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20181202 – World War II at Sea


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The main idea of this book is to use detailed narrative of events and battles at sea to show impact of naval struggle on overall conduct and outcome of WWII. Author looks at this struggle not as a collection of lightly connected events, but rather as one integrated battle with strategic resources moved from one theater to another many thousands miles away to implement some specific strategic vision. The main point however is that these events at sea often played decisive role in outcome of battles between armies on land by assuring or preventing supplies, troops transfers, and communications.



This starts with discussion of prewar attempts to restrict naval arm races that at the time were mostly about size and number of battleships. Eventually these negotiations turned out to be futile not only because sides were cheating, but also because technological development made battleship outdated, even if it was not clear before the war.

Part I: The European War

Chapter 1: Unterseebooten

This chapter is about development of German U-boat fleet in 1930 after Hitler discarded all restrictions of Versailles treaty. Luckily this was not the most important impediment to Donitz’s attempt to build ocean going submarine fleet. The bureaucratic struggle with Raeder who directed resources to building fleet of battleships was more powerful in doing this.  However Germany still developed viable U-boats, which delivered initial successful attack at Scapa Flow.

Chapter 2: Panzerschitfen

This chapter reviews activities of German battleships that consumed resources denied to U-boats. It is a story of pocket battleship Graf Spee, which attempted to implement Raeder’s strategy of avoiding naval battle and prioritize effort of raiding against merchant marine in order to starve Britain into submission. Initially successful it was caught up with several British ships resulting in serious damage and retreat to neutral port and then demolished by the captain with crew interned in Argentina.

Chapter 3: Norway

This starts with discussion of strategic value of Norway for German supply of iron from Sweden, which resulted in combined sea-land-air battle that Germany won, but at rather steep price. One of the most important strategic considerations of battle for Norway was German intent to obtain bases for submarine warfare with direct entry to Atlantic. It became mute, however, because Germans occupied France.

Chapter 4: France Falls

This is about Allies defeat in France that from naval point of view presented two important events: Dunkirk evacuation and disabling of French navy. Dunkirk, contrary to usual description, was not just makeshift operation of multitude of small boats but rather relatively successful operation mainly by navy destroyers. The small craft played critical role of moving people from the show to destroyers that could not come close due to the shallow waters. Overall British moved 50,000 to 60,000 people a day during evacuation. French navy become a problem due to capitulation, so British had to remove it from consideration. It was done partially by agreement for it moving to colonial ports and remaining inactive, but partially by directly attacking and destroying French ships at Mers-el-Kebir when it looked as Germans could take control over them.

Chapter 5: The Regia Marina

This chapter is about Italian Navy, which was build with idea to have first class surface ships and save them for the end of the war when everybody else would be exhausted. Eventually it was mainly idle because of lack of fuel and remained locked in Mediterranean. Author describes a few battles it took part in without significant success. One of interesting reasons for this was bureaucratic disconnect between Navy and Air force that made air support practically impossible.

Chapter 6: The War on Trade,

This is about the first phase of battle of Atlantic, when Germans had significant advantages and were able to get relatively close to stopping convoys movement to Britain, so American Navy provided some support, violating neutrality. While U-boat were main force doing the war on trade, at this point German surface Navy was also active and to some extent successful in intercepting convoys.

Chapter 7 The Bismarck

Author retells here the story of Bismarck, its success in battle with British battleships and sinking of Hood. However it was not capable defeating air power, got crippled, and eventually sunk by British ships.

Part II: The War Widens

Chapter 8: The Rising Sun

This chapter is about Japan and its preparation for war. Author paid lots of attention to prewar negotiations and the role they played in Japan political movement to military dictatorship. It also discusses technical developments of Japanese Navy: its battleship, cruisers, and air careers.

Chapter 9: A Two-Ocean Navy

This chapter discusses developments in American Navy and it’s initial starving for resources due to isolationist approach dominant in politics at the time. This ended in 1938 when it become clear that Japanese aggression would not be limited in any way. Author briefly describes the following build up that was far from completely expanded before war started, leaving American Navy underpowered in both Atlantic and Pacific. Despite that and formal neutrality it was increasingly active, supporting convoys and author documented how it was happening. Author also discusses bureaucratic movements in Navy command and its impact on build up and operations. The chapter ends with reference to Roosevelt’s diplomatic offence against Japan that put Japan before dilemma of either stopping aggression due to deficiency of resources, or dramatically expanding its scope in order to take resources from old colonial powers.

Chapter 10 Operation Al The Attack on Pearl Harbor

This is retelling of Perl Harbor attack with specific attention to what this attack failed to do: disable port facilities and destroy oil and other resources based there and, very important, it did not removed American Air careers, living serious force in Pacific that proved to be crucial to close gap until new ships that were in process of construction could go on line providing for huge superiority to American Navy later in the war.

Chapter 11: Rampage

This chapter is about Japanese successes during initial period of war when they practically annihilated colonial power in Pacific and advanced all the way to Australia so they bombed Darwin with its warehouses. Author retells the story of defeat of combined striking force of colonial powers ABDA that was completely annihilated by Japanese Navy.

