At the heart of this book is an investigation into the sinking of an American attack submarine, the USS Scorpion, in 1968. This was a particularly tense period of the Cold War, only six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Confrontations between American and Soviet submarines were common.
Offley's book is based around the theory that the Scorpion was actually sunk by the Soviets in revenge for the sinking of one of their own submarines, which they believed to have been caused by an over-aggressive American submarine.
Some parts of this book are undoubtedly fascinating. Offley takes us through the twenty five year long investigation that altered his view of the fate of the Scorpion from having been an accidental sinking to its having been deliberately sunk by the Soviets. This element of the book provides an interesting insight into the investigative process. The investigation progressed in fits and starts, with long gaps, as different pieces of evidence were uncovered.
The book also contains an interesting summary of submarine warfare between the end of the Second World War and the time of the sinking, criticised by some, but of interest to those who are not already knowledgeable about the book.
This had been a hugely controversial book, and has clearly annoyed some people. Comments from ex-submariners have include "an insult", "dreadful", "impossible", "credible" and "a real insight". Some of the online criticism is clearly unfounded. Offley is criticised for having begun with a theory and adopted the facts to fit, when even in the book we see Offley form opinions that he later discards (this is one of the more interesting aspects of the book for me). Others claim that he fails to mention or account for the difference in performance between the Scorpion and the Soviet submarine said to be involved in the incident. This is clearly not the case - a sizable chunk of the later part of the book is devoted to a spying case that may have compromised the security of naval communications, allowing the Soviets to track the Scorpion using her own radio messages.
One criticism is more understandable. Part of Offley's theory is that the long public search for the Scorpion was part of the cover up, and that the submarine had been found very quickly after sinking, because "the Soviets had told us where she was". The critics ask "Why would they do this, risking a major confrontation?". Offley provides an answer, but does not spell it out clearly. One section looks as Special Intelligence, defined as the interception and decoding of an opponent's internal high level communications. Offley is not claiming that the Soviets smugly turned up with coordinates, but that the US intercepted a secret internal Soviet communication reporting the sinking.
One flaw in the book for me is that the original incident, the suspected collision between a Soviet and American sub that may have ended with the Soviet submarine sinking is not investigated in any depth.
One unusual feature of this book is that Offley clearly believes that the cover up he has investigated was justified for more than one reason. Given the tension at the time, there was an ever present danger of the Cold War turning hot, so publicly announcing that the Soviets had sunk a submarine would have been very dangerous.
The big question is are the claims made in this book true? The suggestion that there was cover up of some sort about the sinking certainly rings true. The idea that there might have been a secret search for the submarine before the public search is also fairly convincing. Tense standoffs between Soviet and US submarines were a common occurrence of the period. Did the Soviets fire on the Scorpion? Quite honestly I have no idea (and no way to know).
With that one caveat, this is a very interesting book. Even if the main theory is not true, the account of the investigative process is fascinating.
Author: Ed Offley
Publisher: Basic Books