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New weapons, equipment and techniques revolutionized naval warfare in World War II. It became a research scientist’s war, as Kenneth Poolman explains in The Winning Edge (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1997, $32.95), a history of naval technology in action from 1939 to 1945. No naval warfare enthusiast will want to be without this comprehensive and readable study.

World War II, Poolman says, was a process of action and reaction, blow and counterblow, in a deadly contest of strategy, tactics, morale and weaponry. The sailors on both sides were only as good as their weapons, which were developed by sleep-deprived engineers in countless back rooms and tested in desperate battles.

In 1939, the battleship was still the heavyweight ruler of the seas, as it had been since the British launched the first dreadnought before World War I. The British, American and Japanese navies possessed only a handful of aircraft carriers at the beginning of World War II, and their full potential had not yet been grasped.

But the devastating pressure of hostilities changed the situation, and the carrier quickly came into its own, starting with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean in 1940-41, the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. Navy in the Coral Sea and at Midway in 1942. Carrier-borne aircraft–like the British Fairey Swordfish and Supermarine Seafire and the American Grumman Hellcat and Curtiss Helldiver–began to supersede the battleship’s 16-inch guns. While battleships were still used effectively in all theaters throughout the war, the carriers dominated surface actions, their fighters and dive bombers hammering enemy installations and supporting amphibious invasions.

On the sea, radar enabled ships to defend themselves and locate enemy vessels and airplanes. Ships’ gunners could engage enemy ships without ever seeing them. Under the sea, sonar revolutionized submarine warfare, although it did not achieve the degree of success originally anticipated.

Poolman points out that Adolf Hitler, confident that his panzers, Messerschmitts, Stukas and Dorniers could overcome all resistance in Europe, possessed only a small navy and neglected it until it was too late. When the Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940 and sank the German barges waiting to invade England, Hitler was forced to fall back on his submarines, which had imperiled Britain’s survival in World War I.

German U-boats–aided by surface raiders–embarked upon a savage campaign aimed at keeping vital war materiel, fuel and food out of Britain. It was not until 1943 that the Allies–spurred by phenomenal American ship production and the deployment of new instruments and weapons such as sonar, radar, direction-finding systems and rockets plus improved convoy protection–were able to gain the upper hand in the long, bitter Battle of the Atlantic. German U-boats also acquired more effective weapons–acoustic torpedoes, snorkel tubes, radio-controlled missiles and supersonic undersea detectors.

In the Pacific, American ships used radar to foil the superb Japanese Long Lance torpedoes in bloody night actions. Technological advances helped U.S. submarines improve disastrously faulty torpedoes and eventually decimate enemy shipping. Japanese destroyers and escort vessels were no match for the American underwater offensive, and the Japanese merchant marine was reduced from 6 million tons at the outbreak of the war to 1.5 million tons in August 1945.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Poolman claims that changes in equipment and technique fundamentally altered traditional views of naval strategy. He also discusses such topics as the crucial breaking of German and Japanese codes by the British and the Americans, the innovative replenishment of ships at sea (even whole fleets), the great Pacific carrier-led task forces, the Royal Navy’s pursuit of German pocket battleships, and the kamikaze attacks that wreaked havoc among the U.S. and British Pacific fleets as they neared Japan.