Free to view

Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II

27 Oct 23

by PAUL KENNEDY with paintings by IAN MARSHALL

(Yale University Press – £25.00)

ISBN 978 0 300 21917 3

544 pages

Lt Cdr Andrew Ward

Victory at Sea sits somewhere between a reference work and a coffee-table book. Here is a comprehensive maritime history of the Second World War spliced with grand strategic international relations analysis sitting alongside a detailed economic and industrial history, packaged as an art book. Kennedy now resides at Yale, where he struck up a friendship with the artist Ian Marshall whose paintings richly illustrate this book. The artist’s unexpected death in 2016 prompted Kennedy to write the accompanying narrative rather than just a forward to a collection of paintings.

Everything is here, from comparisons of the six major Fleets which started the Second World War to an attempt to synthesise the trends that led to the United States becoming an undisputed superpower.  The text suffers somewhat from this enormous scope. A set of warship Top Trump cards could summarise Chapter Two. Chapter Three is a useful discussion of how this period of maritime history (1936-46) illustrates the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett. If the reader is interested in detailed campaign or battle narratives though, more focussed histories would be better. For example, the seismic naval operations of June 1944 are summarised in just 10 pages each: the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. For the latter “it is easy to summarise its chief points”.

Probably with an American readership in mind, there is a focus on the Pacific naval war which British readers may find useful. Familiar as we are (or should be) with the Atlantic/Arctic/Mediterranean theatre, Kennedy’s Pacific narrative, especially the “very bitter end” of the war between VE and VJ days, is interesting and supported by some excellent maps.

There are 53 watercolours. Whether the artist’s style is to your taste is a matter of individual preference; they do add to the narrative. Ships are often shown alongside or at anchor, rather than in the midst of great naval actions. Perhaps most evocatively, a heavily listing HMS Kelly is shown being towed up the Tyne following action against E-boats in the North Sea in 1940. This reflective technique adds to the emphasis on the human dimension of the war at sea, brought out by Kennedy in his concluding chapter and Epilogue.

Kennedy has a real claim to be the doyen of naval historians. Victory at Sea is something of a greatest hits album. There is liberal self-referencing and a strange apology in the Acknowledgements for using the anonymous contributors to Wikipedia as a shortcut to other scholar’s work. Some of the language is also not up to his usual standards. For example, the Royal, Japanese and US Navies are by 1942 ‘the big guys’ and even capital ships are referred to as ‘boats’.

The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976) remains a classic text, placing naval power within an economic historical context. These themes are strongly reprised in Victory at Sea with, for example, a detailed description of aluminium mining, refining and use in manufacturing Allied naval aircraft. However, when combined with telling the naval story of the Second World War, the reader can sometimes lose the narrative thread. When Kennedy returns to the industrial capacity/production discussion it can feel like reading a related but separate book.

Victory at Sea tries to be a lot of things. As a tribute to the artist Ian Marshall’s watercolours, the text is more than sufficient. But the attempt to trace the United States’ post-1945 superpower status from maritime origins, explain the industrial story behind each Fleet and tell the naval story of the Second World War is too much for one book. It looks good and parts of it are valuable, but reading this book cover to cover is not recommended.