World War II at Sea: A Global History
by Craig Symonds
Oxford University Press, 2018
It is a sign of an outstanding historian if he can take a subject that has been the focus of an almost monumental amount of detailed scholarship and bring all that research together in a coherent narrative. It is the sign of an excellent writer and storyteller if he can make that same story compelling from the first page to the last. Craig L. Symonds manages to do both in less than eight hundred pages in his new maritime history of World War II.
The first thing to consider is the epic scale of the conflict itself. Major engagements between multiple national navies took place on all the world’s oceans and in many of the world’s seas. Then of course there is the prodigious firepower available to those navies. There were battleships of ever increasing size and power. Aircraft carriers and the planes they carried underwent an unparalleled evolution over the course of the war. From the very beginning, submarines devastated merchant fleets and new and not so new tactics had to be developed and refined to counter the undersea threat. One constant was the importance of technological change, be it in the world of code-breakers and espionage, aircraft development, Asdic and sonar for detecting submarines, and radar for detecting everything else. Added to this was the most important element of them all, industrial production.
And on the ocean were the fleets themselves. Some of these fleets were massive and technologically sophisticated. The British, German, American and Japanese fleets had a global reach. The French and Italian navies played critical, if more localized roles. Symonds analyzes these national navies and details the major naval engagements that determined personal and national fates. Great battles and bravery were only part of the story. The Italian navy - the Regia Marina – was hampered by fuel shortages. When opportunity arose to turn the Mediterranean into Mare Nostrum, “our sea”, reminiscent of the days of the Roman Empire, Italian leader Mussolini must have thought his ambitions were reasonable. The Regia Marina was a world class navy, larger than the German Kriegsmarine, but the lack of fuel and an inability to work effectively with Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, proved fatal. Italian sea power was often condemned to languish in port due to a lack of fuel, and rarely able to capitalize on their advantage with land-based aircraft, Italian ambitions withered on the vine. The French story was determined by Germany’s invasion of France and the fall of that nation. Much of the French fleet escaped to ports in Africa, but, in the end, many were scuttled or destroyed in port by the Royal Navy so they would not fall into German or Italian hands.
The surface fleet of Germany’s Kriegsmarine fared little better than the French or Italian fleets. Admiral Raeder’s dream of a world class German navy failed to convince Hitler, and for much of the war these impressive ships were either trapped in port, or, when they did manage to get to sea to wreak havoc, were hunted down by the Royal Navy and destroyed. The German U-boat fleet was another story entirely. Under the direction of the visionary and enthusiastic Rear Admiral Karl Donitz, German submarines terrorized the North Atlantic for much of the war. Whether hunting in their famous wolf packs or stalking their maritime prey alone, U-boats were a serious threat to any ship that crossed the Atlantic. In a theme that Symonds returns to, it was finally American industrial production that overwhelmed the Kriegsmarine. America built ships faster than the U-boats could sink them.
On the other side of the planet, the Japanese had launched a raid on the American Navy at Pearl Harbor. At first glance, the attack seemed decisive. American naval power seemed to be crippled, and the Japanese Navy went from victory to victory, overrunning much of the Pacific. Again, it was American industrial production that turned the tide of war. Big aircraft carriers came to dominate where once battleships had ruled. Improved American aircraft were able to equal and then better Japanese air technology. Radar again played a critical role and the attrition experienced by Japanese ships and qualified aviators led the American Navy into Japanese home waters, which proved fatal to that empire.
Symonds doesn’t lose the biographies of the players in this global drama by focusing on grand strategy and fleet movements. Alongside the drama of battles, personalities are analyzed and sketched against the backdrop of war. Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Mussolini get their due. Assessments of naval leaders like Yamamoto, King, Spruance, Donitz and Halsey are balanced and deftly handled. The reader is able to follow the careers and development of individuals who played important roles in the ocean war. Also, some ships took on personalities and show up again and again in the narrative.
With all the detail, with a helpful selection of maps and photographs, and with ample notes and a useful bibliography as well as index, this is a volume that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in World War II. Its great strength, a compelling narrative, could have been drowned in detail. Instead, the mastery of detail supports the narrative trajectory to create a history that doesn’t let up until the combat is over.
Mark Richardson is a small town library director in New England. His career includes archival work at a maritime museum and an art museum, as well as local history librarianship. A proud veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, he now spends his time inland raising his family in a centuries old farmhouse that resist the very idea of a level or straight surface.