MHQ Book Review: Power at Sea

By John Prados
5/21/2019 • MHQ Magazine

Power at Sea (three volumes), 1: The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918; 2: The Breaking Storm, 1919-1945; 3: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006

Lisle A. Rose, (University of Missouri Press, 2006), $49.95, $59.95, $49.95 ($19.95 each in paperback).

Naval historian Lisle Rose, author of a well-regarded study of the carrier Hornet during the Pacific campaign of World War II, among other works, here undertakes his most ambitious project, a global naval history of the twentieth century. Based on a decade of wide-ranging research, the series aims to provide a narrative of the use of power at sea in the years since about 1890. By Rose’s own account the effort is a “reconnaissance in force,” neither exhaustive nor the final word but an attempt to bring together the work of many scholars into “a launching pad for more work.”

Rose achieves his aim and then some. Power at Sea combines the best features of operational, social, and technological history and will be regarded as a fine outline of the naval wars of the last century.

First, a word on what this trilogy is not. It is not fully comprehensive. Nor is this a reframing of the past based on an excavation of archives. The author conducted a certain amount of this type of research, primarily for the immediate post–World War II period, when the United States was embroiled in a debate over military unification. But the lack of original research is more than compensated for by the work of many other skilled historians who have been through the papers, and whose efforts Rose mines to telling effect.

What Rose brings to the table is thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the sources, including memoirs, documentary collections, histories, technical studies, fiction, and periodical literature.

No relevant aspect of the subject is ignored. Covering the pre–World War I naval race, for example, the author not only outlines the building programs and shifts wrought by the introduction of new technology (the dreadnought battleship) but he also examines the relationship between naval construction and industrial economies, funding of budgets, legal matters, doctrine, training of officers and enlisted sailors, life in the fleet, basing issues, and the fleets in foreign policy. Rose does this not just for the British and German navies but for the American and Japanese, and to a lesser extent the Russian as well. This kind of treatment continues for the pre-1939 period in his second volume. The French and Italian navies are generally slighted, which becomes more of a problem as Rose moves into the era of naval arms limitation and then the World War II Mediterranean campaign. Austria-Hungary and Turkey are largely ignored.

Some of these subjects do come into better relief through the eyes of the major players as the narrative proceeds. For example, there is interesting material here on the naval aspects of Italian and British machinations during the Italo-Ethiopian war of the 1930s. Rose also does not ignore sea power in the Japanese war in China. Historiographical debates, such as those over Jutland and Pearl Harbor, are also dealt with in reasonable detail.

Battle history is the meat of the naval century, and Rose does a yeomanlike job, bringing to bear the most recent scholarship in combination with older interpretations. Tsushima, Heligoland Bight, Coronel and the Falklands, Dogger Bank, Gallipoli, Jutland, the Bismarck action, Pearl Harbor, Midway, the Solomons, Leyte Gulf—all come to life again.

The author deals with the World War I submarine war reasonably well, and his capsule chapter on the North Atlantic in the second conflict is excellent. Faring less well or hardly mentioned are the Murmansk convoys and the World War II naval campaigns off Norway, in the Baltic, the Aleutians, and the Philippine Sea.

Technological development and its impact is a recurring theme. The dreadnought revolution is an early example, but the author also catches the most recent historical revisions suggesting Sir John Fisher’s dedication to a different vision of naval warfare (battle cruisers and submarines to dominate the sea) and developments related to naval gunnery.

Submarines and aircraft at sea are covered in some detail, but Rose also delves into such aspects as naval anti-aircraft protection, and his treatment of the evolution of underway replenishment is noteworthy and contributes much to understanding the U.S. “Rainbow” plans for a war in the Pacific. Amphibious operations, seaplanes, code-breaking, novel torpedo guidance, nuclear power and weapons, jet aircraft, angled-deck aircraft carriers, the ejection seat, and more are covered.

There are weaknesses in the trilogy, probably inevitable in a work of this scope. The author has a predilection for heading off in new directions to make a point. The dreadnought race has almost taken its course before the narrative comes back to Tsushima (1914 before 1905), and the treatment of that great battle is interrupted by a lengthy discussion of Japanese naval education and training, all of which precedes a chapter on the United States that discusses Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, 1907-1909.

In the second volume the Allies have almost won the war (the Normandy landings have taken place) when a chapter follows that begins with prewar and wartime planning and training in the U.S. fleet, then segues into the debate over responsibility for failure at Pearl Harbor, finally leading to a full narrative of the naval war in the Mediterranean between 1940 and 1943.

The last book of the series contains a chapter that mixes together the Korean and Vietnam wars, even events within those wars (the Tonkin Gulf incident is notably absent from the story), followed by one that covers the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, succeeded by another that picks up the Russian navy story from 1945 or even 1940.

This volume is the weakest of the trilogy, in part because the Cold War lacks the drama of the huge battles that punctuated earlier periods of the naval century. But the author could have done more with the move of the Soviet navy to blue water, the incidents that occurred as the world’s two great navies shadowed each other at sea, fears that Soviets would enter the Indian Ocean, and concerns that led to agreements on incidents at sea and negotiations on fleet deployments. He might have done more with the development of the fleet ballistic missile submarine, as well as the Soviet strategic move to employ surface and other naval forces to create bastions for their own missile submarines. American analysts’ struggle to understand Russian naval doctrines and the purpose of their oceanic deployments is mentioned but not covered to the same degree as in Rose’s discussions of naval strategies in earlier wars.

This said, Lisle Rose has picked out a huge canvas and generally painted it well. One can quibble with choices made and about elements, but for what it is, Power at Sea deals sensitively with the central elements that influenced the naval century, employs a broad range of sources, and covers a great deal in a very accessible way. The Power at Sea trilogy is well worth reading.

 

Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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