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The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II by Evan Mawdsley


Reviewed by Richard Hammond


London: Yale University Press 2019

568 pages, ISBN 978-0300190199


The importance of the maritime dimension to the eventual outcome of the Second World War has long been recognised by historians and has been the subject of some important studies.[1] In a more focused manner, each theatre and campaign of the war at sea has received its own series of dedicated analyses in an ever-expanding overall body of literature.[2] Now, Evan Mawdsely has written a wide-ranging one-volume history of the Second World War at sea, becoming the second person to do so in the space of little more than a year, after World War II at Sea: A Global History, the 2018 book by Craig Symonds.[3]

Mawdsley’s book tackles the complexity of structuring a work of such scale highly effectively, mastering the difficulty of covering one theatre while also nodding to the importance of concurrent events elsewhere in the world. In order to achieve this, the broadly chronological structure sometimes jumps back and forth a little to allow certain parts of the narrative to flow, but this is clearly signposted to the reader. In this manner, he is able to successfully highlight important issues such as the global competition for resources between different theatres causing difficult decisions for strategy-makers, forcing the Allies to juggle between major operations in the European/Mediterranean theatres and the Pacific (p. 228).

The book is built on a vast array of secondary literature and some published primary works, including not only English-language material but also an impressive range of French, German and Russian works. It covers not only the well-known elements of the war at sea in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Pacific, but also lesser-known aspects, such as an interesting chapter on the Soviet Navy, which uses Russian-language source material rarely seen in English-language publications (pp. 135-153). A mix of operational narrative and discussion of the strategic level are offered throughout, including some important insights to the latter. A good example is the acknowledgement that ’The long-term – and inevitably inflexible – construction programme of major warships was an essential element explaining the strong interest of the US Navy in the Pacific.’ (p. 376). Quite simply, a large ocean-going battlefleet would not have been of much use in the conflicts which were fought in the Atlantic or Mediterranean but were far more relevant to the Pacific. However, sometimes Mawdsley alludes to important issues such as the control of transit routes and the Allies having ‘won the shipping war’ (pp.415-6) without actually delving into how and why this impacted the war overall. When looking at the war at sea from a global perspective, this is a vitally important factor.[4]

Overall, Evan Mawdsley has produced a useful, readable, one-volume history of the Second World War at sea, which claims at the outset that it ‘will not be a simple “operational narrative” of all these events’ (p.xli). However, the actual aim of the book is never made fully clear. Mawdsley is perhaps unfortunate that the requirement for a new one-volume history of the war at sea reflecting the latest research in the field had arguably been fulfilled shortly beforehand by Craig Symonds. While the book engages with some key debates in the literature on various elements of the maritime war, these are all necessarily brief due to the scope of the work. It also does not utilise any unpublished primary sources, although published primary sources are used extensively. This makes it difficult to argue any serious reappraisal of the war at sea is offered. Where this reviewer does suggest the book would offer important value is to both researchers and students looking for a broad and highly readable guide to the events of the war at sea, along with an introduction to some key debates about it. Helpfully, these are brought together in an accessible one-volume format that is offered at an affordable price.

[1] See for instance Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (London: Norton, 1996), ch. 2 and Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). [2] As is well demonstrated by the bibliography to Mawdsley’s new book. [3] Craig L. Symonds, World War II at Sea: A Global History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). [4] For a succinct, dedicated discussion of this, see Symonds, ‘For Want of a Nail: The Impact of Shipping on Grand Strategy in World War II’, Journal of Military History, 81, 3 (2017), pp. 657-66. For an earlier analysis, see C. B. A. Behrens, Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War (London: HMSO, 1955).

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© 2019 by the Second World War Research Group.

Background Image: Units of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade marching along a winding track in the foothills of the Finisterre Ranges on their way to the Ramu Valley after being relieved, November 1943. Photograph by Norman Stuckley. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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