03 Sep 21

Aidan Dodson, an Hon. Professor of Egyptology, is perhaps not the obvious individual to write a book called Spoils of War, relating to 20th century warfare. However, teaming up with Serena Cant, a Marine Information Officer at Historic England, this is exactly what he has done. The idea for the book arose from the research for an earlier publication, which had revealed that the contemporary archival data purporting to indicate the fate of surrendered German capital ships at the end of the First World War was clearly inaccurate or incomplete; this, he felt, needed to be addressed.

Whilst the focus of the book concerns the final disposal of the warships, submarines and major auxiliaries of ex-enemy navies at the end of both World Wars, secondary objectives include outlining the events leading up to the end of hostilities and also a resolve to ‘myth-bust’ some of the pre-existing misunderstandings over some of their fates.

The book is essentially in two halves, addressing each of the two World Wars.  Each half starts with a narrative of “the endgame”, which outlines the circumstances of each of the principal enemy protagonists in the last few months of the fighting. There is then a description of how the spoils of war were split between the victorious powers, including an outline of the protracted series of negotiations involved between the allies. It is the scale of the task undertaken which is so impressive, albeit the circumstances were different for each conflict. At the end of the First World War, the spoils, which included 190 submarines, were primarily European based and were split between 11 countries, with the majority of the assets passing to the UK, France and Italy (and the lion’s share coming to the UK).

At the end of the Second World War, the onslaught of air attacks and mining had meant that there were no longer safe havens for the enemies’ vessels, and the great majority of the larger ships were consequently not seaworthy. The 1945 Potsdam Agreement mandated that German surface vessels should be split between the UK, the USA and USSR, but that the submarines (other than 30 of them) should be sunk.  Italy, which technically changed sides in 1943, was permitted to retain a significant proportion of its Fleet, with ‘surplus’ vessels being divided between primarily the USSR, the UK, the USA and France. In the Far East, it was determined that all Japanese submarines should be sunk, while destroyers and smaller vessels would be split between the UK, the USA, the USSR and China.  All larger vessels would be destroyed.  The final chapter of each half of the book describes the future deployment of some of the vessels transferred into new ownership; some of them were of particular technological interest, but most of them were out of service within a decade.

The book also contains a large number of fascinating black and white photographs of shipping, much of it distressed. Eight Appendices provide further information on a range of issues, including topics as varied as the archaeology of forgotten ships and the re-use of ex-German submarine engines in the UK.

Spoils of War is a significant piece of research; as well as resolving many of the outstanding issues with regard to the loss of some of the vessels, approximately a third of the publication is given over to a detailed listing of the fate of each of the ships, in the navies concerned, at the end of the fighting. The entry for each vessel includes the following details: name; class, builder; launch date; completion date; allocation (at the end of the war); and fate.  For each type of vessel, further tables give details of class, displacement, length, beam, installed power, speed and armament.  Immaculately produced, the book is a prodigious feat!