War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861–1865
James M. McPherson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 288 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Noah Andre Trudeau
A book covering the sprawl and layering of naval events of the American Civil War in 227 pages of text qualifies as a compact history, though its publisher doesn’t advertise it as such. There are challenges aplenty in writing such a succinct work: what to include and leave out, who to emphasize and who to diminish, and, most important (for me, at least), how to balance the large sweep of events against individual stories that humanize the saga. This book adds one more dimension. Its author is not an acknowledged naval expert; rather, he is the most distinguished living U.S. historian of this war. Having read my share of Civil War studies by respected military writers whose expertise clearly lay elsewhere, I didn’t know what to expect.
My impressions are overwhelmingly positive. While I’m not ready to declare this the definitive single-volume history of the subject, it is an outstanding survey by someone who brings to bear a grand knowledge of the complex social/political/military tapestry against which this tale unfolds. One point to make clear at the outset is that the text generally emphasizes the Union side of the story. Confederate affairs are covered but in less detail and space.
The book is organized chronologically and fairly captures all the major naval actions of the conflict. What interested me most were the more obscure items in the story that caught McPherson’s eye and that he brought forward for emphasis. For instance, he highlights the work of the Federal Blockade Board that in 1861 established lasting strategic priorities and thus laid the foundation for the eventual Union victory. He also allows several pages exploring the role of African-Americans in the Civil War U.S. Navy, effectively placing them in context to the whole.
All the major personalities are present: John A. Dahlgren, Charles H. Davis, Samuel F. DuPont, the Ellets (Alfred, Charles Jr., Charles R.), David G. Farragut, Andrew Foote, Samuel Lee Phillips, and David Dixon Porter; with special shout-outs for Gustavus V. Fox, Stephen R. Mallory, and Gideon Welles. Another important point made is the political courage shown by Congress and the Lincoln administration in abrogating the Navy’s seniority system to empower the secretary of the Navy to advance men of vision, courage, and determination. The choices made weren’t always good ones, but more succeeded than failed.
A theme that runs throughout the book is the all-important Federal blockade of Southern ports. McPherson does a fine job handling this in the international arena, as well as helping readers comprehend the huge operational challenges that faced the Union officers who were tasked with shutting down Confederate cotton going out and preventing desperately needed supplies from coming in. McPherson astutely notes that the political fallout in the North from angry newspapers was way out of proportion to what the South actually realized from its blockade runners. Ditto the much-heralded commerce raiders, whose ultimate effect on overall Northern trade volume was slight, though it did spark a flight from the flag as more than 700 vessels changed to foreign registries to avoid being burned if caught.
McPherson’s experience as a history writer shows in his ability to sprinkle small details throughout that add bits of color to his concise narrative of events. We learn how four Union gunboats enforcing Federal control of the Mississippi intercepted a Texas cattle drive and wound up conveying some and herding others to Union stock pens. The author also throws a brief spotlight on the Confederate desalinization efforts “along the coast from North Carolina to Texas, especially on Florida’s Gulf coast,” and the Yankee raiding parties that disrupted many of them. Little bits of humor occasionally find their way into the narrative. For example, when his discussion of the prevalence and effectiveness of marine torpedoes touches upon minesweeping actions, McPherson relates an incident in which the captain of an escorting U.S. ironclad grew “impatient with what he considered slow progress in this effort” and surged forward—only to quickly discover “the wrong way to find torpedoes by running on one or possibly two of them” and losing his ship.
Among the hundreds of choices McPherson had to make in compacting this expansive story, I can only quibble with a few. I would have preferred extended postwar biographies for some of the central figures; this would have underscored the role that their Civil War service played in shaping the late 19th-century Navy. More particularly, I wish the author had made more of the William Tecumseh Sherman–David Dixon Porter friendship, the ripples of which reach deep into our understanding of President Abraham Lincoln at war’s end.
I have no hesitation in recommending this as an effective, eminently readable introduction to the subject, with good maps to boot. When a nautical specialist proclaims the Union Navy’s importance in winning the Civil War, I’m apt to allow for some special pleading. But when James M. McPherson says “the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy,” I’m ready to believe.
Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal
Roger and Dennis Letourneau, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012. 390 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $42.95.
Reviewed by Barrett Tillman
Seventy years after U.S. forces took Guadalcanal from the Japanese, the subject continues to fascinate. Historians of the campaign have ample material for study, as proven by the enduring works of Samuel Eliot Morison, Richard B. Frank, John B. Lundstrom, and many others.
