Hunters and Killers, Vol 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943

Hunters and Killers, Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943. By Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2015.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.
Winston Churchill, 1944

Such is the U-boat war – hard, widespread and bitter, a war of groping and drowning, a war of ambuscade and stratagem, a war of science and seamanship.
Winston Churchill, 1939

EVERY few decades or so the emphasis of naval strategy changes to reflect real world events and likely future warfighting scenarios. The end of the Cold War and the early 1990s heralded a turn towards naval operations ‘… from the sea’ and maritime power projection. Over recent years there has been a return to a multi-polar world with increased competition between global and regional powers, coupled with an associated turn towards ‘at sea’ naval operations and increased potential for deterrence tasks and/or high-end warfighting. Under such circumstances a return to the partially forgotten study of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is both relevant and timely.

Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, renowned American experts in the field have assembled a comprehensive history of all aspects of ASW from its origins in the 1770s, just before Australia’s settlement by the British, until the present. ‘Hunters and Killers’ is published in two volumes each of around 200 pages, with Volume 1 examining submarine and anti-submarine warfare during the 18th and 19th Centuries, during World War I, the inter-war period, and the early part of World War II – up to 1943. These years were characterised by constant experimentation, innovation and practical experience. They involved years of trial and error which not only laid the foundations for submarine and anti-submarine operations but which involved imagining ASW to the limits of the available technology. Many of the alternatives considered by the early ASW staff, crews, designers and scientists could not be achieved using the ships, submarines, systems and equipment available in their times. Having established many of the fundamental operational requirements for ASW, these alternatives promoted the development of future technologies that are used today or that are being developed for tomorrow.

Many ASW specialists will already know much of what is contained within Volume 1 of ‘Hunters and Killers’, however it is probably still worth their while to revisit or re-examine the detailed examples presented by Polmar and Whitman. It may not always be new but the lessons are worth remembering. The Allied ASW Crisis of 1917 came close to ending WWI in favour of Germany – it having very little to do with the many tens of thousands of soldiers dying on the Western Front at the time. The Allied ASW response included introducing large numbers of escorts, increased use of depth-chargers, introducing convoys, improved radio intelligence, and an increased role for aircraft. The number of sinkings by submarine reduced dramatically but the ASW measures were never 100 per cent successful. German U-boats continued to sink Allied shipping until the very end of the war in November 1918. Many of the lessons learnt from the ASW experiences of WWI were soon lost to cut-backs and declining personnel numbers. The technical advances in sonar and radar were overstated (in commercial terms oversold) between the wars, in a manner very similar to the overstated potential of air power during the same years.

The commercial salesmen and their navy followers were proved wrong with the start of WWII. Almost straight away the British faced an increasing threat from German submarines, as the Battle of the Atlantic ramped-up once again. As with WWI, the early years of WWII witnessed dramatic operational successes and failures in both submarine and anti-submarine warfare. The Germans improved their U-boats and increased their submarine building capabilities. The Allies improved their own ASDIC/sonar, radar and ASW weapons, and airborne ASW sensors and weapons. By early 1943 both sides made significant changes in the strategies and direction of the war. Donitz was ordered by Hitler to retire much of the surface fleet and to concentrate on the submarine campaign. Meanwhile Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed on a joint strategy where the protection of shipping and defeat of the U-boats were assigned top priority in the allocation of Allied resources.

In order to revisit ASW in the 21st century we need to look back as far as we can so that we can avoid some of the pitfalls of the early ASW practitioners, and so we may springboard off the backs of those same people to gain opportunities for future ASW developments. Many of the early ASW lessons learnt are enduring. It is only how we use modern technology, systems and equipment to achieve 21st century ASW requirements that has changed.

‘Hunters and Killers, Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943’ is a well written, informative and comprehensive work on ASW and submarines. It is much more than a book on naval history: it provides a foundation for the modern study of ASW and is food for thought for the intelligent naval officer, specialist sailor and defence analyst. If you don’t know the early history of anti-submarine warfare, you should!

A review of Vol 2 is here.

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