Anti-Submarine Warfare - An Illustrated History
By David Owen ISBN 978-1-84415-703-7; Seaforth Publishing, 2007. Hardback, 224 pages, 190 illustrations, £25
In his Introduction David Owen writes that Anti-Submarine Warfare sets out to tell the story of the technology and tactics that has prevented the submarine from achieving complete dominance over naval warfare during the hundred and more years since its first appearance. Bearing in mind the vast amount of information already published on this subject, it would be over ambitious to attempt to achieve a history of anti-submarine warfare in one volume, and clearly the author has had to be selective in what he put in and what he left out.
The first chapter records the development of the submarine from 1578 to 1913, from a proposal for a submersible craft by William Bourne, through a range of designs up to the Royal Navy's 'D' class submarines of 1910, and Germany's patrol submarines of 1912. Although the author starts his story in 1578, it was not until the advent of the Holland boats in the 1880's that submarine development had reached the point where it posed a threat to surface ships. The Royal Navy (RN) started to consider means of locating and attacking submarines in the 1880's, but the earliest reference to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in this book is the proposal made in 1903 by C in C Home Fleet, to carry out a major fleet exercise to determine the best way to frustrate submarine attacks against surface warships.
Although this chapter makes interesting reading, it contains little of relevance to ASW, and information on the early days of submarine development is well documented elsewhere; for example in Submarine Boats by Richard Compton Hall.
U-boat operations in the First World War and the development of countermeasures by the RN are described in the next two chapters. In 1914 the RN was ill prepared to fight submarines; detection was primarily by sighting submarines on the surface, and the main A/S weapons were the depth charge and the gun, although hydrophones were used later. Other counter measures included mines, torpedoes, explosive devices, Q ships and arming merchant ships. In December1916 the Admiralty took a significant step in dealing with the threat by setting up an Anti-Submarine Division, the remit of which included the development of new scientific countermeasures.
For too long the RN had searched for U-boats by patrolling the seas with little success, and meanwhile the unescorted merchant ships were an easy prey to submarines. The convoy system was belatedly started in 1917, and it was soon realised that this led to fewer merchant ships being lost, and that the system made it easier to locate U-boats by forcing them to find the convoys.
The author writes, "The First World War has been covered in less detail, as the U-boats' astonishing successes in that campaign were achieved against a frantic but ultimately fruitless struggle to find a way of getting back at them". This is not the view held by David K Brown. In his article Defeat in the Atlantic? Anti-Submarine Warfare 1917-1919, published in Warship 2002/2003, he produces documentary evidence to show that the U-boat was defeated by 1918, and the chance of any resurgence in 1919 was slight. This reviewer is inclined to agree with Brown.
The fourth chapter covers the period up to 1939. In the 1920's Germany managed to maintain expertise in building and operating submarines, although forbidden to do so under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, it was not until the early 1930's that the U-boat threat was fully appreciated, and assumptions were made as to how Germany would make use of submarines in the war that loomed ahead.
Plans were made to introduce convoys to protect merchant ships in the event of unrestricted submarine warfare, and for building long range convoy escort vessels. Research into the detection of submerged submarines by high frequency sound waves (asdic) was continued, and sets capable of detecting submarines, and assessing target range and bearing, were available for fitting in A/S vessels in 1939. However, no reference is made in this chapter to the development of radio aids (radar) for detecting submarines on the surface, where sufficient progress had been made by 1941 to enable radar sets to be fitted in A/S vessels.
The next twelve chapters are devoted to the Second World War, and ASW operations during the Battle of the Atlantic, Russian convoys, D-Day landings, actions in the Mediterranean and the Pacific are described in some detail. Convoys were introduced at the outset, and U-boat operations were aimed at sinking merchant ships at a greater rate than that at which they could be replaced. The development of A/S tactics and improvements to A/S equipment are described. The performance of radar and asdic was improved, (with target depth being obtained from later asdic sets), and good use was made of passive devices like hydrophones and high frequency direction finding equipment. The introduction of ahead throwing weapons in ships (the Hedgehog and the Squid A/S mortar) significantly improved the probability of destroying submarines below the surface. Homing weapons were developed and used successfully, the American Mk.24 air dropped torpedo (Fido) being particularly effective. (For wartime security reasons this torpedo was referred to as the Mk.24 'Mine'.)
