‘This formidable and addictive book’

Review by Major Gerry Bartlett, former defence journalist
on the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph *

As an Army man with a secret fear and loathing of the sea and ships generally, I was surprised to feel this book taking me over. It sparked the imagination and demanded total attention as I was plunged into epic convoy battles, ‘when hopes of victory were placed upon the shoulders of daring young submarine captains – many of whom perished alongside the men they commanded’, as the book’s blurb (and the author) puts it.

U-47, whose famous captain, Gunther Prien, sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in late 1939, an episode vividly told in ‘The Deadly Trade’. Prien and the crew of U-47 were among those lost in action during spring 1941. Image: US NHHC.

Strong, authoritative and perhaps upsetting stuff, Iain Ballantyne’s new book literally drips with overwhelming tales and interest on practically every one of its 752 pages. It is practically impossible to single out any particular chapter of this un-put-downable book as particularly fascinating, since they all are – in equal measure.

In a postscript, the author says: ‘We have voyaged across the vast span of submarine warfare history to a point where vessels that men once dreamed of in order to explore the wonders of the deep, now carry cargoes of nuclear annihilation.’

Cold War legacy: An elderly Delta IV Class ballistic missile submarine of the Russian Navy at sea in the Barents Sea, October 2016. ‘The Deadly Trade’ looks at both Cold War submarine operations and also today’s undersea activities. Photo: Norwegian Armed Forces.

He goes on: ‘The new rivalry between Russia and the West – including the construction of ballistic missile boats – does seem like a rewind to the bad old days.’ The postscript ends as follows: ‘The undersea warriors of today and tomorrow will, like their forebears reckon they can beat the odds and so will nations that deploy them on war patrols. To borrow and adapt the Spanish philosopher-poet George Santayana’s famous phrase, it is likely only the dead have seen the last of submarine warfare. Humanity will have to put its faith in “the better angels.” The submarine, for good or ill, seems destined to play a major part in world events, and indeed its activities could yet decide the fate of all humanity.’

The cover of the May 2018 edition of ‘Scribblings’, a depiction by renowned artist Paul Monteagle of a British BE2c fighter versus a Fokker of the German air arm during WW1. To see more of his work visit his website

One chapter that particularly captured my interest is entitled ‘Best of Enemies’, in which the author tells readers that during the Second World War, the allies ‘swept not just enemy submarines from the seas, but also eliminated entire navies’. He relates that from the inventories of the defeated fleets ‘they cherry-picked a few vessels as war booty – submarines primarily, though taking other ships too, with the Russians even commissioning an ex-Italian battleship into service.’

This is a fascinating chapter but one I should now leave and let buyers of this inspiring book enjoy at their leisure. Well done Iain, I am not surprised that countless readers thoroughly enjoy your books.

* This is a condensed version of a review published in the May 2018 edition of ‘Scribblings: The Journal of the Pen & Sword Club’ which presents ‘news, views, analysis and comment of interest to the military media operations community’. For more on that publication visit this website with further details of the club itself here.

 

The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) It is available via Amazon
and Waterstones and also via other retailers and shops.

 

Convoy Battles were as Important as El Alamein, Stalingrad or Guadalcanal

Seventy-five years ago saw what has often been lauded as the moment of victory for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. The key clashes were staged across April and May 1943, with convoy escorts battling a U-boat force encouraged by an impressive score in March – sinking 107 Allied ships in the month’s first 20 days – to believe it could yet secure supreme triumph for Germany.

As was so often the case in war, such an upswing in fortune could so easily become a downturn and signs of the German decline to come were there even in March. The month had closed amid dreadful weather, with only 15 enemy merchant vessels sent to the bottom by U-boats during its final 11 days. The submarine crews were tired, the boats battered and in need of repair, while fuel and torpedo stocks were depleted.

A U-boat hunts for a convoy in the vast N. Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Yet the resilient U-boat force soon sent its submarines back into action, to become locked in battle with escort groups, trying to break through and attack merchant vessels.