Chapter 12: The War on Trade, II

This chapter starts with discussion of war on trade conducted by Allies: British attacks in Mediterranean against Italian merchants and American submarine campaign against Japanese. However the most active during this period was German U-boat fleet. Initially it was somewhat contained during the second half of 1941 by fear to get American involvement, but eventually Hitler removed restrictions, probably accepting inevitability of America entering the war that he obviously speeded up by declaring war after Perl Harbor. Author describes in some detail strategic situation around Malta and critical convoy of just 4 merchant ships supported by dozens of Navy destroyers and capital ships that was barely able to get through.  The first half of 1941 was nearly complete success for U-boats that sank 263 ships, but then, at least partially due to Enigma decoding it fell to 169 ships in second half. Author describes this story in some detail. Another success for Germany was initial campaign in American waters where U-boats sank 133 ships. By the summer 1942 Americans established convoy system, making it much more difficult for U-boat operation. One of the big successes of German surface Navy was practically stopping operations of northern PQ convoys that were delivering goods to Russia.

Part Ill: Watershed

Chapter 13: Stemming the Tide

This is about growing resistance to Axis actions during 1942. It starts with the story of Tokyo symbolic bombing from Hornet based B-25s.  It caused little if any material damage, but huge psychological damage, demonstrating that Japan did not achieve complete air superiority and that American Navy is still functional.  Soon after that Coral Sea battle started with big engagement between Air Carriers when both sides suffered damage, but Americans managed to repair Yorktown near by, while Japanese sent theirs home for repair, weakening their force in the area. This created somewhat of an opening for Midway where luck was clearly on the side of Americans. Author describes this battle in details because it completely changed force equation in Pacific, by removing most of Japanese Air Carriers.

Chapter 14: Two Beleaguered Islands

This chapter is about two battles for superior strategic position: Malta that controlled sea supply lines to Africa, so British continuing control prevented supplies from reaching Afrika Corps and probably prevented Germans from cutting off British access to oil. Another island – Guadalcanal on the other side of the planet featured Japanese built airfield captured and retained by Marines, providing huge unsinkable air carrier for Americans that become critical for achieving air superiority in the area. Despite allies defeat in the naval battle of Savo Island nearby, Japanese failure to destroy undefended transports left Allies with capability to continue operation at Guadalcanal.

Chapter 15: A Two-Ocean War

This chapter is about resource allocation, especially by Americans. The main point here is that despite official policy “Germany first”, they allocated lots of resources to Pacific, paying little attention to British continuing nagging to do more in Europe and USSR demanding the 2ndfront ASAP.  Author describes in details operations of the Cactus Air Force from Guadalcanal airstrip, which provided air superiority, but was not able to stop Tokyo express – overnight supplies delivery by sea. It was especially important because by this time Americans had only one air carrier left in Pacific.  Author also describes in this chapter parallel operation Torch in North Africa. At the end of chapter author describes another air carrier battle in South Pacific – Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, which left America with no operational air carriers in Pacific.

Chapter 16: The Tipping Point

This starts with description of American landing in Africa that included delivering million tons of supplies and 18480 vehicles via 20,000 miles sailing around South Africa and Suez. This includes description of fighting with French colonial troops that at this point were allies of Germany. However it was not consistent and in some places French happily surrendered to Americans. Eventually they all stopped resistance. American Navy quickly sank a few destroyers of French Navy that attempted to fight. The net result was dramatic increase in allied power in North Africa and decrease of supplies for German troops.

Meanwhile in Pacific once again Japanese won naval battle only failing to follow through and destroy Henderson field, allowing Cactus air force successfully attack. Finally American summarily won naval battle in November due to superior radar technology, preventing Japanese from delivering reinforcements to Guadalcanal resulting in Japan evacuating its forces by the end of 1942.

Chapter 17: The War on Trade, III

It was also tipping point in the global war on trade. Author starts this chapter with the story of Laconia – British liner full with Italian and German POWs that was sunk by U-boat. After that author describes many technological improvements that occurred in anti-submarine warfare. Together with increase in quantity of escort ships and their quality it lead to increase in loses of U-boats. If one adds to this dramatic increase in shipbuilding when Liberty ships were built faster than U-boats could sink them, the battle of Atlantic was quickly moving to Allies victory. Here is an interesting graph demonstrating this process:

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While in Atlantic German submarine forces were loosing the battle, completely opposite occurred in Pacific where American submarines caused increased levels of damage to Japanese merchant fleet.

Part IV: Allied Counterattack

1943 was a year when Allies recovered from early loses and increasingly went on offence, which required massive increase in production of landing craft since the geography of battlefields required multiple amphibious operations.

