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[This summary contains a tidier and slightly expanded version of Commander Compton-Hall’s presentation to the Annual Symposium in June. He spoke as a talk given, supposedly, to the fictional Ruritanean Navy on 15 June 1994.]

Thank you very much for inviting Eve and myself to this symposium, and for your hospitality.  It is a great honour to  be asked  again  after the passing of four  years-and rather more than four million calories.

In order to avoid your shooting the pianist outright, or my ending up in the Tower of London, I ask you to pretend that I am now talking to the fictional Ruritanean Navy who are trying to learn the lessons of history before creating a new submarine force.

The Ruritaneans agree with me, it seems, that history is only another word for experience-and that anybody who disregards experience is standing into danger.

But the West (I tell them) tends to relegate history to academics, forgetting that it could be a strong tool when persuading the money men to provide what is needed for effective submarine forces in a cold financial climate.

For a start, we can briefly review history-experience in just four areas-public relations, the acquisition of weapon systems and vehicles, intruder operations, and personnel.

Public Relations

Submariners are not, by nature, good PR merchants. There are reasons for this, secrecy being foremost; but, historically, there is more behind their PR ineptness.

At the turn of the century British submarine torpedo boats were not welcomed to the magnificent fleets that had won and held the British Empire-simply because they threatened the very existence of big ships. Submarines were therefore labelled underwater, underhand and “damned un-English weapons”. Submariners looked like “unwashed chauffeurs” . Submarining was no occupation for a gentleman. The Controller of the Navy recommended that “all submarine crews captured in wartime should be hanged as pirates”. The officers striding the spotless quarterdecks of battleships and cruisers looked down upon the grubby little submergibles-both literally and figuratively .

Things were not much different in the United States Navy. John Holland complained that the Navy did not favour his submarine designs because they had “no deck to strut upon”. The admirals refused to believe that submarines were realistic weapons of war; and American shipbuilders preferred surface vessels because there was more profit in them.

The result of general disdain was that submariners withdrew into what were virtually private navies; and they had something suspiciously like a chip on their shoulders. Why, otherwise, does the U.S. Navy demand that the word is pronounced submariners to ensure there is no confusion with subordinate mariners?

For many years few admirals knew what submarines could or could not do; and, despite their performance in two world wars, a lack of adequate communications with head office was evident in both the U .S. and British navies-arguably until at least the 1950s. Traditional privacy has weighed heavily against promoting the submarine cause publicly.

It may be said that PR has improved since the introduction of nuclear power. Maybe, but I agree with the British House of Commons Defence Committee who were moved to remark three years ago:

“The Submarine Service is an elite and somewhat self-contained world; as a result submarines can be misunderstood, underestimated or neglected. We consider that one priority task for Flag Officer Submarines and for the Ministry of Defence is to look at ways of increasing professional, parliamentary and public understanding of the Submarine Service. ”

Amen to that. How can that understanding, on which so much depends, be duly increased? A couple of ways, in addition to formal publications, come to mind:

  • Teach officers how to deal actively or even proactively, rather than defensively, with the media. It is most unlikely that any real secrets will be given away.
  • Promote submarine Tom Clancy was a good friend to submariners with his Hunt for Red October: the book did more for PR than a host of factual articles in The Washington Post or the London ~. One of my own books, Submarine versus Submarine, sold very well-not for the facts in the first part but for imagined events in the second.

My personal history-experience suggests that folk at all levels will listen to submariners more readily if they are candid-if they admit that submarines cannot do everything. This can be done with light humor, while fully recognizing the parts played by other forces.

In any case, submarine wares have usually been advertised in the wrong way. In the 1960s I was tasked to write down all the things a submarine could do. I remember listing 12 functions-and they got us nowhere in the Admiralty. I made a similar mistake in a recent paper for the Defence Committee: I wrote it back to front-citing submarine advantages foremost instead of spelling out defence requirements and then concluding that submarine systems were the best for meeting certain of them. At least the latter approach would have appeared objective!

