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Book Review
British Submarines 1939-1945

by: Ian Shaw [ MONKEYGUN ]

Originally published on:
Model Shipwrights


When I was given the opportunity to review Ospreys British Submarines 1939-1945 I should explain that I am by no means an expert on the subject.

My knowledge of British submarines was limited but I have always had a fascination about the subject growing up watching such movies as "Run Silent Run Deep", "Above Us The Waves" and of course the TV series "Das Boot", plus I have been known to sit for hours avoiding depth charge attacks playing the Silent Hunter series of PC sub sims.
So i approached this review with keen interest in the subject, rather than with an "expert" eye.
Paperback 48 pages

Publisher: Osprey

Authors: Innes McCartney and illustrations by Tony Bryan

Language: English

ISBN: 1-84603-007-2

.British submarine doctrine
.The S-class
.The T-class
.The U-class
.Older British Submarine classes still in operation at the outbreak of the war
Operations 1939-1945
.The phoney war
.The Norway campaign
.War with Italy
.The Battle of Malta and the convoys
.Operation Torch to Operation Husky
.Sicily to the end of the war in the Mediteranean
.The far east
Royal Navy Submarine Losses
Colour Plate Commentary


Introduction and Major Submarine Classes
At the outbreak of hostilities the British submarine fleet stood at 58 boats, the same number that the German Navy possessed, (this was not a mere coincidence as Naval treaties limited the size of the German fleet to match that of the British Navy), however it was in the perceived use of the submarine that the Royal Navy differed from the Kriegsmarine.

British submarine doctrine was that the fleet would be used primarily against Axis naval targets as due to geographics,
Germany relied far less than Britain on merchant shipping and therefore British tactics and design refelcted this.
The preferred method of attack for British Submarines was a submerged stealthy approach, firing a large spread of torpedos at what would be fast moving armoured targets. This doctrine culminated in the design and introducton of the T class boat that could fire a forward spread of 10 torpedos !!!

The other major difference between the two fleets was in design, whilst Germany pushed ahead with new designs and technology,the British Navy relied on less advanced but proven designs.However this worked as both an advantage and disadvantage, using a simple aiming sight and older but proven torpedo contact fuses, the British fleet did not suffer from the same problems that plauged both the US and German Navy's with their torpedos during the early part of the war,however at the same time British submarines had relatively short ranges as they were fitted with older designs of diesel engines which whilst being reliable, where less effecient.

The second part of this sections covers the classes of submarine that where the mainstay of the British fleet during the war and covers primarily the S to U class of submarine.
Each class is covered in detail giving such information as performance, weapon loadout and how with each subsequent new class what performance improvements were achieved (colour plates are included in this book to illustrate the visual differences in these classes).
There is also a shorter section in which mention is given of the older classes still in service at the outbreak of the war these classes were ustilised for such purposes as mine laying and as training boats.

When thinking of WW2 and submarines I am sure the the first thought most of us have is of the U-Boat and the Atlantic war, however the second part of the book, and the part I found most interesting and to be truthfull had very little knowledge of,covers the theatres of operation in which British submarine fleet operated and the vital role they played.
From the early part of the war covering the operations in Baltic sea onto the Mediteranean campaign and finally the Pacific operations at the end of the war.

As previously mentions the first part of this section covers operations in support of the battle for Norway and although Britain lost many submarines in these operations many vital lessons where learnt in both tactics and the design shortcomings of the Bristish boats.These lessons where quickly learnt and the fleet did have some success against both German surface and submarine units. Theses operations also proved that the British sub fleet could operate under Axis air cover where the fleet could not. Such capabiltiy was to increase the perceived importance of the fleet as the war went on.

The next part of this section covers operations in the Mediterranean, from a relatively dissapointing start operating in the Med,the British Navies fortunes changed greatly under the command of Cdr G. w. G."Shrimp" Simpson who later formed the 10th flotilla "The Fighting Tenth", by using newer classes of boats and introducing new tactics the Royal Navy had much greater success against the Axis naval powers and where credited with sinking not only some major Italian suface units but also numerous axis submarines and greatly assisted in cutting off vital supplies to Rommels Afrika Corps.

The final part of this section covers operations in the far east through to the end of hostilities. In the war against Japan the British submarines were tasked with operating the shallower waters of the Java Sea, prior to the arrival of the Fourth Flotilla the US Navy with their larger submarines had avoided wherever possible operating in these shallow waters.
With the ending of hostilities in Europe the British fleet grew rapidly to a fleet of 38 boats and With few remaining major Japanese surface units remaining the majority of actions were against merchant shipping or clandestine "special" operations.
The major success acredited to the British submarine fleet was in closing the Malacca straits and the port of Rangoon thereby cutting of supplies to the Japanese army in Burma. And finally as an interesting bynote a British submarine is acredited with firing (in anger) the last torpedo of WW2.

Colour Plates
As is usual with Opsrey Publications, 8 colour plates are found in the center of the book, including 4 plates giving a visual record of the evolution of each major class, a two page cut away diagram of a T class submarine, the submarine Safari engaged in a surface action and finally a plate of a U class sub entering Malta harbour.

Royal Navy Submarine Losses
A chronological table of British submarine losses and an explanation of how each was lost

Colour Plate Commentary
A detailed commentary of the colour plates found within the book


In all, a very interesting read with enough technical information clarifying the major differences in the classes of submarines, without being overly complex for the casual reader. However, it has chapters covering fleet operations that make most interesting reading and a fitting testimony to the bravery and daring of the British submariners.

A definate recomendation for those with either a keen or just passing interest in the subject and if you want to know how a British submarine captain sunk a tank in a torpedo attack you will just have to buy the book.
Osprey's British submarine 1939 - 1945 covers designs and operations of the Royal Navy's submarine fleet during WW2 and is both an intersting and informative book, with the chapters covering fleet operations that make most interesting reading.
Percentage Rating
  Scale: Other
  Mfg. ID: 1-84603-007-2
  Suggested Retail: 9.50
  Related Link: Osprey Publishing
  PUBLISHED: Nov 26, 2006
  NATIONALITY: United Kingdom

About Ian Shaw (MonkeyGun)

Copyright 2020 text by Ian Shaw [ MONKEYGUN ]. All rights reserved.


Ahoy mates! Good, solid review, Ian! Thanks for the effort, great job! Cheers, ~Gunny
JAN 06, 2007 - 05:45 AM

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