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Naval Battles of The Second World War: The Atlantic and The Mediterranean: Pacific and Far East

03 Mar 23

Adorned by a well-chosen series of contemporary photographs, the battle descriptions and historical contexts in these two volumes provide an eloquent book-shelf wikipedia of tactical naval fighting during the Second World War. The introduction to both volumes set out the premise: they are “intended as a basic guide to the main naval engagements in each theatre of operations covered”. Volume One describes naval actions in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, with Volume Two delving into the main maritime fighting events in the Pacific and Far East. Both volumes firmly succeed in fulfilling the introductions’ promise, with the reader completing their global navigation of wartime seagoing exploits notably more educated on the selected capstone engagements of the war.

Written as a series of bite-sized battle reports, the author’s easy-read style means both volumes provide an enjoyable and interlinked literary journey. The author’s use of a few naval colloquialisms further reinforces the premise that these two books are written for the inquisitive generalist rather than the historical purist. This occasional lack of precise language led your reviewer to cross check a few apparently sweeping statements, such as the claim that during the Battle of the Atlantic Allied merchant shipping losses for June, July and August 1943 “sank to zero”; some (non-combat) tonnage does appear in Allied merchant loss tables for those months due to ships being lost to collisions, however North Atlantic losses to German U-Boat torpedo attack (the theme of the narrative) were indeed nil during that period.

The descriptions of the fighting are contextualised by timely background paragraphs that set the scene for the what is consistently introduced as ‘The Action’.  With track-chartlets of the main protagonists aiding visualisation, each engagement’s description is a useful summary of events which in many cases were highly complex games of cat, mouse, manoeuvre, risk, or innovative brilliance.

The author highlights this broad church of contributions to fighting success in his context for the longest maritime fight of the war: “The eventual outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic depended as much on scientific innovation and industrial resources as it did on tactics and individual heroism”. The descriptions themselves then allude to some of these tactical or scientific leaps, but stop short of the analysis which is often found in more specialist volumes on maritime warfare, or in books focussing on one battle or genre of fighting. A few such books are mentioned in the succinct bibliography at the end of each volume.

The inclusion for each engagement of tables of the main protagonists, including ships and maritime commanders for both Allied and Axis forces, further adds to the books’ value. These tables thus give the more intrigued reader an opportunity to investigate further the named heroes and villains of the described actions.

The main attribute of both volumes is the author’s choice of images that accompany the text.  For this reviewer the images chosen to illustrate key elements of the Battle of Midway (in Volume Two) were especially well selected, with the picture of the Japanese Carrier Akagi narrowly avoiding a salvo of B-17 dropped bombs, and the image of the mortally wounded carrier Hiryu, acting as reminders of the viciousness of war and the skills required to survive.

This account of the Battle of Midway was just one of 20 Pacific engagements described in Volume 2.  This reviewer duly found the second volume especially enlightening as its focus on the Pacific translated in to a natural exposition of many United States Naval battles, and their associated tactical struggles, many of which are less familiar to Royal Navy historians.

Both the volumes are easy to recommend through their provision of an eloquent primer for many of the key naval battles of the Second World War, or concurrently as a rather delightful précis of the long sequence of allied maritime fights between 1939 and 1945.