Military History Submarine Warfare
Stephanie Cousineau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0058


Few branches of military service are as captivating, as popularly thrilling and as discomfiting as the submarine service. From its myths and legends to its stealth and questionable legal status, undersea warfare commands attention. Correspondingly, it has been graced with a massive historiography, dominated more by popular, nonacademic works than scholarly studies. But whether the works are academic or not, the focus lies primarily on one state: Germany. The legendary U-boat drives the bulk of scholarship and has helped make submarine warfare so captivating that a relatively large body of reference texts and encyclopedias exist, providing a foundation for the amateur and expert alike. Upon this foundation are built studies of the eras of submarine warfare and their most relevant associated themes, particularly technology and international law. The first school of study begins with the earliest technological coup, when the first submersible dirigible was developed during the American Revolutionary War, though from the 18th century to the 20th century, the story of submarine warfare is predominantly a story of tremendous technological adolescence. Until it gained greater seaworthiness, as it had by World War I, incidences of submarine warfare were few and far between. The German U-boat war of 1914–1918 shocked the world, but in scholarship it has been wholly eclipsed by the cataclysm of World War II. World War I’s descent into “unrestricted” submarine warfare scarred participants and observers so profoundly that rules of submarine warfare commanded statesmen and militaries’ interests alike in the interwar period, as the swelling historiography indicates. The attention was to no avail, and the legal issues that had underscored submarine warfare’s “inhumane” nature remained unresolved. This did not stop two states from planning for the same style of warfare, and Germany and the United States let loose their campaigns almost from the beginning of World War II. In this, they were not alone, they were simply the two largest. With the absence of submarine conflict in the postwar era, works on submarine warfare have returned to the minority, and the outpouring of attention remains fixated especially on the German U-boat, still as popular today as ever.

General Overviews

Broad scholarship on submarines is plentiful but repetitive. It is easy enough to find a picture book that chronicles submarines through the ages, reflecting the fact that this area fulfills the needs of the general public’s curiosity about undersea warfare more than it reflects good, scholarly studies. For example, Hutchison 2001 is the most straightforward, image-loaded example, but for those seeking a narrative account, van der Vat 1995 is the only real choice. Given that the lion’s share of interest in the area of submarine warfare falls upon Germany’s U-boat, Mallmann Showell 2006 is included here to reflect that interest, while Redford 2010 illustrates the parallels between the mythological status of the German U-boat and the British submarine service.

  • Hutchison, Robert. Jane’s Submarines: War beneath the Waves, from 1776 to the Present Day. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

    Presents information without argument or analysis, but is instead more descriptive, flowing from early designs through the world wars, the nuclear age, and midget submarines—“the new underwater menace.” A good source for interested parties and beginners.

  • Mallmann Showell, Jak. The U-Boat Century: German Submarine Warfare, 1906–2006. London: Chatham, 2006.

    Offers a complete overview of one hundred years of U-boats, but as a tertiary source without new conclusions. Some mistakes and oft-propagated myths make this more appropriate for interested parties seeking a good read rather than those with academic intentions.

  • Redford, Duncan. The Submarine: A Cultural History from the Great War to Nuclear Combat. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2010.

    Explores the submarine in terms of its effect on British society and how culture and ethos, in turn, shaped the submarine service. For a state defined by its naval elitism, Redford argues that submariners were an even more elite group within that naval world, with a corporate identity and symbols. Best for academic audiences.

  • van der Vat, Dan. Stealth at Sea: The History of the Submarine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

    Narrative, good for novices, and written in good, engaging prose. Without the depth and analysis of a more academic work, it is at its best when covering the two world wars, yet the work is marked with some errors and is overly brief in relegating the entire nuclear era to just an epilogue.

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