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World War II Under the Sea

The United States Navy fleet submarine USS Tang (SS-306), underway in Mare Island Sound during her shakedown trials (US Navy photo)

My first book about WW2 was a book about US submarine warfare in the Pacific. Ever since, I've been particularly interested in submarine warfare. And I've accumulated at least as many books about submarine warfare as I have about any other single aspect of WW2. As with my books about land and sea combat, almost all my books about sub warfare divide neatly into three groups: general books about the whole topic, books about the European war, and books about the Pacific war.

General books about submarine warfare

I only have one book that really fits this category: a general overview of the entire submarine war.

    Author: Padfield, Peter
    Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
    ISBN: 0-471-24945-9
    A thorough overview of the submarine war as waged by all five of World War 2's major naval combatants, all over the world. Padfield systematically covers the British, German, Italian, American, and Japanese submarine campaigns, including a rare compilation of technical drawings and data on every major submarine class used by each of the five navies.

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The Atlantic and Mediterranean Theaters

In the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the primary submarine war pitted the German U-boat Force against the Allied convoy lines. However, the British waged submarine warfare too, especially in the Mediterranean. I have a few books about both the German and British submarine wars.

    Author: Gannon, Michael
    Publisher: Dell
    ISBN: 0-440-23564-2
    In March 1943, Germany's U-boats wrought havoc in the Atlantic convoy lanes, sinking over a hundred ships and losing only a handful of their own number. For a brief time, victory in the Battle of the Atlantic seemed to be within their grasp. But only three months later the U-boat Arm had been shattered: a third of its numbers destroyed, ship sinkings cut by two-thirds, the remaining boats turned from daring surface raiders into desperate fugitives hiding from omnipresent Allied ASW forces. What happened? Black May happened. In May 1943, Allied forces sank forty-three U-boats and damaged many more, taking them out of action for months. In BLACK MAY, Michael Gannon does a superb job of telling what happened to so quickly turn the tide against the U-boats in April and May of 1943. Gannon had access to most of the important sources of information for this book, including the archives on Ultra and other sources only declassified in the last few years, after the "fifty years after the war" deadline passed.
    Author: Werner, Herbert
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-23347-5
    Herbert Werner served aboard U-boats through most of the war. He started as an ensign aboard U-557 during the "Happy Time" of 1940-41; moved up to Executive Officer aboard U-230 during the Allied counterattacks of 1942 and the devastating slaughter in spring 1943, and made the jump to Commanding Officer of U-415 and then U-953 just in time to be part of the long slow slide toward defeat that only ended with Germany's surrender. His reminiscences form a powerful image of the U-boats' war, how they fought, and what an incredibly stressful existence they led. Werner's experience is typical in every way except one: he lived through it. Most members of the U-boat Arm were not so fortunate.
    Author: Gannon, Michael
    Publisher: Harper Perennial
    ISBN: 0-06-092088-2
    When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Admiral Doenitz promptly responded by sending a squadron of U-boats to strike at the East Coast shipping lanes. He codenamed this Operation Paukenschlag, which is usually translated to English as "Drumbeat." The next six months was a "Happy Time" for the U-boats and a nightmare for the US Navy and US merchant shipping, as a force that never numbered more than a dozen U-boats at a time slaughtered hundreds of ships and destroyed some two million tons of priceless supplies.
    Author: Bryant, Ben
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-13665-8
    A personal account of submarine warfare, British style. Ben Bryant was one of the Royal Navy's most successful submarine commanders, making successful patrols in both Norwegian and Mediterranean waters. I thought that the most interesting thing about this book was how similar the British tactics were to American and German tactics, and at the same time how very different in some ways. British subs had no torpedo aiming computer, and their small size limited the number of torpedoes they could carry. Consequently, Bryant used his sub's deck gun whenever possible, and saved his torpedoes for major targets. He sank many smaller ships with the gun alone.
  • U-BOAT 977
    Author: Schaeffer, Heinz
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-14591-6

    Author: Prien, Gunther
    Publisher: Award Books
    A rarity among personal accounts of the war: this author didn't come back. This book is Guenther Prien's autobiography from the time he joined the German merchant marine, through his training as a U-boat officer, and ending with his daring raid on the British fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow. In that action, Prien's boat, the U-47, torpedoed and sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. Prien did not return from his next war patrol; his U-boat was marked as "missing, presumed lost," and the book was published posthumously. The British Admiralty credited HMS Wolverine with sinking Prien's boat. However, later information cast doubt on that credit. Today, it's not known for sure exactly when or how Prien and his boat died.
  • U-BOAT TANKERS 1941-45
    Author: White, John F.
    Publisher: Airlife
    ISBN: 1-85310-999-1
    One of the U-boat Arm's many innovations was the concept of refueling and resupplying U-boats at sea. At first this was done with surface ships, modified merchant tankers and freighters. But after the Allies achieved air superiority over most of the Atlantic, the Germans changed to using submarine tankers -- U-tankers. These were huge submarines that met combat U-boats at remote rendezvous far from land, and resupplied them with food and fuel. Seemingly a brilliant concept, the U-tankers failed in practice, as they died frequently and easily under the bombs and depth-charges of roving Allied hunter-killer battlegroups. This book is the story of the U-tankers, how they lived and operated, and how they all too often died. (NOTE: The title link for this book takes you to a newer edition under a different title, MILK COWS: THE U-BOAT TANKERS AT WAR 1941-45, but it's the same book as far as I can tell.)
    Author: Hoyt, Edwin P.
    Publisher: PEI Books
    ISBN: 0-872-16655-4
    Another look at Operation Drumbeat, this one by expert military historian Edwin Hoyt. Hoyt focuses largely on the astounding ineptness of the American anti-U-boat defenses, and how the U-boats were able to strike at will while the American Navy deceived itself into thinking it was responding effectively when in fact it wasn't.

