9780670860852 / 0670860859

At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century


Publisher:Viking Adult



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About the book:

Ronald H. Spector's At War at Sea is both a greatest-hits treatment of 20th-century naval battles and a comprehensive history of how sea-fighting tactics and technology have developed over the last century. Spector begins with what he calls "probably the most decisive naval battle of the last two-hundred years," and it's one that many American readers may not know well: the Battle of Tsushima, in May 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. In a sense, it sets the tone for much of the book--or at least the portion running through the Second World War--for this is the battle that established Japan as an important military power in the Pacific, and one that could humiliate a Western opponent.

Spector next covers Jutland ("the greatest clash of battleships in history") in some detail, and makes a claim that informs much of his book: "Even in the matter of big guns, projectiles, and armor, the decisive considerations concerned human judgment, organization, and training." In other words, Jutland wasn't won by technology (despite the voluminous writings on this point by argumentative scholars), but by individual sailors. To emphasize the point, Spector shares the observations of ordinary participants from diaries, letters, and memoirs. Some of them are incredibly lucid. Here is a merchant seaman describing what it's like after a torpedo strikes a ship: "As a rule once you got hit, that's it, you're down like a stone wallop. They've got no chance. Down in about a minute. Gone." Spector then notes that about seven of every 10 merchant ships hit by torpedoes stayed afloat for less than 15 minutes.

Spector does not write with much verve, but he treats his subject with the thoroughgoing seriousness it deserves. At War at Sea is a strong account that will appeal to naval buffs. --John J. Miller

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