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The Battle of Midway (Keystone/Getty Images)
(Photo cred: Keystone/Getty Images)

War on the Waves

Arthur Herman

In 1983 Richard Hough published The Great War at Sea, a classic of military history that managed to pull together the disparate naval events and battles of World War I into a single scholarly but readable volume.

Writing a comparable World War II at Sea is a much bigger task. The naval history of World War I involved three combatants—the United States, Britain, and Germany—locked in a maritime struggle limited, with a few exceptions, to the Atlantic and two inland seas, the Mediterranean and the North Sea. Major naval operations in World War II sprawled over four oceans, from the South Pacific and the Bay of Bengal to Murmansk and the Arctic Circle, and virtually every littoral in between. Telling the story of these naval operations also demands an intimate knowledge of the air and amphibious operations this naval war involved, from the carrier battles in the Pacific theater to Operations Torch and Overlord in the European theater.

This is the mammoth task naval historian and U.S. Naval War College professor Craig Symonds set for himself—and by and large he has succeeded, although it took well over 700 pages, which makes Hough’s 350-page book look trim by comparison.

Symonds works hard to weave together the various fronts, campaigns, and personalities—from Churchill, FDR, Chester Nimitz, and Bill “Bull” Halsey on the Allied side to Hitler, Mussolini, and Admirals Yamamoto and Dönitz on the Axis side—into a single narrative that will educate the general reader (he has a short paragraph at the beginning explaining the difference between a cruiser and a battleship) but also satisfy the expert. The four central “characters” of the book are the navies of the four major combatants, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and the United States.

Front and center, certainly at the start of the war, is the Royal Navy, tasked with guarding the world’s largest empire, and in 1939 still the largest navy in the world. (By war’s end it would be even larger, with 900 vessels, including 52 aircraft carriers, and nearly a million men and women in uniform.) Compared with its cautiousness in World War I, the Royal Navy in 1939 possessed an offensive spirit—but it quickly ran afoul of its principal challenger, the German Kriegsmarine and its ruthless master, Adolf Hitler.

Germany’s leadership knew that it would have to achieve naval supremacy to defeat Britain. Battleships like Bismarck and Tirpitz wouldn’t suffice; nor would aircraft carriers (the one carrier Germany built during the war, Graf Zeppelin, was never finished). No, it would take U-boats—Germany’s dreaded submarines. Drawing lessons from World War I, Hitler devoted huge economic resources to building an undersea force that he and his henchman, Admiral Karl Dönitz, believed could sever Britain’s maritime lifeline and starve it into submission, just as German U-boats had nearly done a generation earlier until the United States entered the war in 1917 and threw its own navy and merchant marine into the balance.

Ironically, the pattern repeated in World War II: Despite some initial success, Germany’s U-boat warfare proved futile as the U.S. Navy once again tipped the balance—in a limited way before Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, then with all-out commitment that turned the tide of war in Europe on land as well as at sea.

Although the United States was officially neutral at the start of the war, the U.S. Navy was increasingly drawn into the conflict by Germany’s reckless U-boat tactics—and by FDR’s determination to prevent a German victory that would allow Hitler to dominate the entire Atlantic basin (both Roosevelt and Churchill understood the U.S.-U.K. alliance as an extension of a single naval grand strategy). With Pearl Harbor, however, America found itself on the defensive on two fronts: fighting off the U-boat menace in the Atlantic and dealing with the Japanese in the Pacific.

If the German Navy dreaded a decisive surface battle with its enemies, the Japanese Navy yearned for one, especially against the United States. The strategy it devised for dominating the Pacific culminated in bringing on a decisive encounter with the American fleet, but Japan required three fleets to achieve its goal: one to engage the U.S. Navy operating in Asian waters, one to protect Japanese landings in the Philippines, and one to confront America’s main battle fleet. However, that was one more fleet than Japan had or could realistically hope to build.

So instead Japan turned to the aircraft carrier to make up the difference. But by wrecking the main battle fleet at Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the U.S. Navy also to rely on carriers—carriers that American shipyards could build faster and better. This would be one result of World War II at sea: the rise of airpower as the decisive instrument of naval supremacy. It was American aircraft carriers that defeated the Japanese at Midway in June 1942 and reversed the tide of the war in the Pacific, and American long-range bombers that won the war against the U-boat in the spring of 1943 by providing coast-to-coast protection for Allied convoys plying the Atlantic—while the U.S. and British success in cracking both the German and the Japanese naval codes meant that every major Axis move at sea was known in advance.

By that spring, the course of the war was already decided in the Allies’ favor, thanks to their success at sea. In a sense, all the rest—Kursk, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, D-Day, the battle for Berlin, Hiroshima—was anticlimax. “While boots on the ground were essential in this war (as they are in every war),” Symonds concludes, “it was supremacy at sea that eventually proved decisive.”

What spelled the difference in the war at sea and therefore in the war as a whole? Symonds points to two factors. One was President Roosevelt’s decision to focus on Europe first in order to deal with the larger strategic threat posed by Nazi Germany, despite Pearl Harbor and the more immediate threat posed by Japan.

The other was the unleashing of the industrial capacity of the United States to outproduce not only all the Axis powers put together (which it was doing before the close of 1942) but to supply all the other Allies, including Russia, with an endless stream of naval vessels, merchant shipping, and landing craft, as well as tanks, guns, and ammunition—indeed, two-thirds of all the munitions used by the Allies in the war.

For today’s navalists, one lesson to ponder from World War II at Sea is the value of quantity over quality. Having lots of ships deployed at sea, even though some may be second-rate and outdated, was one of the secrets of the Royal Navy’s success in ruling the waves for nearly two and a half centuries. It is a lesson driven home by the experience, and especially the U.S. experience, of World War II and then of the Cold War—a lesson that in our present era of supercarriers and high-priced superweapons we seem to have forgotten.

Another is the necessity of having a naval grand strategy in a time of great power competition, like our own. Remember: The two principal Allies in both theaters were led by superb naval strategists—in the 1910s, Churchill had been first lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the Navy—while their principal opponent, Hitler, was a mediocre one. It is not clear where we will find the naval grand strategist we need today as the shrinking U.S. Navy tries to navigate between maintaining its traditional dominance and sliding into permanent decline obscured by complacency—much as the Royal Navy did between the two world wars.

Symonds’s book is large. It is also a large achievement. It belongs on the bookshelves not only of every World War II buff but also of anyone who wants to think seriously about how we deal with a rising maritime competitor like China—and the geopolitical reality that, as the saying goes, whoever rules the waves rules the world.

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