To Rule The Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World
Arthur Herman. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005. 648 pp. Maps. $26.95.
Reviewed by Dr. Eric Grove, Centre for Security Studies, University of Hull
Historian Arthur Herman sets out to explain in To Rule the Waves how Britain’s Royal Navy provided the underpinnings for the liberal, globalized world order of today. The author writes well and the long, entertaining book goes by quickly. This is a highly accessible account and should sell well in the general market. The author clearly makes his case with often interesting and stimulating analytical insights. It is regrettable that much of the naval history is riddled with errors of fact and dubious interpretations that will grate with any specialist.
Herman sees the Tudor age as the beginning of the modern Royal Navy. This is, at best, an old-fashioned view colored by the romanticism of Drake and Grenville. However, even the author makes clear, there was little in common between the reality of their piracy and royal collusion and modern state naval power. He is confused about the relationship of the early “Navy Royal”—the monarch’s private fleet—and the larger “Navy of England”— all the ships of the realm. His account of the creation of a permanent maritime fighting force by Parliament and the key role of the commercial “Presbyterian” oligarchy in this is not made sufficiently clear. This is a pity, as it would have reinforced his general thesis.
The book best covers the period from the renaming of the Commonwealth fleet the “Royal Navy” in 1660 to the end of the Napoleonic wars. Despite using Nicholas Rodger’s Wooden World, Herman tends to overstate the negative side of service conditions. He explains the dynamics of the period and the role of the Navy in achieving Britain’s strategic objectives-or not, in the case of the War of American Independence. The author is sound on the strategic significance of the Battle of Trafalgar (“in a sense it had all been for nothing”) and his overall account of the 18th century, and the Napoleonic period is useful and objective.
Herman starts to lose control discussing the 19th century, where a greater technical grasp is required. He perpetuates an old canard about the introduction of steam power and states that in 1840 the Royal Navy had “not a single one [steamer]!” By this time they were a vital part of the fleet. The author fails to explain the difference between the “world’s first steam battleship” Ajax (which had a screw propeller and was not “launched” in 1845 but converted) and “the screw propeller battleship” Agamemnon. He puts too much emphasis on explosive shells that were not so important so early. The account of the Captain disaster is partial and inaccurate. Devastation did not have one turret “forward and one amidships.” Whitehead, of torpedo fame, was not a Scotsman. The iron paddle steamer Nemesis was neither a prototype gunboat nor a “venture by the East India Company.”
Herman misses the re-rating of the fleet as “battleships” and “cruisers” in 1887 and its significance, partly because of his use of later terms too early. His brief section of the technical developments of the period from then to the early 20th century is inadequate (nothing on armored cruisers) and factually in error. Admiral Jackie Fisher was not as fixated with the German threat as Herman implies. The German Army did not “unveil” the Schlieffen Plan to the Kaiser in 1912. Admiral Reinhard Scheer did not turn back in his August 1916 sortie because the Grand Fleet had been sighted and he wished to run away. The Washington Treaty did not limit the British to fifty cruisers nor did it mean the scrapping of any modern British battleships. The second King George V class did not have 16-inch guns and the U.S. reactor in the submarine Dreadnought did not hamper British nuclear development.
Herman is in deepest trouble with naval aviation. He does not mention the first unsuccessful RN experimentation with airships and gets the date of the first flight from a ship wrong. The RNAS became part of the RAF in 1918, not 1921, and the Fleet Air Arm returned to full naval control in 1939, not 1942. More important, he ignores the key reason both for the Navy’s interwar financial problems and its lack of adequate organic air—the priority for a strategic air force dictated by Britain’s geographical position. He rightly credits the Navy and not the RAF with preventing invasion in 1940. It is hard, however, to agree that the Continental strategy into which Britain was forced post- 1945 and which won the Cold War was a “disastrous decision.”
This book is no work of reference. It must be used with great care. There are other, better works on this theme by both Peter Padfield and Jeremy Black (the latter not without its own errors), but there is also much good in it. The pity of it is that careful editing by a naval specialist might have removed the flaws.
Peter A. Huchthausen. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005. 288 pp. Illus. Bib. Index. $24.95.
Reviewed by Captain James E. Wise Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)
In Shadow Voyage, aptly subtitled The Extraordinary Wartime Escape of the Legendary S.S. Bremen, author Peter Huchthausen has written yet another gripping adventure that should readily capture readers who are drawn to historical accounts of the sea. The author of two best-sellers and K-19: The Widowmaker, which was made into a film, Huchthausen brings to light a little-known maritime escape story from the earliest days of World War II.