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The Pacific Theater

In the Pacific, the story of the submarine is mainly the story of the US submarine force's war against the Japanese Navy and the Japanese merchant marine. However, the Japanese also had submarines, and while they weren't very effective they did accomplish a few things and had a few books written about them.

  • BATFISH: The Champion 'Submarine-Killer' Submarine of World War II
    Author: Lowder, Hughston E.
    Publisher: Prentice-Hall
    Batfish was a fairly successful submarine, as American subs went: seven war patrols, claimed 15 ships sunk, officially credited with 9 ships sunk. However, like several of her sisters she earned great fame for a single accomplishment. On patrol in the Philippines in February 1945, Batfish torpedoed and sank three Japanese submarines in four days. This amazing feat vaulted Batfish and her captain and crew from "fairly successful" to "top rank" in one stroke.
    Author: O'Kane, Richard H.
    Publisher: Presidio
    ISBN: 0-89141-346-4
    The story of the US Navy's most effective WW2 submarine, USS TANG, as told by her commanding officer Richard O'Kane.
    Author: Blair, Clay
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-12279-7
    Submarine combat in the Pacific Theater during WW2. Abridged version of SILENT VICTORY, Blair's complete and detailed account of US sub operations in WW2.
    Author: Hoyt, Edwin P.
    Publisher: Pocket Books
    ISBN: 0-671-67183-9
    USS Harder became famous for her exploits during the war, with the most amazing one being the sinkking of five Japanese destroyers in just four days -- including two with a single torpedo salvo. Under the command of Sam Dealey, Harder ran up a war record that few US subs could match. Dealey himself received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry and daring. Sadly, neither man nor submarine survived the war; they were lost in action in 1944.
    Author: Lockwood, Charles
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-27059-1
    Lockwood's firsthand account of the operation that breached the defenses of the Sea of Japan and cut Japan's last shipping routes.
    Author: Roscoe, Theodore
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-13040-4
    Official history of US submarine operations in World War 2.
    Author: Enright, Joseph
    Publisher: St. Martin's Press
    ISBN: 0-312-90967-5
    Like her sister Batfish, Archer-Fish was a moderately successful submarine that earned lasting fame for a single feat. In Archer-Fish's case, this occurred in November 1944, when Archer-Fish discovered, tracked, and sank the enormous Japanese supercarrier Shinano on his maiden voyage. Shinano was originally intended to be the third Yamato class battleship, but was converted to an aircraft carrier after the Japanese navy's devastating losses at Midway. This book is primarily told from Enright's point of view, but also gives a good look at the Japanese side of the action. Very well done, the book gives a pretty thorough look at the tactics involved in a submarine attack on a small convoy or task force. (Note: I have no idea why, but sometime after its original publication, this book was republished under a new title, SEA ASSAULT!)
  • SILENT VICTORY (2 volume set)
    Author: Blair, Clay
    Publisher: J. B. Lippincott
    This is an extremely detailed and complete study of the United States submarine fleet and its fight against the Japanese Navy and merchant marine. In essence this is another attempt at writing a "submarine history of WW2," like Theodore Roscoe's PIG BOATS (see above). However, Blair gets much more detailed than Roscoe and includes much more behind-the-scenes material, such as accounts of the infighting that went on in submarine commands at Pearl Harbor and the Australian bases. A much abridged version of this work was published as a paperback under the title COMBAT PATROL.
    Author: Beach, Edward
    Publisher: Zebra Books
    ISBN: 0-8217-2966-7
    Ned Beach's classic account of submarine warfare in the Pacific during WW2. Beach entered the Submarine Service as an ensign shortly before Pearl Harbor and served aboard submarines for the entire war. Most of his time was spent aboard ace submarine Trigger. Then he moved to Tirante for her first war patrol, and finally to Piper as her Commanding Officer for a single patrol before the Japanese surrendered. This book contains descriptions of a number of incidents aboard Trigger, Tirante, and Piper, interspersed with chapters about other top-rank members of the Silent Service: Wahoo, Harder, Seawolf, Tang, and more.
    Author: O'Kane, RADM Richard H. (Ret)
    Publisher: Bantam Books
    ISBN: 0-553-28161-5
    The story of the US submarine Wahoo, as told by Richard O'Kane, who was aboard as Executive Officer for all but her last patrol. In some ways Wahoo could almost be said to typify the American submarining experience during the war. In other ways she was quite unique. Her first two patrols were unsuccessful because her skipper was too cautious. Then she got a new skipper, Dudley "Mush" Morton, and went all the way the other way, from too cautious to foolhardy. She had problems with faulty torpedoes and with effective enemy anti-submarine forces; on the other hand, she also pressed home some extraordinary attacks, and was one of a handful of submarines to operate in the Sea of Japan during the war.

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