Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 381pp. $27.50 Miller, Nathan. War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. New York: Scribner's, 1995. 592pp. $32.50 Both books, published at the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, are single-volume, comprehensive histories of the great naval battles of that war. Even though each discusses the overall political and military background of combined operations, their consistent focus is upon navies and naval operations. You must go elsewhere to find general histories of World War II land and air campaigns. Each book covers the major naval campaigns in the Atlantic and the Pacific of the British, American, German, and Japanese navies, plus the contributions of the French, Italian, and Soviet fleets. Both works describe the personalities of individual commanders and technological advancements, and each analyzes the naval tactics and strategy of the forces involved. They offer interesting insights into motivations of the battle force commanders and observations as to why things may have happened as they did. Each contains helpful maps and pictures of key ships and players. Written for the general public, both books use narrative and personal anecdotes to explain and illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of each navy. Since each book covers essentially the same events, there is a similarity of content. However, each author has his own definite opinion as to the personalities and reasons for the success and failure of the navies involved.
As is necessary in single-volume histories, there is a relative lack of detailed, in-depth analysis of each battle. The need for brevity mandated that the authors touch only lightly on the many highly complex actions, mistakes, and successes of opposing commanders. Such attempts to cover enormously complex subjects sometimes frustrate knowledgeable readers; in this instance, however, brevity helps rather than hinders. Both books are informative and successful, and they are of interest to today's military professionals. Their conciseness allows one to stand back from the events and gain new perspectives, illumination, and instruction as to the sweep of the vast events of World War II.
For example, each book examines the differences in leadership and character of the admirals and commanders of each navy, how the officers' attitudes, outlook, and style were shaped both by their navies' history of glory or defeat and by the strong personalities of political leaders, such as Churchill, Roosevelt, or Hitler. It is interesting for a naval officer to realize again what the corrosive fear of making a mistake, losing or damaging ships, can do to the effectiveness of a navy. In essence, it stops aggressiveness; it hands the initiative to the opponent. As has been suggested, this factor became so important as the war progressed that it often crippled the decision making of on-scene German commanders.
Equally important, both authors outline the significant differences between the strategies used by the various naval forces in the Atlantic campaigns and those in the Pacific campaigns. These differences in offensive and defensive strategy, particularly submarine targeting, led to a German focus upon what was essentially a logistics war against supply lines in the Atlantic. But in the Pacific, the Japanese strategy consistently sought, in the Mahanian sense, a great meeting of vast fleets in a single decisive battle, like the Japanese victory against the Russians at Tsushima in 1904.
Flexible, aggressive, and dynamic leadership, plus the innate qualities of the men and women who constitute navies, are often not reflected in dry calculations of orders of battle. However, as both authors state, they are crucial to the moral force that binds a navy and often can make the difference between success and failure in battle. This quality one sees early on as distinguishing the British Royal Navy as it went through the battles of 1939 and 1940. …