Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

Stealth at Sea

van der Vat, Dan

1998, Replica Books
ISBN 0735100497
Hardcover, 374 pages, 24 b&w photos, 5 drawings/diagrams

Type. General History
Pros. Great narrative style
Cons. A few inaccuracies

This book covers the development and deployment of submarines from the earliest experiments of the 15th century through modern nuclear subs. However, the majority of the book focuses on World War I and World War II, especially on the German U-boats, with a chapter on US submarines in WWII in the Pacific.

The first part of the book, describing submarine experimentation and development from 1465-1900, is one of the most interesting. The ingenuity, mixed with ignorance of some basic physical and chemical facts, of the early inventors makes for fascinating reading.

The section relating to World War I is also informative and entertaining, the author's prose enlivening an already interesting subject. For example, he notes that naval outsiders viewed the submarine service as "a strange new coterie run by obsessive and smelly enthusiasts supported by maritime troglodytes marinated in oil"; and the feat of U-9 in sinking Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue seems all the more admirable when we are reminded that she was a "paraffin-guzzling, flame-belching, smoke-wreathed boat with a crew of 26". The variety of bizarre plans concocted to counter U-boats during World War I boggles the mind; training sea lions to detect U-boats and seagulls to spot periscopes; fouling periscopes by coating them with various substances; and covering a periscope with a paper bag and then smashing the lens with a hammer were all considered seriously at one point or another.

In addition to a colorful writing style and a fast pace, the book offers good factual information as well as analysis of various campaigns. The labyrinth of interwar treaties and Germany's secret U-boat development between the wars are explained coherently. Coverage of World War II operations is good, with a few small exceptions, which will be addressed below, and includes a brief summary of Soviet submarine activity in this conflict, and an account of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

As is not entirely unexpected in a work covering so great a historical expanse, a few inaccuracies were noted. A World War I U-boat is referred to as bearing a number on its conning tower, which is rather unlikely. The author's treatment of the sinking of the Athenia is rather poor. Finally, the story of a U-boat crew coming ashore in New Zealand to milk herds of cows is presented as a documented incident, when in fact it is truly only an (amusing) legend.

Overlooking these few small flaws, the book as a whole is an excellent overview of the course of submarine development over more than 500 years. An appendix lists operational submarines in service worldwide in 1993, showing total number by type for each country.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 14 May 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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