the context of the Naval Doctrine recently stated by the Indian
Navy, we highlight the effectiveness of submarines as an instrument
of war and deterrence. This piece which appeared in the Washington
Post was sent to us by Mohan Guruswamy
SUBMARINE: A History
Thomas Parrish. Viking. 576 pp. $29.95
by Douglas Porch)
"bitter enders," "a sure sign of weakness,"
"desperation tactics," "pathological,"
"aberrant." Terms that could be drawn from a Donald
Rumsfeld briefing on terrorism in fact constitute some of the more
printable characterizations of submariners and their tactics at the
opening of the last century. That a weapons system invented to
facilitate a guerre de course -- or "commerce war," a form
of maritime insurgency that slithered over into piracy -- would
elicit condemnation from more tradition-minded warriors was foreseen
by Leonardo da Vinci, who refused to actualize his design for a
submersible for the benefit "of men who practice assassination
at the bottom of the sea."
coroner's court in Kinsale, Ireland, agreed with Leonardo that
assassination was indeed the business of submarines, when on May 10,
1915, it declared "the Emperor and the Government of
Germany" guilty of murder in the sinking of the Lusitania. Any
doubts that the chivalry of maritime
had become one of the first casualties of submarine warfare had been
laid to rest barely three weeks into World War I, when the U-9
single handedly sank the British 7th Cruiser Squadron off the Hook
of Holland. And there was another, especially sinister feature to
this encounter -- after having torpedoed the British cruiser Aboukir,
the captain of the U-9 then lingered to pot the two British cruisers
that rushed to rescue the Aboukir's drowning crew. The message was
clear: Any captain who slowed to rescue shipwrecked sailors or
loitered off an invasion beach offered his ship and crew to ambush
by these heartless killers of the deep. "Underhand, unfair, and
damned un-English" was the verdict of one British admiral.
perhaps, but irrelevant. When 26 men in a slow boat could send
36,000 tons of warship to the bottom, all it took was the squeeze of
the British maritime blockade, combined with the failed breakout of
the High Seas Fleet at Jutland in 1916, to convince Berlin that the
U-boat was a potential war winner. In his exhaustive new study, The
Submarine, Thomas Parrish charts the history of this revolutionary
craft, taking pains to stress its halting rise to prominence as a
near-indispensable feature of modern naval warfare.
as the early German experiments with the submarine in World War I
went on to demonstrate, good tactics seldom translate into brilliant
strategy. Unrestricted U-boat warfare together with news of the
infamous Zimmerman telegram helped to justify America's April 1917
entry into the Great War -- and thus to speed Germany's eventual
use of submarines as a weapon of war faced considerable operational
impediments, as well as moral objections. Diving planes, ballast
tanks, diesel engines and reinforced hulls offered technological
challenges that were only gradually mastered. In 1864, the H.L.
Hunley, a Confederate Navy craft, became the first submarine to sink
a ship. But onboard mishaps were
more common than direct hits, and for several decades engineers
struggled to make the submarine more lethal to the enemy than to its
own crew. The achievement of reliable torpedo technology challenged
U.S. submariners until well into 1943.
features of submarine crewmanship were less lethal, yet still far
from attractive, especially in the early years. The navy expression
"as welcomed as a fart on a submarine" hints at a combat
environment that stank of stale, dank air, unwashed bodies,
malodorous heads and spoiled food.
rattled by the concussion of depth charges, often must have longed
to exchange their breathless claustrophobia for a well-ventilated
such arduous conditions, submarines soon graduated to full combat
status under German naval command. In both world wars, German subs
achieved results far out of proportion to their small numbers. But
this was largely because the Allies were slow to develop tactics and
technology to deal with the U-boat threat -- Q-ships, mine barrages,
zig-zagging convoys with destroyer escorts to take advantage of the
submarine's slow underwater speed, depth charges, hydrophones,
sonar, Huff-Duff (direction-finding), sub-hunting aircraft and, in
World War II, Ultra-guided intelligence that allowed the Allies to
locate the wolfpacks and the ships ("milch cows" in
parlance) that supplied them.
of this made submarine service a high-risk enterprise. Twenty-two
per cent of U.S. submariners perished in World War II, the highest
casualty rate of any U.S. service, but far below the huge proportion
of German U-boat crews who were lost at sea.
if submarines were so effective, did Germany build so few of them?
Parrish fails to note that, before 1914, submarines fit poorly into
Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz's vision of a "Luxury Fleet"
fashioned to announce Germany's arrival as a great power. A fleet
built around battleships and heavy cruisers required an assembly of
admirals and a conscription program to rival that of the prestigious
Prussian army. A discrete submarine force commanded by a politically
invisible cadre of lieutenant commanders did not fit Tirpitz's
political agenda, even if it would have better served Germany's
defense needs. Parrish also fails to note that French enthusiasm for
submarines in the Entente cordiale days at the turn of the 20th
century was anchored less in the realization that the Gallic navy
was no match for its cross-Channel rival than in the desire of the
to break the political power of a conservative Catholic fleet
Parrish tells an entertaining story, in the end his enthusiasm for
his subject clouds his judgment. "From the naval point of
view," he declares, the 20th century "could without undue
exaggeration be called the Century of the Submarine," marking
the craft as "a potentially decisive
in war." Yet from a nautical perspective, the last hundred
years undoubtedly would be better characterized as "the century
of the carrier." Nor was the submarine, for all of its
lethality, capable of anything more than drive-by warfare. One
searches in vain for an example of the "decisive success"
of the submarine in any war, including the Pacific during World War
II, where, although U.S. submarines caused extensive damage to
Japanese commerce (largely because the Japanese failed to react) and
discouraged Tokyo from redeploying forces from China to deal with
the U.S. advance across the Pacific, U.S. victory in Asia relied on
a lethal combination of air, land and sea forces working in unison.
The post-World War II generation of nuclear-powered,
missile-carrying "boomers" developed under the direction
of the irascible Adm. Hyman Rickover and Adm. Arleigh Burke,
provided a secure, second nuclear strike capability. Ironically,
given the lethal history of submarines that Parrish has sketched,
they plied the oceans for decades helping to keep the Cold War cold,
without ever firing a shot.
Porch is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval
Postgraduate School and the author, most recently, of "The Path
to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II."