The first of the pivotal fights came in early April with the assault on convoy HX-231, of 61 merchant vessels, a battle stretching across hundreds of miles of ocean. The cutting edge of the wolf pack was blunted above all by the determined actions of the B7 escort group, led by the Royal Navy’s formidable Commander Peter Gretton. Six merchant vessels were sunk, for no boats lost, but the overall performance of the German submarines had been timid, the U-boat force War Log blaming it on ‘the inexperience of young Commanding Officers.’

A British escort charges off to tackle a U-boat to prevent it from sinking merchant ships in convoy across the Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

In fact, morale was so fragile in the U-boat force that some submarine COs eagerly embraced any mechanical defect to report their vessels non-operational. Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Grand Admiral Karl Donitz responded by threatening stiffer penalties for those he perceived to be shirkers.

The B7 group was also sent out to protect the 41-ship convoy ONS-5. The U-boats were ordered by their boss to wait for nightfall on 5 May and then to attack with vigour in order to ensure ‘there will be nothing of the convoy left’. This was far from being the case, with just 13 merchant vessels sunk, a poor return for five U-boats and their crews destroyed.

When the U-boats tried to score big again in late May, they failed utterly, with four submarines lost during attempts to attack convoy SC-130. All 37 of its precious merchant vessels – carrying fuel oil, explosives, lumber and grain among other things – were delivered safely to Liverpool.

By this time in the contest Allied escort groups & aircraft were clearly achieving a measure of superiority in the open ocean war that stacked the odds heavily against Germany’s submariners. In the first five months of 1943, Allied warships and aircraft sank 81 U-boats. With that rate of losses Donitz felt he had no choice but to admit wolf pack operations were no longer possible – at least not for the time being. He therefore issued an order for U-boats to withdraw from the North Atlantic on May 24.

The quality of Allied warships, not least their weapons and U-boat detecting equipment, had risen dramatically since German submarines had been able to wreak havoc on convoys (especially during 1940 – 1941). The senior leadership of the Allied escorts – the skill of junior officers too – was also greatly improved.

Gretton, along with other escort group commanders, including the equally lethally proficient Donald Macintyre and ‘Johnny’ Walker, were now getting into their stride. As they wielded their ships to great effect, long-range air patrols by Allied air forces bore down heavily on the enemy too, at times scoring a similarly devastating rate of kills.

An Allied aircraft attacks a U-boat as the struggle in the N. Atlantic continues during WW2. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

Amid all the memorializing of the great victories on land at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943, the great turning of the tide against the Axis – via the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Sixth Army surrendering to the Russians at Stalingrad, the capture of 275,000 Italian and German troops in Tunisia and Americans triumphing at Guadalcanal – the significance of the convoy battles in the Atlantic of April and May 1943 can become forgotten. Such critical events in the turn of the tide at sea risk being lost amid the amorphous term Battle of the Atlantic.

Those laurels that were awarded to the warship captains who beat the U-boats came in the form of paper slips on which were written decryptions of coded signals conveying congratulations from senior commanders. In the aftermath of the fight to get ONS-5 through there was at least a message of thanks from Prime Minister Winston Churchill signaled to escorts.

One post-war admiral – a junior officer serving in destroyers during 1943 – judged Allied victories in the Battle of the Atlantic to be as great as any land victory. According to Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald, they were vital in ‘preparing the way for the invasion of Europe’. Had it been fought ashore, or even a sea engagement in the age of fighting sail, the ONS-5 victory ‘would be [lauded] in the history books, like Salamis or Trafalgar’ for it was ‘no skirmish’ and the battle ‘to defend convoy ONS-5 was of more significance than Alamein.’

That may be stretching it a little, but the point is well made, for pitched battles at sea do not leave behind scarred buildings or pockmarked bunkers, or wrecked tanks littering the landscape. Nor do the casualties lie in lovingly tended war cemeteries close to the scene of the battle to offer an all too tangible reminder of sacrifice.

