Tag Archives: navy

“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan



Oceanic naval history, with the usual in-depth Keegan look at a few case studies.

First, Trafalgar. British strategy during the Napoleonic era was to maintain a strong presence in the Mediterranean, specifically so that France would also have to split its own forces to defend the SE coast. Nelson was slightly outnumbered when a combined French/Spanish force left the Mediterranean to support a pending invasion of the British Isles. Nelson gambled on superior British gunnery and surprised the enemy with basically a point-blank rough and tumble fight. His great realization was that the typical battles of the day, with each line of ships firing volleys across long distances, didn’t really work. The only way to produce a decisive battle was to close up and really get in their face, with Marine sharpshooters and boarding parties.  The ships themselves were more or less unsinkable by cannon, unless a powder room was hit. He understood that effective Naval warfare was necessarily a man-killing business.  Nelson’s ships started upwind, then “crossed the T” of the French-Spanish line, risking the initial broadsides to their unprotected bow, but the poorly trained gunners missed.  Once Nelson was in the midst of the enemy, the situation was reversed, with British broadsides pointed to the French bow and aft.

I don’t have much to comment about Jutland. Now weaponry really was of the ship-killing variety. The battle seemed really confused … well, I guess Trafalgar was too but that was kind of by design.

At Midway, the U.S. really had some incredible luck. The morning was not going well — several U.S. attack waves were dashed on the Japanese carrier defenses. Then, yet another wave managed to catch two carriers right before they were sending off an attack of their own. Their fighter cover had been temporarily landed and was refueling when the U.S. dive bombers struck, unopposed. Four Japanese carriers were sunk, at a cost of the Yorktown. Truly a turning point in the Pacific War. Amazing how naval warfare can be so governed by chance… it really is just about probabilities, and “calculated risk.”

Finally the Battle of the Atlantic, of course not a single battle but rather the drawn out U-boat campaign to cut off British shipping. The Germans had tried the same thing during WWI, where 378 U-boats has sunk 5708 ships, 1/4 of global tonnage at the start of the war. But, increased wartime building meant that total tonnage in 1918 actually exceeded that of 1914. The campaign was thus a failure. The second time around, Donitz came up with the wolf-pack strategy to counter the Allies convoys. The logic of convoys was simple and probabilistic. The hard part about submarine warfare was finding a ship to torpedo. If all the Allied ships go on their own, then there are far more targets for subs to find than if they joined together to form a single (large) target. Even if a lone sub found the convoy, it still wasn’t likely to torpedo more than one vessel, as the escorts would quickly move in and drive off the sub. The wolf-pack idea was to coordinate the submarines actions and hit the convoys from multiple angles at different times, so the convoy was pretty much under attack during much of the voyage, at least during the portion when it was in the “air gap” with no land-based air coverage.  The intermittent attacks, every few hours over several days, must have been terrifying and incredibly wearing for the merchant marine.

Keegan ends with his opinion on the undisputed king of future naval warfare: submarines.  Even the mighty aircraft carrier plays seconds fiddle.  Carriers are the undisputed masters of the surface; but they are exposed to many threats, including to submarines. Keegan predicts a multiplicity of submarine types to follow the pattern of specialization which occurred with ironclad surface ships. It makes me wonder what’s going on in the secret drawing rooms of naval strategy now.  Unmanned technology has progressed quietly undersea just as it has in the air… I could see large swarms of automated, unmanned subs (each one basically a “smart” long-range torpedo) doing some incredible devastation to a convoy. Like, sinking all the ships at once.  The twice-failed German strategy may succeed on try #3, for some navy, somewhere.


“Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer



The deep bass of this audiobook’s narrator (Robertson Dean) sounds like the Navy personified. I was forced to adjust the equalizer on my car stereo so as to not be blasted away by sheer manliness.

After Pearl Harbor, it looked like nothing could stop the Japanese advance across the Pacific. The US Navy finally started the push back earlier in 1942 at Midway, and that push was definitely well underway after the Guadalcanal campaign later that year. The war was still new so there were lots of mistakes, but the Navy got lucky, fought hard, and denied the island to the Japanese.

The US had discovered (via a leftover Australian “spotter” on the island – those guys really were the gutsy ones) that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal. If they succeeded, it meant a clear path on to Australia. So, the US landed a superior force of Marines and took the airfield, which they rechristened Henderson Field, but everyone called it Cactus and the planes that flew from it the Cactus Air Force. Planes launched from an unsinkable airfield were already certain death to navies.

Now the tables were turned on the Japanese – they recognized that they needed to force the Marines out if they were to keep on with the advance. The next few months were an all-out effort to reinforce and resupply the Japanese troops still on the island via a fast destroyer night force dubbed “Tokyo Express,” along with neutralizing the airfield with cruiser and battleship bombardment. The US Navy’s job was to stop them, and they generally did.

Here’s an interesting and darkly humorous lesson learned for the Navy: a practice of the time (and probably now) was to cross-train the sailors on many different jobs in order to have ready replacements when needed. So far so good. But, battle doctrine dictated that each sailor report to his battlestation when in battle. Ok, still sounds alright … except, when a surprise attack came, a game of musical chairs ensued — chances were that most sailors were not at their assigned battlestations when attack came; precious minutes were lost scrambling across the ship and changing the guard at each and every station. Hopefully naval doctrine was adjusted after a few of these occassions.

A key advantage the Navy had was radar-assisted gun control. You always hear about how radar was the savior of the Battle of Britain earlier in the war, but I never really realized it was critical to the Navy as well. Particularly during Guadalcanal, where most of the major engagements were at night. It was a tricky business being able to illuminate the opposing ships via searchlight or star shells without giving your own position away. With radar, the Navy silently kept track of all around it.

Of course it wasn’t that simple. Target misidentification and friendly fire during night engagements was still a big deal and not quite worked out. Also lots of the captains and admirals didn’t understand the advantage provided by radar or were not quite ready to trust the infant technology.

What won war in Pacific (per Halsey): “If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rate them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth.”

Finally, though this book didn’t discuss it I gotta throw out a link to this awesome article I recently read about mechanical computers on-board the Iowa class battleships — not yet in existence during Guadalcanal, but the other heavy surface ships surely had something similar.


“The Face of Naval Battle” by John Reeve and David Stevens


I selected this book thinking it would be like the similar-sounding title from Keegan, but I was sorely disappointed.  This is really a collection of essays, all from different authors.  The first essay – by the lead editor, I presume – does acknowledge the link to Keegan and states that they are trying to produce a similar picture from the naval point of view, but I don’t think many of the other authors got the message.  Only about 5 out of 17 seemingly randomly selected essays in the book are even remotely close to the desired theme — a look at what naval battle is/was like for the common sailor.

Even these 5 essays are mostly memoirs of some captain or another – interesting and informative, but perhaps one-sided and definitely not from the common sailor’s perspective.  Anyway, some of the essays were interesting and there were assuredly some recurring themes.  Mainly, life in the Navy at war is one of long periods of boredom and anticipation, followed by intense, relatively brief periods of extreme action, danger, and consequence.

Perhaps more so than in the land army, sailors can develop very close bonds with each other in times of war.  (And they typically empathize more with the enemy navy that they do with their own landed counterparts!)  Perhaps this is illustrated best by the crew members of the SMS Emden, detached from von Spee‘s squadron for a remarkable career of independent raiding in the Indian Ocean at the outset of WWI.  This is a cool story in and of itself, but the thing that blew me away was that the majority of the survivors after the war changed their name to include the suffix “Emden” — they were a family.