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Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night, 1904-1945

03 Oct 23


(Seaforth Publishing – £25.00)

ISBN 978 1 3990 3051 9

352 pages

Rear Admiral R. G. Melly

This book’s two editors, Vincent P O’Hara and Trent Hone, are both renowned naval historians with numerous titles to their credit. To tackle the subject of “fighting in the dark”, they have been joined by six further authors, all specialists in their fields, to provide the required expertise for each of the books seven chapters. In exploring how technology has influenced the approach of the world’s larger navies to night combat, the book concentrates on the 40 year period between 1904 and 1944, with each chapter addressing a particular time frame and examining the topic from the view point of a particular navy. Each of these navies developed doctrine and tactics for night combat which reflected, self-evidently, their own perspective and strategic circumstances.

The first chapter, by Stephen McLaughlin, addresses the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905.  This served as a proving ground for the new technologies of rapid-firing guns, torpedoes, searchlights and radio. The various actions ably demonstrated the confusion of night fighting, and lessons were quickly learned.

The next chapter, by Leonard R Heinz, considers the tactics of the German Navy between 1914 and 1916, where the aim was to wear down the opposing forces with mine and torpedo attacks, the latter now with considerably increased range and better warheads. Unlike the British, the Germans had not invested in destroyers, instead relying on light cruisers to support their torpedo boats. They were prepared to fight a war for which they had trained – but the actuality was somewhat different!

The third chapter, by James Goldrick, covers the British experience between 1916 and 1939.  This pre-radar era nevertheless saw technical developments such as star shells, flashless propellants, Direction Finding equipment and improved recognition procedures. It slowly dawned that the main function of night fighting may no longer be associated with fleet actions.

The fourth chapter, by Vincent O’Hora and Enrico Cernuschi, provides an Italian perspective of night actions between 1940 and 1943. Essentially, the Italians started at a technical disadvantage and failed to learn the lessons of early night combat. The disaster at Matapan, in March 1941, shocked them into drastically revising the general rules for night actions, and better equipment started to become available, including rudimentary radar.  However, the defence of convoys at night proved to be a challenge (as it was for other navies).

The next two chapters cover the war in the Pacific, first from the point of view of the Japanese and then of the Americans. Jonathan Purcell starts, with a look at Japanese developments in night fighting between 1922 and 1942.  Fixated on a perceived disadvantage regarding the larger US fleet, the Japanese planned to win in a Decisive Battle by creating a nocturnal attritional phase, followed by an action in which their qualitative superiority in gunnery would prevail. With excellent training, night fighting equipment and torpedoes, but no appreciable radar, the initial engagements were successes for the Japanese, but the tactical victories were set against a backdrop of strategic failure. Trent Home then summarises the American response between 1942 and 1944, capitalising on the hard-earned lessons of Guadalcanal.  Improvements in radar, the introduction of Combat Information Centres and unleashing their destroyers ultimately gave the Americans the edge in some hard-fought night engagements.

For the final chapter, the focus switches to the western entrance to the English Channel in 1943-44 and the Battle of Ile de Batz. Michael Whitby outlines the development of British tactics in the vicious campaign against the light forces of the Kriegsmarine. After initial costly setbacks, a dedicated strike force was formed at Plymouth and onboard Action Information Centres were established. Superior radar, accurate intelligence and experienced leaders soon led to success and, importantly, prevented the Germans interfering with the invasion of Europe.

Night actions were epitomised by confusion. In succinctly describing the conduct of numerous actions, the authors demonstrate the importance of training, the need to learn and to adapt, and the imperative of making sense of any given situation: “The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds”.

This is an excellent book by seasoned authors, with analyses and conclusions expertly presented in a readable and well-presented format. Whilst the modern context might be different, the learning points remain pertinent; the book should be a compulsory read for Warfare Officers!