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David Miller is no stranger to the Naval Submarine League – he has written several articles for the Review and attended our annual symposium. However, it was interesting to learn that he is a retired Colonel from the British Anny. I wondered why he would be writing a book about submarine disasters. Through email, I quickly learned that he has specialized in naval matters and has published six books on submarines. Through his writing and personal experience on several submarines he has become familiar with the world of the submariner. This book provides him the opportunity to pay his respects to those who go down in the sea in ships.

Submarine Disasters is a coffee-table book with a picture of SQUALUS, surfacing after her disaster, on the dust cover. The pictures in this volume alone will capture your attention as many have not been published before in such a wide collection.

Miller organizes his research in five time periods covering over 150 years of submarine history. Within this framework he analyzes submarine losses that are not related to submarine warfare- sunk by enemy action or scuttling to avoid capture by the enemy. He reviews four other causes of submarine disasters hazards of the sea (grounding, foundering), collisions, equipment malfunctions, and human error. Some disasters are due to unknown causes and not otherwise classified- like USS SCORPION (SSN 589). Others fall into a category he calls constructive total Joss when the submarine suffered a disaster, was recovered, but then surveyed due to the extent of damage.

Submarine Disasters also analyzes some functional problems associated with submarine development over the last 150 years. The author starts with the fact that the nature of submarine operations is still not well understood. Submerging a ship in a body of water, operating in an opaque environment, and surfacing without hitting something still haunts the submariner. Proper use of materials, specifications, and methods in fabricating submarines remains a problem. Complexity continues to challenge the designer, builder, operator, and supporter. He identifies several early disasters where the submarine was functionally inept- specifically the HUNLEY that sank three times with the loss of three crews- a record that does not need to be challenged!

There are many examples where human error is identified with a specific disaster, but Miller takes the initiative to identify situations where profound leadership is responsible for the recovery of the crew and salvaging the submarine. He cites an early example in 1851 where a small German submarine on sea trials reached a depth of 30 feet when the hull started to distort and lost propulsion- the hand crank fell off the shaft that turned the propeller. The submarine sank in 53 feet of water. The Captain (also the designer and builder) encouraged the two other crew members (engineers responsible for turning the screw) to remain calm until the pressure equalized in the submarine. He then opened the hatch and did a free ascent escape without loss of life.

Technology continues to challenge the safe operation of submarines. Gasoline fumes were a major problem in atmosphere control. Mice seemed to be the alerting mechanism rather than canaries. As new fluids and weapons were introduced, different processes created explosions that accounted for many submarine disasters, the latest being KURSK. The introduction of batteries created a new source of problems and still concerns submariners.

The low profile of a surfaced submarine has been a common problem throughout their history. Even with additional lights, radar, bridge-to-bridge communications, and a strong qualification program for submarine operators, submarines continue to have collisions with surface ships. Miller provides a long list of various ways a submarine was at risk on the surface.

The author provides an extensive list of submarine disasters in a six page table in a separate section of his book. You may be concerned that several incidents are not included in the table, but he caveats the table with some exclusion criteria and recent disasters may too recent to be incorporated.

The final section of the book is a thorough discussion of submarine search and rescue. The recent response and rescue of the Russian submersible PRIZ is covered as is the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO). Miller notes that some 65 submarines built for the United States Navy have been lost during their service- more than ten percent of the total number built. Many were lost during war operations while others were lost when the sea was the only declared foe.

Submarine Disasters will be a fine addition to anyone’s submarine library and a rich resource of a history that is rather unique to naval operations-rescue of a crew from inner space where there are limited opportunities to reach the submarine


29 July- 9 August 2007

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