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SOVIET SUBMARINES – Design. Development and Tactics

by Jan Breemer, Ph.D. Jane’s Defense Data; released February 27, 1989
ISBN# 07106-0526-9

The Soviet submarine force is receiving considerable attention. Not only is it the largest force in the world, but its technological quality, in some respects, is supposedly equal or better than that of Western fleets. It has forced the United Kingdom and the United States into producing new ASW submarine designs and has prodded the once-passive Canadian defense establishment to attempt to build its own nuclear submarine force.

Now that the subject of Soviet submarines is on many minds, along comes a book on that same subject from the respected Jane’s Publishing Group. While no match is a pound-by-pound comparison to their better known Jane’s Fighting Ships, this diminutive document is, nevertheless, packed with good information. Its title, So1’iet Submarines – Design, Development and Tactics, would be more descriptive of the contents if the “Tactics” were removed; however, it offers a good background schooling as to how this force was developed from the early Tsarist days, through the Stalin era and into its current status.

Both the obscure and the obvious are covered. For example, the first Russian-owned submarine, the DIABLE MARIN (“Sea Devil”) was designed and built in 1855 by a Bavarian naval architect in the Luechtenberg Yard in St. Petersburg. After some encouraging sea trials, it sank twice in the Baltic, the second time for good. While several attempts were made by indigenous Russian designers at building an operational model, it was not until 1877 that S. K. Dzhevetsky produced a model similar in appearance to the early subs built by John P. Holland. Eventually 50 of these mini 20-ft. undersea craft were built, some sporting innovations such as a primitive periscope that was probably 25 years ahead of its time. And did you know that Russia’s first diesel propelled submarine that joined the Imperial Russian FJeet in 1911 was named AKULA? It translated to “shark” and is probably why NATO chose the name for this menace after running out of letters in the English alphabet with which to assign to new Soviet submarine classes.

This study of Russian/Soviet submarine history continues through the periods leading up to and during World War I, the post-War period, the naval buildup of the thirties, World War IT, and the more familiar times since then. It is a fascinating and instructive lesson that not only discusses major trends, but also throws out little sparking tidbits of information. The immediate post-WW II era was particularly helpful to the Soviets as they obtained, as a result of the Potsdam tripartite naval commission, four complete Type XXI German models, probably the most advanced submarine at the close of the war. The Soviets also swept up thousands of German technicians and scientists, as well as tons of hardware and technical documentation, in their quest to build a modem submarine force.

The author has conducted painstaking research through archives, libraries and declassified literature to show that the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet is no unfathomable accident. It is particularly interesting that one of his “invaluable” sources for the post-WW II era are declassified 1945-62 issues of the ON/ Review. He has done his homework well.

Despite the temptation to overwhelm the reader with information and analyses about the current state and operational practices of today’s Soviet submarine force, Breemer maintains sober descriptions and explains that contrary to some recent official U.S. Navy statements about an “unprecedented” building rate, the “newest [Soviet] submarines are evidently being produced at a slower rate than were their predecessors of 20 and 30 years ago.” He does, however, note the “quiet revolution” represented by the AKULA, MIKE and SIERRA nuclear attack classes, as well as the unwillingness of Soviet naval planners to abandon diesel-electric designs and midget submarines. He provides much to think about, offers explanations, but where no answers are clearly present he does not forcefeed his own opinions.

The book is amply sprinkled with good and historically interesting photographs. The writing is crisp and thoroughly understandable, which should help new students on Soviet naval history grasp this important subject. A listing of Soviet submarine accidents, documented and rumored, is included, as are appendices on Soviet transfers of submarines abroad (19481988) and Soviet submarine basing infrastructure with reference maps. There is even a useful index. The only lowmark that is evident is the irksome 9-point type size.

Soviet Submarines is recommended reading for Naval Submarine League members. At a time when we are spending so much time and energy to counter this mighty force, it should only be right to make every effort to understand it. This one will help.

Deam W. Given


by John D. Alden, The Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD
ISBN: 0-87021-767-4

This book will be no “Hunt for Red October.” Neither will it result in more, or fewer, Navy Crosses.

It is, as the dust jacket claims, the most complete compilation of data on U.S. and Allied (British and Dutch) Submarine Operations against Japan. It will serve for years to come (and there may never be a more complete effort) as a research tool for WW II buffs or authors of yet another submarine tale.

There is a degree of “ego-trip” in this excellent research report for those of us who fought the war. I wanted to see how DRUM fared since I was aboard for patrols 1 to 11. After an hour of research, I concluded that one DRUM JANAC ‘sinking’ was reduced to a ‘Probable.’ In addition, of eight claims of damage in DRUM patrol reports, three were verified, and one was credited to an aircraft.

CDR Alden acknowledges that he used as his model Axis Submarine Successes. 1939-1945 by Dr. Jurgen Rohwer. And indeed he did, with some omissions, as we shall note later. In fact, the Naval Institute commissioned this book as a companion to Dr. Rohwer’s 1983 English language update of his 1968 study.

[Rohwer makes it easier to make assessments because one of his indices contains names of all submarines and pages where they appear in the data table. A second index treats the skippers in like manner.]

