Book review

Iain Ballantyne, The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 729 pages, £25.00 (hardback)

Reviewer: Stuart Crawford


As an ex-army man, I am hardly an expert in naval matters in general, let along submarines in particular. But as an ex-tank soldier, I do feel a certain affinity for the submariners who fill the pages of Iain Ballantyne’s comprehensive account of the history of submarine warfare. We have experienced the same claustrophobic confinement of space, the smells, sights and sounds of clanking, enclosed machinery, and the close camaraderie of those we shared it with. There are no airs and graces allowed in the informal bond of a tank crew, and I suspect the same applies to submariners. So perhaps I have a little insight into the world of undersea warfare.

Be that as it may, as one who has enjoyed a lifelong interest in all things military, I found Ballantyne’s book a most enjoyable and inspiring read. Always a keen reader of military history, my previous knowledge of submarines and submarine warfare was limited to general histories of both World Wars, and watching films like Das Boot and Hunt for Red October, both classics in my opinion. And I’m old enough to have grown up with men who had actually been on the Murmansk convoys in the Second World War, and so was well aware of the mythology of the U Boat ‘wolf packs’ and the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous battle of that particular conflict.

Understandably, a sizeable chunk of Ballantyne’s book deals with the struggle, between 1939-45, to keep Britain’s sea lanes open to the rest of the world. But there is much new detail here of which I was previously unaware. The success, and then ultimate failure, of the German U-Boat wolf packs in the Atlantic campaign is, I think, particularly well described.

However for me, much of the interest lay in what happened in other time-frames. For example, I was unaware that ‘the father of the modern submarine’ was an Irishman, John Philip Holland. Most of his early development work took place in the USA, in support of the Fenian movement there, who wanted a ‘diving boat’ to attack the Royal Navy.


I was unaware that ‘the father of the modern submarine’ was an Irishman, John Philip Holland. Most of his early development work took place in the USA, in support of the Fenian movement there, who wanted a ‘diving boat’ to attack the Royal Navy.

Nor was I aware, until reading The Deadly Trade, of the enormous success that British submarines had in the Baltic Sea during the Great War. The parts played by Royal Navy submarine officer Francis Cromie and his charges makes for fascinating reading, as does the career of Lieutenant Commander (and later Admiral) Max Horton in his submarine E9, off the Heligoland Bight and in the North Sea. As an aside, it was the latter who inaugurated the custom of ‘fling the skull and cross bones flag on the conning tower’ after a successful patrol.

A number of interesting themes run through Ballantyne’s book. Most significant of all, perhaps, is the huge value placed on being able to read the enemy’s communications. The Germans could intercept and decipher the Royal Navy’s coded messages early in the Second World War. The British were able to do the same after the well-known cracking of the Enigma code used by Germany – this task was facilitated by the capture of the coding machine from the sinking U-110, in May 1941, by HMS Bulldog. The Japanese never suspected that the Americans could read their signals throughout the naval war in the Pacific. The advantage this gave to the US fleet was priceless.

Another theme which surprised me was the frequent unreliability of torpedoes used by different navies. U-Boat commanders complained bitterly that their torpedoes were ‘useless’, either because of their tendency to detonate prematurely, or because they failed to detonate at all. Even after German torpedo scientists advocated the use of contact fuses (as opposed to magnetic ones), these problems persisted. This was particularly galling for German submariners during the Norway campaign in 1940, when they found themselves in a target-rich environment but were unable to take advantage of it.


U-Boat commanders complained bitterly that their torpedoes were ‘useless’, either because of their tendency to detonate prematurely, or because they failed to detonate at all. Even after German torpedo scientists advocated the use of contact fuses (as opposed to magnetic ones), these problems persisted.

The Americans also had torpedo problems. The performance of American submarines in the Battle of Midway, in June 1942, was hardly an unqualified success, despite the outcome of the clash overall. On top of the fact that the majority of the deployed American boats were old, the author describes how: ‘a huge problem was the number of torpedoes that were duds, either going astray, failing to detonate or exploding prematurely’.

I have a couple of minor criticisms of The Deadly Trade. As previously observed, almost one-third of the book describes the submarine war during World War Two. Personally, I would have traded some of this relatively well-known history for more on the Great War, which has always been of greater interest to me. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more on the military and political philosophy surrounding the ownership and use (or, more accurately, non-use) of nuclear-armed, ballistic missile carrying, nuclear submarines (SSBNs) in general, and on the UK’s current operational doctrine of continuous-at-sea-deterrence (CASD) in particular.

But these observations do not detract from the book’s overall quality and appeal. Possibly the most interesting philosophical point made by Ballantyne is his assertion that, whilst once the submarine was the weapon of the weak, it is now most definitely the weapon of the strong. The German Navy saw it as the best way to attack the overall superiority of Britain’s Grand Fleet in 1914, as they quickly realised they could never match it in terms of surface warships and warfare capability. Nowadays, of course, the submarine is a prerequisite military platform for would-be global and regional powers, in the form of ballistic missile submarines and their awesome firepower. Which, we all hope, will never be used.

I could go on, but I think it far better that you read the book for yourselves. I found it to be a comprehensive, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable history of this lesser-known aspect of warfare. At 730 pages, The Deadly Trade is a fairly long read, but it’s well worth it. It should be on the bookshelf of every serious military historian and enthusiast.


Stuart Crawford is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment who served in the First Gulf War. Find him on Twitter at @509298