In the 1920s and 1930s, transatlantic passenger transport was dominated by great luxury liners from Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Holland with few American liners available to challenge their prowess. These 50,000-ton-plus vessels offered the finest amenities of the time and their decks were home to many world celebrities. The ships carried only the best and most experienced crewmen and the food and liquid refreshments could not be surpassed.
During those years, Germany’s passenger fleet included modern liners that plied the Atlantic with such speed that they were called the “New York Express.” They were the Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Bremen, Europa and Columbus. The Bremen and Europe: were the newest and fastest members of the German liner fleet. The Bremen easily won the Blue Riband—an award dedicated to the ship that makes the fastest transatlantic crossing—in both directions on her maiden voyage in 1929. The Europa took the westbound prize the following year.
The reputation of the ships began to suffer with the rise of Adolf Hitler. He ordered members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA), also known as storm troopers or brownshirts, aboard Germany’s merchant ships, including liners, to ensure that the captains and their officers adhered strictly to the party line. The SA became part of the ship’s service crew, acting as stewards, waiters, and galley workers. Captain Adolf Ahrens, skipper of the Bremen, survived the war without becoming a member of the Nazi Party because of his great renown as a master seaman and savior of the ship described as “the symbol of hope for a new Germany and a resurgent maritime power.”
In a flurry of activity that presaged the 1 September 1939 invasion of Poland, Hitler ordered all ships to their homeports on 25 August. Shortly thereafter, the Navy High Command took control of all German vessels. The Europa was just one day out of her homeport, so she quickly came about and returned to Germany. The Bremen continued on to New York to disembark passengers and then return to Germany with only its crew on board. The Columbus was making full speed across the Gulf of Mexico headed for the neutral port of Veracruz, Mexico, after having dropped her passengers off in Havana, Cuba. (Later that year, en route to Germany, she was intercepted by the British destroyer HMS Hyperion east of Cape Hatteras and was scuttled by her crew. The Germans were rescued by the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) and transported to Ellis Island as distressed seamen. After the America entered the war, they became POWs and were interned until the end of the war.)
The Bremen left New York on 30 August to begin her remarkable journey, presented in the form of a diary by Huchthausen. He describes the events of the week-long trip to Murmansk, USSR, by shooting the gap between Greenland and Iceland. The tension of narrow escapes with two British cruisers off the coast of Nova Scotia and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off Newfoundland is palpable. The work of camouflaging the 939-foot ship while racing at 27.5 knots through the North Atlantic’s heavy seas helped to ease the tension. After a three-month hiatus in the Soviet port, Bremen began a treacherous three-day run home, which included an encounter with a British submarine that had frustrating implications for the submariners.
Huchthausen has combined a little known, yet extraordinary voyage, with the politics of the time and the tension of the event, to craft another fascinating sea story.
The Ambassador’s Son
Homer Hickam. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. 337 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Commander Ward Carroll, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Ambassador's Son, the second novel in Homer Hickam’s World War II-era series featuring Coast Guard Commander Josh Turlow, is built around a singular literary device. It features a young Jack Kennedy as one of its main characters. Fortunately, Hickam’s tale does more than simply petition the presence of a famous if not heroic American in a fictionalized role. The Ambassador’s Son is a page-turner that demands a perhaps greater than normal suspension of disbelief from the discriminating reader of historical fiction but ultimately rewards the effort.
The novel is set in the Solomon Islands in 1943. The scars of the hard-fought Guadalcanal campaign are still fresh in the minds of America’s fighting men and morale is on a perilous ebb. Captain Turlow and his grab-bag crew (including native locals and a sea bird mascot) are given the order from the highest levels (Halsey, no less) to find one Lieutenant David Armistead, U.S. Navy, the son of a former American ambassador who is thought to have deserted. The brass wants to send a message to the troops in that Turlow’s order also contains a tacit command to kill the lieutenant once he’s found—a minor detail that a moral protagonist like Turlow undoubtedly wrestles with. But without too much teeth gnashing, the men man up their Catalina and launch to the north, up the New Georgia Sound (known as “the Slot”) and into Japanese occupied territory.
Along the way they meet Lieutenant “Shafty” Kennedy who’s waiting for his court martial to convene after having his PT boat cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy’s in a bad state, both physically and mentally, and feels like he’s let down his men, his family, and, for that matter, the entire country. Turlow is impressed by the well-known rich kid’s modesty and pluck and asks him to join them in their quest for Lieutenant Armistead, who also happens to be one of Kennedy’s Harvard classmates.
