The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II

Image of The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II
Release Date: 
September 24, 2019
Yale University Press
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“‘Sea power did not win the war itself: it enabled to war to be won.’ This carefully researched and incisive book certainly makes this case.”

Writing a one-volume history on any topic from World War II can be a tricky proposition, requiring a careful balance between strategic perspective and operational detail. Furthermore, the sheer scale and theaters of combat present a major challenge to crafting a coherent narrative flow that a reader can follow.

Evan Mawdsley has mastered all of these requirements in this marvelous new single volume on the maritime conflict of World War II. Mawdsley likely chose the term maritime as he convers not only the major naval battles, but a broad survey of topics including the various combatant’s naval policy, doctrine, technology, and culture from the pre-war period to the end of the war.

The book is generally laid out in a chronological fashion, and one of the reasons this book stands out is that Mawdsley makes a particular effort to cover the actions from the navies of Italy, France, and the Soviet Union that are often overlooked by other naval histories.

Of note, he makes an excellent study of the one major contribution of the German Navy to the war effort, the invasion of Norway in 1940, showing how the Germans won a lightning naval war not on the strength of their fleet, but the early application of air power and the swift landing of troops before the British Royal Navy could react. The boldness of the German effort masked their challenges in conducting true amphibious assaults, in addition to costing them a significant portion of their battle fleet sunk or damaged, inhibiting the ability of the Germans to seriously threaten Britain with invasion after the fall of France in June 1940.

The major naval campaigns, the U-boat war in the North Atlantic and the fleet actions of the American and Japanese fleets, are well covered, but Mawdsley has some interesting perspectives on the reasons the Allies were ultimately victorious in both. In the Atlantic, he uses statistics to show that the actual losses of Allied merchant ships to U-boat attacks was not proportionately as serious as some histories have claimed. Although the Germans were able to conduct devastating attacks on particular convoys, especially the infamous attack on convoy PQ-17, the vast majority of convoys got through with minimal losses.

In addition, the ability of the Allies to defend convoys and use technology to defeat the U-boat tactics, combined with the capacity of American shipyards to produce the ubiquitous Liberty ships meant the Germans could never really win the “tonnage war” of sinking a significant proportion and Allied shipping capacity.  As he notes, the shortages in Allied merchant shipping in the period from 1942–1943 were more often caused by competing global requirements than losses to enemy action.

The huge American battle fleet is looked at critically by Mawdsley. The Japanese Navy was clearly outclassed when it came to building ships to replace wartime losses, even though their homeland was not under serious air attack until late in 1944. He notes that the American Navy embarked on a huge building program for capital ships like battleships and aircraft carriers that might have been moderated to build more useful amphibious ships. He states it was the Allies mastery of amphibious warfare as much as their ability to assemble and fight huge fleets of warships that contributed to the ultimate Allied victory.

Nearly all of the Western Allied offensive actions after 1942 required some level of amphibious assault, particularly the Normandy landings and the Allied offensive across the Central Pacific and the ability to integrate ground, sea, and air forces to assault hostile shores were the key Allied capability developed during the war.

His final conclusions are also somewhat at odds with the typical American interpretation of the Pacific War as vitally important to the eventual Allied victory.  Mawdsley is a definite proponent of the Allied “Germany First” strategy, believing that Japan had no real chance to winning a strategic victory given the disparity between Japanese and American industrial capacity. He also offers a slight reinterpretation of the importance of the Allied naval victories; “Sea power did not win the war itself: it enabled to war to be won.” This carefully researched and incisive book certainly makes this case.