Review: The Cold War Beneath, by Dr. Don Walsh, USN
is a work of fiction. But authoritative, well-written submarine fiction can be both entertaining and informative.
This is especially true in the case of highly classified Cold War submarine operations; details
still remain locked away. Secrecy oaths and strict ‘need to know’ policies continue to guard
the nature and results of those operations. The truth may remain untold for some time into the future.
Fiction written by participants in those operations can be useful to give us an insight into those tense years of undersea
It is said that
submarines are the ultimate stealth platform. Long before specially configured ‘low signature’
aircraft were called “stealth”, the modern submarine had proved itself to be the optimum means to covertly look
into the competition’s ‘backyard.’ This permitted the collection of valuable intelligence with little chance
of being detected. Both the United States and the Soviets actively used submarine platforms to track and
observe the other side. Patrols off each other’s coastlines, observing military operations and collecting
electronic signal intelligence, were all part of the game. In this novel, Captain UImer provides an idea
of how such operations were conducted by each side.
To ‘set the scene’ for this book, it is useful to consider U.S. and Soviet submarine development
during the four and a half decades of the Cold War (1947-1991). The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics)
had an inherent numerical advantage but one not realized in practice. Historically, their navy was a coastal
defense force. When WWII began they had 218 submarines, the world’s largest submarine fleet.
However, almost all of it was smaller coastal ships with limited capabilities. Most of their operations
were in the Baltic, Black Sea and to a lesser extent, the Far East. It was not a ‘blue water’
After the war, the
allied and Soviet military forces eagerly sought a wide variety of weapons used by the Germans and Japanese. Here
was an opportunity to ‘shop’ for new technologies that could be adapted to the armed forces of the victors. The
United States and the USSR were particularly aggressive collectors.
There was a special interest in the latest German U boats some of which
were far more advanced than anything the allied navies had. Especially important was the Type XXI, the
last major class of German submarines. It could dive to 440 feet and had a maximum submerged speed of 18
knots. A snorkel system permitted operation of the engines while submerged giving them greatly increased
underwater endurance. Huge batteries provided longer submerged operations at higher speeds.
Careful attention to hull streamlining greatly reduced submerged drag.
By comparison, the more angular WWII USN fleet boat could
dive just about as deep but had a maximum submerged speed of only 8 knots. Smaller batteries meant they
would have to be recharged daily on the surface.
The USSR intended to replace their submarine force that had been greatly diminished during the war. They
got four of the latest Type XXI submarines as war prizes plus some shipyards that built them. That captured
know-how was the basis for construction of a new fleet. The result was an astounding build of 215 submarines
of the NATO “Whiskey Class.” By the mid-1950s, the Russian diesel submarine force was the world’s
largest and its numbers would increase during the Cold War years. For example in 1979 the Russians had
370 submarines (including nuclear boats). By comparison, the U.S. Navy had only 116 that year.
At the end of WWII
the United States’ situation was different. While they had gotten two of the new Type XXI boats,
the Navy had in service 150 relatively new “fleet boat” submarines. Experts believed that these
were the finest long-range patrol submarines in the world. So the Navy’s approach was to selectively
use captured German technologies and adapt them to conversions of the fleet boats. This was the basis for
the GUPPY (Greater Underwater Propulsive Power) program. The fictional USS Piratefish in this novel depicts one of these.
A snorkel mast was added; hulls and conning towers were streamlined to reduce hydrodynamic drag and the size of the
storage batteries was greatly increased to provide much greater submerged endurance. As a result, the best
of the GUPPY conversions could go slightly faster submerged than on the surface. And they could remain
submerged for long periods of time using their snorkeling capabilities. Indeed it was not uncommon to remain
submerged for over two months during special intelligence operations.
Also German submarine designers gave special attention to sound silencing.
These ideas were also incorporated into the 52 converted fleet boats. The result was a highly capable
and very quiet reborn fleet boat. Various types of GUPPYs would continue to serve in the Submarine Force
up until the mid-1970s.
In addition to improved submarines, both navies worked to add missiles to their on board capabilities.
The first steps were air-breathing missiles adapted from German designs. The well-known V-1 pulsejet,
essentially an unmanned airplane, was tested on board Soviet and U.S. Navy diesel submarines in the late ’40s.
