War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II

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War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II by Nathan Miller. Charles Scribner's Sons, 866 Third Avenue, New York 10022, 1995, 592 pages, $32.50.

Various 50th-anniversary celebrations of World War II have launched dozens of books about the war at sea. One of the broadest and most readable, Nathan Miller's synthetic volume draws on much of the English-language scholarship of recent decades (plus some materials in the Public Record Office, invariably referred to as the Public Records [sic] office) to assess the leaders and operations of the German, British, Japanese, Canadian, and American navies. Miller, an experienced writer on sweeping topics as varied as a history of the US Navy and corruption in American politics, aimed to produce a history of "World War II at sea that treat[s] the struggle as a conceptual whole." He nearly succeeds, but his planned comprehensiveness is marred only by virtually ignoring the Russian navy and dealing with the Italian only as an opponent of Britain's Royal Navy.

Personalities loom large in Miller's narrative; he regularly summarizes the main issues debated by historians and then cogently states his own view. Typical of Miller's assessments is his endorsement of criticism leveled at Vice Adm Frank Jack Fletcher's "ill-founded decision" (page 268) to withdraw his carriers from the waters off Guadalcanal three days after marines went ashore in August 1942, followed by a summary of John Lundstrom's defense of Fletcher in an extended footnote. Most of his judgments are conventional (e.g., his criticism of Churchill's decision to transfer troops from Egypt to Greece in 1941 and of Gen Douglas MacArthur's failure to defend the Philippines more adequately). Miller has kind words for the Canadian navy and for Adm Ernest J. King in the Battle of the Atlantic but argues that it was US industrial capacity more than anything else that determined the outcome of that long, bitter campaign. Especially good is his lucid treatment of British admiral Andrew B. Cunningham and the Mediterranean campaign of 1940 to 1942.

In the Pacific, Miller indirectly exonerates Gen Walter C. …