World War II at Sea: a global history
Craig L Symonds
Oxford University Press, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0190243678

When first approached to review Craig L Symonds’ World War II at Sea, I was somewhat ambivalent about how much value another narrative history of this subject might add to the huge volume of extant literature. I really could not have been more wrong.

Symonds’ work is gripping and well written, for sure, but it also brings an enormously important and long overdue new approach, one that looks at the Second World War in its entirety but from the perspective of those who fought their battles out on the water, rather than from the often restricted perspective of the land war.

In his author’s note, Symonds sets out his ambition: to describe in one volume ‘the impact of the sea services from all nations on the overall trajectory and even the outcome of the war’.

Rightly, he points out that since the appearance of the first British and US official histories, written respectively by Stephen Roskill and Samuel Eliot Morison soon after the war ended, existing literature has tended to focus on particular campaigns, or the actions of particular national navies, and generally fails to recognise the way in which the global naval war was uniquely intertwined, actions in one half of the globe being entirely dependent on resources made available from the other. In a world characterised by, according to some writers, ‘sea blindness’, Symonds has given us 20/20 vision. World War II at Sea is divided into five consecutive parts. The first covers ‘The European War’ from September 1939 to 1941, before the second moves on to the expansion of the war into a global conflict following the German attack on Russia and the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor (‘The War Widens’).

This is followed by what Symonds rightly calls the ‘Watershed’ year of 1942. Then we have the gradual Allied recovery, with a wave of global offensives through 1943 (‘Allied Counterattack’), ending, appropriately, with the final year of victory, entitled ‘The Reckoning’, which covers the period from D-Day to the atomic bomb. Within each part, chapters flit effortlessly from Pacific to Atlantic to Mediterranean, drawing unexpected and imaginative parallels between theatres where possible. Symonds frequently inserts little bracketed reminders as events unfold in each chapter, to remind us of what has gone before, and giving his readers that all-important global context: ‘The invasion of Kwajalein took place on 31 January (the same day that Kesselring began his counter-attack against the Anzio beachhead).’

Symonds also successfully melds the interdependency of the fighting fronts with the all-important logistical dimension, without which the war at sea can seem incomprehensible. Put simply, even for the United States, with its vast industrial capacity, there were still limits on how many ships of any given type could be produced in any given month, and whole campaigns stood or fell according to where they were sent.

This was especially true of specialised assault shipping and in particular the vital Landing Ships (Tank), the mass-produced, ‘roll-on, roll-off’ workhorses on which Allied amphibious operations depended.

There were never enough LSTs, and the availability (or lack) of just a few of these unglamorous ships shaped Allied grand strategy in a way that is often poorly understood.

Operation Overlord was delayed by a month simply to allow more LSTs to be built and transferred across the Atlantic, and the whole operation was made infinitely harder by the huge amphibious campaign being waged simultaneously in the Pacific, a source of great frustration to Eisenhower, as Symonds points out.

He goes on to write, accurately but rather startlingly, that

The Saipan invasion fleet was even larger than the one devoted to Normandy… it… included 56 attack transports and 84 LSTs… The employment of 84 LSTs in the Pacific at a time when Eisenhower was scrambling for just one or two more for Normandy was powerful evidence that the Germany-first principle had been virtually abandoned.

Symonds has given us what is perhaps the clearest example of the ‘sea blindness’ which so often characterises our understanding of the Second World War.

The concept of ‘Germany first’ was agreed by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Arcadia Conference in December 1941. This might have meant that the distribution of military resources favoured the European theatre, with many more divisions deployed there, but the arguably far more important distribution of naval assets was more evenly spread between the Pacific and Europe than is often understood. Much of the burden of supporting the European theatre thus fell on the hard-pressed and overstretched Royal Navy.

Symonds’ achievement in this book is not to give us narrative history: the events he relates are mostly well known, while the level of detail he is able to provide in a single-volume account of the entire war at sea is necessarily cursory, and mostly drawn from secondary sources. To concentrate on this is entirely to miss the point.

What Symonds gives his readers is something far more valuable, at least from the perspective of a naval historian. Throughout his work, Symonds makes a clear, unequivocal, and absolutely vital statement: for the Western Allies, at least, the Second World War was a naval war, pure and simple, except perhaps for the very first and the last few months in Europe.

Every single campaign that Britain and the United States fought either took place at sea, or was expeditionary in nature, wholly dependent on total sea control to initiate, sustain, and win. As Symonds’ work makes clear, Adolf Hitler largely failed to understand the war-winning potential of Anglo-American naval power, and lost in the West as a consequence.

The Japanese, an island nation with a strong naval culture, understood it perfectly well, but lacked the industrial base to compete with the United States, and, moreover, grotesquely underestimated the character of their foe.

The land war, as Symonds is gracious enough to remind his readers appropriately often, was fought in Russia, where ‘the Red Army shed its blood profligately… to keep the Germans from overrunning the continent’. This fatal combination – Anglo-American naval power and Soviet land power – was why the Grand Alliance worked.

Illustrated by a sequence of clear and helpful maps and charts, and a wealth of illustrations, drawn mainly from official sources in the United States, World War II at Sea is a superb work that adds significantly to the literature, one or two minor but irritating proofing errors notwithstanding (the destroyer used in the St Nazaire Raid was HMS Campbeltown, not Camperdown, Merchant Marine officers tended to join the RNR not the RNVR, and so forth).

Any reader, whether general or specialist, can pick it up, become immersed in its flowing narrative and energetic prose, and come away with a good general understanding of the war at sea, and the central importance of the maritime dimension to the Anglo-American victory in the West.

As Symonds rightly concludes, ‘while “boots on the ground” were essential in this war (as they are in every war), it was supremacy at sea that eventually proved decisive’.

World War II at Sea is highly recommended as an absolute ‘must-have’ for anyone with the slightest interest in understanding the true character of the war the United States and United Kingdom fought between 1939 and 1945.

Nick Hewitt

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