Beneath Southern Seas – The Silent Service
by Jon Davison and Tom Allibone.
Published by UWA Press. rrp $65.00
Reviewed by Tim Duchesne
Some might think this glossy doorstop of a book a strange choice for review as a work of naval history, but I believe the insight it provides into the controversial Collins Class submarines and the people who man them – and to a more limited extent, those who train and support them – is a useful ‘snapshot’, in an historical sense, at a time when these boats have at last achieved widespread and acknowledged status as formidable and highly capable weapons platforms. It is a companion to the recent SBS television series, Submariners, available on DVD, but also stands alone as a separate work. Its claim to historical status is strengthened by the interlaced, illustrated summary of the long and chequered history of submarines in the RAN.
The main body of the book consists of one-on-one interviews with a selection of four officers and 11 sailors of the ship’s company of HMAS Rankin – including one female officer and one female sailor. The ‘interviewer’, accompanied by an excellent photographer, joined Rankin in Sydney on the submarine’s return to Australia after a six-month deployment, and took passage in the boat to her home base at HMAS Stirling, near Fremantle. Each ‘interviewee’ reveals a proud awareness of their place in the wider naval context and a fierce loyalty to the Submarine Arm. To this ‘ancient mariner’ at any rate, they are clearly better and more thoroughly trained than myself and the bulk of my contemporaries. Just as well, because the vessels they operate, and the equipment contained therein, are an order of magnitude more complex than the boats for which they were initially trained, and significantly more than the Oberons. The three phases of submarine training are clearly described in the interview with a trainee sailor. The third phase takes place whilst part-complement in an operational boat and places a significant additional workload on the sailor. The whole process takes about a year or more, depending on the trainee’s category. Officers are similarly, if more rigorously, challenged. The pinnacle of their training tree, and rightly the most challenging and unforgiving course, is the Submarine Command Course (SMCC) or ‘Perisher’. Since the RN went all nuclear in 1995, the RNLN have provided Perisher training and qualification for our Commanding Officers. A useful description of this course is also provided.
The large operational, shore training, maintenance and refit back-up required to operate a world-class submarine force is also clearly described in the course of twelve further interviews with Base Staff, including the Submarine Force Element Group Commander, Australian Submarine Corporation personnel, and personnel from Thales Underwater Systems.
Altogether, this is a handsome, comprehensive and well-written publication which should go some way towards redressing much of the unrelenting ‘bad- mouthing’ which has for far too long beset this fine class of submarine. The articulate, professional and impressive officers and sailors who make up the ‘interviewees’ in Rankin can take much of the credit for any success in this desirable direction.