By Paul Kemp
Hardcover in dustjacket, 256 pages, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index
Published by Naval Institute Press 1996
Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
Midget submarines were used by all the major naval powers of WWII except for the United States. The Italians, British, Germans, and Japanese all fielded small submarines, manned torpedoes of various types, or what would now be called swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs). These generally were deployed against enemy shipping at anchor or in harbor, and utilized standard torpedoes or mines to sink their targets. While not technically suicide weapons (at least in most cases) the operations were extremely hazardous and often resulted in the death or capture of the crews.
The author begins with Bushnell’s Turtle of American Revolutionary war fame. While unsuccessful as a weapon, it had some basic success as a submersible and proved the concept. Strangely, the successful CSS Hunley is not mentioned, although this may be due to the discovery of her wreck happening after publication of this book. The first modern operation covered in detail is the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian battleship Viribus Unitus by the Italians during the closing days of the First World War.
The Italians were certainly the first to capitalize on the midget submarine concept in WWII, using SDVs to sink the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth at Alexandria with their Maiale and covertly operating against Allied shipping from the tanker Olterra at Gibraltar. The British copied the Maiale for their own Chariot SDV, and developed the four-man X-craft which were used successfully against the German battleship Tirpitz and the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao. Germany was a late comer to the midget submarine game, employing a variety of types in an effort to disrupt the Allied invasion of Europe, without much success. The Japanese developed their “Target-A” two-man midget to engage the U.S. Navy on the high seas in a climactic battle, but in the end used them mainly against ships at anchor or in harbor, the most well-known attacks being the Pearl Harbor raid and attack on Sydney Harbor. More successful but less well known are the torpedoing of HMS Ramillies at Madagascar and the attacks on American invasion shipping at Guadalcanal.
The author also evaluates the different vessels and their employment from a technical perspective, tracing the development of each. The smaller one-man submersibles, although tried on several occasions, were never able to be made practical for a variety of reasons. The larger types such as the British X-craft and Japanese Target-A were designed by submarine officers and engineers and were quite functional, their main limitations stemmed from their deployment to the combat area which required the services of fleet submarines as transports.
This work fills a void as very little has been written about the operations of midget submarines, the author has done an excellent job researching the stories of the men involved. These operations were quite secret at the time, and in some cases more information has only come to light recently – the details of the five Japanese mini-subs at Pearl Harbor being one example. Overall this is a very well written book which I can recommend without hesitation, and one which fills a gap in the naval history of the Second World War.