Craig L. Symonds. World War II at Sea: A Global History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Hardcover. 792 Pages. ISBN: 9780190243678
By Dr. Tillman W. Nechtman
Craig L. Symonds’ World War II at Sea: A Global History is a workout. Clocking in at more than 700 pages, it makes for heavy lifting as a material volume and as a work of scholarship.
For those who enjoy a solid, narrative, military history, Symonds’ book is to be recommended. From the opening pages of the prologue, which details efforts to scuttle Germany’s World War I navy at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, in 1919, this is a comprehensive and beautifully written book. The prose is engaging and accessible, and there is nothing – aside from perhaps size – to intimidate any reader who wants to know more about the naval history of the Second World War.
There is reason, though, to take a second glance here. There is more to this big book than meets the eye, for behind this book’s vast narrative are two new frames for helping us understand World War II. The first of these frames is the global perspective identified in the book’s subtitle.
A global history of World War II is not, in itself, new, but Symonds is to be praised for having truly and successfully written a book that is global in scope. Chapters voyage with little effort between the war’s many theaters, and Symonds assures that no traveler is left behind. Symonds’ sharp eye for global connections couple with specific chronological details to assure that the reader is never lost in this global account.
That success is due, in no small measure, to the book’s second new analytical frame, namely its insistence that we understand the Second World War as a maritime history. That frame merits the lion’s share of our attention, for it is Symonds’ central thesis that World War II was – particularly to Western Allies – a naval war.
Russian History, of course, will present a different narrative, for, as Symonds’ observes, the Red Army paid a heavy price to assure that the European continent did not fall to Germany’s military might. That Russian War, though, was counterbalanced by the Anglo-American half of the Grand Alliance, and that history needs to be understood as naval history.
Symonds allows that Roosevelt and Churchill both agreed to a Germany First policy in 1941, but he wants to dislodge the subsequent conclusion that they prioritized a land-based European war to a naval war in the Pacific theater as a result. Students of the eighteenth century will see, here, echoes of the Blue Water strategy that helped Britain triumph in the Seven Years’ War. There, it was Frederick the Great of Prussia who held the continent. Britain’s contribution was naval supremacy in the Atlantic World, and, indeed, globally.
Symonds is no fool. He concedes that boots on the ground will eventually matter in any war. But, in World War II, it was Russian boots that secured Europe. What the British and the Americans added to the Grand Alliance was control of the planet’s watery portion. Because he did not understand that fact and what it meant, Adolf Hitler lost the war. The Japanese, Symonds observes, understood this truth more than did their European allies, but they lacked the industrial capacity to translate naval ambitions into maritime supremacy. Their strategy was to strike fast and win quickly. As the war drug on, Japan’s navy could not mobilize a durable power to match the Anglo-American alliance.
Though neither the English geographer Halford Mackinder nor the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan feature in this book, there is much about Symonds’ historical analysis that pits these two men and their work against one another – an epic global struggle to understand history as either a maritime or terrestrial occurrence. In Symonds’ hands, Mahan takes the day.
If Symonds does not use grand theorists like Mahan or Mackinder to structure his argument, he is a master of specific historical detail. This is a book that takes very seriously questions of materiel. Throughout the book, Symonds keeps his readers attuned not only to relative fleet sizes of the combatant countries but also to what those numbers meant. The Allies, for example, never seem to have had enough of the amphibious LTS landing ships that were critical to naval operations across the globe. The D-Day invasion was itself put off by a month so that naval yards could produce and deliver more of these workhorse vessels.
World War II at Sea will have a wide audience. Military and naval historians will alike profit from its depth and detail. Popular audiences will enjoy the narrative style and flow. And, every reader will benefit from the book’s focused effort to understand the influence of sea power on the history of the Second World War.
This is a big book. It is a workout. But, it is worth the effort.
Dr. Tillman W. Nechtman is a Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.