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Book Review, NRJ 65.4

November 20, 2020 12:27 PM | David Eddy

Undersea Warriors: The Untold History of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service

Iain Ballantyne

Most of the Cold War was not fought on terrestrial battlefields between traditional military units. Instead, the decades long conflict was predominantly conducted covertly via highly specialized and technologically advanced forces designed to track, spy, and, if necessary, destroy enemy targets. Arguably, the most advanced and secretive technology deployed during this period was the submarine. In Undersea Warriors: The Untold Story of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service, author Iain Ballantyne unveils a comprehensive narrative that details the development and utilization of the submarine and submarine forces by Britain over the course of the twentieth century and into the present. The work is particularly focused on the Cold War period that witnessed the most intense submarine developments and actions as both East and West consistently attempted to maintain an edge on the other in the struggle for global supremacy.

Although not a traditional historian, Ballantyne has spent decades as a journalist and author writing about military affairs, particularly those of the Royal Navy. He has personally spent time embedded as a journalist on most types of naval vessels, providing intimate firsthand knowledge that highly informs his work. Ballantyne does his due diligence with the primary and secondary literature, especially in technical matters, but his writing shines the brightest when he describes the drama of high intensity underwater operations. Through personal interviews and access to the journals and diaries of several key figures, Ballantyne ably places the reader directly in the control room during some of the most perilous missions and events, many only recently declassified, experienced by British naval submariners. Most of the narrative focuses directly on these figures; men such as Tim Hale, Rob Forsyth, Doug Littlejohns, and Dan Conley, whose stories traverse the history of British submarine forces from the early days of clunky diesel-powered vessels to the height of advanced nuclear submarine technology. Ballantyne interweaves their personal biographies into a tapestry that highlights not just the larger history of British submarine forces, but the intimate experiences of the commanders and crews of the vessels that daily braved life and limb to fulfill their duties.

Undersea Warriors does suffer, however, from a writing style that strikes an uncomfortable balance between history and journalism. Ballantyne’s writing often feels disjointed as he jumps clumsily between traditional historical narrative, which is not his strength, and his more vibrant accounts of the personal experiences of his chosen protagonists. Furthermore, while his firsthand knowledge of naval operations provides excellent detail, Ballantyne often seems to assume the reader knows as much as he and utilizes naval jargon and technical language without always providing full context and explanation.

Despite such issues, Undersea Warriors succeeds in documenting the importance and drama of submarine warfare during the Cold War era. It maintains a comprehensive scope while simultaneously reveling in intimate detail. It should stand as an important reference point for naval scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike for years to come.

  • New York: Pegasus Books, 2019
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xiii + 482 pages
  • Photographs, map, glossary, bibliography, index. $35.00
  • ISBN: 9781643132136

Reviewed by Eric Walls, East Carolina University

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