In the aftermath of the declaration of war in September 1939, the first seven months of the conflict seemed anticlimactic. While the major powers of Europe were now officially at war, there were no major clashes between Germany, France, and Britain. As anticipation gave way to boredom, some people began calling it a "phony war," with the civilians at home and the soldiers clustered at the front waiting for waiting for the fighting to begin.
For the navies, however, the "phony war" was a myth. From the start of the conflict warships were sent out to assert control over the oceans and disrupt enemy commerce. Though this fighting took place throughout much of the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere, during these months the fighting was concentrated in the waters between Britain and Germany. It is this part of the war that forms the subject of Geirr Haarr's book. In considerable detail he describes the campaigns waged by Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine as they sent out their ships and planes to interdict merchant ships, sow mines, and challenge the presence of their foes. What emerges from these chapters is of two sides learning how to engage their respective enemies, often with new or improved technologies that changed the nature of naval warfare from what their forces had experienced just two decades previously. Yet in many ways the two sides continued to fight with the old assumptions, with the Kriegsmarine's leader, Erich Raeder, pining for a surface fleet he would never possess, and the Royal Navy asserting a wasteful offensive approach towards engaging the resurgent threat of the U-boats.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book in this respect is now these months served to foreshadow the rest of the naval war that was to follow. Yet this point is one of many that Haarr leaves unmade. While the book is full of details (though not all of it accurate), it is sorely lacking in analysis that would connect all of this information into conclusions about the the relative performance of the two sides, or how these events shaped broader developments both then and later. For those seeking operational details about this part of the war the book is a treasure, but the absence of this sort of broader examination prevents Haarr's book from becoming a truly definitive study of its subject.
Ivan Musicant's book provides a class-by-class description of the armored cruisers built by the United States Navy between the late 1880s (the beginning of what Musicant terms "the American naval renaissance") and the abandonment of the concept just two decades later. As Musicant explains at the end of his book, armored cruisers (which were defined by the preference for armored protection over speed in their design) were anachronistic and superseded quickly by the advances in naval warfare that spawned the first battlecruisers in 1908. For much of that period, armored cruisers were the most powerful oceangoing vessels in the U.S. fleet and key to ideas of American power projection as the United States began to exert its power on the national stage.
The problem with Musicant's book is that there is little effort to explain the doctrine behind the vessels, or how these ideas were reflected in the design and deployment of the ships. Instead Musicant offers readers a more conventional operational history of each vessel, one that describes their various deployments and modifications over their lifespan. In this respect his book contrasts poorly with John Reilly and Robert Scheina's American Battleships, 1886-1923: Predreadnought Design and Construction, which offers a far more comprehensive analysis of the contemporary development of a different class of warships. Thus, while Musicant's book remains a useful account of the history of these warships, it is far from the final word on their development at a pivotal time in American naval history.
I read this as part of the naval history kick that I've been on lately. For the most part I've been reading histories of the design and construction of warships, which has provided some interesting insights into geopolitics and the deterministic factors in the wars of the 20th century. With my reading narrowing to cruisers lately, I became more interested in reading about some of the campaigns in which they fought, which led me to this book.
What made this particular campaign so interesting was that it was simultaneously both a reversion to earlier forms of naval combat and a new type of warfare. The early battles of the war in the Pacific had already demonstrated the decisive role that air power was coming to play in naval battles. Yet air power still suffered from a number of limitations, most notably that the planes could only operate in daytime. This had the effect of shifting naval combat to night, when ships could operate free from fear of air attack. This pattern first emerged in the naval battles around the Solomons in the fall of 1942 where the heavy attrition in aircraft carriers suffered by both sides gave surface combatants greater reign. These battles were desperate and often confused affairs, with both sides literally operating in the dark when it came to their enemy's dispositions and position. Yet while the United States suffered proportionally heavier losses, their success in holding off Japanese bombardment and resupply efforts on Guadalcanal facilitated the eventual American victory there, beginning the long, bloody rollback of the Japanese empire.
James Hornfischer describes all of this in a book that carefully reconstructs these naval actions and sets them in the context of larger operations. It's described with a high level drama that often reflects the tension and excitement many of these men felt as they found themselves thrust into a war to which they were still adjusting. Yet Hornfischer's writing often crosses the line from dramatic to melodramatic, as he strains to achieve eloquence through bombastic prose that can be overwrought. In this respect, in attempting to achieve Homeric heights he comes across as hackneyed and overwrought. Nor does it help that Hornfischer's coverage is heavily weighted towards the American side, which is perhaps understandable given the weight of his sources but nonetheless imbalances his analysis. As a result, while an entertaining and often informative account of the battles, it falls short of being the epic, definitive account that the author so clearly aspires to write.