Throughout, though, there is one expression which merits wider circulation; in times of fragile peace submarines, uniquely, can sit on a potential enemy’s doorstep without provocation.


History-experience tells that, except under the stimulus of war or intense international competition, it takes, on average, 12 long years to get a good idea translated into hardware. Then it takes about three years for operators at sea to learn how to use the new equipment. Sometimes the process takes even longer. For example, I believe that the Mark 48 torpedo program was initiated in November 1956-production began in 1972, 16 years from conception to multiple birth. ADCAP status was demanded in 1975 and was in place for five percent of the weapons in 1986, 11 years for the advanced capability.

When a major item, an entire submarine perhaps, is finally at sea it will be expected to last for about 20 years to amortise the capital cost acceptably.

Unfortunately, planners are apt to forget this historically lengthy time-scale. That leads to asking for material which will suit today or tomorrow, but not the quite distant era when it will actually be in use. Space may well be left for future improvements but, all the same, planning vision is too often restricted to the visible horizon.

The moral seems to be that if Ruritania is going to move forward it should do so with long strides.

There is another historical criticism that can be levelled at past planning-albeit with a handful of honourable exceptions such as Polaris. More often than not a Western navy has first conceived a new submarine and devised characteristics which can be achieved fairly soon; next it has asked the ordnance experts what weapons it could provide within the vehicle’s imposed limitations; and sometimes only then has it really thought about the kind of enemy it might engage.

Logically, this process is in reverse order. An enemy’s technological characteristics which will need to be opposed-all those years ahead-should surely be extrapolated first. Then a weapon system must be devised to cater for them, without discouraging lateral thinking, and only then should a decision be made about the kind of vehicle needed to carry the weaponry. How else can a navy justify, rationally and convincingly, a certain speed or diving depth or whatever-or, indeed, a submarine at all?

The Royal Navy has just been obliged to decommission its four brand new and outstandingly well armed Upholder Class SSKs, mainly because the SSKs were looking for a need (in changed circumstances) instead of there being a need looking for them.

Incidentally, it is impossible to predict who a future enemy will be, but that does not matter if efforts are directed at forecasting the future technology which anyone may possess. Of course, when an enemy is eventually identified it will be necessary to enter the numbers game.

One advantage, at the outset, of guesstimating future enemy technology is that the ball is in the government’s court. If government can be persuaded to announce the capabilities of an unknown future enemy (with advice from the navy, intelligence and crystal-ball gazers) the development of systems to counter them should follow without undue hindrance. Government cannot reasonably say, as, in effect, it does now, “No, admiral, that new submarine is too expensive; you must choose something cheaper”. There are very few weaponry examples in the past, save for SLBMs, where the first ball has been put where it belongs-on the government’s side of the net.

In any event the words of Admiral Eli T. Reich deserve to be writ large: “There is a tendency to forget that, in the end, it all comes down to placing an ordnance package alongside the other fellow …and making sure it explodes. ” The final words a reminder that wholly realistic (admittedly expensive} and random tests of weaponry have too often been woefully lacking. History tells us that it is a false economy to forgo them.

On a related subject, are Ruritaneans convinced that they want just one general purpose type of SSN which can, in theory, perform all tasks? Are they sure that they will not-inevitably in vain-try to cover all possibilities instead of shooting for carefully judged probabilities? Is there not some merit in having smaller (preferably air-independent) boats-equivalent to surface frigates and sneak craft-for inshore and intruder operations? SSNs can undeniably work in shallow, confined waters; but their capabilities are largely wasted there, and these very valuable assets can be at undue risk-especially from buried mines, whatever mine-detection devices such as robots are available. Smaller and less vulnerable vehicles, perhaps built of special materials, would be more suitable, more economical and safer.