After a six-month slugging match that bloodied both both Japanese and Allied forces (whose land-based airpower operated as the Cactus Air Force, so called for the codename for the island), in early 1943 Tokyo recognized that it could not hold Guadalcanal. Therefore, between mid-January and early February, the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted several operations, originally reinforcing army troops, then removing them from the beleaguered island. Most of the runs were made by destroyers serving as fast transports, and despite intervention by Allied aircraft, warships, and PT boats, Japan lost only one ship, likely to a mine.
The entire withdrawal phase is chronicled in a new Naval Institute book, Operation KE. The authors, Canadian brothers, clearly are devoted to their subject. They visited the Solomons and assembled a massive amount of reference material, cited in the notes.
Details abound throughout the text, often derived from contemporary accounts. One striking aspect of Cactus Air Force operations was their perennial “jointness,” well covered by the authors. Routinely Marine, Navy, and Army aircraft formed the same “strike package” (to use an anachronistic term) on anti-shipping missions. The text is particularly detailed in describing the mixed fortunes of P-39/P-400 Airacobra pilots.
Of particular note is the authors’ description of Japanese airfield construction and operations in the middle Solomons—an important logistical part of the campaign that is seldom addressed.
A facet of Operation KE that will surprise many readers is the fact that the Japanese Army Air Force was engaged alongside imperial navy squadrons. Often overlooked in generalist accounts of the campaign, the JAAF’s Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” fighters often were misidentified as Mitsubishi A6M “Zeros” at the time, prompting some chroniclers to repeat the error. The clarification is welcomed by discerning readers.
However, the book contains several faults, including inadequate maps. Each phase of KE is illustrated with the same rudimentary map showing from Guadalcanal up “The Slot” to the New Georgia group and Choiseul, but in no place are names included, nor is a scale for gauging distances. Additionally, the book badly needs two more illustrations. An overall theater map should show the relationships among Guadalcanal, the upper Solomons, and the rear areas including the New Hebrides. And a more detailed map of the Solomons is needed to provide readers the locations of now-obscure but once-vital places such as Munda, Vila, and Rabaul.
For an aviation-intensive subject, the book contains a surprising number of errors. “Rivet counters” will wonder at repeated mistakes in describing aircraft armament, including B-17Gs in the Solomons, a model that never appeared in the Pacific.
Nautical glitches include “geep carriers.” And amazingly, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner becomes Anglicized as “Adm. Richmond Kelley-Turner.” Peer reviews or more careful fact-checking almost certainly would have averted such problems.
The Solomons produced an extraordinarily colorful cast of characters, none more so than Marine aviators Joe Foss, Jeff Deblanc, and Hunter Reinburg, who appear repeatedly. Yet we never glimpse their personalities or those of other players. Nor are we told that two Army fighter pilots often mentioned had figured prominently at Pearl Harbor: then-Lieutenant Kermit A. Tyler, who was learning the job in the air-defense center on 7 December 1941; and Kenneth M. Taylor, who shot down two raiders that Sunday. Many other fliers are identified only by an initial and surname—doubtless reflecting official documents—but some gaps can be filled with basic, marginal research. For example, in a few minutes of Googling, I was able to identify an anonymous photo-recon pilot listed MIA in the text: a 22-year-old first lieutenant from Minnesota.
In contrast, the authors are highly “ace-centric” to the point of counting the number of current and future fighter pilot standouts on each side. Considering that seaborne evacuation forms the core of the story, there is surprisingly little material from imperial navy “black shoes.” We see almost nothing from the bridge or quarterdeck of any Japanese ships, and in fact there is precious little first-person combat narrative throughout, though some U.S. veterans were consulted.
The photo section contains a good variety of 42 images, unfortunately printed on text paper. Some of the aircraft photos are generic but represent most of the primary types engaged.
In summary, the authors aptly describe KE as “a great escape,” successfully evacuating some 10,000 Japanese troops despite continued, often ferocious, U.S. air attack. The final chapter contains a detailed analysis of the reasons why the Japanese succeeded and the Allies failed to stop them, but notes that relatively few of the emperor’s rescued soldiers fought again in the Solomons. Operation KE is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of the Guadalcanal campaign. However, it could have been a greater contribution with far more attention to detail.
