Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester: The Shipwreck that Shocked Restoration Britain
Nigel Pickford. New York: Pegasus Books, 2023. 293 pp. Notes. Index. Maps. Illus. $27.95.
Reviewed by William J. Prom
There is no shortage of books, both classic and new, about the Royal Navy administrator and acclaimed diarist Samuel Pepys. Nigel Pickford, however, offers a unique look at Pepys as well as the society and Royal Navy of Restoration England with his latest book, Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester: The Shipwreck that Shocked Restoration England. While Pepys is central to the book, third-rate frigate HMS Gloucester is the key figure and focus of the work.
After opening with a graphic depiction of the bodies and wreckage found ashore after the sinking, Pickford provides a chronological look at the Gloucester’s fitting out, her infamous voyage to Scotland, the disastrous sinking and aftermath, and the search for the wreckage. Along the way, he delves into the Stuart Restoration and background on King Charles II,
his brother James, Mary of Modena, Samuel Pepys, and many of those on the unfortunate voyage to provide context to
the Gloucester’s mission. With short asides, Pickford illustrates topics such as 17th-century shipbuilding, maritime navigation, Royal Navy pay, Stuart court life, and more.
Throughout the book, Pickford includes vivid descriptions of the people, places, and ships involved using contemporary accounts, archival records, and portraits and paintings. The Gloucester’s failed passage to Scotland is recreated with almost hourly updates to weather, sea state, and ships’ positions through various ships’ logs and personal journals. Pickford’s descriptive and fast-paced narrative style makes the book an engaging read.
Pepys provides a wealth of information about the Gloucester, the Royal Navy, and Restoration England through his extensive diaries, correspondences, and other records. Pickford also relies heavily on Admiralty archives, state papers, ships’ logs, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and the journals of contemporary sailors. He frequently addresses the validity of these sources, especially when there are contradictory accounts.
Pickford also makes use of portraits, paintings, and maps to evaluate the sinking and its aftermath. By analyzing changes in portraits of those involved and paintings of the sinking (many of which are included in the book), he depicts both the public relations campaign run by James, Duke of York, after the sinking, as well as the public’s changing opinion of James in the lead up to the Glorious Revolution. Similarly, Pickford evaluated 200 years of charts of where the Gloucester sank to see the Leman and Ower sandbar shifting over time.
Much of the final chapters are a historiography of the Gloucester’s sinking and the surrounding events. Pickford makes well-argued judgments on earlier histories of the Gloucester’s sinking and those involved. He questions the motivations of some historians in the arguments they made and also recognizes the information available to them at the time.
Throughout the book, Pickford has a lingering question, central to his conclusion: “Why did Pepys refuse to join James on the Gloucester for the voyage to Scotland?” His absence is entirely out of character, which Pickford shows, often using Pepys’ own words. Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester illustrates many aspects of Restoration England and the 17th-century Royal Navy, but, at its core, the book is an interesting look at a unique and previously overlooked question about a pivotal event in English history. Pickford’s curiosity should make for an engaging read
for both the well-versed and newcomers to the subject.
Mr. Prom graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps. He now serves as a development director for NextOp, a nonprofit veteran service organization. He is the 2022 Naval History Author of the Year, and his work has appeared in Naval History and CIMSEC.
Duel in the Deep: The Hunters, the Hunted, and a High Seas Fight to the Finish
David Sears. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2023. 376 pp. Maps. Gloss. Notes. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Steven Wills
In his new book Duel in the Deep: The Hunters, the Hunted, and a Fight to the Finish, author David Sears takes readers deep inside World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic with a detailed history of leaders on both sides. The book focuses on the officers and crew of the USS Borie (DD-215,) an aged Clemson-class destroyer that, in her final engagement on Halloween night 1943, sank the German submarine U-405 in a close range, small-arms battle after first ramming the submarine. The Borie survived the battle but was heavily damaged and later scuttled, with several officers and crew lost during the rescue in very cold, heavy seas.
Sears begins his account with the sailors of the Borie and their extended families
in the United States, offering readers
a look inside life in the Great Depression–era East Coast and what motivated men to join the naval reserve. Its wider account includes the views of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest King and his adversaries German Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Döenitz,
and commanders of Allied ships and aircraft and German submarines fighting in the Atlantic.
