The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution
Robert P. Watson. Boston, MA: DaCapo, 2017. 304 pp. Illus. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Joseph Callo, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is not for the faint of heart, but it is a book for those willing to examine a less familiar and viscerally unpleasant—but important—phase of America’s War of Independence.
This disquieting narrative illuminates the horrific British treatment of prisoners of war during the Revolution. In the process, it also tells the story of the former HMS Jersey, one of the hulks used to house American POWs during that conflict.
Author Robert Watson doesn’t pull punches, and at the beginning of his narrative he warns that at the heart of his story the reader will encounter POW abuses of the worst sort. Overcrowding, beatings, rotten food, rampant disease, vermin infestations, nauseating lack of sanitation, and psychological torture were part of the suffering heaped on soldiers and sailors incarcerated in the prison ships anchored in New York City’s harbor. As a result of the horrific conditions, an estimated 13,000 U.S. prisoners of war died in New York’s “Hell ships,” about three times the number of casualties suffered by the colonials in combat.
Early in its narrative, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn illuminates a basic reason for British use of the loathsome prison ships. In New York City, the center of British colonial activity during the Revolutionary War, there were not enough large buildings to house the American soldiers and sailors captured during the conflict. There were only two jails in the city, and rapid growth, plus a great fire that destroyed approximately a third of the city, contributed to the shortage of large structures adaptable for use as military prisons.
As a result, the British used naval hulks to house the fast-rising population of Revolutionary War POWs. The former HMS Jersey, which served as a 60-gun warship during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was anchored in New York City’s Wallabout Bay, now a part of Brooklyn, along with approximately 15 other prison hulks. The Jersey became the foremost of the nefarious floating dungeons, and she is a focus of Watson’s book.
Apart from the practical factor of a building shortage, additional reasons are advanced by Watson for British use of floating hulks for war prisons. One was the reality that roughly half of the American colonies’ population considered those fighting for independence to be traitors to their country, as did the British colonial government in New York and the British government in London.
Thus, those deemed to be traitors were beyond the established British codes of warfare, and that included the treatment of prisoners of war. The colonials’ use of civilian privateers to attack Britain’s seagoing commerce and the colonials’ reliance on militia forces that frequently fought more like guerrillas than professional soldiers trained to meet their opponents in “the field of battle” reinforced the British belief that they had license for prisoner of war abuse.
The third reason for the use of hulks as POW prisons was the belief by the British military in the United States—led by General William Howe—along with their government leaders in London, that the horrors of the hulks would be a psychological factor in defeating their American adversaries.
That belief in the effectiveness of the prison ships as a military deterrent turned out to be only one of several strategic misconceptions on the part of King George and his Whitehall counselors who were significant determinants in the outcome of the Revolution.
At several points Watson indicates that the terrible treatment of the colonial POWs actually provided additional motivation for the American patriots, who were convinced they were acting on British principles of liberty established at Runnymede in 1215 in the Magna Carta.
The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn provides significant food for thought about our own times, and how treatment of prisoners of war can have significant unintended consequences.
Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945
Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 665 pp. Maps. Notes. Biblio. $34.95.
Reviewed by Robert Love
Outside academia, interest in World War II remains lively, although within the walls of Ivy, scholarly attention to it and military history as a craft are under siege. Although declining in numbers, a hardy breed of diplomatic/military academics remains on the job, a “forlorn hope” that includes the two authors of this well-written account of the concluding years of the U.S. struggle against the Japanese Empire.
In the twilight of a distinguished career, Waldo Heinrichs got this project under way but sought the help of a younger scholar, also an accomplished diplomatic historian, to complete work. Their partnership produced a well-organized, seamless product—one never knows where Heinrichs leaves off and Gallicchio begins, a constant danger in such collaborations—featuring admirable but not exhaustive research; a readable, straightforward narrative; and, unfortunately, an approach and conclusions that were thoroughly conventional decades ago.
After a brief but unexceptional introduction, the text follows a chronological format from the conclusion of the New Guinea campaign via the struggles in the Marianas to the agony of the occupation of the Philippines. Relating the difficulties of the ships at sea and the GIs on the ground with the complexities of higher command is an asset of this treatment. Little is new to the student of the conflict, but the integration of older accounts with some archival findings enriches the text. Most of the ground combat in the Pacific occurred in uninviting, thinly populated, hostile jungle, mountains, or countryside, with exhaustion and disease as dangerous as the opposing Japanese. The authors make the important observation that as the Pacific offensive advanced westward, some Japanese advantages—static defenses, fanatical troops, a few innovative local commanders—greatly enhanced the obstacles that U.S. arms faced. The rendition of General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign in the Philippines is detailed and satisfying, although the account of Iwo Jima neglects much recent scholarship. Planning for the invasion of Japan is fulsomely detailed, although for a long book the authors pay too little attention to the strategic bombing campaign and the resultant effects on Japanese defenses. The immense redeployment of troops to southern Kyushu, Japan, in mid-1945 shocked some Americans, but Wellington’s battles in the Peninsular War might have warned them that supply and arms are commonly more important than simple numbers.