Those who perished in the battles for convoys HX-231, ONS-5 and SC-130 lie in unseen and unknowable watery graves, vanished under the sea either inside their sunken ships and submarines or swept away by the cruel sea until absorbed into the vastness of the ocean.


Each merchant vessel that reached a UK port was another victory for the Allies in the struggle against the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Photo: US National Archives.

Victory for the Allies was actually recorded in the ships the enemy never saw – the vessels that slid by the U-boats without a shot being fired and to enter a British port to offload their vital cargoes, all routine and largely unremarked. Each ship unloaded was, however, another small victory and diminished even further Germany’s chances of success.

Even though May 1943 is often regarded as the moment when the Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allies – enabling the invasion of Normandy just over a year later – in reality the bitter struggle between Allied escorts/airpower and U-boats continued right until the end of the war in Europe. There were even fears the war at sea off Europe could still be lost by the Allies.

It morphed into a different kind of contest – in fact a series of contests stretching from the deep ocean to inshore waters around N.W. Europe – that at various times was arguably harder for the Allies to deal with, though the US Navy’s escort carrier hunter-killer groups reaped a devastating harvest in the mid-Atlantic, around the Azores. Tough as the fight may have become once again, British escort groups were relentless elsewhere.

The Allies feared the ‘U-boat peril’ (to borrow Churchill’s description) right up until the Reich’s total collapse, not just because of the looming (if troubled) introduction into service of the much-vaunted Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats, but the Total Underwater Warfare concept.

Donitz hoped it could deliver final victory to Germany. So, in May 1943 the war of the transatlantic convoys may have peaked but now the battles had different objectives and the Allies’ hard won advantages were under threat of neutralization by Total Underwater Warfare.

 

How that German bid to achieve victory at sea unfolded – along with many other episodes in submarine warfare across the ages – is told in my latest book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) which is available via Amazon and Waterstones plus other retailers and shops.

Kremlin sends out ASW ‘search-and-strike’ group

• Strike carrier reinforces Med US Navy presence
• Is Russian ‘carrier-killer’ submarine being deployed?
• Only the latest naval face-off in Med

Heavy-hitting reinforcements for US Navy forces in the Mediterranean have now arrived, with the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) and its powerful array of warships completing the trans-Atlantic crossing in just over a week.

They join US Navy’s Sixth Fleet area of operations (AOR) at a time of continuing high tension between Russia and the West. The entry of the Harry S. Truman comes less than a week after bombardment of suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria by US Navy surface warships and a submarine, along with a French frigate – all firing cruise missiles – in tandem with air strikes by jet fighters from the USA, France and the UK. The cruise missiles fired by the US Navy attack boat USS John Warner were the first ever fired in anger by a submarine of the Virginia Class, the American navy’s latest SSN type.

The US Navy attack submarine USS John Warner in the Mediterranean. She has since launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Photo: NATO.

Within days of the Syria strikes, the Kremlin deployed an Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) ‘search-and-strike group’, as the Russian Navy termed it, from the Northern Fleet in the Arctic. The destroyers Severomorsk and Vice Admiral Kulakov (both Udaloy I Class ships) were, according to the Russians, in the Barents Sea conducting a ‘test tactical drill on searching for and destroying’ what was further described as a ‘simulated enemy submarine’.

One of the Russian destroyers engaged in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercise in the Barents Sea. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

However, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Russian exercise was in reality a means to sanitise exit routes for Russian submarines being deployed to go and shadow the Harry S. Truman and her battle group. A potential candidate for that mission is the Oscar II Class ‘carrier killer’ submarine Oryol, which last year emerged from a major refit. The 24,000 tons (dived) submarine is now armed with 3M-54 Kalibr land-attack and anti-shipping cruise missiles.

