminiscences on the characteristics of many of those unusual vessels, including the author’s own recollections of duty aboard one of the most unique submarines ever built, the hydrogen-peroxide powered HMS Explorer.

Above all, The Submariners presents a vivid depiction of day-to-day life aboard British submarines through the course of the century. The subjects include the character of the individual personnel, chronic medical problems encountered on long patrols, the use of early underwater escape equipment, a moving eulogy for a cat who completed 23 wartime submarine patrols and a typical World War II submarine’s mess menu. For the gastronomically adventurous, there are even recipes for such popular British submarine dishes as “Cheese Oosh” and “Train Smash,” which prove conclusively that Royal Navy submarine crews do not share their U.S. Navy counterparts’ reputation for being the best-fed seamen in the fleet.