Book Reviews

Near the end of the Civil War, on 8 October 1864, the Confederate States of America warship Shenandoah slipped out of her berth in London under her previous name, Sea King. She was a recently refitted vessel of nearly 1,200 tons and 220 feet, soon to be armed with four 8-inch shell guns and twin rifled 32-pounders forward. Her propulsion was provided both by sail under three tall masts as well as by an auxiliary coal-fired boiler and engine that gave her a top speed of 12 knots. She sailed to raid Union commerce.

This first and final war voyage of the Shenandoah is the subject of a highly readable and well-researched volume by naval historian Tom Chaffin. In crisp, rapidly moving prose, he tells the story of a successful 58,000-sea-mile voyage around the world that included the sinking of 32 Union merchant and whaling ships. In all, Shenandoah took more than 1,000 prisoners and destroyed nearly $1.5 million in Union shipping—the third most successful Confederate commerce-raiding voyage.

The book includes excellent maps of the entire 13-month trip, including a detailed look at the successful cruise through the Bering Sea preying on American whalers in June 1865. Perhaps most interesting, the book closely examines the legal situation in which the ship, captain, and crew found themselves after the war. They unknowingly (or, perhaps more accurate, unbelievingly) continued fighting for four months after the official end of the Civil War—this despite having been told by several sources that the war was indeed over. As a result, from a purely legal perspective, they were pirates. Fortunately for the crew, after finally being convinced of the war's end, they managed to take Shenandoah into port in England, where they hoped for the best possible legal treatment.

In many ways, the book is the story of Lieutenant Commander James Waddell, who led a small and undermanned crew of 50 sailors on their odyssey, struggling to find food, fuel, and ammunition throughout. He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and did a good job leading the polyglot crew through an extraordinary war cruise. Fighting on after the war's end—albeit unwittingly—Waddell was able to say in later years that "the last gun in defense of the South was fired from the deck of Shenandoah." After living abroad for some years after the war, Waddell returned to the United States and lived out his days on coastal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He is today buried in St. Anne's Cemetery, just outside the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Sea of Gray is also the story of commerce raiding it self, a strategic approach in war that has been tried many times in history, generally without decisive effect. The use of commerce raiding creates headlines, stirs controversy, and often causes a diversion of resources—but ultimately has not proved effective in changing the course of war. It is generally the choice made by a country without the preponderance of sea power—such as the Confederacy, Germany in World War II, and Napoleonic France in its wars with England.

And, of course, the book is the story of a memorable ship, Shenandoah. After being surrendered to the British in 1865, the ship was turned over to the U.S. government, which then auctioned her off. She became a merchant steamer in the commercial fleet of the sultan of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean and sank in 1879 after striking an uncharted reef.

This is a finely written volume, which complements the better-known story of the war cruises of the CSS Alabama, under renowned raider Raphael Semmes, and of the CSS Florida. Sea of Gray is full of beautiful period photographs, excellent maps, line drawings of Shenandoah, a detailed sail plan of the warship, and appendices, footnotes, and indices. It most certainly deserves a place in the library of any serious scholar of the Civil War or of nautical history.

Vice Admiral Stavridis has held several commands at sea and is currently the senior military assistant to the secretary of Defense. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Tufts University and is a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

 

A Test of Wings

Owen J. McNamara. Coral Springs. FL: Llumina Press, 2005. 212 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force

Historians seldom earn the right to review works of fiction, so I must count myself among the fortunate in this regard. The author of this novel about American and British naval aviators flying antisubmarine patrols during the final months of World War I grips the reader with a great story of war and love, set in an accurate context of history's first air ASW campaign.

A U.S. Navy veteran, McNamara was a career journalist and editor and had a direct family link to the events he describes in the novel. His father, John F. McNamara, was Naval Aviator Number 199 and himself flew ASW patrols over the English Channel during World War I. The elder McNamara had the distinction of being the first U.S. naval aviator credited with damaging a U-boat, and the author used his father's diary and records—as well as interview material with veterans from the 1970s—to enhance the accuracy of the story line.

McNamara's novel tells the story of Ensign Aidan O'Neil, U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps, an Irish-American student from Boston, who decides to join the Navy to contribute to the Great War in Europe. The author traces every step of O’Neil’s service, from training to combat missions over the coastal waters of Britain. Along the way, McNamara develops O’Neil’s character, as well as the other major players in the story, quite well. The human dimension is superb: Irish-American characters argue over the question of supporting the hated English, airmen discuss their fears of the environment and complain about the fragility of their flying machines, O’Neil deals with feelings of guilt after probably sinking a U-boat with a well-placed bomb, and the main characters struggle with love affairs in the midst of total war. McNamara even describes how German submariners dealt with combat conditions and feelings of claustrophobia.

