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Skilled in the Tactics of 1870N.A.M. Rodger
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Vol. 42 No. 3 · 6 February 2020

Skilled in the Tactics of 1870

N.A.M. Rodger

2799 words
The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War Two 
by Evan Mawdsley.
Yale, 557 pp., £25, August 2019, 978 0 300 19019 9
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There​ can scarcely be a subject about which more books have been written than the Second World War, and yet surprisingly few of them risk a synthesis of the whole. Many writers refer to the war in their titles, but their subjects are usually only a part of the whole: a campaign, a geographical area, a single country or, very often, a single armed service. Perhaps that isn’t so remarkable; after all, a maritime history of the Second World War that confined itself simply to those countries (belligerent or neutral) with important navies or merchant fleets would have to take into account, at the least, the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Soviet Union, Poland, China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Greece, Brazil and Portugal.

A large majority of the books that do exist are based on sources in one language alone, and it is commonplace to read apparently scholarly books by authors who not only haven’t read anything in foreign languages, but don’t seem even to be aware that it might have been possible or desirable to do so. Even those who are aware of this find themselves compelled to be selective. As a result, many historians – many of the best historians in particular – are deterred by the immensity of the task and the apparent impossibility of achieving it without skimping on some, if not many, essential aspects.

It is also necessary to settle on an acceptable definition of a war that broke out at different times in different places. If this was a single war, was it a European war that widened by drawing in the allies and empires of the European powers? Or was it essentially an American war that somehow started without America? Was it an ideological war about communism, capitalism and fascism? If so, the alliances were very strangely assorted. The haphazardness of reality seems to challenge any schematic explanation, and yet it is hard to make sense of the war without making some effort at one.

Thinking about chronology is another way of exposing this problem. If the Second World War was really the China War, then it should be dated from the Japanese invasion that followed the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 1937, if not from the Japanese army’s attacks on Manchuria in September 1931, or its navy’s assault on Shanghai in January 1932. All three answers may be correct, since the Japanese army and navy had different policies and objectives, and were fully capable of starting wars without consulting each other, and indeed of starting wars to gain advantage over each other. For other historians, the important events necessarily took place in Europe, and this war, like the last, was the product of German aggression, beginning with the reoccupation of the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland in March 1936 and culminating in the joint German-Russian invasion of Poland in September 1939. But against this European perspective stands the fact that the first act of aggression was Italy’s attack on Ethiopia in 1935. Among the Great Powers, only Britain gave even feeble support to the Ethiopians. The US discreetly backed Italian empire-building, and France did so openly.

When the European war began in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union were united by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The British army intended to fight its first campaign in Scandinavia against this alliance, but Germany’s invasion of Norway came just in time to save Britain from what might well have been the disastrous consequences of starting the war as an enemy of Stalin. Six weeks later the Germans unwittingly saved the British army again, when they halted their advance outside Dunkirk to refuel and regroup before their final assault on Paris. Knowing that the British had been decisively defeated and could not escape, and remembering the consequences of running out of supplies and reinforcements in 1914, the German generals concentrated on their real enemy, the French army. By the time the French were defeated, the British troops had departed. Not for the last time, sea power had sprung a surprise on soldiers.

The German army was as skilled as ever in the tactics of 1870, and as sure as ever that winning a great battle would automatically mean winning the war. The British, meanwhile, were as sure as ever that the slow, inexorable pressure of naval blockade would lead to victory. The 1940 campaign was an unpleasant surprise for both. Controlling almost the whole of Europe, with open access to the North Atlantic and the resources of the Soviet Union, Germany was now invulnerable to naval blockade. The British war-winning weapon would no longer work, but the German navy’s war-winning weapons, the new super battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, were not ready. The German admirals were followers of Grand Admiral Tirpitz, and still fixated on battleships; they were no friends of the U-boat, which they blamed for losing them the First World War, and refused to invest in failure. In September 1939 the Germans had 27 (mostly small) operational seagoing submarines. They lost more than they built during the first 18 months of the war, and did not exceed their prewar strength until July 1941. To the end of 1941 slow British transatlantic convoys were losing 2.7 per cent of their ships, mostly to U-boats, and fast convoys 0.8 per cent. Though not negligible, the U-boats were far from being operationally decisive. Both the British and German admirals agreed that it was the handful of German battleships that posed the deadliest threat to the convoys.

