This book was recommended to me as “the best single overall book on submarine operations in World War II”. Naturally, I had to follow up on such words and when my copy arrived in the mail I saw John Keegan quoted on the front cover as “The standard work on the subject”. High praise indeed; and I found Peter Padfield’s book to live up to both billings. It is, therefore, recommended to all with either general or specific interest in submarining, World War II, higher tactical leadership or the making of strategy. The most interesting of all, of course, is examining the anatomy of that particular brand of heroism which leads to successful independent operations against the enemy’s strength.
In his Prelude and in his first Chapter, Padfield sets the stage, respectively, for the submarine campaigns of World War II and for submarines and submariners of the era. The Prelude describes the first attack of the War on the 13,500 ton ATHENIA, by Ober Leutnant Lemp of U-30, with the sinking and its attendant repercussions. Chapter One very well captures both the advantages and disadvantages of service in submarines of the War’s major combatants. He succinctly explains the mechanics of submerged shiphandling and torpedo attack in the 1940s and introduces his question about the type of person who volunteered to do these things. A major thread to his account of the War’s submarine campaigns is the development of his answer to that question. Woven through his accounts of individual action, and higher level decision, are his descriptions of character traits and practices of submarine skippers and their commanders.
The run up to the Second World War as it pertained to submarines is treated fully enough to describe the main types of boats built for each of the major powers; and to address the common problem facing each of those forces. Padfield’s introduction to that section shows both his understanding of the scope of the question “Why submarines?” and his somewhat understandable bias to the British situation.
“The submarine did not change between the wars; it simply developed in small ways from its forerunners in the first war, yet there were distinct differences between the national fleets. These had less to do with differing national requirements than with a shared misunderstanding of the role and strategic potential of the weapon by the gunnery admirals at the top, aggravated by the distorting effects on design of naval limitation treaties.”
Padfield’s general words intimate an overall repression of submarine innovation between the wars, as experienced by the Royal Navy. However, he does treat the United States situation a bit more generously about hardware in his specific description of the American workup to the undersea war of the ’40s. That is, he does give full credit to the 1920s and ’30s U.S. Submarine Officers Conference for coming up with the design of the WW II Fleet Boat, as opposed to the less innovative designs of the other navies. The U.S. Navy as an entity, however, is criticized heavily for insensitivity during the same period. He blames the Navy for its lack of pre-war insightful planning, its rigid training practices which stifled tactical growth, its overly close and stingy torpedo development and its bureaucratic approach to solution of the weapon problems.
The Submarine War itself is treated both chronologically and by the three main theaters. The Atlantic features the Gennan U-Boats and their struggle against growing Allied strength, the Mediterranean pits the British against the Axis efforts to cut off the Middle East, and his account of the Pacific War addresses both the American and Japanese submarine campaigns. In describing the The End of the war, Padfield sums up the won-loss records of the four Submarine Forces and provides his own evaluation of the best and worst of the force commanders. It would be interesting to hear the views of American veterans and students of the WWII War Beneath the Sea concerning Padfield’s opinions about the commanders.
During the early Atlantic submarine war the Royal Navy submariners had a particularly hard patrol area just off the low countries, keeping watch for an invasion fleet in the shallow waters and rough seas of the North Sea and English Channel. The author holds that period as preparation for the coming trials of RN submarines in the Med. The story told of the early U-Boat war features the exploits of the “aces”, young officers in command who ran up very impressive totals of tonnage sunk. The tales of Prien at Scapa Flow, and the wolfpack attacks with Kretschmer and Schepke scoring big victories for Doenitz are all told. The turning of the tide, however, is foretold in the German disasters of the Spring of 1941, even before America’s entry into the war. All three of those U-Boat aces were lost within one week in March of 1941. More importantly, Ober Leutnant Lemp, who had U-30 at the beginning of the war, was then in command of U-110 and in May of’ 41 was counter attacked in a convoy battle and had to scuttle his boat. Unfortunately for him, and for Doenitz, the boat did not sink immediately and the British escort commander was able to order a boarding and capture of their Enigma machine and code books. Lemp did not survive that action, although most of his crew did. Padfield treats the irony of those several weeks with typical understatement.
