In his American debut, British naval historian Ballantyne (Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, 2016, etc.) tells the story of undersea warfare entertainingly, without skimping on technical details.
The first hint of a vessel that could travel below the surface was in a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. During the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, many tried to build a submarine, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that a practical sub took to the waters: the Confederate submersible Hunley, which sunk a Union sloop in 1864. From that point, a number of designs were developed, and the modern submarine began to take shape, though many naval officers believed the future lay with the battleship. It was in Germany that the submarine became what it is today. The author chronicles the exploits of German U-boats in World War I and the measures taken to limit their depredations on enemy naval and merchant vessels. By the end of the war, every major combatant was deploying a submarine fleet, though not all were equally adept. The sub resumed its role in World War II, with both Germany and the U.S. making particularly effective use of the “wolf pack” strategy of ganging up on convoys. Ballantyne brings the story up to the present with a look at the role of missile-launching nuclear submarines in the Cold War and after. In the final pages, he speculates on whether a new balance can emerge between Russia and the West and whether other states will use subs to upset the uneasy balance. Much of the appeal of the book lies in the stories of submariners and their feats, such as the Japanese aviator who took off from a sub and fire-bombed an Oregon forest. Years later, he returned to apologize—and was made a citizen of the town he endangered. The book is full of such entertaining and moving stories, especially of the British submariners.
An indispensable book for anyone interested in naval history and a great read for everyone else.