Sea Wolves: The Extraordinary Story of Britain's WW2 Submarines Hardcover – 7 Jul 2011
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* A fascinating book about an otherwise neglected aspect of the Second World War
From the Back Cover
Sea Wolves is the story of the crews who bravely manned British submarines in the Second World War. This small band of highly trained and highly skilled individuals fought in the front line for six long years, undertaking some of the most dangerous missions of the war.
Britain's Sea Wolves operated close to shore in mined waters, attacking German warships and heavily guarded convoys. But in the course of these vital operations, the submariners suffered devastating casualties. This is the vivid, thrilling story of the survivors and their promising young comrades who fought with such courage, in the face of the sickening terror.
'Clayton's pages are peopled with eccentrics . . . Full of the picturesque detail of cramped submarine life . . . the monotonously throbbing engines; the sudden panic dives; the smells of oil, unwashed bodies and rotting food; the stifling lack of space . . . Sea Wolves is a fine memorial to these men' Nigel Jones, Literary Review--This text refers to the Paperback edition. See all Product description
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The first 100 pages of this taut 400 page book is focused on the pre-war sub stations and men. The Far East appears exotic and entrancing in the 1930's, while with hindsight we can see the pall hanging over China and Hong Kong admidst the bright lights and painted ladies. Then the war begins, and the focus is on Europe and specifically the Norwegian campaign, which was stupid and bloody on both sides, at least for the navies involved. There is a fair bit about this - and I had forgotten that Norway was still going on even after Dunkirk - and it is all interesting.
The heart of the book is about the campaign in the Med, based out of Malta, where the British were commerce raiders, doing to the Afrika Korp was the Kriegsmarine was trying to do to Britain: cut off its supplies. There is also the actions against the Italian fleet, as well as the various "special forces" type of action the subs were often sent out to do.
The book then ends with smaller sections on the minisubs attacks on the Tirpitz, and on the Indian Ocean sub force based out of Trincomalee and Perth. This is an often-forgotten side of the "Pacific" war, and its noteworthy that the British subs were hot and humid in the tropics, having been largely designed for the cold of the North Sea. There is a final summing up of the "was it worth it" kind, with some pretty good analysis: it deftly makes the point that submarines were not designed as special forces insertion vehicles, but they were the least worst option for the job, so they got it, even at the cost of other operational benefits.
All up, this is well written and easy to read, romping along without ever shying away from showing the horrible things that happen in wartime. Excellent work, if you like that sort of thing.
I knew that it was dicey to serve in subs, but had no idea of quite how bad it was, or why. Many British subs were scarcely seaworthy, having been treated very much as the unwanted, cinderella part of the service by the cretins at the admiralty who remained fixated on the obsolete battleships of a bygone era, rather like army commanders who insisted on keeping cavalry when tanks were clearly taking over the battlefield. They suffered from almost continuous mechanical breakdowns, many brought on by being depth-charged, of course, but even these being more frequent than they might have been because of the poor standards of quality-control and maintenance inflicted upon them from the moment they started being built. They suffered a horrendous casualty rate particularly in the Mediterranean, where the clear waters made them easy targets for German and Italian sub-hunters (everybody pokes fun at the Italians, but they were a very efficient and deadly foe in the submarine war). Added to this was the fact that many British subs were destroyed by "friendly fire", which (understandably but still very distressingly) usually resulted from the assumption that any sub must be a U-boat, particularly in the Atlantic. And some of that "friendly fire" came from their own torpedoes - one in four of them were likely to miss their targets, circle round and hit the subs that fired them, again owing to the parsimony of the admiralty which wouldn't pay for enough modern and reliable torpedoes. Many subs had inefficient or obsolete radios (they came bottom of the pecking order after the RAF and surface vessels), so that they sometimes sank each other due to the appalling deficiencies in their communications apparatus. On one terrible occasion, this deficiency led to one of them inadvertently sinking an Italian hospital ship, since the sub in question couldn't receive the signals that would have saved them from making such an awful mistake. The Italians found them, sunk them, and machine-gunned the survivors.
Not just radios suffered. Many subs had guns that frequently pre-dated the Great War (one sub had a gun stamped "VR" on the breech). All because of the stupidity, parsimony and general incompetence of the wicked, blasted Admiralty.
The figures speak for themselves. 42 percent of subs operating in the Med were lost. Of 57 subs operational when war broke out, only 2 were left at the end, 34 having been sunk and the rest retired from action. Of a total of over 9000 men who served during the war in subs, over 3000 were killed, a death rate comparable to that of bomber command. In the Royal Navy as a whole, the casualty rate was 7.6 percent; for the submarine service it was 38 percent. Go figure.
Some reviewers have critiscised this book because, apparently, it recycles material published elsewhere. However, for someone like me, unacquainted with the subject, it was fine. Others have decried its episodic, rather piecemeal structure, but again this didn't bother me - based as it is upon memoirs I wouldn't have expected (or wanted) anything else.
As I write this, I'm almost shaking with rage at the bovine stupidity of an admiralty that made an already hazardous job worse than it need have been and condemned hundreds of brave men to a terrible death. I'll finish with a brief description from a part of the book, describing the aftermath of a successful Italian attack on a British sub in the med:
"in a flurry of bubbles... P38 came to the surface to be met by randomly thrown depth charges and a hail of machine gun fire from aeroplanes and escorts... Suddenly it shot to the surface like a dolphin and then, with its screws in the air, plunged down again... A mas of bubbles and oil rose to the surface and among them the excited Italians spotted evidence of their kill: a polished cupboard door, a table top, a bag of flags, a human lung".
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