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"If we measure our knowledge not by what we know, but by what we don't, we are just ignorant fools."

Judge Dee in The Two Beggars


06/12/09

     
 

 


What is a naval surface engagement?

Here is the definition of a naval surface engagement used in German Fleet:

A naval surface engagement is ". . . an encounter between purpose-built surface warships displacing at least five hundred tons full load where torpedoes and/or gunfire were exchanged. This definition excludes the many actions involving motor-torpedo boats, auxiliaries, and armed merchant cruisers or raiders where either opponent had only such ships engaged."

I had to limit my inquiry and ensure I was comparing apples to apples. If I considered the hundreds of actions involving MTBs, armed trawlers, and raiders, it would never end. Secondly there is a big gap between the larger MTBs, which displace less than 200 tons and the smallest torpedo boats which come in at roughly 600 tons. There were few purpose built warships during the World War II period that fell in between. The smallest ships I am interested in are armed with at least a 4-inch gun (88-mm gun in the case of the Germans), and can go at least 16 knots. This definition seemed to work for every navy. Within this definition I figure 163 surface engagements occurred in World War II.

Why not Taranto?

A  review of Struggle for the Middle Sea recently published in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis (August 7, 2009) made several good points. “O’Hara, with access to previously little-seen archives, particularly from Italy, gives a new and stunningly important view of World War II, replete with geography lessons which remain valid today.” However, “he sailed past the British attack on Taranto on November 11, 1940, with barely a mention, despite the fact that this was the inspiration for Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack.”

On 11 November twenty-one Swordfish flying in two waves from the British carrier Illustrious attacked Taranto, Italy’s main naval base. They torpedoed three battleships knocking one out for the entire war, one for four months and one for six months. This highly successful raid is the subject of several books and it rates at least a chapter in most histories of the Mediterranean conflict. The reviewer’s assumption, that I skated past Taranto because it is so well covered elsewhere, has merit but it is not the only reason.

For my work the strategic implications of Taranto are important and in the book I note that they were not all that Churchill or Admiral Cunningham made them out to be. Italian battleships sortied on 17 November, less than a week after they were reportedly neutralized, causing the failure of a Malta fly-off operation, and again on 26 November in response to a Malta convoy. Overall, Taranto altered the basic dynamics of the situation at sea only through December and the major impact was the arrival of two large Malta convoys. For those to whom this statement seems controversial, the Taranto raid is the subject of a major article I have co-authored with Enrico Cernuschi which was published  in Warship 2010. There the attack’s impact and implications and the damage actually inflicted are fully discussed. I would have liked to do this in Struggle for the Middle Sea, but there just wasn’t room for this and everything else I wanted to say.

 Book Reviews

Warships After Washington: The Development of the Five Major Fleets, 1922-1930. By John Jordan (Naval Institute Press, 2012)


I picked up this book because I respect Mr. Jordan's work. I began at the beginning and it held my interest. By the time I was up to Chapter 8: Esploratori, Contre-Torpilleurs, `Condotteri' I realized that this was a great book on its subject matter. On every page I was picking up this interesting detail or that, having old questions answered, or getting new appreciations of why a particular design worked or not. I like the way Jordan considers each class of warship in the context of its foreign counterparts. I like the way his knowledge of French and Italian sources enriches the discussions of those navies. I like the way he seems to know what I am curious about (things like stability, rate-of-fire, ammunition supply) and addresses those subjects. The information is presented in clear prose and backed by excellent visuals. If you are curious why so many of the ships that carried the load in World War II (treaty cruisers, contre-torpilleurs, submarines, destroyers) were designed the way they were, you will like this book very much.

Is there anything not to like? Not much. I wish Seaforth would look at the way other publishers handle endnotes and put page headers in their endnote section. To many times I had to go back and look at what chapter I was on to find a note. Also the notes were too discursive. I know it's a matter of taste, but in general, if something is worth saying, it's worth saying in the text, not buried in the back of the book. But that's just a nit-pick given the excellent qualities of this work. Highly recommended.

Mussolini's Navy: A Reference Guide to the Regia Marina, 1930-1945.  By Maurizio Brescia (Naval Institute Press, 2012)

Mussolini's Navy is focused on the ships of the Italian navy. There is a short historical introduction to the prewar navy, another short section on infrastructure, organization and a brief chronology. I liked the chapters on bases and dockyards and camouflage. The sections on flags and uniforms were interesting. The Who's Who which rounds out the work is useful and could have been a lot longer.

The author's major interest, which he expresses in his dedication, is the technical aspects of the ships and two thirds of the work consists of a type-by-type, class-by-class walk through the Regia Marina's fleet. The author provides details of design, technical aspects, and operational history. The text is complemented by an impressive collection of photographs--many of which I've never seen--and excellent line drawings. Overall, the book's visual aspects are outstanding and reflect the author's belief that images are themselves sometimes more important than text or data tables. "Even a less than prefect photography may often tell much more than a written page."

What is missing? There is little of weapons, fire control, or the navy's social aspects like training. There is nothing on doctrine or intelligence. However the strengths-- illustrations, ship information and camouflage--are very strong. I consider this a major work and well worth the cost.

Thunder in its Courses: Essays on the Battlecruiser by Richard Worth (Nimble Books, 2011)

I must preface this review by disclosing that Richard Worth is a friend and collaborator. However, I am reviewing his collection of essays because I enjoy his work, I respect his knowledge, and because I admire his uncommon ability to hit the essence of a murky issue or a complicated technical point and clarify it with such sardonic wit.