Chapter 18: Airplanes and Convoys

This starts with description of the battle of Bismarck Sea when American air power destroyed Japanese convoy. Author describes a series of air battles in which japan was increasingly losing due to previous loses of experienced pilot and technological inferiority. Then he describes successful operation of eliminating Yamamoto, which was considered an important event because it caused deterioration in quality of Japanese naval leadership. Then author moves to Africa, where deprived of supplies German forces start loosing and eventually surrendered in May 1943. The end of the chapter is about diplomatic wrangling about what to do next.

Chapter 19: Husky

This chapter describes landing in Sicily where Allied superiority in air and everywhere become obvious. Author looks in detail at technology of landing craft and their quantities that become a bottleneck in conducting amphibious operations. However success was not complete because significant German and Italian forces managed to escape across the strait to Italy, providing force for future difficult battles there.

Chapter 20: Twilight of Two Navies

The first Navy that was on its way out was Italian Navy. Deprived of fuel it was pretty much disabled throughout the war, staying in ports. Author discusses the role it played in negotiation for Italy’s surrender. Eventually it become target of German air force and was pretty much destroyed because it had no air cover. The author moves to amphibious battles in Italy when Navy played role of mobile artillery suppressing German resistance in areas close to the beaches.

The second Navy to go was German surface fleet and author describes how the last battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst were eliminated.

Chapter 21: Breaking the Shield

This is about American advance in South Pacific. Author provides a nice illustration of the big picture:

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Author also provides an interesting discussion of technical duel between American radar controlled naval artillery and Japanese long distance torpedo. This followed by narrative about island hopping and American strategic discussion where to direct attacks first.

Chapter 22: Large Slow Target

Here author returns to discussion of landing crafts, their features and role in amphibian operations overall, and specifically in battle for the Italy, where their use was critical:

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Part V: Reckoning

The final part is about last period of war when allied Navies and Air forces completely controlled everything, while German and Japanese Navy lost any influence on the development of events.

Chapter 23: D-Day

There is very little to discuss here except for huge amphibian operations that was conducted practically with no serious resistance from German Navy, so author relates details of the landing. The only peculiar, even if quite damaging, event was not during landing, but during exercise when German boats attacked LSTs that were poorly protected and killed hundreds of soldiers. Despite mobilizing whatever they still had German Navy could not cause any serious damage, leave alone prevent D-day.

Chapter 24: Seeking the Decisive Battle

At the same time as D-Day in Pacific Japanese Navy tried to stop American amphibian operation in battle of Philippine Sea. This attempt failed and Japan suffered another defeat at sea. The final attack using super battleships Yamato and Musashi similarly failed due to American air superiority.

Chapter 25: Leyte Gulf

Here author describes details of Leyte Gulf battle that annihilated whatever left of Japanese Navy. It has very interesting in part because it described low level of competence of American leaders who managed to leave transports practically unprotected. Only because of heroic sacrifice of destroyers, which attacked battleships and delayed them at very high cost, the disaster was averted. Overall it was the largest naval engagement in history, which Americans won.

Chapter 26: The Noose Tightens

This chapter is mainly about success of American submarines that practically stopped Japanese transportation by sea. It meant that troop on multiple islands had to fight with whatever they’ve got with no hope for resupply or reinforcement. It ends with discussion of Iwo Jima, capture of which opened way for massive air offence against Japan mainland.

Chapter 27: Denouement

This is about the last period of war when Germany capitulated, while Japan leadership tried to use kamikaze in vain hope that they could cause such damage to Americans that they would agree to peace in some form acceptable for Japan. However not only American navy quickly learned how to deal with kamikaze and had relatively small losses, but air offensive moved way beyond anything imaginable before from firebombing cities to eventually using nuclear weapons.

Epilogue: Tokyo Bay, 1945

The final chapter is about formal end of war with Japan, which by far was mainly naval and air war with land operation being much less prominent than in Europe.


This book about somewhat neglected part of WWII – naval battles. It played significant, but not decisive role in Europe, but it was main form of warfare between Western powers and Japan. Probably the most interesting part is the lesson demonstrating poor preparedness on the part of both British and American Navies, which was somewhat result of idea to achieve peace via negotiations and arms control. This idea prevented them from maintaining necessary levels of shipbuilding and Navy expansion that would convince Japan that conquest in impossible. Instead facing weakness, Japan leadership decided that it is unchangeable feature of democracy and they could start war, achieve their objectives to dominate Pacific, and then negotiate peace with opponent that has no moral power for meaningful defense. Unfortunately for Japan, if given enough time, democracy can summon will and way to expand their militaries to the levels required to win and in WWII America and Britain had this time. I do not think that similar victory by rearming during the fight would be possible now, but with nuclear weapons the massive attack becomes suicidal, so it does not make sense even if one believes that enemy morally inferior and technological behind. However I could not say that I am convinced that current decay of patriotism and unity in America would not create condition when it disarm itself under some kooky agreement with its enemies like China and Russia, which would never ever disarm in return.


1 Comment


    Brian MURZA/Killick Vison/W.W.II NAVAL RESEARCHER-PUBLISHED AUTHOR, NIAGARA REGION, ONTARIO, Canada. killickvison@yahoo.ca

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