The tale of the U-Boat campaign of’ 42 and ’43 involves the U.S. with its ASW efforts and developments. The Paukenschlag operation off the east coast of America was a wake-up call for the U.S. Navy and Padfield revisits the British points about Admiral King not adopting the Royal Navy’s procedures and command structure for convoy protection. In describing King’s formation of the TENTH Fleet in May of 1943, he does give him credit for fully integrating U.S. ASW efforts. He seems to regret, however, that it was done by geographically separating USN and RN/RCN areas of operations, rather than at the outset giving supreme command of the Atlantic to the British. There are many lessons yet to be learned from the combined naval discussions of that period, and Padfield is to be thanked for raising the issues again.
The Mediterranean War is largely the story of the RN’s TENTH Submarine Flotilla of540 ton U class submarines based in Malta. The larger (1090 ton), but still not big, T class from Egypt did some great work in the Aegean and the eastern Med, but the tiny Us carried the brunt of the battle to stop Axis resupply and reinforcement of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The saga told of Malta with continuous air bombardments and the TENTH Flotilla continuing to refit and rearm its boats is one of tenacity, innovation, collective bravery and amazing focus on the important objectives. The Med had its share of submarine heroes as well. Wanklyn in UPHOLDER, Tomkinson in URGE and Miers in TORBAY all made impressive records in tonnage sunk and German plans upset, displaying professional skill and personal bravery in uncommon amounts. Padfield offers an interesting parallel between the characters of Miers and Mush Morton for them both having machine gunned enemy soldiers in the water after sinking their troop ships.
The submarine campaigns of the Pacific War probably hold more interest for American readers, and it is instructive to read of that war from a British perspective. The author characterizes the first year or so of US submarine action as “an inauspicious start”. He again blames King for not recognizing the new realities of the requirements for submarines, and particularly for separating command and control of Pacific submarines between two theaters. His point is that an integrated, focused tonnage war on Japanese shipping might well have brought the war to a close a lot earlier. Single command of submarines as a strategic asset is an interesting point, both from the extent of its pertinence to the WWII case and its applicability to future planning.
All the submarine aces of our pantheon are mentioned by Padfield and given due credit for extraordinary accomplishments. WAHOO’s exploits in sinking a destroyer at Wewak in New Guinea and on the same patrol the sinking of two frieghters, one transport and one tanker by the team of Mush Morton and Killer O’Kane are covered in detail. Those details also include Morton preventing the Japanese troops who survived the sinking from reaching the nearby shore to fight again. Red Ramage in PARCHE and his convoy melee, Sam Dealey in HARDER and his five destroyer destruction derby, and O’Kane on his own in TANG are all covered adequately enough to give the general reader a good feeling for the skill, daring and tenacity of those skippers. The late-war incursions to the Chinese and Korean coasts by Gene Fluckey in BARB and George Steele in TIRANTE in their actions against covert convoys are well covered. It is apparent, however, that space did not permit a full treatment of the work and knowledge involved in finding those convoys nor of the skill and fortitude displayed by each in going into shallow water in an enemy harbor to wreck havoc on what was left of Japanese shipping.
At the end of the book Padfield gives his evaluation of the force commanders. Doenitz is given an outstanding place for “his clear focus on the tonnage war”. Padfield does say that toward the end he sent his U-Boat men out to die in obsolete boats, but does not score him for not starting a parallel path of technical improvement at the outset and waiting until too late in the war to push the Type XXL At the same time he counts Christie in SW Pac as .. the most disastrous failure” for his actions in command regarding the magnetic exploder affair. There seems to be a cross in the author’s reasoning about the material responsibilities of operational submarine commanders. On the British side, Captain Simpson, Commodore of the TENTH Flotilla in Malta, is ranked among the highest while Admiral Pound and the British Naval Staff “lacked clarity or sufficient force in argument with Churchill” which allowed the U-Boats “to bring Great Britain within an ace of defeat”.
Oddly enough, neither Lockwood nor Nimitz were named among his list of the best.