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BOOK REVIEW – Hunters and Killers; Vol. 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943

2798_001By Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2015)

Reviewed by Robert P. Largess

In a page-long “Perspective” prefacing this unusual book, the authors express the reason for its writing: “Since the early decades of the last century, several hundred non-fiction books have been written about submarines and submarine warfare.” This substantial literature is filled with fascinating, even brilliant works. It includes the sweeping historical surveys of Marder and Morison, thorough studies like Clay Blair’s Hitler’s U-Boat War, and the superb technical and tactical analyses like Alfred Price’s Aircraft  versus Submarines. There are also the first person memoirs by leaders such as Adm. Sims and Adm. Doenitz, and warriors such as Donald MacIntyre and Otto Kretschmer. Sophisticated scientific studies of the technologies involved, such as Willem Hackmann’s history of sonar and its development Seek and Strike, is also included. But the authors go on to say that among these there have only been a very few books that address the topic of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) in general, none of which tries to cover the entire history of ASW. The goal of this book is to do just that: to digest and synthesize this whole demanding yet tremendously valuable literature of submarine warfare into a clear, readable yet complete historical summary and analysis which can serve both as an introduction to the newcomer and a sourcebook for students of the field. The problem in writing a work like this is always “how much is enough?” How do you cover all the bases without getting bogged down in interesting digressions?  One can only presume that balancing these goals must be exquisite torture, but the authors do a creditable job.

The first volume covers the U-Boat and anti-U-Boat campaigns of World Wars I and II. This is not to say it scants other topics like the early history of the submarine or lesser but still important submarine campaigns like those of the British in both world wars. But it was the Atlantic U-Boat campaigns on which the world’s history turned. The survival of Britain twice depended on anti-submarine warfare and twice evoked a vast, desperate effort, both brilliant and very largely ineffective. Britain won because they were just effective enough. One of the most important insights provided by this book is the huge amount of effort and thought poured into blind alleys, especially in World War I. Examples are the Dover and Otranto net barrages, the bombardment of the Belgian coast U-Boat bases, and, above all, the huge force of ships and aircraft assembled to patrol British coastal waters, which although sighted and attacked numerous U-Boats, almost completely failed at sinking them or saving merchant shipping.

Why was all this futile energy expended? The situation was first serious and then desperate. Anything that looked promising had to be tried. The book provides the second important insight that those areas of ASW which proved critically effective in the end often required long, painstaking development, and were often in fact almost impossible to distinguish from the blind alleys, sometimes for decades. For example, ahead-throwing mortars for ASW ships were a logical concept from the start, and were developed and fielded in quantity in World War I, but were totally ineffective without active sonar to give a position on a submerged sub. In World War II, the concept reappeared as the highly effective Hedgehog. The authors tell us that, surprisingly enough, the Hedgehog produced no results for nearly a year after its introduction. Why? Though the equipment was perfected, the tactical doctrine was still faulty.

The devil is in the details, especially in ASW, and the new electronic senses which had to be created by science to find the invisible submarine – the ultimate stealthy threat. It is fascinating to read how close to effectiveness these repeatedly came – still without being any good. Then, suddenly, a minor increment in technology or tactics provided a crucial breakthrough, and the new device began to sink submarines. In World War I the potential of listening devices was seen immediately, but the development of a moderately effective hydrophone was long and slow. Even then, the hydrophone’s inability to provide an exact position on a submerged sub, prevented its operators from translating a detection into a kill. And it produced its own “blind alleys” such as the American scheme to build a fleet of wooden-hulled hydrophone-equipped subchasers. Active sonar or ASDIC was developed between the wars, but its successful use took practice. Likewise, while aircraft became the leading killer of U-Boats in World War II, it took until March 1940 for a British aircraft to sink a submarine – May 1942 for a U.S. plane to replicate this feat.

Thus in ASW, the dividing line between what works and doesn’t work has often been subtle and difficult to discern to researchers – and yet dramatically obvious once crossed. This is a product of the tremendous difficulty of finding and killing a sub – especially a submerged sub – and the need for new, groundbreaking scientific and technological research to solve it. Another major insight provided by this history is the exponential curve of scientific achievement in ASW in World War II leading up to 1943. In World War I, the issue had been to somehow prevent the U-Boats from sinking enough merchant ships to starve Britain out of the war; but in May 1943 Allied ASW forces inflicted such ruinous losses on the U-Boats themselves as to force them to abandon the Battle of the Atlantic. Much of this achievement was electronic: sonar, radar, HF Direction Finding, as well as practical engineering breakthroughs on many fronts, which itself owes much to the dramatic involvement and even leadership in ASW by the American scientific community, led notably by James Conant of Harvard, Vannevar Bush of MIT, and the National Academy of Sciences, which produced the wartime National Defense Research Council and the postwar Committee on Undersea Warfare.

It is difficult to do justice in a brief review of the range of coverage of this book, but the important things are all there: the victory of convoy in 1917, Doenitz’ antidote to convoy in World War II – the wolf pack, Paukenschlag, the Bay of Biscay, Murmansk, cent metric radar, Ultra, the escort carriers; typically covered clearly, briefly, effectively. Many obscure but fascinating details are present: Q-Ships; the role of the rigid airship R-29 in hunting and killing a U-boat; the carefully thought out monitor shoot designed to secure a direct hit on the main lock gates at Zeebrugge before German coast defense batteries could respond; the Leigh light; the ambush of a U-Boat refueling rendezvous in the Cape Verdes by the British submarine “Clyde,” based on Ultra intelligence.

Should one wish to go into any of the issues in more depth, one can go back to the sources, and the notes are a good guide to these. The only problem is – no bibliography! It’s at the end of the second volume, due to appear early this summer, which will take the story from 1943 up to the present. Meanwhile, significant omissions are few. And errors of fact are few to the vanishing point and trivial. The only one this reviewer feels obliged to mention is in reference to the authors’ statement that an operational version of airborne MAD (magnetic anomaly detector) was available for trials “in the spring 1942, and late that year installations of the MAD system began on blimps and patrol aircraft.” In fact, the first operational set was installed on Jan. 6, 1942, on the K-3, one of the unprepared Navy’s tiny blimp force of four patrol airships covering the entire Atlantic coast. The first sinking of “Operation Drumbeat,” the disastrous U-Boat slaughter of the nearly undefended merchant shipping off the US east coast, occurred on Jan. 12, and K-3 carried her set into action, reporting a MAD contact on Jan.17, and on Jan. 18 using it to track for hours and attack – unsuccessfully – a sub which submerged after being sighted on the surface. The K-3 and her crew, and the scientists who produced her set, deserve mention because their experience is so typical of the entire century of ASW:  dimly groping under the sea with equipment on the uncertain cutting edge of science, for an invisible but terribly destructive foe. But in 2016 the story of ASW is hardly over and the problem of ASW hardly solved. Its continuous significance and scientific challenge makes this book required reading for the historian, naval professional and intelligent beginner – a very impressive achievement.


Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-Than-Air.

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