The authors belabor a multitude of U.S. shortcomings without ever assigning the blame where it ultimately belonged—the commander-in-chief, who’s health was in rapid decline. Franklin D Roosevelt brought the United States into a two-ocean war—against the advice of his service chiefs—with precious few ideas of how victory was to be achieved in either theater or what it would take to do so and without devising a coherent set of war aims beyond the “unconditional surrender” of the enemy coalition. The ultimate source of the shortages in landing craft, shipping, and other war goods the authors so usefully explain can be traced to the lack of prewar preparations for which, supposing FDR expected or intended the United States to participate in the struggle, there was no shortage of time.
The authors spilled much ink over troop shortages during the last months of the war and argue convincingly that the planned invasion of Kyushu might not have been undertaken as a result—without concluding that the root cause was FDR’s chief of staff George C. Marshall’s 1942 gamble to limit Army expansion. Admiral Chester Nimitz cautioned Admiral Ernest King in mid-1945 that an invasion was unlikely, but these authors never investigated the basis of his warning.
Marshall is quoted as admonishing General Walter Krueger for “having a hard time hearing other peoples’ views,” with no mention of Marshall’s purge of the War Department after Pearl Harbor, which unburdened him from contemporaries who might dispute his judgments. By contrast, Admiral King is portrayed as tactless, obstructive, and “unhelpful,” despite his obviously superior grasp of the strategic problems confronting the approach to Japan.
Despite its failings, Implacable Foes is a very readable, mostly reliable account of the last difficult years of the Pacific War.
Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea
Jan Rüger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 416 pp. Figs. Notes. Sources. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black
While interesting in terms of transnational history and the complex ideas of identity and identification that affected an island fortress that was transferred from Britain to Germany in 1890, this is not really a book for naval historians, and the misleading puffs on the back cover reflect this. Moreover, even if this is supposed to be “a triumphant demonstration of the power of microhistory,” it is unclear why the history of Heligoland is not taken back to its capture from Sweden’s ally Holstein-Gottorp by Denmark during the Great Northern War and the subsequent century of Danish rule. That offers a somewhat different back history of the island to that told by Heligoland author Jan Rüger.
Turning to navalism, the role of the island in the debate over British naval policy prior to World War I is not adequately considered. It is unclear that a fixed German position was necessary to give added weight to the disadvantages for close blockade by Britain already stemming from improvements in defensive capability in the shape of torpedo boats, minefields, and submarines. Germany initially invested heavily in torpedo boats and developed the ability to manufacture good torpedoes. This looked toward later German interest in the submarine. The aggressive German rhetoric in the 1905 Moroccan Crisis helped focus British concern on Germany, and blockade was the key solution. Germany’s position in the southern North Sea was a factor in determining the closeness of the blockade and the extent to which Britain could mount amphibious attacks on the German coast and islands, but it was not the main factor. Instead, more general factors of technology and strength were key, and the development of a large German surface fleet was important to encouraging a distant British blockade.
Nor is there sufficient consideration of the situation during the next war. The Germans did not have time for Projekt Hummerschere, a plan unveiled in 1938 for the transformation of the island so that it would be big enough to house nearly the entire German fleet. Prefiguring current Chinese policies in the South China Sea, the land mass of Heligoland was to be more than tripled and a harbor built with a circumference of more than 10 kilometers. In May 1939, with the works well under way, the navy calculated that it would take 10 years to complete. A subterranean labyrinth would provide the cover and supplies to enable the island to hold out even if cut off. Rüger, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, sees this not only as a project of dubious strategic sense but also as a symbolic resurrection of the Wilhelmine dream of sea power, one underlined when Adolf Hitler visited in 1938. It was certainly the counterpoint to the ambitious shipbuilding intentions of Plan Z.
The project was stopped with the outbreak of Operation Barbarossa, the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, and, although the U-boat pens were completed they were scarcely used, as submarines tended to operate from France and Norway. Instead, Heligoland became a radar station against Allied air attacks. In part, the attacks were directed against the submarine base. In the event, the island was devastated by bombing and the Germans evacuated the civilians.
Having occupied the island, the British blew up the military facilities in 1947. Operation Big Bang is generally regarded as the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. There were many German complaints. The Royal Air Force then used the uninhabited island as a bombing range until it was handed back to Germany in 1952.
This interesting book leaves room for a discussion more grounded in naval planning. Moreover, there is no adequate consideration of the extent to which a contrast with the Danish island of Bornholm reflects the lack of geopolitical importance of Heligoland during the Cold War.
Mr. Black is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. He is author Mapping Naval Warfare: A Visual History of Conflict at Sea (Osprey, 2017) and Naval Warare: A Global History Since 1860 (Rowman and LIttlefield, 2017).