Book Reviews

Basically a narrative operational history, Hitler's U-boat War provides a wealth of details and factual information compiled from primary wartime documents, as well as from existing standard reference books on the subject. Eager to recreate all significant features of almost 2,000 U-boat patrols carried out in the second half of the Battle of the Atlantic, Blair's authoritative style—and a mass of first-hand battle information—provides a highly entertaining recounting of history. The reader gets interesting background information on the decoding of the highly secret German Enigma signal traffic, and the contributions of the American shipbuilding industry to Allied victory. Among the many strong points of the book is the amount of statistical and tabular information on a wide range of topics never before examined in depth.

Based on thorough research, Blair gives ample evidence to support his revisionist thesis that U-boats never came close at any time to cutting the vital North Atlantic lifeline to the British Isles. The increase in battle strength of the U-boats did not correspond with greater success in sinking Allied shipping. Showing that the majority of U-boat patrols carried out after mid-1942 produced few results in terms of ships sunk, he is able to prove the German tonnage war strategy was a complete failure. His analysis also ends the longstanding myth that during February-March 1943, German U-boats nearly forced the British Admiralty to abandon its North Atlantic convoy system as an effective defense against the enemy's wolf-pack tactics.

Generally providing a highly objective account of the U-boat campaign, the book nevertheless is flavored with a distinct American touch in the presentation of facts. While highlighting the Ritterkreuz awards to individual U-boat commanders, the book falls short in giving a complete account of the U-boat campaign—which was much more Admiral Karl Doenitz's war than Hitler's. Focusing almost entirely on individual U-boat operations, the author often documents only superficially the strategic level of decision-making of the German high command. By stressing the importance of technical inventions and information derived from signals intelligence on the success of Allied anti-U-boat operations, the human factor in battle is widely ignored. Combat experience or advances in antisubmarine warfare, however, became a crucial part in the defeat of the German assault on Allied shipping. In addition, inadequate tactics and serious training deficits influencing German operations—especially in the last years of the war—are commonly overlooked when explaining the stunning losses and final defeat of the U-boats.

Lacking expertise on topics like U-boat development, construction, or design features, Blair is sometimes misled in his conclusions. This is illustrated by his surprising comment on the effectiveness of the schnorkels fitted to U-boats during 194—describing them as thoroughly disliked and unreliable devices. This ignores the fact that it was schnorkels that greatly reduced the dangers from enemy aircraft and enabled U-boats to return to inshore areas that had been abandoned in 1940. From August 1944 until May 1945, only 16 U-boats were lost to air attack at sea, compared to 92 losses in the previous ten-month period.

Nevertheless, Clay Blair's two-volume work offers a magnificent piece of naval history, for both the general reader and the specialist. Wiping out false mythology about the real threat from the U-boats, Blair has contributed much to putting the Battle of the Atlantic in proper perspective. Future students on the subject will be happy to study this comprehensive account of the longest campaign of World War II, documenting the actions of many thousands of navy and merchant marine sailors on both sides.

 

The Gulf Tanker War: Iran and Iraq's Maritime Swordplay

Nadia El-Sayed El-Shazly. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 403 pp. Bib. Notes. Appendix. Index. $75.00 ($67.50).

Reviewed by A.D. Baker, III

The Gulf Tanker War is a relentless analysis of the Persian Gulf operations from 1982 to 1988 in the war between Iran and Iraq. The book addresses the intensely complex diplomatic, cultural, religious, economic, military, and even climatic elements of the conflict in an exhaustive analysis intended to ascertain whether the protagonists met classical strategic proscriptions laid down by such masters as Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mahan, and Liddell Hart. Since the writings of these military intellectuals were almost certainly unknown to the equally inept military leadership on both sides, Dr. ElShazly's structure and organization might seem at first to be irrelevant, yet she makes an excellent case for her conclusions and, in a brilliant final chapter, deftly rates the principal events and results of the struggle against the teachings of the masters.

Along the way, however, the author subjects the reader to a deluge of sometimes irrelevant information. Dr. El-Shazly has performed prodigious feats of research, yet as she readily admits, there is far too much vital information still unavailable. The first chapter and an addendum illustrate the book's tendency to incorporate extraneous data: painstakingly assembled statistics of attacks on merchant ships in the Gulf are analyzed from a number of aspects, but then the author reluctantly concludes that the analysis really does not prove much.

Dr. El-Shazly is at her best (which is very good indeed) when describing the myriad of cultural, religious, diplomatic, and economic influences that have made for chaotic events in the Gulf region for centuries. Anyone reading the author's concise descriptions of the 35 or more mutually antagonistic anti-Saddam Hussein factions (many with their own warring subfactions) will have little reason to be optimistic that the $97 million voted by Congress in 1998 to promote Saddam Hussein's downfall will have any beneficial effects, and the description of the hopeless position of the 20 million plus Kurds in the region is masterful and profoundly discouraging.

