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Jim Ring on Edward Young, One of Our Submarines - Slightly Foxed Issue 14

Rites of Passage

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The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.

It was a title I might well have overlooked, for submarines have rarely enjoyed a good press. From their inception in the 1860s as serious instruments of warfare, their stealth – sneaking up on their victims, committing murder and disappearing under the waves – was regarded as questionable. When their introduction into the Royal Navy was first mooted a hundred years ago, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson condemned them as ‘underwater, underhand and damned un-English’. Then in the First World War, when German U-boats sank neutral merchant ships – not to mention the Lusitania – without warning, the moral dye seemed firmly cast. The loss through accident rather than enemy action of the British submarines Thetis in 1939, Truculent in 1950 and Affray a year later confirmed the submarine’s reputation of turning on its own crew. Young could quite justifiably write of ‘the average man’s almost superstitious horror of submarines’.

I didn’t share those feelings. I was too young to remember Affray, too ignorant to know about ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ and its consequences. Instead I was be

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The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.

It was a title I might well have overlooked, for submarines have rarely enjoyed a good press. From their inception in the 1860s as serious instruments of warfare, their stealth – sneaking up on their victims, committing murder and disappearing under the waves – was regarded as questionable. When their introduction into the Royal Navy was first mooted a hundred years ago, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson condemned them as ‘underwater, underhand and damned un-English’. Then in the First World War, when German U-boats sank neutral merchant ships – not to mention the Lusitania – without warning, the moral dye seemed firmly cast. The loss through accident rather than enemy action of the British submarines Thetis in 1939, Truculent in 1950 and Affray a year later confirmed the submarine’s reputation of turning on its own crew. Young could quite justifiably write of ‘the average man’s almost superstitious horror of submarines’. I didn’t share those feelings. I was too young to remember Affray, too ignorant to know about ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ and its consequences. Instead I was beguiled by the idea of a machine that seemed to confound the laws of gravity by sinking and resurfacing at will, and entranced by the cloak of invisibility which a very sizeable vessel could throw over itself. Young himself felt the same fascination: ‘I could not get over the feeling of excitement at being so comfortably below the surface, the great length of the ship now invisible to the world, her weight so finely adjusted between positive and negative buoyancy that she rode as delicately and majestically as an airship in the air.’ I bought the book. My hero was born in 1913, educated at Highgate, and took a job in publishing on leaving school. In 1935 he became the first production manager at Allen Lane’s new Penguin imprint and, one afternoon at London Zoo, designed the penguin device that so distinguishes the early covers. In April 1940 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Four months later he was up for submarine service. I read of his training in submarines, his terrifying escape from the stricken Umpire, and his three years of war patrols. At the age of 30, he became the first member of the RNVR to command an operational submarine. He took his charge, the 900-tonne Storm, to the Arctic, the Mediterranean and, finally, the Far East. On 8 April 1945, just as the European war was drawing to a close, Young – by now awarded both the DSO and the DSC – brought Storm back into the submarine base at Portsmouth Harbour. ‘I remembered the day when I made my first trip on a submarine, from this very place; it seemed a long time ago, but in fact was a month short of five years. Now, after many adventures, I had brought my own ship safely home.’ Such is his story. Published in 1952, a year after the loss of Affray, it was placed by the Sunday Times ‘in the very highest rank of books about the war’, and rightly so. Young is masterful at explaining how his war machine works. Woven seamlessly into the narrative are the basics of submarine operations: how the craft dive and surface, propel themselves on and under the water, cast off, navigate and moor, search for and find their targets, escape detection. Not as in a textbook, but as though the reader is with him, seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, wondering. Here he is, again on his first dive, peering through the periscope:
