NAVAL REVIEW: FEBRUARY 2011

 

ON SEAS CONTESTED: THE SEVEN GREAT NAVIES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Edited by Vincent P. O’Hara, W. David Dickson and Richard Worth

(Naval Institute Press – £25.00) ISBN 9781 5911 4646 9

 

This is a series of crisp, clearly written accounts of the history, composition and performance of the main maritime combatants in the Second World - the USSR, USA, Japan, Britain, Germany, Italy and France. If I say that the authors succeed in compressing a mass of information on the armaments, training, tactics and personnel of the various navies into a small space, this makes their chapters sound as exciting as a shopping list. This is far from the case. Of course, some of the material is familiar; the British weakness in carrier aircraft, the Japanese shortage of skilled officers and the initial US underestimation of the submarine threat. But there is much here that is revealing, such as the Soviet emphasis in the 1920s on amphibious operations and their ability to incorporate and improve on foreign designs captured or purchased, such as the British L-55 submarine sunk in the Baltic in 1919.

There are some striking contrasts between the chapters. Mark Peattie’s essay on the Imperial Japanese Navy makes clear that its obsession with the great naval battle on the Tsushima pattern and its consequent failure to defend the Japanese merchant fleet meant that it was obliterated by US submarines. This defeat alone was just as decisive as an Anglo-American failure to win the Battle of the Atlantic would have been for the European theatre. Trent Hone’s chapter on the US Navy devotes a paragraph to this aspect of the Pacific War and otherwise concentrates on the epic surface battles. Evidently, the Coral Sea, Midway and the other Pacific battles are still the ones which dominate the US interpretation of the war. Hone’s comments on US Naval Intelligence in the Pacific also make a salutary contrast to the conventional wisdom on this side of the Atlantic, no mention of Enigma or British work in the field. David Wragg’s chapter on the Royal Navy pokes gentle fun at the rivalry between the US and British naval flyers but, oddly, for someone who has written about naval commanders, he has less to say about the men who commanded the Navy in the Second World War than the other contributors in the volume have about ‘their’ respective navies.

            John Jordan’s chapter on the successes and failings of the French Navy is detailed and balanced. The one criticism is that he perpetuates the myth that Churchill gave the French fleet in Mers el-Kebir the alternatives in July 1940 of sailing with the British or being sunk. Their commander was also given the option of being interned in some French port in the West Indies or in the United States, a choice which would have saved French pride and the lives of hundreds of sailors. It would also have encouraged many to join the Free French forces who were instead shocked and outraged by the RN’s destruction of their fleet.

            The various chapters are illuminating on the way in which alliances did or did not affect the naval war. Thus Stephen McLaughlin shows how British submariners helped improve Soviet torpedo firing techniques but failed to persuade them to begin a ‘perisher’ type course to train commanders in estimating the target’s course and speed. The Royal Navy had notoriously helped the Japanese develop their naval aviation after the First World War but it was left behind by Japanese developments in the 1930s. Britain was able to assist the US with anti-submarine techniques and material, while US aircraft transformed the Royal Navy’s aviation. By comparison, German-Japanese naval cooperation appears from these accounts to have been negligible. On the other hand, Enrico Cernuschi and Vincent P. O’Hara mount a well-informed defence of the Italian navy and the assistance which it gave to the Germans. Not least was the way in which the Royal Navy had to disperse its anti-submarine efforts to the Mediterranean and so leave the Germans freer to attack allied commerce elsewhere. Altogether, Italian submarines sank 16,396 tons of allied ships for every submarine they lost compared with allied sinkings of 17,334 tons of Axis ships for every submarine sunk in the Mediterranean. Until the allied invasion of North Africa, the authors argue that the Regia Marina kept North African forces supplied and British forces stretched even though the British had the great advantage of having cracked the German codes and so could frequently intercept Italian convoys. 

O’Hara, Dickinson and Worth have edited a compact, thoughtful work of reference which is also a pleasure to read.

 

Philip Towle

University of Cambridge