Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea / War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II
Aynesworth, James, Naval War College Review
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. One also sees the U.S. Navy making the transition from peacetime to wartime in 1942 and 1943, growing in stature and aggressive leadership after the mistakes in the Pacific of 1941 and early 1942.
Both books examine the use of technology: the British and American success in radar, the early U.S. failure in torpedoes, the advent in the United States of more capable naval aircraft, and the use of carrier battle groups. These all contributed greatly to the success and eventual dominance ofthe allied navies. The books describe how each navy, to a greater or lesser extent, was or was not able to learn and to implement quickly in the fleet the technological changes that leveraged success. Of particular interest to an intelligence officer is the recognition by both authors of the major contributions toward eventual victory of U.S. and British signals intelligence groups and antisubmarine warfare operational intelligence centers.
Walter J. Boyne, author of Clash of Titans, is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and formerly the director of the National Air and Space Museum. The author of twenty-six previous fiction and nonfiction books on aviation, including Clash of Wings, about the air campaigns of World War II, Boyne brings the perspective of an experienced military officer. As such, he points out time and again the importance of Allied leadership and command aggressiveness as major elements of success. Due to his aviation background and evident interest in things technological, Boyne is particularly insightful and authoritative in his descriptions of the evolution of naval aircraft and the constantly improving technology that became so much a part of Allied operations. One finds sprinkled throughout his book interesting viewpoints and statistics. For example, during the battle of Midway, Army Air Force B-17s dropped 322 bombs upon Japanese ships, none of which hit the target. Boyne also observes that Japanese naval commanders did not learn the importance of antisubmarine warfare, and therefore failed to build necessary escort ships; directly to this point, he cites the statistic that U.S. submarines sank 59.7 percent of the Japanese merchant marine. Still another example is his view of the vital importance of the U.S. fleet train and underway logistic support in the successful operations of the forwarddeployed U.S. Seventh, Fifth, and Third fleets during the later Pacific campaigns.
I was especially struck by his discussion of the initial Axis invasions and Allied evacuations as early indicators of the abilities, and more importantly the psychological makeups, of the various naval forces. He points out that only two and one-half years separated the Japanese use of wooden boats in the invasion of Malaya from the myriad specialized amphibious craft and ships of D-Day. Lastly, and as very few authors of general histories do, he includes a brief review of Soviet World War II naval service, particularly in riverine warfare.
Nathan Miller, author of War at Sea, is a journalist, historian, and the author of twelve books of history and biography, including The U.S. Navy: A History, which is used as a textbook at the U.S. Naval Academy. Miller makes many of the same points as Boyne regarding leadership: the need for unified command, and the relationships between serving naval commanders and their political superiors. Interestingly enough, he flatly asserts that the underlying reason for the Allied victory "was superior leadership in adversity."
The author has definite opinions about personalities and effectiveness of political and naval leadership. For example, he likes Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN, but he does not like Winston Churchill. I thought his discussion of the successes and failures of the various navies relating to the Battle of the Atlantic was especially instructive. His point about the crucial importance of logistic supply in a prolonged war, as represented by the British and American merchant fleets, is compelling. It certainly resonates today for those interested in maritime affairs, as one views the precipitous decline in tonnage, numbers, and market share of both nations' contemporary merchant fleets. I also liked Miller's use of footnotes, which added such touches of interest as the story of the Polish submarine Orzel.
I do have a point of disagreement, however, with one of Miller's conclusions. Over the last few years several contemporary historians have argued that dropping the atomic bombs was not needed, that the Japanese would have sought peace. Miller shares this view; however, the evidence on page 449 cited by him in support, is, in my opinion, very weak.
In summary, both are good reads, thoughtful, interesting, and concise. Of the two, I preferred Nathan Miller's War at Sea. JAMES AYNESWORTH Captain, U.S. Naval Reserve…
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Publication information: Article title: Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea / War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. Contributors: Aynesworth, James - Author. Journal title: Naval War College Review. Volume: 51. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1998. Page number: 150+. © Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Naval War College Winter 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.