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 wonât, especially not in World War II. Naval battles were rare in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, yet even in the Pacific maritime clashes alone canât 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 âfleet in being,â or mere threat of naval forceâa phantom hovering around the edge of most historical naval strategyâapplies to the Kriegsmarine early in the war, less so in the Mediterranean, where Mawdsleyâs 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 Italyâs Regia Marina and Germanyâs 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 wouldnât 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 Exeterâs journey, engaged with the Graf Spee in South Americaâs 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 navyâs future after the Dakar and Mers El KÃ©bir 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.
âMaritimeâ is an apt word in the subtitle, given Mawdsleyâs 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 researchâ Mawdsley skillfully combines all this and more in an invaluable volume.
This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through our site, we might earn a commission.