On the other side of the world, the Japanese were even more devoted than the Germans to the 19th-century cult of the decisive battle, and exalted the triumph of the will that would carry the materially weaker side to victory over morally flimsy opponents. Both Japanese services expected the next war to be settled by a single battle, or at most a brief campaign. So the Japanese navy devoted all its resources to building up a powerful fleet, with the biggest battleships in the world at its core. Once the Americans were defeated, they would undoubtedly fold as completely as the Russians had done in 1905 after the battle of Tsushima. No need to worry about merchant shipping or imported raw materials; the fleet would win the war long before they could become a factor. The US navy thought in much the same way, and both had an unpleasant shock in the 1942 campaign. The Japanese combined fleet lost four of its six big aircraft carriers in the disastrous Battle of Midway in June 1942, but the victorious US navy, with its antique battlefleet, was too far away from Japan, and much too frightened of Japanese naval aircraft, to carry the war to the enemy. Though few books point it out, the main Pacific fleets fought very little between 1942 and late 1944: both the Japanese and the Americans were rebuilding their strength. It took two years to build a complete fleet, not just battleships and carriers but landing ships, tankers and all the thousands of transports and support ships needed to apply sea power at very long range. Amphibious warfare turned out to be an essential part of the strategy, so instead of winning the war with the aid of the Marine Corps alone, as they had intended, the US admirals found themselves forced into an uncomfortable alliance with the US army.

The German navy did not make serious efforts to create an effective U-boat force until after the fall of Stalingrad in February 1943. Until then the U-boat fleet consisted largely of the obsolescent Type VII, too small for the North Atlantic and equipped to 1918 standards. German shipyards took between one and two years to build a Type VII (compared to between four and six months for British U/V class submarines of about the same size). Then, in the summer of 1943, the stuffy old shipbuilders were swept away by Albert Speer and his thrusting young Nazi industrialists (all of them ‘working towards the Führer’), who erected a Potemkin village of bogus prefabrication schemes and fictional production statistics. Their new Type XXI submarine was an excellent design, large enough for the Atlantic and not badly out of date, but the first unit’s maiden patrol was more than a year behind schedule, and took place less than a week before the war ended. Like so many of the ‘war-winning’ weapons in every service, they arrived much too late to win the war. In any case, the Luftwaffe had failed to provide adequate long-range reconnaissance aircraft, and the new U-boats would have been even less capable of finding their targets than the old ones. Having enjoyed a cryptographic advantage over the Western Allies in the first three years of the war, the German navy lost it in the summer of 1943 just when it really needed the intelligence.

How could the Germans have so completely misunderstood what was happening in the war at sea? A major factor was their gross neglect of staffwork (which they had invented in its modern form). Until 1942 Grand Admiral Dönitz ran the U-boat war from a seaside villa in Brittany with a total staff (including cooks and typists) of fewer than thirty. Six staff officers in three watches of two ran a campaign involving hundreds of ships spread across the North Atlantic. There was no possibility of keeping current operations under effective control, let alone of undertaking the sort of extensive research and analysis the British applied to the anti-submarine war, which might have exposed the weaknesses of German ciphers, as well as revealing the effects of enemy weapons and equipment whose existence, in some cases, the Germans did not even suspect.

One thing should have been clear from the start: if this was a world war, the alliance that managed to use the sea to unite its forces in a worldwide strategy would win. The decisive moment came not in the Pacific – where in the long run it was impossible for the US to lose or for the Japanese to win – but in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. If Britain’s Eastern Fleet had been destroyed by the Japanese Mobile Force off Ceylon in early April 1942, and if Rommel’s Afrika Korps had broken through to the Suez Canal that summer – both of which nearly happened – German and Japanese forces could have joined hands across the Indian Ocean and the way would have been clear for a united Axis war effort. Fortunately for the West, the Axis never really grasped the opportunity. The Italians had aspirations to fight a global war, and longed to build a flotta di evasione with which to break out into the open oceans, but in practice they were largely confined to the central Mediterranean and North Africa. The Japanese deliberately avoided connecting their war effort with that of their allies, and allowed Russian ships to import supplies from the US across the North Pacific as though they owed no support to the rest of the Axis. The Germans also regarded those parts of the war they were not themselves fighting as taking place almost on another planet. When news reached Berlin in December 1941 that the Japanese naval air force had attacked the US Pacific Fleet at a location called ‘Pearl Harbor’, no one on Hitler’s staff could find it on the map.

