Reviewed by THE SUBMARINE REVIEW Staff
The SUBMARINE REVIEW received a pre-publication typescript of Richard Compton-Hall’s new book and is presenting this review a little earlier than is to be expected because the subject matter, dealing with the time and events leading 140 to the modern submarine era, is of particular interest as we start the Centennial Year.
It must be noted at the outset of this review that Compton-Hall for no less than eight previous volumes about (mainly Royal Navy) submarines and most recently for an excellent series of articles in these pages about submariner winners of the Victoria Cross, gives unqualified credit to John Phillip Holland as the … clear winner of a long race … to produce a viable, credible and militarily effective submarine-even though he completes that acknowledgment with The submarine, as we know it, really is an Irish invention … “.
Compton-Hall’s account of man’s attempts to harness the military benefits of stealthy undersea warfare covers a period of about three and a half centuries prior to 1904, which he establishes as a base date for the burgeoning of the British submarine service because Admiral Jackie Fisher was then C-in-C Portsmouth and an avid submarine advocate. He paints a most readable and educational picture of the ideas and inventions of dreamers, entrepreneurs, and those desperate to offset the advantage of adversaries with overwhelming naval might. As an experienced submariner himself, in addition to being the most knowledgeable author and researcher, Compton-Hall offers some assessment of the various contrivances to provide a context for evaluating their real effectiveness. Jn that process, of course, he manages to deflate, or at least question, some of the stories which have been generated from the actual events. Bushnell’s TURTLE and Sergeant Ezra Lee’s mission of September 1776 against HMS EAGLE, then part of the British squadron blockading New York harbor, is the primary target of this demythologization. Even so, the author does illustrate the multiplication effect of a myth arising from a submarine potential.
All the old stories are here and, although almost all of them are worthy of books unto themselves, the compilation is most impressive in getting across the difficulty of mastering both the physics required and the mechanics necessary in coming up with an effective submarine. The very early 16’h and 171li century experiments are recounted and also discussed are several theoretical works of the time that gave continued impetus to the work of the inventors, both gifted and not so gifted. In the 18’th and 19’thcentury, besides Bushnell’s, Fulton’s story is told as is that of the valiant men of CSS HUNLEY, and the always entertaining tale about the Rev. George W. Garrett and his RESURGAM as well as his participation in the Nordenfelt/Zaharoff efforts to sell submarines to Greece and Turkey. The story of Bauer in Germany is told and his feat in getting his crew out of his bottomed submarine bears repeating whenever possible. Space no doubt prevented a fuller telling of the French efforts to field a submarine force useful in their competition with Great Britain. The intellectual work of their jeune ecole, which led to a significantly sized French submarine Canada around the tum of the century, and the design engineering of Monsieur Laubeuf in the 1890s both deserve a special place in the early history of submarines. It would be well worth the reader’s effort to follow up on the coverage by Compton-Hall to gain a better understanding of the French experience of this time and the reasons it did not come to more than it did.
Richard Compton-Hall is to be complimented for producing this very useful pre-history of military submarines at this time. In looking back over the twentieth century’s achievements and advances in undersea warfare it is instructive to realize that many of the reasons for having submarines today were present way back then, if only in somewhat different forms. Then, as of now, that was true for both strong and weaker maritime powers.