A Thundering Good Read

Like half of the rest of the English speaking world, I am currently racing though the latest Jack Reacher novel, 'Make Me; an easy going three day popcorn read and we love Lee Child for it. (Why did they miscast Tom Cruise in the movie btw? Surely they need to find a gritty Lee Marvin type or was it because TC personally bought the rights?). Anyway, I offer this literary post not in praise of Big Jack but of another book I've recently finished, a thundering good read called 'War Beneath The Sea,' by Naval historian Peter Padfield.

In the book, Padfield walks the reader through submarine warfare in the Second World War from start to finish from both an Allied and the Axis powers, including Japan, perspective. His skill is in articulating the war from both a strategic and tactical view, giving us a window on the geopolitical challenges faced by different Navies, the design, build, supply, training and different fighting doctrine used by the Royal Navy, the Americans, Germans Italians and Japanese. 

The crew gathered around the gun platform of HMS Unruffled while in Valetta Harbour, Malta. Extreme right is Lt J S Stevens DSO, DSC (Commanding Officer), behind him is Lt O Lascelles MBE, DSO

Thankfully, none of the enemy got it quite right, nor did we. Many of the glaring deficiencies of the Allied effort that have their roots in hubris and dogma at the highest levels of Allied command have been glossed over with the passing of years but Padfield lays them out in brutal and honest fashion. Had we in Britain for example, not allowed Harris to be so dogmatic in his pursuit of area bombing in Germany and released more aircraft to cover the Atlantic then hard won lessons in the Great War might have been put to more timely use and many lives in the convoys would have been saved. .

Similarly, the British hating American Admiral King could have considerably shortened the Pacific war had he targeted Japanese supply convoys transiting through Asian waters to Japan in the manner employed by the German wolf packs. Given Japan has no natural resources to speak of, how obvious was that?  King wasn't a very imaginative individual. Releasing even small amounts of Liberator aircraft to cover the ' Atlantic Gap,' would have had the same positive impact on the war in Europe. No one country emerges with a faultless reputation . We made plenty of errors ourselves. We all know for example of the stunning effect intelligence derived from Enigma and Bletchley Park had on the war effort but did we know that German Naval intelligence had also cracked our codes? I didn't. It seems odd that we deployed so much effort into cracking their codes but didn't think they might be doing the same to us.

Wanklyn (left) with his First Lieutenant and senior engineer J. R. D Drummond (right), 13 January 1942

Where the book finds common ground in all the different Navies is in the descriptions of the privations, tenacity and courage of the submariners themselves. It was a filthy job. The Germans for example had a worse life expectancy than did our boys in Bomber Command. Submariners generally are a close knit and secretive group of men. Any sort of publicity has been deeply frowned upon throughout the post war years, given the nature of their roles in the Cold War. Driving nuclear subs around the Soviet coast was never something they wanted on the front pages. That is quite understandable and one wonders if the Cold War submarine story will ever be told in the same way that Special Forces deeds have become fairly accessible reading. With that closed group mentality though there is a cost and part of the cost is that the bravery of their forebears has become lost in the national collective memory. That is a shame because names like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn VC DSO and Two Bars ought to be known by every schoolboy in this country. There are many others. Read Padfield's book and you'll discover them.

I can't recommend this book enough. It ought to be mandatory reading for officers of all services, politicians and multi national business leaders. It lays out is clinical fashion, the high cost of arrogant and inflexible thinking and of uncoordinated planning at the highest levels evident in all the combatant nations. Criminal really. 

'... the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril'. Churchill