What The Gulf Tanker War does not provide, however, is a clear and knowledgeable narrative of the war at sea. The author appears painfully unfamiliar with naval capabilities and terminology, which leads to some unfortunate analytical conclusions. Some examples: alleged U.S. control over gas turbine engines is said to have prevented delivery of Italian-built corvettes to Iraq, yet the ships in question are powered entirely by Italian diesels; shipboard sonar is referred to as "sosus" at one point; mines are said to attack ships; and elsewhere, because the author does not understand the U.S. Naval Reserve concept, the reader is told that the U.S. Navy had only three operational minesweepers during the conflict when it had 21. The description of the Iraqi missile attack on the frigate Stark (FFG-31) is overlong, highly derivative, unconvincing, and inconclusive.

The Gulf Tanker War , nonetheless, is a valuable book, one which would have been even more useful had it been available for study prior to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. As it is, the work still merits careful reading by those charged with diplomacy and military preparedness for possible Mideast action today.

 

The Battle for Midway

Two-hour Movie. Airing 14 April 1999 at 8:05 pm (EST) on WTBS. The video can be purchased after the airing for $19.95 by calling (800) 627-5162.

Reviewed by Vice Admiral William D. Houser, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The National Geographic Society, Robert Ballard—the famous discoverer of the Titanic and the Bismarck , among other ships—and Partisan Pictures have achieved the improbable. They have taken a fairly unexciting subject for the most part-a time-consuming search for a relatively small object in a vast ocean—and turned it into a first-rate film of two hours. Compared to "The Search for the Bismarck ," "The Battle for Midway" is comes out far ahead.

The producers have accomplished a difficult task, merging two subjects into a single film. The first, the organizing and search for the sunken carriers at Midway, has to be pretty routine stuff; i.e., preparations, equipment, personnel, viewing the bottom of the ocean through scanning devices and examining charts. The Battle of Midway is an entire story in itself, and has been told many times. What has been added in this effort is the skillful integration of personal views and experiences of veterans themselves, Japanese as well as American. Thus the film does not lag during the underwater search phases, as segments of the battle are interwoven with scenes and discussions of the search.

The use of photographs of the veterans as they looked in 1942 as well as in 1998 brought home how young were the warriors of World War II—mostly teenagers. The carnage as well as the courage shown by these young men when several thousand lost their lives on that fateful 4 June was brought home several times. The emotion the veterans displayed was very impressive. Before the film was over, all had moist eyes. Bill Surgi, a machinist mate first class on the Yorktown (CV-5), was able to give a running description of the ship as the cameras panned along the long-dormant hull. Careful attention was paid to the technical aspects of the equipment of those times, unlike a number of World War II films when one type of aircraft will take off and another type will be shown landing. There were a few technical glitches (e.g., some sailors were called soldiers), but they were of such minor import that they passed without effect.

Overall, a 9.5.

 

Military Geography for Professionals and the Public

John M. Collins. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1998. 435 pp. Photos. Index. $32.95 ($29.65).

Reviewed by Craig L. Symonds

This volume defies easy categorization. It is not a history of how geographic factors have influenced military planning and execution—though it does include historical case studies that show exactly that. Nor is it confined to considerations of the impact of physical geography on military campaigns, for much of the book is devoted to the military consequences of cultural geography. In many ways it has the feel of a textbook designed to sensitize military planners to the importance of geographic factors in modern warfare.

Collins, a Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University at Fort McNair and the author of ten previous books, defines his subject broadly. He acknowledges Alfred T. Mahan's emphasis on geographic factors, but in addition he asserts that geography includes not only the "location, size and shape of land areas," but also climate, geology, natural resources, raw materials, and such cultural factors as the density of population, religion, language, national beliefs, and ethnic composition. These cultural factors may or may not be part of what some political scientists call a national personality, but at the very least, Collins argues, they are factors that need to be considered in military planning. Collins' definition of geography is so inclusive that it is all but impossible to argue against his thesis that geographic factors can be decisive in war.

The most interesting part of the book to this reviewer are the dozens of case studies Collins uses to illustrate the impact of geographic factors of military campaigns. Drawn from 19th- and especially 20th-century examples, he cites the role of the Pripet Marshes and the Fulda Gap in European wars from Napoleon to Hitler; the significance of the barrier reef at Tarawa to amphibious warfare; and the logistical importance of the Burma Road in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II. In these, and dozens of other examples, Collins makes a plausible argument that geographic elements deserve greater study.

Despite the title, this is not a book for the general public. Only those readers with a serious interest in the impact that geographic factors have on military planning and decision making will find this a useful and provocative handbook.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Maritime Security Dialogue

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker

Thu, 2014-10-02

Guest Lecturer

Thu, 2014-10-02

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership