Victory at Sea, by Paul Kennedy

Sarah Miller

This new history of naval warfare during WW2 allows us to understand the world order of the 20th century.
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By the close of 1943, the tides of the global war at sea had turned significantly in favour of the Allies. In the North Atlantic Doenitz’s wolf-packs were increasingly pulling back, relieving the pressure on Allied convoy lines. In the Mediterranean most of the inland sea was under the control of the Allies, whose amphibious forces streamed into Europe and toppled Mussolini’s fascist state, and in the Central Pacific the naval fighting ebbed until the end of the year, when Nimitz’s forces pushed through the Japanese line and took control of the Gilbert Islands. 1943 was a pivotal year in the naval war, but it also witnessed a huge surge in American industrial production and the development of weapons and technology, enabling the mass mobilization of the Allies.

This shift in US production meant that by the end of the war only Britain and the United States possessed large fleets, and increasingly the Royal Navy was coming in second to its American counterpart. Paul Kennedy provides a detailed narration of the naval war in Victory at Sea, but this book does much more than simply tell the story of a navy. Kennedy is also concerned with the question of how, especially after 1943, it was possible for the Allies to churn out naval vessels, aircraft and equipment at a rate of knots, and how the achievements of the Allied navies were made possible by changes in production. Using a dual level of intertwined analysis, he is also determined to demonstrate how the maritime war at sea fits into the overall Allied victory in 1945.

Kennedy sets out to both narrate the war at sea and explain the reciprocal relationship between naval and military actions and other historical forces. At the core of this relationship is another reciprocal question – how did sea power influence the Second World War, and how did the War affect sea power? His answers are convincing, and include detailed accounts of the naval situation in terms of ships and navies from 1936 to 1946, geographic and economic elements, classic theories about understanding sea power and deep-structures analysis alongside the fighting narrative.

The book is physically beautiful because of its use of original paintings by renowned maritime artist, Ian Marshall. In fact, the paintings do not simply accompany Kennedy’s manuscript, but rather, they help to accomplish its aims. Most books on the Second World War at sea begin in 1939. Kennedy begins in 1936, when traditional battleship-centred fleets appeared unchallenged and the maritime balance was well established. By beginning here, he is able to successfully demonstrate how in ten years, the maritime balance was vastly altered, with the elimination of the Italian, German, Japanese and earlier French fleets, the end of the big-gun surface vessel, the advent of the atomic bomb and the emergence of the United States as the dominant economic and military world power.

This did not, Kennedy argues, lead simply to a new maritime order – it led to a new world order. This is not just a book about navies in wartime – it is a book which examines the naval war in the wider context of a changing world, and which looks at landscapes, both military and political. It is an important book, because the changes wrought by the rise of American naval power in the Second World War are changes whose consequences we live with today. To understand Kennedy’s answers to his reciprocal questions is, ultimately, to better understand the world in which we live.

Paul Kennedy’s Victory at Sea is available now. Sarah Miller has completed her PhD at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, focussing on Allied naval intelligence in WWII, particularly in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Pacific Naval War.

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