Float Planes and Flying Boats: The U.S. Coast Guard and Early Naval Aviation
By Captain Robert B. Workman Jr., U.S. Coast Guard (Retired). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012. 344 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $41.95.
Reviewed by Hill Goodspeed
In 1914 the U.S. Navy made the decision to locate its first naval aeronautic station at Pensacola, Florida. While the favorable weather that allowed for year-round flying was an important point of consideration in the selection, the primary benefit of the town in the Florida panhandle was its proximity to the protected waters of Pensacola Bay. Indeed, in the earliest years of naval aviation, waterways were the only runways for a force centered on seaplanes. The vast majority of naval aviation’s aircraft operations during World War I involved flying from coastal air stations overseas, and following the war, flying boats took center stage in transoceanic flight and the first extended operations with the Fleet. It is this exciting era that retired Coast Guard Captain Robert B. Workman Jr. captures so well in Float Planes and Flying Boats.
To this day, naval aviation encompasses three services—Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The author’s primary purpose was to highlight the latter’s role in the formative years, but in so doing he demonstrates that the work of integrating the airplane more fully into naval operations was carried out by pioneers in all three services. Nowhere was this exemplified more clearly than in Commander Elmer F. Stone, the Coast Guard’s first aviator. Those with general knowledge of naval-aviation history recall his role as the pilot of the NC-4, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. Workman provides in-depth details on Stone’s contributions to shipboard aircraft operations. Ironically, it was also thanks to this airman that the role of seaplanes over time diminished, particularly because of his development of a gunpowder catapult for launching aircraft, and his work on arresting gear for use on the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). These two converted battle cruisers solidified the place in the Fleet of carriers, with their size, speed, and aircraft complements.
Even though signature events such as naval aviation’s birth and the aforementioned transatlantic flight have been largely covered in previous works, the chapters on Coast Guard operations in the interwar years shed welcome light on that service’s operations, from enforcing Prohibition to life-saving. The author also details attitudes toward the upstart aviation element within the Coast Guard, feelings among traditionalists that impacted Stone’s career in a similar way as it did some of his contemporaries in the Navy and Marines. Another notable element of the book is a section devoted to early flight testing of aircraft at Naval Air Station Anacostia, Washington, D.C. The author includes excerpts and reprints of flight-test reports that provide revealing insights on aircraft that entered production on a relatively large scale, as well as on those whose service ended in the prototype stage.
In its diverse presentations of the overall story, Float Planes and Flying Boats will appeal to a wide-ranging audience. The book is equal parts narrative, documentary, and photographic history. Images and transcripts of official documents get right to the core of the issues confronting naval aviation during the period. The correspondence between Stone and Carl Norden, whose most famous invention, the Norden bombsight, overshadowed engineering work on carrier arresting gear, is fascinating. Among the extremely impressive photos are those of the damaged NC-1 and NC-3 flying boats that did not complete the transatlantic flight and views of early Coast Guard seaplanes, although some could have been printed with more clarity. Perhaps the most revealing images are one-of-a-kind designs from forgotten companies such as Huff-Daland and Gallaudet, small threads in the fabric of early aviation, when an array of entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on an expanding market for flying machines.
Workman introduces his book with the story of Elmer Stone’s flight to recover the bodies of two Navy men who died in the crash of the rigid airship Akron (ZRS-4) in April 1933. He had to land in rough seas to accomplish the task. “It was the least I could do,” Stone told a reporter afterward, echoing the brotherhood of those who at great risk took to the skies in an era whose spirit, technological achievement, and daring is so well captured in this book.
The Battle of the Denmark Strait: A Critical Analysis of the Bismarck’s Singular Triumph
Robert J. Winklareth. Philadelphia and Oxford: Casemate, 2012. 336 pp. Illus. Maps. Bibliog. Index. $32.95.
Reviewed by Vincent P. O’Hara
The dramatic story of the German battleship Bismarck has rightfully fascinated generations of naval historians and enthusiasts. After an unlikely breakout through the British blockade, she destroyed the Royal Navy’s largest warship, the battle cruiser Hood, in the Denmark Strait. Then the British fleet gave chase, but the German ship apparently escaped—only to be discovered on the edge of safety. A torpedo strike just barely winged her rudder . . . it all culminated in a battle that saw the Bismarck battered beneath the waves by the battleships King George V and Rodney.