What will impress readers the most in this novel is McNamara’s command of the technical data. Descriptions of aircraft, submarines, and weapon systems are spot on, even down to the details of British seaplane engines and bomb fuses. McNamara also demonstrates his mastery of the historical contest throughout the novel. For example, his explanation of the “Spider Web” patrol system, where Large America flying boats flew specific ASW search patterns off the southeast coast of England, was as accurate as any survey histories of the period. His account of operating routines and the foul weather common to the southern and eastern coasts of England closely matches other memoirs of the period. The author is indeed an expert who researched his topic thoroughly.

This reviewer spotted only a few minor errors of fact. Felixstowe and Harwich are not southeast of London but actually northeast of the capital. Likewise, Killingholme—a naval air station taken over by U.S. naval aviators in 1918—was not “just north of Felixstowe” but more than a hundred air miles from the latter base and part of a separate regional command. Finally, the Liberty engine, two of which powered the Curtis H-16 Flying Boat, developed either 330 or 400 horsepower, not the 500 horsepower that McNamara mentions.

Despite these extremely minor inaccuracies, McNamara has produced a wonderful work of historical fiction. General readers, historians, and serving officers alike should find A Test of Wings both entertaining and illuminating. Readers interested in air ASW during World War I will be especially pleased with this novel.

Lieutenant Colonel Abbatiello is the deputy head of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Department of History. He holds a Ph.D. in naval history from King’s College London and is the author of Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats (Routledge, 2006).

 

Allies in War: Britain and America Against the Axis Powers, 1940- 1945

Mark A. Stokr. London: Hodder Arnold, 2006.352 pp. Maps. Illus. Index. $45.00.

Reviewed by Michael S. Neiberg

The special relationship between the United States and Great Britain during World War II has come to symbolize both the ideal way to conduct joint operations in times of war and the transition of the Atlantic partnership from friendly rivalry to a near-permanent state of alliance. The Suez Crisis of 1956 and Great Britain's refusal to support America's war in Vietnam showed that the two states retained different strategic and diplomatic priorities, but Britain's diplomatic and military support of the war in Iraq in the face of strong public opposition has revived notions of the Americans and the British as "cousins" with much in common. Prime Minister Tony Blair's close relationships with both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush seem to recall the warm friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and his actual distant cousin, Winston Churchill. As such, the special relationship appears normative, if not natural.

Not so fast, warns Mark Stoler, an internationally recognized expert on Anglo-American relations in World War II. Allies in War argues that the alliance sprung not from any deep transatlantic connections, but rather from the same sources that motivate all coalitions, namely common enemies and a common need for help. Cousins Roosevelt and Churchill might have been, but the U .S. Joint Chiefs of Staff contained a committed Anglophobe in the chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, and the British had their equivalent in General Sir Alan Brooke, who remained decidedly unimpressed with American strategic and operational judgment throughout the war.

Stoler reminds us not to treat Anglo-American tensions as the simple product of competitive egos under unimaginable! stress. Indeed, for every King and Brooke there was a General Dwight Eisenhower or a Field Marshal John Dill (one of the few non-Americans buried in Arlington National Cemetery) to smooth the differences and keep egos at bay. Anglo-American tensions were much more fundamental. The Americans and the British strenuously disagreed about numerous issues central to the identity and strategy of the two nations. The American insistence on free trade and an end to colonialism threatened the very future of the British Empire. British insistence on what the Americans considered peripheral operations in the Balkans and Burma struck the Yanks as more than disagreements over strategy. Skeptical American commanders saw in them British schemes to use American blood and treasure to recover their perfidious empire. The mo re famous rivalry, between Lieutenant General George Patton and General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery for right of first admission into Messina during the Sicily campaign, appears childish by contrast.

The author also argues that the alliance brought with it heavy costs to the British , whose power waned significantly over time. The "friendly occupation" of Britain by hundreds of thousands of GIs could be tolerated, but the loss of an equal British voice in strategy and operations was harder to swallow. From 1943 to 1945 the growing power of the United States and the Soviet Union placed Great Britain in a situation that one Briton described as transforming the Big Three into the Big Two and a Half. Churchill might have claimed that he had not become prime minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, but without massive American support (which he knew would not be forthcoming), he had no choice.

Many of these arguments are not new; indeed Stoler himself contributed an important volume to this scholarly debate with his Allies and Adversaries (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Allies in War is more general, often reading like a so lid survey of the war. Indeed, the effort at wide coverage of both theaters sometimes leads to slight tangents. The essentially American Battle of Leyte Gulf and U.S. difficulties with Chiang Kai-Shek in China thus receive more attention than one might expect in a volume on Anglo-American relations.

