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Walter J. Boyne, Editor
Berkley Publishing Group/Army Times Publishing Group 1997
ISBN 0-425-15777-6
Reviewed by Donald M. Hamadyk

As noted in the title, this book is not a run-of-the-mill survey of submarine design, and does not profess to rival the technical detail typical of Submarine Design and Development and other works. Rather, Mr. Harris uses technology as a framework to explore the personalities, societal issues, and history associated with submarines. The result is a mosaic of characters and struggles that shaped the submarine landscape as we know it today. In contrast to other works, the most interesting facets of the book are the failures, shortcomings, and dichotomies that ultimately led to the success of the submarine as a military platform. My only hesitation in writing this review is that it will not convey\ the richness and uniqueness of the book.

The first highlight of the book is the parade of very early submarine shapers and experimenters, such as Borelli, Giannibelli, Drebbel, Halley, Bushnell, Fulton, Colt, and Maury. Readers may be surprised at the cast of submarine characters whose notoriety is generally derived from other areas. The globalness of the market plied by some of these individuals should also open a few eyes. Robert Fulton, as an example, was actively pursuing Britain, France, and the U.S. as potential submarine customers at various times.

My opinion is that the first half is the most enlightening. The dynamics of pre-WWI submarine evolution as revealed here are fascinating. These were the seminal years of submarines, and each major step and setback left its indelible mark upon the culture. The second half covers more well-trod territory with added nuances that are likely new to some readers.

One of the more striking mannerisms of this book is its non linearity. Mr. Harris weaves a story that shows the submarine coming into its own not on the strict basis of a need-to-solution sequence, but rather a more chaotic churning and clash of ideas, with fits, starts, and seeming dead-ends. For those who are fans of the PBS television series Connections, Mr. Harris’ story also links people, places and thoughts in much the same intriguing fashion. My first reaction on finishing the book was to start reading it again immediately; I knew I had missed some of its finer points, as there are many.

Early views that submarine warfare was dishonorable, “damned un English”, and was a means of “secret murder” are interspersed at appropriate points in the book, highlighting a major cultural change that had to be overcome. Descriptions of the day for Nordenfeldt’s submarine as “Uncle Sam’s devil of the deep”, the “monster war fish”, and the “hell diver”, also give a flavor for how the platform was perceived. The fortitude and grit of early submarine crews in the face of outlandish conditions and risks is also well described. The twentieth century has smoothed these rough edges, and although submarine conditions are still not luxurious, and the rigor of the lifestyle still exists. those harsh condition will likely never prevail again.

The evolving linkage and overlap of submarine bombs, mines, torpedoes, and submarines themselves, as well as how each of these were used, proves to be very enlightening. Similarly, early debates over the use of “porpoising” vice a periscope to scan the surface are an interesting element. Descriptions of frequent competitions and demonstrations of submarine warfare and capability are another highlight of the book. Here the reader will discover many of the less frequently revealed sinkings, slip-ups, and technological and tactical failures alluded to above. Mr. Harris also points out instances in which the Navy tended to be its own worst enemy in not pursuing or even blocking pursuit of submarine capabilities. The book does a nice job of building to the first culmination, albeit bittersweet, of the submarine’s utility (the CSS HUNLEY’s 1864 sinking of HOUSTANIC) as “threads of technology converged around the Civil War experience”.

Without revealing major high points, here is a small sampling of typical offerings from the book:

  • A very fascinating transcript is provided of the 1917 German internal operational orders for “unrestricted warfare” giving explicit U-boat tactics that were to be used.
  • The irony of HOLLAND VI with control surfaces aft of the propeller being judged not controllable, modified to reverse this, then the hydrodynamic ALBACORE later returning to this configuration.
  • The interesting but macabre use of a cat, rooster, rabbit, and dove in early submarine shock testing to gauge human survivability, albeit quite politically incorrect in today’s value system, and the white mice carried aboard as oxygen “indicators”.
  • The Germans’ use of “milchcows” (submarine supply vessels that accomplished replenishment at sea for multiple German U-boats in one location simultaneously), and the Japanese Kaiten (suicide submarines) and 1-400 class submarine aircraft carrier.

The final chapter is about the only place I found the book less than sparkling. The cursory overview of modern submarine development is not bad, but could leave the more informed reader unimpressed. This is a very minor point in the context of the whole work. Even this section has some good anecdotal parts, such as the brief interesting description of the first (unsuccessful) ELF program, and a concise chronology of SSBN development.

The mechanics of the book are outstanding, in my opinion. The 50-plus black and white photographs include a few gems. Some examples are a close up shot of the first HOLLAND crew, a Japanese S-1 aircraft carrier submarine, and a chilling photograph of the THRESHER wreckage. Those who tend to sit up in the middle of the night with a gnawing question can easily locate and return to specific passages via the detailed table of contents and index. Mr. Harris even takes time out to explain a few basic naval architecture terms, which should prove helpful to some readers early in the book. A deep bibliography and extensive acknowledgments which are educational in themselves round out the peripherals. The frequent colorful quotations and verses embedded in the text are worth a good pan of the price of the book alone. There are many good leads for further reading here!

In summary, Mr. Harris has charted somewhat new territory (to my knowledge) by getting more to the heart and soul of submarine evolution and revolution than the technical essence, which has been addressed more extensively by others. In so doing, he has painted a landscape that includes dead ends, failures, ethics and morals that came into question, and challenged paradigms. In the Epilogue, Mr. Harris muses over the submarine nuclear power versus diesel power question. The questions we are left with are: how many paradigms remain to be challenged, and which ones, when shattered, will lead to the next revolution in submarines?

As stated above, upon finishing the book I was compelled to read it again as soon as possible.

Highest recommendation


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