At first I had difficulty in seeing anything, until I found exactly the right angle for my eyes. Then I saw, far more clearly than I had expected, a flurry of tumbling grey-green sea. It looked rougher than it really was because I was seeing it from so close to the surface. Occasionally a wave sprayed towards me and engulfed me in a smother of bubbling foam, and then the lens broke through again, momentarily blurred, like a windscreen in heavy rain, until the water drained off and left it suddenly clear again.
He is equally graphic about people. The early submarines lacked proper facilities for eating and sleeping, and sanitary arrangements consisted of a bucket. Match this with their moral dubiety and it is scarcely surprising that the officers of the great Dreadnoughts damned service in submarines as ‘no occupation for a gentleman’. The reputation has persisted into modern times. In his account of the Falklands War, Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward reported that ‘Submariners themselves were regarded as not quite the thing – smelt a lot, behaved not too well, drank too much. They were regarded as a sort of dirty habit in tins.’ Young challenges such caricatures with a series of carefully observed and sympathetic portraits of his mentors in the submarine flotilla, contemporaries who lost their lives, the officers and crew of Storm. George Colvin was C/O of Sealion, on which Young served first as Torpedo Officer and subsequently as First Lieutenant:
Colvin . . . never managed to acquire the crust of emotional indifference towards his targets which would have been natural in one whose business was war . . . when one of his torpedoes scored a hit on a target he could not help picturing vividly in his imagination the twisted steel, the torn flesh, the choking lungs. I remember an occasion on another patrol when we attacked a merchant ship making for Kirklees. Colvin fired three torpedoes. Watching through the periscope for the result, he suddenly looked quite sick, and said, in tones of great distress, ‘God how I hate doing this.’
As well as being about submarines and submariners, the book is also about the Second World War. For me, this gives it an extra allure. If my parents had not been late for their meeting at a café in Great Portland Street during the Blitz, I and my siblings would not have been born. The café took a direct hit. Perhaps for that reason the war remains for me the most powerful piece in my mental jigsaw of national and personal identity. I’ve always found the question as to what it was really like to have lived through that period utterly compelling. So it’s hardly surprising that a book that tells you exactly what it was like actually to fight in a submarine should have captivated me. Young’s forte is his sheer honesty. I loved The Colditz Story, but I always felt there was an element of attitudinizing in Pat Reid’s writing about himself, his fellow inmates at the castle, and the ‘Goons’. Young’s restrained account of the deaths of fellow submariners, his own narrow escape from drowning in Umpire, his reaction to fear and danger, ring far more true. Here he is on a ‘cloak-and-dagger mission’ to pick up an agent on an island off the north-west tip of Sumatra. The agent has been betrayed and the shore party, returning to the submarine in an inflatable dinghy, is under fire from the shore.
I was extremely frightened. It was my first experience of being under machine-gun fire, and instead of acting up to tradition and standing boldly and calmly at the front of the bridge regardless of danger, I sheltered myself as well I could behind the for’ard periscope standard, cocking an eye occasionally to see how the boat was getting on.
One of Our Submarines is also an account of a rite of passage. Young’s private life only intrudes in the form of the briefest of allusions to his marriage on Storm’s return from the Far East, and we never learn why he was decorated. Instead the book shows us his progress from the still waters of RNVR trainee to successful war commander, and lets us share his formative experiences on the way. Though perhaps never intended as such, the result is a marvellous self-portrait of one of the small cadre of British submarine commanders whose contribution to the Allied victory is now largely forgotten. Churchill, whose praise of ‘the few’ is so well-remembered, had this to say of submariners: ‘Of all branches of men in the forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariner . . . Great deeds are done in the air and on land, nevertheless, nothing surpasses your exploits.’ Young’s unique contribution to the literature of war is his story of how he – graphic designer, publisher, amateur sailor – actually became one of the leaders of that élite fraternity. In Plymouth Sound I scrambled down the hatch into Talent in the wake of the man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. His torrent of words was lost on the wind. I was just about to go on my first dive.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Jim Ring 2007


About the contributor

Jim Ring’s account of Britain’s Cold War submariners, We Come Unseen, was published in 2001 and won the Mountbatten Prize.

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