The book’s high point is the desperate battles between surface escorts, from the pre-1941 U.S. Neutrality Patrol to the engagement between the Borie and U-405 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. The personal stories of the Borie crew, and especially the letters to and from Lieutenant Morrison Brown and his new wife, Gully, illustrate the hazardous life of an Atlantic convoy escort, but also the fun in ports of call in Central and South America. Famous scientific advisors to wider Atlantic convoy battles, including British radar expert Sir Henry Tizard and U.S. operations analyst and founder of what would later become the Center for Naval Analyses J. Phillip Morse, also appear in the text in a personal way to illustrate the vast effort that went into the victory of Allied forces over Axis submarines. The book also traces the change in the convoy escort force from older ships such as the Borie to escort carriers with search aircraft and more modern ships like the war-built destroyer escorts. These ships, armed with Tizard’s systems and applying Morse’s methods, ensured Allied victory, but their deployment only makes the Borie’s victories as an old ship crewed by citizen sailors more poignant and compelling.
If Duel in the Deep has any missing content, it would be more of the personal stories of the German U-boat adversaries. That, however, would perhaps take away from the shadowy, faceless context of the submarine adversary faced by the Borie and other escort ships.
Duel in the Deep is well worth the reader’s time as it offers a combination of historical and personal accounts in detailing the Battle of the Atlantic from operations centers ashore to the cold, dark seas where one of the most important engagements of World War II was waged, often out of sight and mind of all but the crews and their waiting families.
Mr. Wills is an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia. He served for 20 years as a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. He also holds a PhD and MA in history from Ohio University, an MA from the United States Naval War College, and a BA in history from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.
Leyte Gulf: A New History of the World’s Largest Sea Battle
Mark E. Stille. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2023. 320 pp. Notes. Index. Maps. Illus. Appxs. $30.
Reviewed by Colonel Geoffrey M. Anthony, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
In his most recent book, historian Mark E. Stille turns his expertise to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, seeking to shed new light on the subject and challenge the enduring myths associated with the largest naval battle in history.
The book’s opening chapters begin with the U.S. annexation the Philippines in 1898 and culminate with the often-overlooked Battle off Formosa, which shattered much of the remaining Japanese land-based aviation and convinced the United States to advance the timeline and ambition of its Philippine operation. Stille also analyzes the fatalistic Japanese Sho-I battle plan, providing readers with a true sense of the Japanese desperation that contributed to the development and execution of this flawed plan.
During Leyte Gulf, the ubiquitous fog of war was particularly thick, often obscuring the situation and consequent proper course of action from commanders on both sides. Stille cuts through this opacity and lays bare both the situation and the circumstances as the respective commanders understood them in the moment. Such clarity and contextualization go a long way toward helping readers understand the minds of the various admirals as they made some of the most consequential decisions of the Pacific war.
Stille’s analytical spotlight shines brightest on the actions of two leaders: Admiral Takeo Kurita’s “inexplicable” choice to both break off his attack against Taffy 3 and abort his ordered penetration into Leyte Gulf, and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s decision to abandon San Bernardino Straight and protection of the invasion fleet to chase Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa’s decoy task force. The actions of these two leaders are some of the most controversial and polarizing in the annals of naval warfare and consequently receive thorough treatment, analysis, and explanation.
Stille leverages extensive primary and secondary sources, augmented with biographies and memoirs of the participants, to synthesize the often confusing and contradictory accounts. His use of Japanese sources to paint a compelling narrative of the decisions and experiences of both belligerents equally is laudable. Notably, the 2017 rediscovery and survey of the battleship Fuso wreckage is used to correct the record regarding accounts of her sinking.
The book is well appointed with 40 photographs, five appendices, and five maps highlighting various critical elements of the engagement. Given the challenging geography of the Philippines archipelago and complexity of fleet movements, however, this text could have benefited from additional maps and plot charts.
Stille’s meticulously researched, well-written, and insightful text enhances the already voluminous body of literature on this battle. This book should be first off the shelf for new students of Leyte Gulf given its balanced and insightful analysis and success in illuminating rather than reinforcing many enduring myths. Serious students of the Battle of Leyte Gulf also will benefit from the contextualization and correction of many previously accepted “facts” to balance their understanding of this decisive battle.
Col Anthony graduated from Texas A&M University in 1992 and accepted a commission in the Marine Corps. He spent 28 years on active duty as an aviation command and control officer and is now a graduate student in East Carolina University’s Program of Maritime Studies.