Take a deep breath and plunge into the world of commercial and military divers. Enjoy our guide to some of the most gripping dive books ever...
From Panerai-wearing Italian WW2 divers in Alexandria harbour, to North Sea oil and exploration of marine wildlife by Jacques Cousteau, a library of fascinating dive books about diving complements the lowliest Seiko SKX007 or history-imbued beauty of a vintage COMEX Rolex reference 5514. Let’s deep-dive into some of the most interesting books on military and commercial diving…
Firstly, and despite marrying a qualified sport diver who cut her underwater teeth scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I never caught the diving bug myself. That said, since a childhood watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, I’ve been fascinated by the underwater world, submarines and those who work below the waves – whether in subsea exploration, North Sea oil or military diving.
Into the underwater realm of dive watches
A couple of years ago, WatchGecko asked me to write about dive watches. A logical next step was to research the world where divers watches such as the Rolex Sea-Dweller, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Omega Seamaster, Panerai Luminor and Seiko ‘62MAS’ earned their reputations. I devoured a selection of well-rated books on the subject. Now, covering seven decades and diving around the world, here are (in my opinion) some of the best. I challenge anyone interested in diving and dive watches not to find something interesting…
Target the Tirpitz
From Patrick Bishop’s Target Tirpitz to Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers, I was struck by the few references to specific military watches in the books – including Eric Micheletti’s extensively illustrated Warrior from the Deep: The Extraordinary History of the Combat Swimmers.
Perhaps this reflects the gradual transition towards the dive computer over the last 60 years. More likely, that the brands and specifications of dive watches play second string to the actual adventures.
Diving books packed with adventure
Are you seeking detailed description and images of ‘snowflake’ ref. 7928 and 7016 Tudors on French Marine Nationale NDC straps? Or perhaps you want to see if North Sea divers really wore Rolex ‘Subs’ at work? If so, you may struggle because these books are more about the divers and their exploits than the minutiae of diving gear. But don’t be put off by the lack of detailed watch references. These books are packed with thrilling underwater adventure…
Detailed descriptions of divers watches
For detailed exposition on dive watches, development of the unidirectional rotating bezel, the evolution of water-resistant watches for diving, or the helium escape valve, there’s more watch-specific reading material. Try books such as Fifty Fathoms: The Dive and Watch History 1953-2013 by Dietmar W. Fuchs, Konrad Knirim’s Militäruhren, IWC Schaffhausen: Engineering Time Since 1868 by Manfred Fritz, Z. M Wesolowski’s Military Timepieces, or the many books on Rolex’s Submariner. However, for mind-blowing tales of military and commercial operations where divers worked in conditions guaranteed to test any ISO 6425 watch, read the following…
Books about diving during WW2
Taking a roughly chronological approach, I started with Bishop’s volume about the Allies’ WW2 efforts to sink the Tirpitz – including the true story of Operation Source, a daring X-craft attack. From there, it’s a short swim to a classic of military diving, Waldron & Gleeson’s The Frogmen: The Story of the Wartime Underwater Operators, covering Allied and Axis operations – it’s as good a read today as on first publication in 1950. Both books are recommended primers before more recent military diving books such as Don Camsell’s Black Water and Duncan Falconer’s First Into Action. From tales of submarine-launched SBS training assaults on oil rigs, to photographing hulls of (moving) Russian battleships as they enter Gibraltar harbour only feet above military divers, both are packed with stories guaranteed to thrill. Or give submechanophobics sleepless nights…
Embracing WW2 military diving and the Cold War that followed, Don Hale’s The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabb is another unmissable read. This time, the sub-surface story reaches its mystery-shrouded climax beneath murky waters – and another Russian warship – as Crabb made his last dive in Portsmouth harbour.
Diving exploits around the world
For perspectives from other parts of the world, start with Clearance Diver: The life and times of an Australian Navy Frogman. In this book, Tony Ey describes military diving at dive sites around Australia and South East Asia. Then it’s time to dust off your school French and deep-dive into the memoirs of Bob Maloubier (nom-de-guerre, ‘Clothaire’). In Plonge Dans L’Or Noir, Espion (Diving in Black Gold, Spy) the author recounts his distinguished career in the French secret services – including being one of France’s combat divers (nageurs de combat) in the 1950s.
Bob Maloubier and Jacques Cousteau
Of course, Maloubier, who famously founded France’s equivalent of the US Navy Seals, played a key role in developing Blancpain’s seminal Fifty Fathoms dive watch. As we all know, the original Fifty Fathoms was a classic diving tool watch later worn (among many) by one Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
It was Cousteau who, with Émile Gagnan, developed the 'Scaphandre Autonome' ('Aqualung'), the tool that revolutionised commercial, military and recreational diving after the Second World War. Brad Matsen’s biography (Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King) is the ‘unprecedented and masterfully told’ story of the French diver, underwater photographer and environmentalist.
Diving during the North Sea oil boom
Along with his ship Calypso, the Frenchman dominated TV screens from 1968 to 1975 in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Around the time that the series, and the marine life it showed us, aired on British TV, the North Sea’s newly discovered oil and gas resources were already being vigorously exploited.
No exploration of the deep sea world of professional divers would be complete without venturing into this shallow-but-deadly sea. From saturation diving to 1996’s Sumburgh Chinook helicopter disaster and the sinking of MS Estonia in 1994, David Harrison Beckett’s The Loonliness of a Deep Sea Diver is unputdownable reading – with Rolex-spotting opportunities among its colour images!
A Royal Navy clearance diver’s tale
Another great read includes Tony Groom’s Diver. Then from the perspective of a diving life-support supervisor and paramedic, rather than navy diving, there’s Jon May’s Divers: From Piper Alpha to the Gulf War. Don’t forget Mark D Holroyd’s Frog Tales either as it documents Holroyd’s 40-years as a Royal Navy clearance diver.
From the start, I never intended this piece to be a diving manual or article on diving technique, be it scuba diving or commercial saturation diving (SAT diving). However, if like me you want a well-written overview of man’s attempts to live and work underwater, Tim Ecott’s Neutral Bouyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World, is a rewarding read.
Submarines and military divers
Earlier, I mentioned my fascination with submarines, in particular the leviathans of the deep developed since WW2. Not surprisingly, given the role of subs as delivery vehicles for military divers, books such as Don Camsell’s often reference the interaction between military diving and these vessels.
Cable-tapping under the Sea of Okhotsk
For a fascinating tale of Cold War diving operations around submarines, check out the chapter titled ‘Oshkosh B’ Gosh’ in Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of Cold War Submarine Espionage. If you read nothing more, enjoy the submechanophobia-inducing description of scuba divers working around – and beneath – the swaying, submerged USS Halibut (SSGN-587) during cable-tapping ops in the Sea of Okhotsk…
In search of Hitler’s lost U-boat
Finally, while on the subject of diving around submarines, what better way to conclude than by referencing Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers. The blurb of this gripping book about diving describes ‘the true adventure of two men who risked everything to solve one of the last mysteries of World War II.’ It’s a wonderful account of a six-year wreck diving quest for ‘Hitler’s lost U-boat’ off the USA’s East coast.
Diving books? Who needs Dirk Pitt’s fictional; adventures?
With such great reading about real diving adventures to be enjoyed, who needs the fictional adventures of Dirk Pitt and his trusty Doxa dive watch? Happy diving reading everybody!