Several new classes of A/S frigate were designed and built, and ships were transferred from the US Navy. Surface escort vessels were responsible for sinking 225 submarines, and further information is to be found in another Seaforth publication: Atlantic Escorts, Ships Weapons and Tactics in World War II by David K Brown. A recent review of this book by Richard Woodman appeared in Vol.94, No.3 of The Mariner's Mirror. The War in the Pacific, which deals mainly with actions involving the US Navy, is covered in two more chapters.
Although the importance of air power is emphasised, the author undervalues the part played by RN escort carriers when he writes: "So although some British carriers helped protect convoys from U-boat attack, this remained an area where the most spectacular successes would fall to US Navy hunter-killer groups". Kenneth Poolman's book Escort Carrier 1941-1945 describes the valuable role of RN carriers in escorting Atlantic and Russian convoys, supporting the D-Day landings, and serving in the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. Another informative reference book is Royal Navy Escort Carriers by David Hobbs, which details every patrol carried out by each escort carrier. Thirty-nine carriers were transferred to the RN from the US Navy. The potential of carrier escorts was recognised too by Admiral Doenitz, writing in his diary…"the sinking of the aircraft carrier is, therefore, of particular importance not only in this case (HMS Audacity) but in every future convoy action".
The last four chapters describe anti-submarine developments from the end of the Second World War up to 2006. One chapter deals with the threat posed by Russian submarines soon after the end of the Second World War, which led to a considerable amount of RN effort being put into the development of A/S ships and equipment. The author refers to the changes in ASW tactics to counter the threat posed by faster and deeper running conventional submarines, which at that time included those using high test peroxide as the oxidant for burning the fuel, (a system developed in Germany by Professor Walter).
There is only a brief reference to the A/S Mortar Mk.10 (Limbo) and its associated control system. The author describes the post war conversion of destroyers to Type 15 (full conversion) and Type 16 (limited conversion) A/S frigates. For interest he could also have mentioned two later Admiralty proposals, one for a new small A/S vessel, the 'third rate' Type 17 frigate, and the other to upgrade the Type 16 conversion to the Type 18 frigate, both of which were cancelled.
Unfortunately from here on the author's account of the new A/S frigates programme for the 1950's and 1960's is misleading. He records that the Type 15 and 16 frigates were boosted (in 1956) by new second-rank Type 14 frigates and continues, "nevertheless the requirement remained and was eventually filled by the Tribals".
In fact, the Type 12 Whitby class First Rate A/S frigates were in service in 1956, five years before the first Type 81 Tribal class General Purpose frigates in 1961. The Type 12 frigate, with its excellent sea keeping qualities, became the basic frigate design for the next 15 years. The Rothesay and Leander classes followed. The only mention of these ships is one reference to the Tribals, and an illustration of a Leander. Although the author is critical of the design of the Type 14 Blackwoods, he does not explain that they were designed as utility vessels from the outset, so that, with a prefabricated welded hull, they could be built rapidly in a future war.