A look inside Alden’s book reveals some 35 pages which describe his reasons for conducting many years of research, his sources, many of them untapped Japanese data, and more important, the significant errors in attack position, target identification and size, and in some cases, the attribution for the sinking. An explanation of the 16 column heads in the data table, a bit complex in spots, completes the introduction.

Then follows 226 pages containing a chronological listing from 9 December 1941 to 18 August 1945 of most, if not all, of the ships sunk or damaged, even including sampans attacked by gunfire. Columns 10 to 15 are unique in that they cite primarily Japanese sources which were used to verify U.S. patrol reports and JANAC (Joint A-N Assessment Committee 1947) data. The final column contains useful comment to clarify discrepancies or question previous claims.

The book concludes with an extensive multi-country bibliography, two appendices and an index. The first appendix describes and lists U.S.. British, and Dutch submarine minelaying and augments the meager reported results in the main table, noting that accuracy is even more difficult to establish than in torpedo attacks.

Appendix B is an index of all submarines appearing in the main table by hull number, with Commanding Officers listed by patrol numbers.

The concluding index is alphabetically by name of target ships with the date and time of attack.

In sum, John Alden deserves kudos for a job well done in his U.S. Submarine Attacks Durine World War II.

M. D. Rindskopf


World War IIs Great Struggle at Sea
by Dan van der Vat
Harper & Row, New York, 424 pages
ISBN: 0-06-015967-7

The Atlantic Campaiw. is a magnificent portrayal of the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic. Dan van der Vat is fluent in German and has mined archives on both sides of the Atlantic with finesse. Access to de-classified “Ultra” intelligence data has thrown new light on earlier versions of the Battle.

Part I places World War I submarine and anti-submarine warfare tactics in excellent perspective, and includes a superb account of disarmament conferences held between the wars. Submarine re-armament efforts by Germany were supported by clandestine design, construction and testing of submarines built for Turkey in Holland between 1926 and 1928. Similarly, three submarines were built in and for Finland during the period 1926 to 1930. Continuity of effort is best described by the following quote from the book: “Even as the First World War flotillas were being surrendered, shared or broken up, the great store of accumulated knowledge was being put to work to lay the foundations of the submarine fleet that would fight the next war, …. and it was the same men, whether civilians or naval officers, who did it. Just as the Second World War rose out of the first, so the better-known Battle of the Atlantic grew out of its underestimated and under-reported but no less serious predecessor — and the boats which fought in both, like their crews, were as closely related as parent and child. The most striking embodiment of this continuity was Admiral Karl Doenitz, … ”

Part ll is called “The Main Event.”

When war broke out on 1 September, ’39, British appreciation for a major lesson of World War I, the convoy, was taken seriously, yet a lot of fuel (and assets) were also wasted searching vast ocean areas for submarines. (On 30 August ’39, Doenitz had only 22 U-boats capable of Atlantic patrols.) The British carrier CouraKeous was sunk by U-29 on 17 Sept “39 while on such a search and destroy ASW mission off the west coast of Ireland. U-29 got away from the escorting destroyers.

British preoccupation with the threat of German pocket battleships was another distraction.

Lack of aircraft and teething problems of airborne ASW forces in the early days of the war caused part of the crisis atmosphere which prevailed for many months.

At the outbreak of the war, airborne depth charges were non-existent. Throughout the early stages of the conflict, long range aircraft were not made available for Iceland to protect convoys because the British Bomber Command had priority in mounting massive raids against Germany. This short-sighted view exacerbated the efficacy of Allied forces involved with the emerging Battle of the Atlantic.

At the climax of the Battle, feverish wolf pack attacks were mounted by Doenitz against the by now accomplished ASW forces. On 3 May ’43, for example, two U-boats (U-439 and U-659) sank each other when they ~llided while opposing a convoy about 250 miles off the NW coast of Spain.

In maturity, a combination of Enigma decodes, the resulting diversion of convoys, airborne radar, and HFDF locating techniques turned the tide of battle. Airborne ASW was described by Doenitz at Nuremberg: ” … in the spring of 1943 the airplane, the surprise by airplane, and the equipment of the planes with radar – which in my opinion is, next to the atomic bomb, the decisive war-winning invention of the AngloAmericans – brought about the collapse of U-boat warfare.”

Battle statistics can vary from source to source, depending on the definition of “lost,” but at times the Atlantic nearly boiled with sinkings. Vander Vat’s interpretation of the data lists Allied merchant shipping losses during the Battle as 12.8 million tons; while U-boat sinkings by Allied forces in the Atlantic totaled 696.

By October ’43, shipbuilding capacity finally overtook the tonnage losses suffered since the start of the war. Once mobilized, American shipyards built Liberty ships with incr~ible speed. With the help of fabrication, ROBERT E. PEARY was built by Kaiser (Richmond, California, November ’42) in four days and 15 hours.

Although packed with facts and figures, data are deftly integrated with the narrative, which is enthralling. This landmark book should stand as a superb piece of work for years to come.

Richard J. Boyle 

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