ADMIRALTY DESPATCHES: THE STORY OF THE WAR FROM THE BATTLEFRONT 1939-45

January 3, 2018
Posted by: Simon Bellamy

As the dustjacket explains, the Royal Navy has a long tradition of publishing reports of operations in the form of official despatches. Those covering the Second World War were published from 1947 onwards as supplements to the London Gazette. In this volume, produced in association with the National Archives, editor Professor Harry Bennett’s selections capture the huge range and scope of naval activity during the war. The blurb offers a couple of quotations which are sure to raise eyebrows and engage the interest of the potential reader. For example, a report on the Dieppe Raid concludes that “the landings went very largely according to plan” and describes the operation as “interesting”.
A perceptive introduction from the editor sets the scene for the despatches which follow. Recounting the size of the Royal Navy in 1939 and the heavy losses in ships and men which ensued, he judges that its contribution to victory was “immeasurable”. He argues that the operations it conducted, whether offensive or defensive, demonstrate the flexibility and impact of sea power, the principles of which are equally relevant today. NR members are unlikely to dissent from these familiar arguments, but the editor’s analysis will be valuable for other audiences seeking to understand how maritime strength underpinned Allied victory in 1945.
Professor Bennett next explains the background to the despatches, which offer an “admiral’s eve view”. He considers why they were written, what factors shaped them and what were their intended audiences, offering some fascinating insights. For example, he describes how they could become a battleground for postwar inter-service politics, with the report on the sinking of Bismarck being amended after complaints from the head of RAF Coastal Command. The role of The Naval Review in debates about the despatches and lessons identified from operations is acknowledged. Senior officers making the naval case to the public today will read with envy that these reports were widely covered by general news media in Britain and beyond. There is also much of interest in a brief historical overview of naval despatches, from the reign of Henry VIII to the Falklands campaign of 1982.
This illuminating introduction is succeeded by the despatches themselves, demonstrating good editorial judgment in choosing representative actions which paint a broader picture. Eight chapters cover individual aspects of warfare, each featuring one notable operation to illustrate the story. For instance, the battle with Italian heavy ships off Calabria is selected for the chapter on “Fleet Action”, whilst “Convoy Action” focuses on the effort to resupply Russia through the Arctic. Coastal Forces operations are not neglected, and a chapter on “Evacuation” covers Crete and reminds us of this grim and important task in the earlier part of the war.
Each chapter begins with a concise and helpful introduction from the editor. The despatches start with the name and appointment of the admiral responsible, followed by publication references and the text itself. Despite their official nature, the reports are invariably highly readable. (As the editor points out, they were intended to be understood by the public.) In addition to providing clear and detailed accounts of actions, albeit from the contemporary perspective of the senior officer on one side, they offer insights into decision-making of commanders and their post-operational analysis.
Complemented by excellent photographs, this well-produced volume will be a valuable resource for historians and researchers. Moreover, its judicious selection of a few reports to tell the wider story of the Royal Navy’s war will make it a rewarding book for the more general reader. The editor and the publisher, with the support of the National Archives, are to be commended for this important and engaging work.