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Two Navies Divided: The British and United States Navies in the Second World War

26 Mar 24

624 pages

Rear Admiral R. G. Melly

Brian Lavery, with his background as a senior curator at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, is a prolific author of books on maritime matters and is widely recognised as a leading naval historian. In electing to write this book, (full title: Two Navies Divided: The British and United States Navies in the Second World War), he has tackled a wide-ranging subject with his near customary thoroughness. He asserts that “the relative and absolute efficiency of each navy is the subject of his book”, and his subsequent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the two navies is full of intriguing facts and insights.

The book starts with chapters outlining the differing political, cultural and manning structures of the two navies. This provides insights into the training and employment of the personnel, including the roles played by chaplains and females, illuminated with numerous brief, seemingly random anecdotes. In a further 10 chapters, the author explores the various elements that constituted the two fleets, including their bases and logistics. In each instance, the differing approaches of the two navies are outlined. This is followed by two chapters on ‘enemies’ and ‘allies’, in which the histories of the navies of all the principal combatants are succinctly summarised, before, finally there is a short chapter on ‘Conclusions’. The astonishing scale of the war is ably illustrated, as is the key role played by the two navies in bringing the hostilities to a successful conclusion.

Despite some slightly dismissive asides, the book credits the Royal Navy for many innovations, noting that generally these were picked up, and improved upon, by the US Navy. There is also a recognition of the impact of the industrial strength of the Americans, where their ability to mass produce equipment using relatively unskilled labour differed to the approach of the Europeans. The Royal Navy was superior in anti-submarine warfare, whilst the Americans learnt to excel at both the hard task of amphibious operations and also in aviation.

This is an impressively researched book of 562 pages, plus 32 pages of extensive notes and bibliography, illustrated with a small number of black and white photographs and line drawings. In addressing such a huge topic, the depth of analysis in each chapter is inevitably shallow, albeit there is a wealth of information provided, along with numerous short testimonies from individuals who were there. In truth, each chapter could have warranted a book in its own right.

Notwithstanding a few editorial errors, the book is well-written and very readable.  My main issue with it is that it occasionally veers off topic. Whilst views on the combatants are of course subjective, there is a depressing number of surprising, even questionable, assertions, along with a mishmash of inputs unrelated to the central theme of the book – the two navies in World War Two.  The book concludes that the American Navy was better than the British during the Second World War, but then recognises that both navies had to adapt to new circumstances. In truth, the Americans excelled in the vast reaches of the Pacific and in their industrial might, whilst the British fought a somewhat different enemy in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic.

In reading this book, one can only wonder at the amount of information set out, but in leaving the reader questioning some of the unexplained assertions, it potentially loses some of its authority.