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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
Plymouth University
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on 18 December 2013
A well written and researched book with few errors. Some great interviews and like others who have reviewed the book and like me were on cold war op's on hunter killers the background makes more sense of the foreground we were involved in.

Cold war patrols were never fun but the professionalism of the crews on RN Submarines was second to none, the captains the best in the world. They got us in and out in one piece. This books tells those stories beautifully. It also goes to explain why submariners will always be submariners even 30 years after leaving the mob.
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on 20 December 2013
Iain Ballantyne has written a thoroughly enlightening account of what was really happening behind the bland official news releases of the Cold War. As someone who served in the Royal Navy during that period, and who was actively involved in surface fleet operations in the North Atlantic/Barentz/Arctic Sea regions, this book is a complete revelation in its description of the various submarine activities going on at the same time. We all knew that these 'initiatives' were being pursued, but had little clear idea of the real war conditions under which these patrols were made, and the dangers faced by the crews of the participating boats. Ballantyne has sensibly threaded his account into some of the personal histories of selected key personnel of the era. It makes for a fascinating read. This is proper and instructive history, written whilst living witnesses are still vibrant and opinionated.

David Gregory
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on 16 November 2013
As a mid 50's to early 60's submariner I was pleased to see the contribution we made in the cold war revealed for perhaps the first time. There were some trivial innacuracies for example David Bingham was on the Super T Totem not Tiptoe, I was on it at the time, and my recollection was his sentence was thirty years, perhaps he only served twenty one. Also the Super T's which were converted WW2 boats had the reputation of being the quietest submarines in the world well into the late fifties. That probably deserved a mention as it illustrates how clever the UK were in meeting the challenge when almost broke and in fact doing a similar job with clapped out WW2 destroyers turning them into probably the best anti submarine Frigates of the same period.
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on 9 November 2013
I actually served on diesel boats and an SSBN during the cold war and found the book riveting!! The political reviews filled in gaps in my knowledge and I can now understand why we did what we did. A must read for anyone who is interested in submarines
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on 21 August 2014
After a slow start, explaining the origins of the cold war, this book delivered in spades. Personally, I have served in the Royal Navy for over 32 years including 25 years in submarines, so I bought the book both in hardback and also on kindle, pretty much out of curiosity to see if the author 'had got it right'. Surprisingly, for a non-submariner, he is incredibly well informed and probably stops just short of actually divulging secrets about our silent service. As a purist, I did notice a couple of minor errors, but these were few and far between and probably unnoticeable unless the reader has intimate knowledge of the workings of a nuclear submarine. A very interesting and enjoyable read. Ian Atkinson (Author of 32 Years Man & Buoy)
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on 22 February 2016
A well written book about the Cold War activities of the Royal Navy that also touches on the Falklands Conflict and the activities of our allies and foes not missing out the over many Western traitors (is he hinting of something more sinister about the death of Bingham) I think the author has put as much on paper as he can and it is a lot but you have to keep in mind that much of what went on is still secret those involved not telling what they feel they should not unlike the more complete submarine histories of the two world wars this can give a inevitable disjointedness to this and any other book covering this subject that said if you are interested in this era it is not to be missed,i am no expert so the only error I found in reading this book was the Captain of the Soviet Submarine that grounded on the Swedish coast the famous Whiskey on the rocks episode was not sent to Siberia he was I think demoted but kept his Naval career about his XO and the political officer I have been unable to find out anything further.
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on 19 October 2015
I found this to be an engaging story of British submarine development over the last 50+ years.

Unusually, it is told through the eyes of specific crew, some careers it follows from recruitment to senior posts in the Navy and NATO.

A fascinating insight, highly recommended if you have wondered what life on-board was/is really like.
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on 10 December 2013
I have read several Iain Ballantyne books- but this in my opinion is his best. An excellent book, which has been thoroughly researched. What I particularly liked, is the fact that as a 'baby boomer' generation, I grew up in the Cold War....and I never knew that Royal Navy submarines had such an important role tracking the soviets.
My only regret is that i did not joint the Navy!
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VINE VOICEon 15 February 2014
A great history of the British submarine service during the cold war, and the transition to a nuclear navy spying on the Soviets in their own back yard. Lots of detail from real submariners of the time, and plenty of stories and information which technically cant be verified because most of the details are still very secret. There's a lot of hair raising stories about what happened during various missions, and the technical breakthroughs that allowed them to do a better and better job as time went on. A great read, with a very human setting that isn't a dry history at all.
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