Select one of the keywords
Between the Lines: Submarines
By David Pitt (August 2004)

A Time to DieOn August 12, 2000, there was an explosion in the torpedo room of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141, also known as the Kursk. The enormous submarine, nearly twice as long as a Boeing 747, plummeted toward the bottom of the Barents Sea. At the same time as the Kursk plowed into the seabed, there was a second explosion, measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale. 'She had taken a decade to design,' Robert Moore writes, 'three years to build, and just 135 seconds to destroy.'

A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy (Vintage) is Moore's absolutely spellbinding account of the Kursk's destruction, of the Russian government's failure to mount a rescue operation (or even admit anything had happened) until it was too late, and of the 23 crewmen who survived the two explosions and waited, trapped in a massive submarine that suddenly seemed very small, desperately hoping someone would come and save them.

Impeccably researched, written with grace and an abundance of compassion, the book takes what we all know about the Kursk tragedy – it made headlines around the world, once the world found out about it – and adds so much more to it. It's a story of a government's pride (or perhaps arrogance?), a technological wonder with a small but disastrous flaw, and 118 crewmen who lost their lives.

In the history of submarines, the nuclear-powered sub is a relatively new invention. The first nuclear submarine to be commissioned into the U.S. Navy (or any navy, for that matter) began sea trials in the mid-fifties, barely half a century ago. The first recorded escape from a disabled submarine, on the other hand, took place in 1851. And the first detailed design of a submersible vehicle was made by William Bourne, a British mathematician, in 1578 – four and a quarter centuries ago.

SubmarineYou can read about Bourne, and hundreds of other dreamers, inventors, and revolutionaries, in Thomas Parrish's The Submarine: A History (Viking). Parrish has a lot of ground to cover, and, as you might expect, he devotes a fair amount of space to the two World Wars. You kind of have to, in a book like this: early on, inventors of submarines realized that pretty much the only way they'd get any money to build their contraptions was if they marketed them as tools of war. (U-boats, of course, were designed as hunter-killers, undersea weapons.)

But the history of submarines isn't the history of warfare, and Parrish's discussion of some early submersible pioneers seems strangely, and inappropriately, brief. Narcis Monturiol, for example, was a Spanish self-taught inventor who designed and built the world's first practical undersea vessel, and who dreamed of peace, not war. Parrish gives him a paragraph.

A few pages later, Parrish mentions the American submarine pioneer David Bushnell, who created 'an interesting if useless submersible nicknamed the Intelligent Whale,' but that's all he says about it. The Whale was hand-propelled, with doors at the bottom to allow occupants to leave the vehicle; the Navy bought her in 1869, and she flooded in 1872, at which time the Navy lost interest – but if you want to know that, you'll have to look elsewhere: Parrish doesn't tell you any of it.

The book is flawed, mostly in the way the author concentrates on the (relatively) modern history of submersibles while only briefly discussing the period prior to the outbreak of the First World War. But it's fascinating nevertheless, a work of scholarship and precision, and it would be churlish not to take it on its own terms and admit that it is, really, a very good book.

Parrish might have given Narcis Monturiol a mere paragraph, but Matthew Stewart gives him a whole book. And it looks like he deserves it, too. Monturiol wasn't just an inventor; he was a utopian, a social reformer, a rebel, and a visionary.

Monturiol's DreamMonturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World (Pantheon) is enormously entertaining, far more lively than Parrish's informative, but uninvolving, book. This isn't just the story of a guy who wanted to build a boat that went underwater. It's about a dreamer who saw, in the submarine, a way to open up the undersea world to commerce and exploration; who wanted to provide a safe way for people to live and work under the water; who taught himself, pretty much from the ground up, the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology he would need in order to make his dream a reality.

It's a story set in a politically turbulent time, when inventing ways to travel underwater was not especially high on most people’s lists of things to do. Monturiol first announced his 'underwater plans' in 1856 (he was thirty-seven years old, relatively ancient for an upstart inventor), and he plugged away for a couple of decades, quietly changing the world. By the time of his death, in 1885, men like John Holland and Simon Lake were working on the next generation of submarine, and the era of the submersible weapon of war was just around the corner. (You can read about Holland, and Lake, in Parrish's book.)

Of all the submersible designers in all the world (and there were a lot of them), Monturiol was, Stewart tells us, the first one who came up with a sensible, practical way to make an underwater vessel safe and navigable. He's largely forgotten, now, and that's a crying shame, because he was one of the true pioneers.

Shadow DiversIn 1991, several deep wreck divers – you know, those folks who plunge several hundred feet under the sea and explore shipwrecks – found something they hadn't even been looking for. Buried under 230 feet of water, off the coast of New Jersey, of all places, lay a World War II German U-boat.

It was a thrilling discovery, and it made all the papers, but there was one small problem: nobody knew which U-boat it was. Nobody could find any identification, any markings that would give them a clue. For six years, as experts tried to figure out which sub the divers had found, the sunken vessel was known as U-Who.

Robert Kurson's Shadow Divers (Random House) is the story of the submarine, the men who found her, and the exciting, potentially profitable, sometimes fatal sport of deep wreck diving. It's also a mystery, a detective story about people trying to identify a long-dead corpse: U-Who. Oh, and let's not forget the vitally important question: who owns the boat, and who gets to keep her spoils?

Filled with colourful characters, and chock full of living history, the book is one of those nonfiction page-turners that don't come around often enough. And when the detectives solve their mystery, when the submarine finally has a name, you just want to stand up and cheer. (Well, I wanted to, anyway.)

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.