Allies in War represents effective synthesis of the most troublesome aspects of the special relationship more than modifications or challenges to the existing historical literature. Although this book does not break as much new ground as it might have, those interested in the background of the Anglo-American strategic partnership should still read it. Problems notwithstanding, the British and the Americans (and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union) built a coalition that Stoler characterizes as "superb" both in comparison to other alliances and in contrast to the Axis coalition it defeated. That it was primarily built to fight common enemies, ultimately for different purposes, does not tarnish that tremendous achievement. Ignoring or glossing over the very real tensions and divergences inherent in the special relationship, however, complicates our understanding of how that relationship functions in our own times.

Dr. Neiberg is a professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-director of the school’s Center for the Study of War and Society. He is the author of Making Citizen Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service (Harvard University Press, 2000).

 

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

David Reynolds. New York: Random House, 2005. 656 pp. Illus. Bib. $35.00.

Reviewed by Robert S. Bolia

More than 40 years after his death, Winston Churchill is still recognized as a great statesman and acknowledged as one of the premier war leaders in hi story. While he is remembered for his oratory and leadership at the forefront of British politics, he spent the majority of his professional career as a writer. Churchill made history as a cabinet minister, but he made his money as a historian, often by telling h is own story.

That this aspect of Churchill's life has been overshadowed by his political achievements is not surprising, given the magnitude of the latter. His accomplishments as an author, however, are by no means trifling. He was among the most prolific writers of all time: four volumes on the Duke of Marlborough, four more on the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, six on each of the two world wars, and this is only half the list. Moreover, he won the Nobel Prize, not for the peace that he had worked so hard to secure, but for his written words.

Eminent historian David Reynolds has sought to revive the image of Churchill as author in this, his latest book. He tells the unique story of a dejected Churchill, voted out of Downing Street in 1945, who turns to writing his six volume memoirs not only as a lucrative enterprise, but also as a means of selling himself and his wartime leadership to the country in the hopes of one day regaining the premiership.

Why would anyone be interested in the story of a cast out prime minister writing his memoirs? First, it is at heart a book about Churchill, one of the most interesting personalities in history, and is replete with fascinating anecdotes. That he made his living as a writer is underscored by the elaborate lengths—all within the law—to which he went to avoid paying taxes on the income from his books, a methodology so successful other authors copied it. Further, he convinced his American publishers that to complete each volume on schedule, he and his staff required extended vacations—to Morocco, France, and Italy—which Life magazine and the New York Times obligingly financed.

Second, production of the book is interesting in its own right. That Churchill and his "syndicate" were able to turn out six massive tomes at nearly a volume a year was in itself a minor miracle, especially since many of the workers—including Churchill, still a member of Parliament and nominally opposition leader—had other jobs. Then there was the issue of the legality of such a book, which reprinted hundreds of official documents written by Churchill during the war. Moreover, Churchill was plagued with severe health problems, and it was not clear until the final text was delivered that he would live to see the project through.

Finally, there is the historical context in which the book was written. The project began a few months after Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech popularizing that potent symbol of the Cold War. Not only was he conscious of this context as he worked on The Second World War, but his discuss ions of relations with the Americans and the Soviets suffer from his interpretation of their role in creating the world situation. Although careful not to antagonize his U.S. allies, he does not hesitate to opine that had his policies been accepted, the outcome would have been very different. In this the Americans came off much better than the Soviets, who get little press (Alamein, not Stalingrad, is portrayed as the turning point of the war in Europe) except in the final volume, and there only as the new threat to European security.

More interesting is that because he published early and often, his views helped determine the prevailing interpretation. It was the idea that these six volumes have shaped the way all subsequent historians think about World War II that prompted Reynolds to write his account.

In Command of History is thoroughly researched. Using an archive of Churchill papers made available only in the past decade, Reynolds aptly provides for each volume a description of the research and writing, an analysis in terms of history, and a chapter on its serialization, publication, and reception by British and American reviewers. The work on the production of the text is especially interesting, since it illuminates the fact that large portions of the work were written by Churchill's "syndicate," which raises ethical issues about authorship and attribution that proves difficult for Reynolds to deal with. At least as remarkable are the descriptions of the evolution of the writing, made possible because Reynolds often had access to earlier drafts and communications between Churchill and his colleagues, and hence is able to pinpoint when and why particular passages were added, modified, or deleted.

The book is not for the completely naive reader: It requires at least a cursory knowledge of pre- and postwar British politics and the events of the war itself in order to make sense of it. But it is a lovely book for anyone meeting these few prerequisites. Fast-paced, well written, and never dull, it provides a comprehensive and engaging picture of Churchill and his books, and their role in the subsequent interpretation of the momentous events they describe.

Mr. Bolia is a scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

 

 
 

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