ONE OF OUR SUBMARINES
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
At the beginning of the Second World War Edward Young was a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He volunteered to become a submariner, largely because this entitled him to be trained in celestial navigation. He eventually went on to command his own submarine and to earn the DSO, DSC and Bar. This book provides an absorbing account of his experiences; the writing is well above average for memoirs of this kind (Young had been a publisher before the war).
The book is in two parts: the first describes the training Young underwent and the second deals with the time he spent as the commander of HMS Storm.
A disaster that occurred on an early voyage might have made a lesser man give up the idea of being a submariner. Young was a junior lieutenant aboard HMS Umpire when she was sunk by a collision with a merchant ship. He gives a vivid description of what it was like to escape from the wrecked submarine without breathing apparatus; 22 of the 37 crew were lost.
There followed voyages to the Arctic and the Mediterranean and then he was selected to train as a commander. After an initial period on land, in which the trainees were tested on a mock-up apparatus which was a kind of fore-runner of virtual reality, he had to demonstrate his newly acquired skills for real at sea. Having done this successfully he was given his first command, which entailed manouevres in the Atlantic for surface ships to practise anti-submarine techniques.
Now it was time to start operations against the enemy in earnest. He took command of the newly built Storm while she was still fitting out, and in July 1943, at the age of 30, he sailed. Before long he was briefly back in the Arctic Circle, but within three months he was sent to the Indian Ocean, based in Ceylon. Eventually he was to reach Australia.
Much of the action he saw, therefore, was against the Japanese in the Far East. He does not say which of the attacks he describes were linked to his awards, although surely one of them must have been the occasion when he entered an enemy harbour and sank a number of ships by gunfire. In fact, guns were more useful than torpedoes for most of the targets he encountered, because these were mostly fairly small vessels.
On one occasion his submarine was involved in a cloak-and-dagger enterprise which nearly ended in total disaster. He was ordered to land a Sumatran native on an island to spy out the defences. This man was to be rowed ashore by a British Major and a naval rating. Young evidently formed a poor opinion of the Major (though he plays this down as far as possible).
The spy was landed successfully, but when the time came to pick him up four days later there was a hitch. The right torch signal was given but there were suspicious features and Young had to decide whether to send the boat in or not. Eventually he did, but the unfortunate man had evidently been captured and tortured by the Japanese and the signal was a trap.
The submarine now came under heavy fire from the shore. Young waited as long as he dared and at the last moment the boat was seen pulling strongly towards them under fire. He just managed to get the Major and the seaman aboard in time.
On his return to England, after ten weeks at sea, Young found himself in a convoy in the Channel where there was a thick fog. Memories of the collision in the Umpire flooded back and indeed he was very nearly rammed again; he says this time in the fog gave him the worst sustained anxiety of the whole commission.
As a first-hand account of what it was like to command a submarine in the Second World War, this would be hard to beat.
The book does not relate what happened to Young after the war, but from an obituary in The Guardian (2 February 2003) I learn that he returned to publishing and also wrote several more non-fiction books. He died at the age of 89.
5 August 2007
%T One of Our Submarines
%A Young, Edward
%I Rupert Hart-Davis
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