Intruder Operations

The last thought leads to intruder operations and the complaint of President Woodrow Wilson, speaking of German U-boats in 1917: “I despair of hunting hornets aJ I over the farm when I know where their nest is”. Mini-subs, transported by their big sisters, are ideal for dealing with nests.

Midget submarines, exemplified by British X-craft in World War II, are strategic weapon systems. They are not simply scaled-down, and hence less effective, versions of standard tactical boats. History proves their worth, yet Western defences against midgets have been dangerously neglected since the war. I know of only one firm (outside Sweden where small submarine incursions have been frequent) which is committing itself wholeheartedly to the specific threat, and that firm is not, I think, working directly for the U.S or British navies.

Historically, witness the attack in 1943 on the giant German battleship TIRPITZ, holed up in a Norwegian fjord where no ordinary units could reach her. Two four-manX-craft penetrated the lair, and TIRPITZ never went to sea operationally again. Capital ships of the British Home Fleet and two American battleships, which had all been standing guard lest TIRPITZ emerge to savage Russian convoys, were thereby released for active duties-a strategic result.

Witness the Italian raid by three so·called human torpedoes on Alexandria in 1941 when six brave men crippled the battleships VALIANT and QUEEN ELIZABETH-the dominance of British over Italian naval power in the Mediterranean was toppled at a stroke. That was a strategic triumph, not a tactical skirmish.

Witness the cutting, by X-craft, of Japanese seabed telephone cables in 1945-the Japanese were forced to revert to radio communications which were thereupon intercepted by UL· TRA – ·again a strategic consequence.

Witness the flocks of new midgets acquired, or being acquired by Russian, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and, probably soon, China. Iraq is probably also back in the market after (allegedly) being frustrated in 1988·90. We have to remember that nowadays midgets could carry strategic weapons including primitive nuclear devices-it is highly desirable to learn the capabilities of modern mini-monsters.

There is arguably a case for proper midgets, in addition to wet Swimmer Delivery Vehicles reconsidered for the USN and RN. The title of an article of mine for US NIP, written in 1961, has been revived in a 1994 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, Bring Back the Midgets-so perhaps thoughts are turning again to those inexpensive strategic tools. I hope so.


Finally, history·experience tells us a lot about submarine people. These deserve a separate discussion; but, for the moment, the Ruritaneans might like to consider two topical matters of concern to Western navies-women and gays in submarines.

If the question of introducing women into submarines is put to the Ruritanean Navy, as it has been to the British, it is well to remember that morale is historically the key to success; and comradeship is the key to morale.

Women have no place in the kind of comradeship that submarine crews depend upon-more’s the pity, but it is a fact. Nor do overt gays. Nevertheless, there have always been homosexuals at sea. Winston Churchill , First Sea Lord in 1939, recalled that the Royal Navy’s traditions were founded on “Rum, buggery and the lash”. Homosexuals were punished (we now believe unjustly) when their activities became known; but, although it smacks of hypocrisy, if they stayed in the closet there was no evident harm to a crew’s comradeship and hence morale.It is irrelevant that women or gays are competent at their jobs, as they may be in surface ships. Submarine crews are historically special; and if submariners are accused of being macho and chauvinistic, so be it.

A senior British submarine officer was recently asked why he did not want women in submarines. Backed into a corner by the Press, he offered the excuse that their hips were too big for the hatches. I think there is a more compelling reason for excluding women than that.


In short, there is reason to think that U.S. and British navies are not putting history-experience to good use. Some planning and some arguments appear to be back to front or not expressed as persuasively as they could be with the help of history. The Ruritaneans may feel they could do better.

Meanwhile, at a time when politicians are leading the public to believe that the threat of major war has disappeared and that forces can be diminished dramatically, I suggest that one especially significant historical lesson should be underlined: it is capabilities, not currently perceived intentions, which count when estimating a threat.

[Editor’s Note: Richard Compton-Hall, a submariner. author and historian, retired at the end of July after service as Director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport for some 20 years.]

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