By the end of the ’50s, cruise missile capabilities were becoming operational in both navies. The
U.S. Navy’s Regulus I cruise missile fitted with a nuclear warhead was on board submarines off the Kamchatka Peninsula
in the Russian Far East from 1959-1964. The major weakness of these weapons is that they required the launch
submarine to remain surfaced for a significant period while the missile was set up and launched. This greatly
compromised the stealth property of these submarines.
Ultimately the USSR developed and perfected cruise missile systems.
Both navies would eventually put these air-breathing cruise missiles on board nuclear submarines. While
this gave the platform longer range and mission duration, they still had to surface to launch weapons. Nevertheless,
the Soviet Navy eventually had 50 cruise missile submarines in service. This was driven by a primary mission
to counter U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups.
The ‘holy grail’ was to develop a means to launch missiles while the submarine
was submerged. The Russians did it first with an experimental submarine launch in 1956. But
in 1960 it was the U.S. Navy’s Polaris Program that put the world’s first submarine launched ballistic missiles
into operational service. The Soviets soon followed and their deterrent patrols became a Cold War fact
In the mid Cold
War years both navies worked on the development of a wide variety of submarine designs and technologies. And
both navies were operating their submarines worldwide. For the USSR, their submarine fleet was no longer
a coastal defense force. Its ballistic missile boats patrolled off our coasts and their cruise missile
submarines tracked our aircraft carrier task forces.
Both sides wanted to know what the other was doing. The submarine was the perfect
stealth platform to find out. In the late 1940s, the U.S. Navy began highly classified patrol programs,
“special operations”, that operated off the coastlines of the Soviet Union. They also trailed
their submarines in the open ocean. We would covertly watch fleet and submarine operations, learning about
their technologies, operational procedures and tactics. In addition, “spec ops” would employ
electronic listening techniques to listen to their communications and measure the basic parameters of their electronic systems.
Special teams of intelligence specialists, the “spooks”, would be on board to direct intelligence collection
diesel boats would go on patrol for about two months remaining submerged the entire time. They would run
silently during the day while collecting ‘intel’ then snorkel at night to recharge their batteries.
It was extremely difficult ‘submarining’ but an enormous amount of nationally important information came
from those patrols. The advent of nuclear submarines made these missions easier, safer and more productive.
The Russians were doing the
same thing but not as successfully as the U.S. Navy’s operations. Their submarines tended to be noisy
and easily detected. In addition, the way they manned, maintained and trained their submarine force was
not as effective as with our submarine force.
A lot of books have been written about diesel submarine operations in the post WWII era.
Some are outright fiction while others claim to give the ‘inside story’. The fact is
that most details of codeword submarine operations remain highly classified even though it has been decades since most of
them took place. Many of the ‘inside story’ authors have had only limited experience with these
operations. This has resulted in a high degree of conjecture most of it inaccurate. Submarines
involved in spec ops only had a few officers and crew who knew the details and results of the patrol’s mission.
Most of the officers and crew on board could only guess at what was going on. It was need to know,
even in the small world of a single submarine crew.
Captain Don Ulmer USN is in a unique position in this field of seagoing literature. A
career submarine officer, he has participated in special operations in diesel submarines including having command of one.
Furthermore, he later served in the nuclear powered Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines (FBM). While
he is still bound by his security clearances, he can accurately write fiction that might or might not be a synthesis of his
experiences during the Cold War.
is an Annapolis classmate of mine and we were in the Submarine Force at the same time. I spent years in
submarine operations before I got command, so I have a pretty good idea of accurate writing as well as ‘off course’
fiction. Don’s got it right in this book.
This is his third in what will be a quintet about the U.S. Navy’s submarine service
and how it fought the Cold War—events that happened even as the Navy made the dramatic transition from diesel to nuclear
power. Captain Ulmer having served in both types of submarines is qualified to provide an accurate accounting
of those times.
As a talented writer he has brought to life a part of the U.S. Navy that is largely unknown. Few
outside our organization knew what our real peacetime mission was. That was fine for those of us in the
“Silent Service”. The surface Navy and other armed forces thought the Navy’s submarines
just did a lot of training as well as providing target services to ships and aircraft. Even our families
did not have a clue as they had no “need to know”. All they knew is that from time to time
we would be out of communication for two months or longer. When we got home, we could not talk to anyone
about what we had been doing. Sure, it would have been great to brag about a particularly successful patrol
but our secrecy oaths prevented that.
So it is not without reason that we called ourselves the “Silent Service”. Stealth
weapons do not like to be seen or known. Your life depended on being and remaining unknown…