The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin
is the joint production of Peter Yule and Derek Woolner, and is a project commissioned by Cambridge University Press with support from the Department of Defence. It cites its aim as ‘simply to tell the story of the submarine project from its origins to about 2005.’ The book itself is based upon a combination of unclassified, open source and specially declassified material and, perhaps most importantly, more than 130 interviews with many of the protagonists.
In many ways the book achieves what it sets out to do. The authors have, despite the introduction indicating a certain hauteur in relation to military and defence issues, ...view middle of the document...
The publisher-led compression has also exacerbated some fundamental problems of method and of historiography. The book’s primary reliance upon oral history creates certain limitations because the statements deployed in evidence reflect not only the prejudices and preoccupations of the subjects but their ‘spin’, whether unconscious or not. Despite the book’s subtitle Steel, Spies and Spin, such ‘spin’ seems not always to have been apparent to the authors. While it may have been right to seek a principal author (Peter Yule) who had no preconceptions from previous associations with the Collins class, or the RAN, there could also have been a price to pay through an inability to question more deeply just what lay behind some of the underlying assumptions and statements made in interviews.
Surprisingly, the historical background to the Collins Class is sketchy at best and sometimes misleading at worst. This is partly the result of the editing process and the compression already criticised. But it also reflects both limited reading and a lack of consultation with other naval historians – particularly regrettable deficiencies given the nature of this writing project. There are two important consequences. The first is that a more detailed assessment of the RAN’s previous experiences with submarines, and a deeper analysis of their intended roles within the Navy’s force structure, would have made much more comprehensible the context for the revival of the submarine arm at the beginning of the 1960s – and the subsequent debate over the priority that submarines should receive.
The second is that the book tends to assume that the views of the early Oberon-vintage submariners accurately describe and assess the perspective and the views of the remainder of the Navy, particularly its leadership, not only in the 1960s but even up to the present day. The statement in the last pages that (italics added) ‘Even if not entirely accepted throughout the navy, the role and effectiveness of submarines in Australia’s defence has been established’ is the culmination of this attitude. This claim of non-acceptance is particularly irritating to a serving member, quite untrue and offered without any evidence at all.
Any argument over the importance of the submarine as a component of the RAN was, even if not already obsolete, absolutely concluded with the demise of the carrier-borne fighter and strike capability in 1982-83. This is a vital point, because the debate that has recently been urged over the size of a future submarine force may be needed in order to judge the relative allocation of resources within a force structure best configured to meet Australia’s future needs. It will not be on the question of whether there should be submarines in the RAN at all – that has long been settled.
That there should have been a certain ‘siege’ mentality in the leadership of the early Oberon force is not entirelysurprising. The submarines were physically separated at Neutral Bay...