Thedecision-makers of the 1940s have many active friends among the historians and writers of our time: defenders and descendants still wedded to ‘their’ service and its traditions, to which they add characteristic present-day prejudices. The US navy has always been divided into rival professional ‘tribes’, of surface ships, airmen and submariners. Submarines are important in the modern service, so it is essential that they should be prominent in its history, and numerous books written by submariners explain how US submarines ‘really’ won the war at sea. The American self-image is so much identified with technological mastery, it seems self-evident that superior weapons and equipment must have been the key to success then as now. The new US submarines introduced in 1941 were certainly well designed and equipped, and ought to have made a powerful contribution, but in fact they were emasculated by the US navy’s inability to master torpedo technology, and their main contribution to the first 18 months of the Pacific War was air-sea rescue. Even when the torpedoes were occasionally made to work, the timid and defensive training of US submariners was painfully evident, and their successes were a fraction of those achieved by the inferior German U-boats. Only in the final months of the war, with the Japanese navy almost all sunk and its merchant fleet fading fast, did the US submarines finally get into their stride, and even then (ultimate shame!) many of the sinkings were the work of aerial minelaying by the US army air force.

It would be grossly distorting to write a history of the Second World War which treated the US navy and army as rival powers linked in an uneasy and fragile alliance – yet without a knowledge of the deep distrust between American generals and admirals, and of President Roosevelt’s failure to impose a common purpose on them, it would be impossible to explain the many shortcomings of communication, intelligence and planning. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 the US services arrived with no staff and no common positions to meet a British delegation with carefully prepared joint-service plans. ‘Every time we brought up a topic those bastards had a paper on it,’ the US admiral Ernest J. King complained. The bastards had also brought a headquarters ship, and controlled all the communications. The Americans were humiliated, and the British plans adopted by default. It was all the work of a sinister British conspiracy and only the president was blind to what was going on: ‘The Limeys have his ear, while we have the hind tit.’ Long after the balance of material strength had tipped the Western Alliance towards the United States, its chaotic government rivalries continually tripped it up, and naturally the admirals and generals blamed everyone but themselves.

The situation was worst in the Pacific and Far East, where the Allied commands were not unified. General Douglas MacArthur, who came to command the American and Australian forces in the South-West Pacific, was the US army’s candidate for achieving ultimate victory over the Japanese, while Admiral Nimitz in the Central Pacific was the navy’s. MacArthur was also right-wing Republicans’ candidate for the presidency: Roosevelt had to reckon with the political consequences of crossing him, which did nothing to bring out the president’s elusive powers of command. One of the Americans’ first acts as occupiers of Japan in 1945 was to forbid the use of the Japanese term ‘Greater East Asian War’ and replace it with ‘Pacific War’. This term made no sense in strategic or historical terms, but it pulled the US navy into the centre of the picture and left everyone else, especially the US army and the Chinese, on the margins. The result was, and has remained, a strategically motiveless Pacific War, fought at the same time as other campaigns but apparently unconnected with them. (Again, it should be emphasised that the American services were warmly co-operative compared to the Japanese. Nakajima, one of the few aircraft manufacturers serving both the Japanese army and navy, had to build a wall dividing its factory in two in order to ensure that there was no possible contact between the air forces of each body.)

Most of these facts and judgments are taken from Evan Mawdsley’s new book, and can be confirmed by reference to other modern authorities, but they may surprise if they do not upset many readers who have been brought up on different narratives. Mawdsley’s really is a new history, of events we thought we were familiar with but now see in an entirely new light, as well as others few readers will have heard of at all. It is relatively easy to talk, and to write, about ‘the Second World War’, but it is a formidable task to make a coherent story tying together all the parts which in reality were so imperfectly united. Mastering an immense range of sources in diverse languages is only the start. Mawdsley’s real achievement is to link so many ships and fleets and armies together and in such a way as to make sense of what was going on, showing why things happened when they did, how each part affected all the rest. He isn’t interested in the old question ‘Who won the war?’ so much as in what and how they won, and quotes the admiral, strategist and historian Herbert Richmond: ‘Sea power did not win the war itself: it enabled the war to be won.’

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