X-1 The Royal Navy’s Mystery Submarine, Review by Mark Barnes


X-1 The Royal Navy’s Mystery Submarine
By Roger Branfill-Cook
Published by Seaforth Publishing
ISBN: 978 1 84832 161 8

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Even now I find it a bit difficult to believe the X-1 actually existed, but I’ve looked through the book several times and taken in the stunning archive photography and imagery.

The author’s superior descriptions have made it all clear to me. The boat was real. She was a submarine cruiser, bloody big for her time – an experiment of sorts, she to deceived her own government as well as friend and foe alike. She was wrapped in intrigue and became mired in espionage and propaganda. She was unloved. The Royal Navy didn’t take the bate and built no more submarines like her and missed the bus, but other navies took notice and in time, with revisions big subs like the X-1 were much less of a novelty. It always seems so typical that the Brits get a sound idea and don’t see it through and others make it work. But at that time, after the Great War, there still was only one great navy dominating the seas – even though the writing was getting bigger on the wall; and the Admiralty were just not interested and they were looking to maintain the primacy of their surface fleet. Stick with what you know.

Well, that’s it all in a paragraph. What about a bit more?

Every time P&S send me a Seaforth book to review I have to admit I do break into a really big cheesy grin. They are usually massive great things festooned in fantastic archive photographs of stunning ships and I can get all nostalgic for when Britannia Ruled the Waves.  To be fair, they did produce my book of the year for 2012 and that was on the Italian Navy, so I have just defeated much of that point.  There is an element to this title which is more about how Britannia waives the rules as much as anything; and the package is considerably smaller but perfectly formed. But the style and quality is typically Seaforth.  The artwork and scale drawings are fantastic and as per norm, the photos really are terrific, you get the full treatment with this book and my initial concern that it might not be one of those volumes you’d be able to pick up and leaf through as and when it suits was misplaced – it is.

The book is not simply broken down into a technical history and service life of the X-1. Rather it is a really impressive, I want to say ramble; but that would be a disservice, so I will say cruise – much more appropriate – through the conceptualisation, development and then the trials and tribulations of this most singular of submarines. Wow! What a sentence that was…  There are some amazing episodes and fascinating stories, some of them murky – notably the espionage affair involving Commander Colin Mayers, which all seems pretty unfortunate. He was suspected of selling information to the Japanese but it was never adequately proved but his career was ruined. The overriding story you take from this book are all the things that go wrong, the bits that don’t work, the accidents and the series of unfortunate events that punctuate the life and death of the X-1. You come to realise that this submarine and the Royal Navy were not ready for each other and actually, I’m wrong there – because it is the bleeding obvious. She wasn’t the X-1 for nothing. It’s all in the name. She was a big experiment. It lasted for a long time but the end result seems easy in hindsight from this bit of the 21st Century when we have massive nuclear submarines lurking free under the oceans. Things have to be learned. The important stuff is in the preparedness of the men on the end of the lessons. Deep stuff.

Once again what we have here is a completely wonderful package from Seaforth. Mr Branfill-Cook tells a fascinating story in a way that makes it easy for the layman to follow and you can really get into it. The book is user friendly because, as said, it is lush and I don’t mean that in a shallow way; it is just done so well. So, this volume will have to squeeze in a gap in between the big battlewagons on my bookshelf, not unlike a submarine finding sea room amid a line of battlecruisers.  How appropriate.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.