Craig L. Symonds. World War II at Sea: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 792 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-024367-8.
Reviewed by Bill Cox (Air War College, Air University)
Published on H-War (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
This outstanding naval history of World War II will likely become the definitive introductory textbook for studying the naval aspects of the war. Craig L. Symonds, probably the foremost naval historian in the United States, is uniquely qualified to integrate all of the disparate naval actions in World War II around the world seamlessly into one volume.
The book proceeds chronologically, starting with the prewar conferences that tried to limit naval buildups. While these conferences failed to prevent these buildups, they did shape how the different nations built their fleets and constrained the size and design of different warships, such as battle cruisers and Germany’s “pocket battleships.” The book mainly follows the actions of five main maritime nations—Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States—while touching on the fate of the French Fleet after their surrender and some Russian naval actions. It does proceed generally chronologically, although following Pearl Harbor it begins alternating between the Atlantic and Pacific. Symonds breaks up the Battle of the Atlantic into three parts, characterizing them as "The War on Trade" I, II and III, and includes the US submarine actions against Japan as well in the third section. He also describes the interplay between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, particularly the limitations of landing craft on all of the major operations of the war.
The strength of the book is the way Symonds interweaves the major fleet actions and battles of the war with detailed examples of key and representative moments during all the major campaigns. Readers will feel like they are sailing with Gunther Prien as he climbed out on the conning tower of U-47, surprised at how light the sky was (the aurora borealis) before he launched his attack on the British Fleet at Scapa Flow. Readers will hang onto the details of the progress of the oil tanker Ohio during Operation Pedestal, getting repeatedly bombed on its way to replenish Malta, to the point where the crew was ordered to abandon ship, only to cancel the abandonment when the engineers got the ship underway again, only to be attacked again and ultimately towed into harbor at Malta, one of the five of an original convoy of fourteen ships. Readers will be with Commander “Mush” Morton of the Wahoo, who after sinking four Japanese ships, ordered his crew to “man both guns” and sink all of the lifeboats, killing both Japanese soldiers and British and Indian prisoners of war (p. 405).
Symonds includes these details with the larger sweep of the war, from the Battle of the Atlantic, where British code breaking, convoy tactics, and new technology turned the tide on the German U-boat menace; to the Mediterranean, and the efforts both to keep British forces resupplied and prevent German and Italian supplies to reach North Africa. In the Pacific, Symonds expertly describes the large battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf, along with the numerous smaller surface battles around Guadalcanal. He follows the senior leaders, British Admirals Bertram Ramsay, Andrew Cunningham, and Philip Vian; American Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher, Raymond Spruance, and William Halsey; Japanese Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto and Chūichi Nagumo; and German Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Donitz. He describes the numerous, varied battles at sea, in all of the confusion and fog of war, both the bravery and the indecision of various commanders. He also describes what, in the end, turned the tide of the war at sea, the incredible industrial effort of the United States in producing prodigious, unheard-of numbers of transports, cargo ships, aircraft carriers, escorts, and naval aircraft.
In the end, this is a masterful book, and even seasoned students of naval history and World War II will find a lot of interesting and new material. The limitation of this book is that it is only one book, and so there is a lot more detail that could be included about any of the battles or actions that took place. I hope Symonds continues to write, as his past histories of Midway and the Normandy landings were both excellent in-depth accounts of two of the major naval actions of World War II. World War II at Sea is an outstanding addition and further proof of his absolute mastery of the craft of writing naval history.
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Bill Cox. Review of Symonds, Craig L., World War II at Sea: A Global History.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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