Thunder in its Courses is a collection of seven essays that examine one of the most controversial subjects in warship design history: the battlecruiser. (Or is that battle cruiser?) First Worth settles, at least to my mind, that much-debated question of what a battlecruiser is. Other topics include the first battlecruisers, design dead-ends, why the type did not prosper, and a close-up look at the Japanese Kongo class. It concludes with the best of the might-have-beens. There are gems on nearly every page. For example, in discussing the U.S Alaska class of large cruisers he notes that, "Agonizing over the proper battleship/battlecruiser label makes as much sense as arguing whether a mule is a horse or a donkey." Or, "Lexington's protection scheme crawled out of a Dali nightmare." The book is well illustrated with photos and line drawings. My biggest complaint is that Thunder in its Courses is too short. An account of how the battlecruiser concept proved itself in action and how it failed told from the perspective of Worth's informed point-of-view would have earned this work six stars.

US Destroyers 1934-1945: Pre-war classes by David McComb. (New Vanguard, 2010)

The Osprey format-- many illustrations on 48 pages of text--doesn't give an author much range to roam "US Destroyers 1934-45: Pre-war classes" is remarkable in that it distills so much useful, even hard to find information into this format. An author can only do this when he knows his subject very well which Dave McComb clearly does.

McComb gives a succinct overview of the design and development philosophy and goals for these classes and then takes the reader on a class-by-class overview. Talking about the Dunlap, Bagley and Gridley classes, for example, we learn that these ships were built in haste to provide employment during the depression. They did not improve upon the preceding class because, with "20,000 engineering drawing already in use, Gibbs & Cox had neither the time nor the benefit of experience at sea on which to base any redesign." The book includes sections on modifications, new technologies like radar, and an extensive discussion of the operations and actions of these classes. About Vella Gulf, "Moosbrugger's division launched 24 torpedoes and turned away. `After what seemed like an eternity,' he wrote in his action report, the first three [Japanese destroyers] exploded and Simpson's division finished them off. Alert Shigure fired a return torpedo spread at Moosbrugger, which missed, took a dud hit in the rudder, make smoke, and escaped." This is a tight narrative that gives the reader the essence of the action and its results without wasting a precious word.

My favorite parts of the book are the many tables that give specifications, organization, modifications, hull numbers, awards and losses. I suspect, most readers would vote for the illustrations, however. The paintings are beautiful and the photographs give a good overview of the ships, the men, details and operations.

I recommend this book highly. 

With Utmost Spirit: Allied Naval Operations in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945 by Barbara Tomblin (U of Kentury Press, 2004)

There has been little published about the Anglo-American naval war in the Mediterranean from November 1942 to May 1945 but this is not the reason Dr. Tomblin's With Utmost Spirit is such a valuable resource. It is because her book is comprehensive and deeply researched. She brings a perspective that respects the men who served. She enriches her narrative with their memories and antidotes and does a good job blending their oral histories with the archival sources. I keep this book in a handy location because I refer to it often. Highly recommended.

Submarine: An Anthology of First-Hand Accounts of the War Under the Sea, 1939-1945. by Jean Hood (Conways, 2008)

First person accounts of submarine warfare and anthologies recounting aspects of the war at sea are easy to find, and many are very interesting, but Submarine edited by Jean Hood knocked my socks off.

The editor has woven first-hand accounts to give unique threads for different nations, for different types of experiences, for different viewpoints. The reader is regaled with plenty of the gut-wrenching claustrophobia one associates with submarine warfare--there are accounts where the depth gauge is creeping to the right past the boat's maximum designed limits, the crew is gasping in an atmosphere poisoned with diesel fumes, chlorine gas and fear, braced against the shock of exploding depth charges--but this wouldn't be such an interesting book if that was all there was. Variety is the key. I enjoyed the mundane accounts of training; the humorous accounts such as, for example, one where an American air force passenger kept knocking his head against the same obstruction while navigating the confined passages of an Italian sub used for training; the details of housekeeping, of cooking, of entertainment, ashore and afloat. The subs that rescued survivors from their victims who went on to become unofficial members of the crew, the submariners rescued in their turn after falling victim to a sustained counter-attack delivered by an escort--there is a taste of everything.

This is a long book, but there is not an ounce of filler. The editor mixes in short accounts with longer ones; the chronological format convoys a sense of building tension and, in the case of the Axis submariners, of frustration and defeat. Submarine works as history and it works as a fast-paced reading experience. It is also moving book. I came away with a deep respect for those who, for whatever reason, served in the submarine forces during World War II. I recommend Submarine without reservation.

Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor by John Burton. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Mr. Burton, an aviation history enthusiast, has published his first book, a narrative of the first two weeks of the air war over Malaya and the Philippines. Fortnight of Infamy also sets the stage with a brief overview of the prewar organization and doctrine of the Japanese, Americans and Australians.

Allied airpower failed miserably in this period and this book explains why. The second half is filled with cockpit level details of aerial combat in the style of Lundstrom and Shores, which, according to the footnotes seems to be constructed from Bill Bartsch's Doomed at the Start, Chris Shore, et al.'s Bloody Shambles and Sakai Saburo's Samurai. This is not my area of expertise so I'll just say I enjoyed the book. Mr. Burton is a talented writer and his narrative moves at a rapid pace, while retaining a professional tone. I'll refer to this book in the future as an excellent starting point for details about early air operations. I also understand that Mr. Burton is at work on a follow-up volume taking the airwar up through the loss of the East Indies. This would be a welcome addition to the literature.


 

     

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