Accessibility statement

You're viewing an archived page from a previous Festival of Ideas. See this year's festival »

Ruling the Waves
Iain Ballantyne and Ben Wilson

cold-war-sub© Crown copyright. IWM (HU 107387)
  • Sunday 15 June 2014, 3.00PM to 4.30pm
  • Free admission
    Booking required
  • Berrick Saul Building, University of York (map|getting to campus)

Event details

Uni of York logo

Britain has survived and thrived as a nation because the first line of its defence has been far out at sea. The fortunes of our country and the Royal Navy have been intertwined, often in surprising and subtle ways. In this event, Ben Wilson charts the history of the Navy by focusing on a specific geographical area – the Western Approaches, the area of sea which stretches from Ireland to the Spanish coast.  Control of this zone has been essential for the security of Britain and her empire and the fortunes of Europe from the Middle Ages till today. It was scene of some of the most ferocious battles in naval history.

Iain Ballantyne takes up the baton, in a discussion of the covert operations of British submarines during the Cold War. This story is little known, but it is thrilling. It is also central to the history of the post-war period.

This talk is about more than ships and the seas – it’s the history of Britain told from a fresh angle.

Speaker biographies:

Iain Ballantyne

Ian has spent time at sea in most types of warship, from nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, to destroyers and frigates. Past assignments as a writer have also taken him from the frozen wastes of the Arctic to minefields in poisoned waters off war-torn Kuwait and even on a brief foray into the Bosnian war zone.

Iain was one of a select few journalists aboard the carrier HMS Ark Royal when the pilot of a Sea Harrier shot down over the Balkans was rescued by Special Forces and returned to the ship. 

More recently, Iain was aboard a Royal Navy frigate during a NATO counter-terrorism exercise in the Mediterranean and the same year (2008) visited US Navy and British warships facing down the Iranian and Al-Qaeda threat in the Northern Arabian Gulf.

Aside from being aboard the frigate HMS London (in 1991) when she was nearly hit by a torpedo launched by a Soviet submarine, during his visits to the USSR in its dying days Iain also came across a previously secret Russian prototype submarine at Balaclava in the Crimea. His report and photographs of the vessel when published were a world first.

During other Russian forays Iain twice visited the Kronstadt naval base (a restricted area). One memorable interview session with a Russian admiral involved 16 vodka toasts to 'the beautiful women of the world.'

In 2007, Iain's work in the maritime arena was saluted with a Special Recognition Award from the British Maritime Charitable Foundation (BMCF), for making 'a consistent and unwavering contribution to raising maritime awareness over the years'. 

In addition to being founding (and current) Editor of the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR (1998 – Present) and HPC Publishing’s popular ‘Guide to the Royal Navy’ (2002 – Present) Iain continues to write for newspapers and other magazines. His input for several years also infused and informed stories on naval affairs in the Sunday Telegraph and most recently (2014) in the Sunday Times.

In 2010 Iain's WW2 era book, Killing the Bismarck won a Mountbatten Maritime Award for best literary contribution Certificate of Merit.

The citation, by a distinguished panel of judges, declared Killing the Bismarck to be ‘a book of intense drama, compiled with painstaking accuracy and vividly portrayed through the meticulous accumulation of first-hand witness accounts’ to make it ‘authoritative and compelling.’

Iain is an Associate Member of the HMS Warspite Association. His first book (published 2001) was a profile of the legendary battleship Warspite, primarily told through the experiences of her sailors and marines in two world wars. 

His new book, Hunter Killers (published by Orion), is the first work to tell the truth behind several dangerous episodes in the covert undersea confrontation between British and Soviet submarines and their crews during the Cold War.

Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson is the award-winning author of four books. The most recent is Empire of the Deep: the rise and fall of the British Navy. He was born in 1980 and educated at Cambridge University.

Related links



Wheelchair accessible


Festival tweets