The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II, by Evan Mawdsley, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2019, $32.50
Across the history of human conflict most wars comprise dozens of land battles and few sea battles. While following a chronology of engagements on land will generally inform you regarding the overall course of a war, following a chronology of maritime battles won’t, especially not in World War II. Naval battles were rare in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, yet even in the Pacific maritime clashes alone can’t explain the broader conflict. The gaps in that narrative are of vital importance, and Evan Mawdsley does an excellent job of filling them in.
The “fleet in being,” or mere threat of naval force—a phantom hovering around the edge of most historical naval strategy—applies to the Kriegsmarine early in the war, less so in the Mediterranean, where Mawdsley’s account shines. That theater seldom grabs headlines due to its dearth of consequential battles; the raids at Taranto and Alexandria were more important than any ship-to-ship combat. Yet the war of maneuver was intricate and important in a domain where the strength of Italy’s Regia Marina and Germany’s Luftwaffe and the dispersion of the Royal Navy across the globe made for several risky years. The Regia Marina largely squandered its prospects, or hewed closely to port for lack of oil, but such knowledge wouldn’t have proved reassuring in 1941.
The other deficiency in even the best histories is that ships tend to appear as if by magic. Mawdsley keeps close track of the broader, shifting disposition of naval resources, a concern especially important for Britain. A mighty fleet grows a bit less formidable when covering five oceans. In the second half of 1942 there were no Royal Navy battleships or carriers in the eastern Mediterranean, having been moved to the Indian Ocean to support the invasion of Madagascar. Consider HMS Exeter’s journey, engaged with the Graf Spee in South America’s Rio de la Plata in 1939, then sunk half a world away in the 1942 Second Battle of the Java Sea.
Mawdsley also addresses other overlooked elements: the French navy’s future after the Dakar and Mers El Kébir attacks, or the course of naval combat in the Baltic, featuring the Soviet withdrawal from Tallinn at the loss of more than 50 ships and 15,000 dead.
“Maritime” is an apt word in the subtitle, given Mawdsley’s close attention to troop and supply shipping. The author also tersely synthesizes multiple national technological evolutions (or their absence), of paramount importance in a conflict where the right projectile from virtually any sort of craft could cripple the mightiest of ships. Danger and opportunity, supply chains and research— Mawdsley skillfully combines all this and more in an invaluable volume.
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