The Northern Fleet nuclear-powered Oscar II Class ‘carrier killer’ submarine Oryol returning to her base in the Kola Peninsula after her major upgrade. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

If Oryol has been sent out, Russian attack submarines would also have been deployed to ‘delouse’ waters off the main naval bases in the Kola Peninsula, in case there were any NATO submarines snooping around – although one of them could not be the British hunter-killer boat HMS Trenchant. Following her dramatic exploits alongside American submarines in the Arctic, surfacing through polar ice, the Trafalgar Class SSN this week sailed into Submarine Base New London, on the east coast of the USA, for a port visit.


HMS Trenchant approaches the pier at Naval Submarine Base New London for a port visit after participating in ICEX 2018. Photo: US Navy.

Scheduled to last several days, the Russian ASW exercise in the Barents was due to involve ‘tasks of engaging the simulated submarine enemy,’ according to the Russian defence ministry. It also advised that its ASW warships would ‘conduct torpedo firing with practical ammunition.’ During the old Cold War between Russia and the West this might have been considered convenient cover for the pursuit of a NATO submarine on surveillance mission in the Barents.

From the late 1940s to the early 1990s there was an almost continual forward deployment of US Navy and Royal Navy submarines into the Barents – considered by the Russians to be Mare Nostrum – to gather intelligence on weapons tests and the latest surface ships and submarines operated by the foe. Armed with sound signature and radar emissions intelligence, and details of weaponry, NATO hoped to stand a better chance of fighting off any massive Soviet surge into the North Atlantic if the Cold War turned hot.

As the Russian ASW ‘exercise’ got underway in the Arctic this month, a highly significant face-to-face meeting was being held in Baku, Azerbaijan, between NATO’s current Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti and the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov.

The neutral ground summit was called to discuss relations between NATO and Russia, but was surely also a means to ensure Moscow’s military and those of Western nations do not clash in any future episodes in which weaponry is unleashed to against Syrian targets. A Russian defence ministry account explained: ‘They also exchanged views on the situation in Syria, stressing the necessity of cooperation in fighting against international terrorism.’ For the Russians the latter group does not include President Assad’s regime in Syria, however.

The USS Harry S. Truman is no stranger to operations in the US 6th Fleet AOR, having been sent there to conduct strikes on ISIL targets in Syria in the summer of 2016. The US Navy has in the past frequently also stationed a strike carrier in the neighbouring 5th Fleet AOR – covering waters off Arabia – but at the time of last weekend’s strikes on Syria, the assigned ship, USS Theodore Roosevelt, was in the South China Sea, another zone of increased tension at sea.

The US Navy strike carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the eastern Mediterranean while working with the French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle. Photo: US Navy.

Russian submarine deployments to shadow American Carrier Strike Groups in the eastern Med are nothing new either. In late 2016 NATO warships detected and then tracked at least one Russian nuclear-powered submarine sent from the Northern Fleet to shadow the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. This came as the Nimitz Class carrier was conducting joint strike operations against Islamic State targets in Syria with the French Navy strike carrier FS Charles de Gaulle.

Around the same time NATO also sent its submarines to shadow Russia’s carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. As related in ‘The Deadly Trade’ the Russian defence ministry claimed it had been forced to order Vice Admiral Kulakov and Severomorsk – the same ships involved in today’s ASW exercise in the Barents – to chase away a Dutch diesel-electric submarine attempting to trail the Kuznetsov (as the carrier prepared to launch her own jets on missions against Syrian targets).

 

 

More on the undersea and surface navy face-off between Russia and the West in recent years and during the Cold War is to be found in ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99)  which is available via Amazon or Waterstones and other retailers and shops.
The latest edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine (May 2018), whose Editor is Iain Ballantyne, is out now. It includes a look at the formidable new weapons being created by order of President Putin to try and cow the West, along with reports and pictures from a recent major Anti-submarine Warfare exercise staged by NATO in the Mediterranean.

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