THE WAR FOR THE SEAS: A MARITIME HISTORY OF WORLD WAR II

Reviewed by: Richard Channon

Professor Mawdsley was Professor of International History at Glasgow University and thus amply qualified to write an overview of the war at sea, giving its overall strategic and economic context. One reviewer has called it “the first fully integrated account of a truly global dimension to the war”. The author sets the scene in his introduction with an account of Operation TORCH in November 1942, thereby emphasising that even at that stage in the war not only were the Allies already able to move large numbers of soldiers and their supplies across the ocean unhindered and unharmed, but that they had made enormous advances in joint service planning and execution of invasion operations as well as in the designing and building of specialist amphibious shipping. He defines command of the sea in the words of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond – “Sea power is the power of using the sea for one’s own purposes and depriving the enemy of its use”, and sets out to demonstrate that the Allies’ command of the sea was the key factor in their success.

His argument is presented in five parts – the European War 1939-1940; the British Empire at bay 1940-1942; Global War at Sea April-December1942; Victory at Sea January 1943-June 1944; and Commanding the Seas June 1944-August 1945. “The Commanded Sea” sums up and concludes the narrative. He emphasises the unique contribution of the huge British merchant fleet, underlines that up until 1944 the Royal Navy was the dominant Allied warship force other than in the Pacific, and that their combined ability to maintain Britain’s security against the most dangerous enemy, Nazi Germany, underwrote the final victory. However, he finds occasion to criticise the British “strategic bombing obsession”, which deprived all the other theatres of long-range strike and reconnaissance.

His narrative progresses through accounts of the salient actions, and while there are maps, this reader found The War at Sea Naval Atlas 1939-1945 very useful indeed in following their course, especially in the Pacific. In this context, his presentation of American progress across that ocean is outstanding:  the size of the forces deployed and, by implication, the industrial capacity to build, support and supply ships and aircraft in such numbers are astonishing. One of the points he makes is the Soviets’ huge dependency on Western supplies by sea, mostly via Vladivostok and Persia, a major maritime influence on the campaign which eventually led to the crushing of German forces by land.

This is without doubt an outstanding book, which with its extensive bibliography and list of on-line sources will serve very well as a primer for students of the history of the Second World War. It must be very strongly recommended even to those already well instructed in the subject. Finally, a quiz question. Who was the most senior British Army officer killed in action during the war? The unexpected answer is Lt. Gen. Lumsden, who was on the staff of General MacArthur, and who was killed in a kamikaze attack on the USS New Mexico in Lingayen Gulf on 6th January 1945. Jolly bad luck!