The next two chapters describe the changes in submarine and anti submarine warfare from 1954 arising from the adoption of nuclear propulsion systems by USA, UK and Russia, and the need to counter the new threat posed by these fast, deep running submarines with their long underwater endurance. Helicopters with their homing torpedoes and dunking sonar enhanced the effective detection and sinking ranges of the frigate, and more importantly, hunter-killer nuclear submarines were considered to offer the best chance of locating and successfully attacking other nuclear submarines. Information on RN post war anti-submarine policy may be found in Eric Grove's book Vanguard to Trident, British Naval Policy since World War II. (This is not included in the author's list of source documents)
The final chapter deals with the threat from new designs of 'conventional submarines' from 1991. Although the number of nuclear propelled submarines operated by the British, Americans and Russians has fallen since the end of the Cold War, the number of 'conventional' submarines is increasing because many nations are unable to afford the high cost of building and operating nuclear submarines. There are also applications where the conventional submarine could be more cost effective, for example anti-terrorist and anti-piracy operations. The German Type 214 submarine is used as an example of a current design; the electric propulsion motor is powered either by fuel cells or high performance lead acid batteries to enable the boat to remain fully submerged for up to a month, with a claimed underwater sprint speed of seventeen knots, and a diving depth in excess of 1,300 feet. The Type 214 also offers low self generated noise levels, towed array sonar, torpedo tubes capable of firing wire guided homing torpedoes, and countermeasure systems to detect torpedoes and mines.
Finally, there is a useful list of Bibliography and Sources. The Index does not include all of the important items covered in the text, and I have found some page references to be incorrect. Although each chapter is supported by a section of Notes at the end of the book, I would welcome these being more comprehensive, particularly as it is not always clear from the text whether the author is expressing his own view, or that of others. There is no Glossary.
David Owen's book provides interesting accounts of various aspects of anti-submarine warfare over the past one hundred and twenty years, but by devoting twelve of the twenty chapters to the Second World War, he has not made the best use of available space to present a balanced history of anti-submarine warfare. The author attempts to justify this emphasis in the Introduction, by explaining that "the anti U-boat campaign of the Second World War remains the only period where large scale developments in ASW technology and tactics were actually put to the test, and many of the devices and weapons that form part of today's armoury were originally perfected in principle."
The tactical side is generally well presented, but the treatment of technical aspects is inconsistent. The designs of some A/S ship classes are satisfactorily described, but others are either given a passing reference, or as indicated earlier in this review, are not mentioned at all. Similarly some equipment, like the Leigh light fitted in aircraft, the depth charge, the Hedgehog and Squid ahead throwing weapons, and the American Mk.24 torpedo are well described, whilst others are either too briefly explained or not even mentioned. There is only a brief description of the A/S Mortar Mk.10 and its weapon control system that replaced the Squid A/S Mortar, and was for many years the most effective ship fitted A/S weapon in existence. There is no mention of the 'Ikara' missile system, developed by Australia, to increase the range at which a surface ship could sink an underwater submarine. In some Leander frigates, the 'Ikara' launcher replaced the 4.5inch gun mounting.
During the Second World War the RN depended largely on the USA for the supply of A/S homing torpedoes, but since that time there have been more than twenty British homing torpedo projects, of which the author refers only to the RN Mk.24 'Tigerfish', a wire guided torpedo which first saw service in 1980. Having described American and German torpedo designs, it would have been appropriate to mention some of the more interesting RN developments, and although some of these were unsuccessful, they are nevertheless part of ASW history.
British air dropped torpedoes included the large Mk.21 'Pentane', a well engineered weapon that was later cancelled, and the successful 18-inch Mk.30 'Dealer B', which was replaced by the US Mk.43 and 44 torpedoes. Heavy weight projects included ship and submarine launched versions of the 21-inch Mk.20 'Bidder', both of which were withdrawn as being too slow, and replaced in 1966 by the submarine launched 21-inch Mk.23 torpedo. The 21-inch Mk.12, using high test peroxide (HTP) as the oxidant, was developed under the code names 'Ferry' and 'Fancy'. Although the RN withdrew this torpedo after an accident in HMS Sidon in 1955, HTP torpedoes were later successfully built and marketed by Sweden, making use of RN experience, and German wartime technology.
This book is recommended as providing interesting reading on anti-submarine warfare generally, but in view of the reservations expressed above, it cannot be considered as a definitive book on the subject.
Reviewed by Derek Kitch
Add your comments
Please note: this is not an email facility, all comments are placed on
this page and on our Forum
Comment on this