The author of The Battle of the Denmark Strait, Robert Winklareth, is a naval historian and long-time student of the fight. The book’s central thesis is that “there has been considerable confusion and even some controversy in how the battle was fought.” Winklareth is particularly intrigued by photographs taken of the Bismarck from the German heavy cruiser Prinz during the Denmark Strait action. These, he says, appear to show the former on both sides of the latter—“without any supporting evidence to show how this cross-over occurred.” In the author’s words, it “makes no sense whatsoever, and yet there are some who are willing to believe that this happened.” Winklareth concludes that these photos were actually printed in reverse, and his book provides a narrative description of how the battle was fought, using his interpretation of the photographic evidence.
The author first introduced this idea in his 1999 work The Bismarck Chase (Naval Institute Press, 1999). His hypothesis has resonated with some naval historians, such as Jürgen Rohwer, the highly respected German expert on the Kriegsmarine. Most historians, however, have rejected Winklareth’s arguments and, hence, the controversy to which he alludes. His new work further elaborates his theory and introduces new arguments—in particular time and distance calculations—to support it.
The Battle of the Denmark Strait is well illustrated, with more than 100 photos, sketches, and diagrams, as well as 31 maps. The style is quite readable, written for a general audience, with a minimum of jargon and technical terms. The book is organized in three parts, the first of which covers events leading up to the battle in nine chapters. This includes a review of German naval policy before World War I, the Washington Treaty, the Weimar period, German naval expansion, and the outbreak of war, concluding with 1941’s Operation Rhine Exercise, the Bismarck’s famous first and last mission. Every first mention of a ship or aircraft is followed by several lines of technical characteristics, which allows the work to serve as convenient summary of such information for readers who are new to the subject or lack a reference library.
Part 2, the battle account, comprises eight chapters. The heart of this section relates the destruction of the Hood, which blew up with only three survivors seven minutes into the battle. Winklareth incorporates an impressive level of detail, offering, for example, a salvo-by-salvo, minute-by-minute description of the gunnery exchange between the Hood and Prince of Wales on one side and the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen on the other. I appreciated the author’s coverage of the actions of the British cruisers that had been trailing the Bismarck when the battle began; most accounts skip their activities.
Still, it is regrettable that Winklareth elected to forgo footnotes. Even though he assures us that every fact can be traced to his comprehensive bibliography, in these information-rich chapters, serious readers appreciate detailed citations of where important information was obtained, so that they may discover more, use them as a starting place for their own research, or to better evaluate both sides of a controversy.
The book’s final section tells how the Bismarck slipped away from the British but was found again, chased down, and finally destroyed. The author includes much detail about the aerial aspects of the chase, information not commonly encountered in the Bismarck literature. Part 3 also covers the rest of the war—down to accounts of the bombing of the Tirpitz and German surface operations in the Baltic Sea. This additional information helps fix the role of the Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz in German naval strategy and operations. Seven appendices analyze aspects of the action that do not conveniently fit into the narrative, such as the interception reports or the Prince of Wales’ salvo plot. The bibliography and index appear to be thorough, but again notes would have enhanced both the work and the author’s arguments.
The Battle of the Denmark Strait covers the entire Bismarck episode in good detail and includes some usually neglected aspects of the campaign, such as cruiser and RAF activities. The author provides extensive background material that will bring readers who are new to the action quickly up to speed on the weapons and history surrounding the campaign.
The crux of the matter, however, is the author’s premise that the photographs of the battle were reversed and that the traditional narratives fail to make sense. His arguments did not convince me; I believe the preponderance of evidence, particularly the analysis preformed shortly after the action by German Vice Admiral Hubert Schmundt, commander of cruisers, supports the traditional narrative of the Denmark Strait action.
Moreover, the book contains many factual and/or proofreading errors that affect the author’s credibility. For example, on page 45 the author correctly notes that the Graf Spee sank 9 merchant ships, but on page 58 the total is 11. On page 141 an 8-inch gun is said to be 23 cm, whereas 20.3 cm is correct. Page 60 describes the Battle of Mers el-Kébir, erroneously stating that three French destroyers were damaged there, when actually it was only one, and Winklareth does not mention the Hood—the only connection between this action and the Bismarck chase, and the only other episode wherein Hood fired her main guns against enemy warships. These facts are surely relevant when considering the Hood’s actions during the Battle of Denmark Strait.
In summary, enthusiasts of the Bismarck episode and those interested in naval surface warfare will find this work worthwhile, but should keep in mind that its interpretations are unorthodox and its conclusions open to debate.