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From the supply standpoint, the advent of steam propulsion in the 19th century had a dramatic impact on naval operations. The expansion of the British Empire was largely predicated on the need to supply fuel to her steamships, resulting in the establishment of a worldwide network of strategically placed coaling stations.

The U.S. Navy did not begin to recognize the need for overseas naval supply until the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the world cruise of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” in 1908. The U.S. Navy then addressed the issue by developing anew type of vessel specifically designed to supply fuel to its warships while they were at sea. Thomas Wildenberg examines the development of the technique of underway replenishment, and the specialized ships aboard which that technique is practiced, in his new book, Gray Steel and Black Oil.

This is the first time a naval historian has deigned to consider the lowly fleet oiler, but the author makes a convincing case that the success of U.S. naval operations in World War II, Korea and Vietnam would have been impossible without the support of these unprepossessing ships.

In Gray Steel and Black Oil, Wildenberg traces the evolution of underway replenishment vessels and techniques from the turn-of-the-century colliers to the Navy’s latest types of supply ships, which are designed to simultaneously provide fuel,ammunition and stores. He is to be commended for a highly comprehensible presentation of a complex subject that has been neglected for too long.

Robert Guttman