Defiance at Sea: Stories of Dramatic Naval Warfare, by Jon Guttman (Arms & Armour Press, London, and Sterling Books, N.Y., 1995, $24.95).
Marking the hardcover solo debut by the editor of Military History Magazine, Jon Guttman’s Defiance at Sea: Stories of Dramatic Naval Warfare (Arms & Armour Press, London, and Sterling Books, N.Y., 1995, $24.95) falls into the category of “Last Stand” books that is usually dominated by Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s Little Bighorn battle or the British holding off the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. Guttman, however, has done something different in that genre by choosing the novel venue of the sea (and two rivers), with 14 dramatic encounters against daunting odds from four centuries. He transcends nationality by including heroes from Britain, France, the United States, the Confederate States, Germany, Japan and even Argentina to demonstrate the fact that courage, victory and failure are not the preserve of any one nation–nor do struggles against the odds always result in defeat.
Originally produced for the British market, Defiance at Sea includes the almost-obligatory accounts of Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge taking on a Spanish squad- ron off Flores in 1591, and of Horatio Nelson’s boarding and capturing two Spanish ships-of-the-line in quick succession at Cape St. Vincent in 1797. But there is also the lesser-known account of a British adversary in the lonely venture of Lt. Cmdr. Fernando Azcueta and the Argentine submarine San Luis against the Royal Navy in the Falklands War of 1982. The dashing boldness of the German commerce raid- ers Emden in World War I and Admiral Scheer in World War II are balanced against the ignominious sinking of the raider Stier by the American Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins in 1942. There is the disastrous career of the Japanese raider Hokoku Maru, which blew up when her ammunition was hit by a shell from the little escort vessel Bengal in November 1942, but we also read of Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka’s astonishing victory that same month over a superior U.S. Navy task force with his Long Lance torpedoes at Tassafaronga.
Some stories are refreshingly unfamiliar, such as the French Count de Tourville’s fight against an Anglo-Dutch fleet more than twice his fleet’s size during the Channel War in 1692, the British submarine B.11’s penetration of the Sea of Marmara in 1914, and the exploits of the book’s only brown-water warrior, CSS Arkansas, on the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers in 1862. A curious highlight is the valiant defensive activities of two Japanese destroyers against a much larger Dutch-American force at Badoeng Strait in February 1942. Better known, perhaps, are the exploits of the American frigate Constitution (see story, P. 30) from 1812 to 1815, and Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague’s fight for survival at Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944. But a common theme unites all the selections, and a thoughtful postscript sums up what may be learned about men performing as teams on their floating platforms in response to desperate situations.
Guttman, whose work as editor and writer for Military History has provided him with an extensive background in all aspects of his subjects, does a comprehensive job depicting the conflicts and personalities in all their complexities. While the depth of narrative is a real strongpoint in Defiance at Sea, the author’s penchant for giving the full names of all participants, whenever possible, results in some passages that may be regarded as overkill. For instance: “…a shell struck Stewart a glancing blow and sprayed fragments across her deck, killing Seaman Second Class Eugene Stanley and wounding her executive officer, Lieutenant Clare B. Smiley.” Nevertheless, the author’s resolute specificity underscores the fact that lessons learned are of little value if they are not grounded in factual detail.
Roderick S. Speer