Top positive review
20 people found this helpful
Great History meets Great Writing
on 1 October 2013
Iain Ballantyne, Hunter Killers: The Dramatic Untold Story of the Royal Navy's Most Secret Service, Orion, London, 2013.
The impact of the cold war on the quest for mastery in outerspace has long fascinated authors, journalists and film makers. No less dramatic was the cold war struggle for the inner space of the ocean depths from 1945 to 1991. This story, like the submarines and submariners that wrote it, remained invisible during the cold war years. The Royal Navy's silent service lived up to its reputation for silence and efficiency. Using a range of sources, including interviews with key protagonists, Iain Ballantyne's book brings to the surface the story of the Royal Navy's submarine force during the cold war years.
Ballantyne has quite a story to tell from deadly games of cat and mouse in the Baltic and the Barents Sea to operations under the Arctic ice cap. Stealthy missions to eavesdrop on ship radar emissions, weapons tests and Soviet naval exercises are punctuated by near misses and not so near misses. Ballantyne charts a series of incidents when, even in the coldest of northern seas, the cold war could have got hot as Royal Navy submarines were pursued with potentially lethal force by Soviet forces. The book's revelations are sure to send a shiver down the spines of those of us who lived through the cold war unaware of the dramas taking place 100 to a thousand meters below the surface of the sea.
Ballantyne has done a lot of detective work to piece the story together, but his real art as a writer lies in the way he engages the reader. Stealthy operations and electronic eavesdropping are not naturally the most dramatic fare for a writer, but Ballantyne provides the reader with a series of contexts to allow us to understand the dramas playing out at silent slow speed under the seas. We get to know the submarine commanders, and some of the crew members, of the boats assigned to secret duties. The technologies at play are explained in a way that the average reader can understand. The shifting nature of the cold war, as we move from the 1940s to the 1980s, provides an effective backdrop to the continuing mission of HM Submarines. We also get to know the boats from the Super T's of the 1950s, to the deadly SSBN cargoes of the Resolution class, through to the silent menace of the SSN's like HMS Courageous.
The writer further enriches his story with reference to the wider intelligence games being played between East and West. The Portland Spy ring and the disappearance of Buster Crabb are set against more darkly comic episodes such as the time in the 1980s when the Russian naval attaché visited Plymouth in order to carry out his own "research", and to go around the public houses of Devonport to see if he could recruit the odd agent or two. Such humorous incidents provide moments of release from a narrative which is consistently taught and fast-paced.
A further clever element of the book is the way in which the popular culture of the time is referenced. Films such as The Bedford Incident, Ice Station Zebra and the Hunt for Red October are brought into the text in ways which make the reader wonder where Hollywood was getting its information from. Ballantyne offers us little glimpses of the off-duty world of the submariner watching On the Beach or Das Boot in the ward room of HMS Sceptre. Cold war fiction and Cold war fact blend seamlessly at the edges.
The book is a triumph of writing and of history. It is good history with all the pace and slick writing of a cold war techno-thriller. It is a very hard book to put down and is a joy to read. We travel from outerspace to the depths of the oceans - from cold war strategizing to the claustrophobia and stench of a submarine three weeks at sea. A sense of tension grips each chapter and Ballantyne offers a series of disconcerting revelations about the near misses of the cold war maritime game. And like all good books the author ends with a cliff hanger. Ballantyne reminds us that this game is not over as we move into the era of the Astute class submarine and the steady build up of the submarine force of the People's Liberation Army [Navy]. The struggle to control the ocean depths is alive and well as we move forward into a new era of maritime competition and rivalry.
G H Bennett