REVIEW BY GRAHAM GOODLAD
The Second World War at sea has been the subject of several outstanding overviews in recent years. Phillips Payson O’Brien’s innovative How the War was Won (2015) argued for the critical importance of sea (and air) power in the defeat of the Axis powers. This was followed by two outstanding global narratives: World War II at Sea (2018) by Craig L Symonds and The War for the Seas (2019) by Evan Mawdsley.
So, do we need another survey of the maritime conflict of 1939-1945? When the author is Paul Kennedy, Professor of History at Yale for almost 40 years, the answer is most definitely yes. Kennedy’s aptitude for writing history on the grand scale has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, most notably in his best-known work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987).
He is exceptionally well-qualified to undertake the wide-ranging survey that is Victory at Sea. It is no small task to chart the fortunes of the principal maritime powers of the 1930s – Britain, the USA, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan – and how they emerged from six years of unremitting conflict.
Shaping a global conflict
The major naval campaigns of the war are covered in a series of narrative chapters. They range from the gruelling battle to preserve Britain’s Atlantic lifeline, through the struggle for mastery of the Mediterranean, to the island-hopping war in the Pacific. Readers will be familiar with many of the key episodes, from the Battle of the River Plate to the invasion of Normandy and Japan’s desperate kamikaze missions, all described by Kennedy with admirable precision and economy.
But it is his ability to pinpoint the key factors shaping the naval war that, above all, makes Victory at Sea such a compelling read. Kennedy compares the navies of the Great Powers, and the technological challenges that warship designers confronted as they strove to reconcile the competing demands of firepower, armoured protection, range, and manoeuvrability. Here he is, for example, on the vulnerability of steel ships compared to their wooden Nelson-era predecessors:
The 20th-century armour-plated naval vessel, curiously, could be knocked out more swiftly… One torpedo hit to the Bismarck’s rudder crippled that giant. One shell knocked out the Graf Spee’s range finder. A single torpedo was enough to blow a 130-foot hole in the side of the Ark Royal and sink it. The Hood was blown up by a single plunging salvo… The ocean in wartime and the skies above it were dangerous places wherein an enemy might lurk. As the possibility of battle approached, therefore, commanders were usually wise to proceed cautiously until it was clear what lay ahead.
Kennedy also shows us how geography, economics and strategic thinking came together to dictate the course of events. He explains, for example, how Britain’s position at the centre of a worldwide web of sea communications was a source of both strength and weakness.
Tasked primarily with defending the home islands and the Atlantic trade routes, the Royal Navy would also be required to supply an unexpected Soviet ally, to combat the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean, and uphold far-flung Asian interests against the Japanese assault. Kennedy reminds us, too, of the punishing demands imposed by distance, especially across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, where even the United States’ ability to project its power was tested to the extreme.
Powerhouse of victory
The controversy over which made the greater contribution to the outcome of the war, the Soviet effort on the Eastern Front or the role of the Western allies, is well known. Kennedy declines to be drawn into this argument, writing:
There is no need at this point to seek to join the debate over whether the Red Army or Anglo-American air-sea power was more responsible than the other for defeating the Nazi foe. The fact is that Germany had made a huge effort to get control of the Atlantic world after France’s fall in 1940, had been held in check by the British gatekeepers during the next year, and then had its naval, air and land forces steadily crushed by the technologically and numerically superior Western states.
But he leaves us in no doubt that the growing material strength of the Allies was critical to the course of the war, both in Europe and Asia. In particular, the United States’ unrivalled productive capacity, combined with the ingenuity of its logistical planners, made it the powerhouse of the anti-Axis alliance.
Kennedy identifies 1943 as the year in which US industrial and financial muscle tipped the balance. As aircraft carriers, destroyers, Liberty ships, planes, landing craft, and other matériel poured from America’s shipyards and factories, the end result could not be in doubt for long. Thus the post-war global balance of power shifted decisively from Old World to New. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto was more perceptive than he knew when, after Pearl Harbor, he warned that his country’s action had awakened a ‘sleeping giant’.
Kennedy’s superb narrative and analytical powers are not the only reason to read Victory at Sea. Unusually, the publishers have chosen to illustrate the book with full-colour paintings by the late Ian Marshall. Some readers will regret the absence of photographs of ships and key individuals, but these can easily be sourced elsewhere. Atmospheric images, such as the painting of HMS Hood and HMS Barham at anchor in Malta’s Grand Harbour, or of a U-boat under attack from a Sunderland flying boat in mid-Atlantic, will long stay in the mind.
The book’s technical apparatus is completed by clearly drawn maps and numerous statistical tables and charts. An extensive bibliography gives ideas for more specialised investigation. This is a book from which both experienced students and those who are new to the subject will gain a great deal.
Victory at Sea: naval power and the transformation of the global order in World War II, Paul Kennedy, Yale University Press, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0300219173.