For the most part, Hickam does a good job of keeping Kennedy from becoming a cartoon. The future president emerges as a wholly likeable fellow—erudite yet modest, worldly yet naive. His dialog is a view into the Kennedy family, and his thoughts are a view into just how wracked with pain he was most of the time. He lives in the shadow of his brother Joe, he pines for his sister Katherine, and allows that his father was embarrassed enough by her to have her lobotomized. But above all else, Kennedy shows himself to be resourceful and courageous.
The book’s signature scene takes place on the island of Santa Cruz. Kennedy enters a high-stakes poker game in an attempt to procure a PT boat from a fast-dealing supply corps officer revealed only as “Nick.” Nick turns out to be Richard Nixon. Also in the game is a note-taking lieutenant named Jim Michener who is enamored with the fact that Kennedy is a published author. The game turns into a showdown between Kennedy and Nixon in which Nixon emerges the victor. When in passing Kennedy questions the supply officer’s luck, Nixon responds with (I’m not making this up), “1 am not a crook.”
Meanwhile, Turlow finds himself on another island in the company of Japanese infantrymen and one beautiful island girl who is at once sexy and ruthless. A flame ignites between the commander and the girl, but the plot thickens when she turns out to be the wife of an Australian coast watcher who, along with being a traitor, has turned into a cannibal. Turlow and Kennedy reunite just before finding a tattooed and earring-wearing Armistead who shows signs of post-Guadalcanal madness. Armistead reveals that his intent was never to desert but rather to attempt to stop the war by hitching a ride on a Japanese submarine and conducting a summit of sorts with the emperor. At the same time the natives, led by their chief, Joe Gimmee, are preparing for a localized version of the Rapture, which ultimately comes in the form of Lieutenant “Nick” Nixon with a plane-load of geedunk.
The Ambassador’s Son is a fast-paced novel that is best viewed as straightforward entertainment with some light historical overtones. The book has its share of convenience and cliche, not the least of which is its main Heart of Darkness meets Pitcairn’s Island plot. Downed Japanese pilots speak perfect English. Island girls also speak perfect English (when they’re not speaking pidgin English) and have perfect bodies, which they employ permissively in the presence of American Coast Guard officers.
Those elements notwithstanding, The Ambassador’s Son is a fun read. Coast Guard Commander Josh Turlow is a compelling front man, one who certainly will return again in another Hickam tale. But the real reason to read The Ambassador’s Son, ironically enough considering its a work of fiction, is that it just might be a way for readers to get a deeper sense of who John F. Kennedy was as a young man and naval officer.
Fathoming The Ocean
Helen M. Rozwadowski. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 218 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $25.95.
Reviewed by Captain Don Walsh, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The book’s subtitle, The Discovery and Exploration to the Deep Sea is a bit misleading. In fact, the book deals with a period of about four decades from 1840 to 1880 when curiosity and technology converged to permit deep sea sounding and associated physical sampling. This was the era when modem ocean science—oceanography—was born.
This is a book that is somewhat expansive and loaded with detail. It not only deals with the activities of marine science during these years but also how society of the time became involved in it. The author sets the scene, primarily of British society in the mid-19^ century, and how that group, including many women, started as hobby naturalists along the coasts. Later, some took their hobby offshore with the advent of pleasure yachting.
As marine science gradually moved out to sea and farther away from Britain, there was increasing government involvement and investment. The best source of capable ships was the Royal Navy and women were simply not accepted on board. In addition, as more trained scientists came into marine science, there were fewer opportunities for the “weekend collectors” even though many of them did first rate scientific work.
It was the gradual offshore movement and the use of more capable ship platforms that set the scene for what was arguably the first major oceanographic expedition. From 1873 to 1876 the HMS Challenger Expedition’s 69,000-mile trip circled the globe.
The early research on the deep ocean was not solely driven by scientific curiosity. The four decades discussed were also the time of the first transatlantic cables. These enterprises represented an enormous investment and finding the safest routes was extremely important.
The book’s focus on a rather brief time period and essentially on one aspect of ocean science suggests that it may have derived from the author’s doctoral dissertation. As such it offers an expert and well- researched treatment of its subject. A generous 40-page listing of references will be of great help to the scholar.
This is not an all-British history. Dr. Rozwadowski introduces people and events in the United States as well, her contention being that the two nations represented the major progress in marine science during the period of consideration.
The author has served the reader a choppy reading experience. People and their devices appear with little initial explanation. Only much later in the text is the needed expansion found. While each of the seven chapters reads well as a freestanding essay, when put end-to-end they do not flow particularly well.
A particularly succinct and to-the-point foreword by ocean explorer Sylvia Earle helps establish why ocean research then and now is important to all humankind. In addition, the author’s epilogue explains her views on the linkage between the period of the book and ocean exploration today.