Of all the Allied fighting service branches in which you wouldn’t have wanted to spend the second world war, probably the grimmest was submarines.
Of all the Allied fighting service branches in which you wouldn’t have wanted to spend the second world war, probably the grimmest was submarines. Sure, their losses weren’t quite as bad as the German U-boat fleet, where your chances of being killed were four in five. But in the course of the war about one third of British submariners lost their lives; and in the earlier years your chances of coming back from a mission alive were no more than 50/50.
Bomber crews, of course, had to face similarly grim odds. But at least they got back home to clean sheets, a hot shower, a beer and a fag or two. On subs a patrol meant at the very least a fortnight in a foetid, claustrophic hell of cramped, shared bunks and rank air sometimes poisoned with chlorine gas, your clothes perpetually damp and stained with oil, with no water to wash with, increasingly rotten food, and the constant, nagging fear that at any second you could die one of the most horrible deaths imaginable.
Depth-chargings were the worst. You could hear the propellers of the destroyer thrumming louder and louder above you. Then came the agonising wait. The enemy knew your position but not your depth, so your survival depended on how deep they set the various charges to explode. Even a miss was pretty traumatic: the noise, said one captain, was like being ‘in a 15-inch turret standing between the guns when the guns go off.’ The interior of the boat would become a fantastic blur of shaking as paint shredded off the bulkheads and lights smashed. Then you’d hear rivets popping and the hull groaning ominously and you’d wonder whether or not you were about to burst at the seams.
Though the second-world-war subs were equipped with an escape hatch, your Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus took ages to put on and was only effective at depths of less than 100 feet (though someone did once survive an escape at 171 feet below). More likely, if your sub was damaged, you’d end up being torn apart as it sank to the bottom and imploded. When the Italian destroyer Circe depth-charged P38 in the Med, it knew it had scored a hit from what rose to the surface: first bubbles and oil; later, ‘a polished cupboard door, a table top, a bag of flags, a human lung’.
So what on earth possessed these sub-mariners to do it? Though it’s a myth that they were all volunteers, the majority of them were drawn to the Silent Service partly by its elitist mystique, partly by its much higher pay (a little less than double the ordinary mariner’s rate) and partly by its independence.
An ambitious officer could find himself with his own command at just 28 (and by 35 you were considered past it), while crews relished the cameraderie and the unstuffiness. Discipline was adamantine, because the slightest mistake by one man could destroy an entire crew. But there was no space for the vile bullying or rank snobbery you still often found on capital ships. Submariners relished their piratical raffishness, returning to port after successful patrols by flying the Jolly Roger.
Whether they lived or died was dependent above all on the skill and nerve of their CO. A submarine was only as good as the tonnage it sank, and torpedoing a ship required verve and daring bordering on the suicidal. Commanders who failed to close and kill were quickly replaced: it wasn’t a job for the squeamish. German U-boats may have machine-gunned the crews of ships they’d just sunk but so, on occasion, did British submariners. This was a war of attrition and there is little space for prisoners on a sub.
Was it all worth it? In his gripping history Sea Wolves, Tim Clayton argues that it was. He cites the claim, by Rommel’s chief- of-staff Fritz Bayerlain, that it was British subs which really defeated the Afrika Korps by destroying so many of their supply ships. But this was achieved at the cost of 42 per cent of British submarines lost in the Med alone. Many of these young men’s lives, it’s clear, were simply thrown away by a naval establishment which never quite understood the point of subs. Their radios and guns were poor; their supply of torpedoes pitiful; and the missions they were sent on sometimes suicidal, especially in the Baltic, in the summer, where the near 24-hour daylight made it impossible to surface safely by night and recharge their batteries. Perhaps the pride of being in the Submarine Service was the only real recompense.
This remains true to this day, as Danny Danziger shows in Sub. But after the drama and action of all those second-world-war pirates, it’s a rather bathetic read. Apart from the quite interesting chapter which describes how cramped and odd Danziger felt spending his two weeks’ research trip on patrol in a nuclear sub, the rest comprises interviews with crew members in which the most exciting revelation is that the sound of whale song can sometimes reduce them to tears.
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