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The best books on Naval History (20th Century)

recommended by Nicholas Rodger

The Command of the Ocean by Nicholas Rodger

The Command of the Ocean
by Nicholas Rodger


In the world wars of the twentieth century, naval warfare has often been given a secondary role. But as naval historian Nicholas Rodger explains, the protagonists who thought like that lost. Here, he chooses five books that explain the military role and development of navies over the course of the 20th century.

Interview by Benedict King

The Command of the Ocean by Nicholas Rodger

The Command of the Ocean
by Nicholas Rodger


Before we get to the books, what is the fascination of naval history for you?

That could be broken down into two questions: Why is naval history fascinating? And why is it fascinating for me? On a personal level, I grew up with ships. My father was a naval officer and that explains why I’m interested in my subject. Most historians, if you press them on why they’re interested in their subject, will often give a personal connection of that nature.

If the question is ‘why does naval history matter?’ in an abstract way it’s fairly straightforward. If you think that the events of, say, the Second World War—which I’ve been working on recently—mattered, then you have to say that naval history mattered because, fundamentally, this was a naval war. It was a war that was lost by the people who didn’t realise they were fighting a naval war. It was lost by the Japanese who thought they were fighting a war for the conquest of China. And it was lost by the Germans who thought they were fighting a war for the conquest of Europe. But they were both wrong. Because it was the ability to draw in the resources of the whole world, and to master an alliance drawn from all the continents except Antarctica, which made the Allied victory possible. And all that was basically done by sea. If it hadn’t been for the ability to use the sea, none of it would have happened. And the central importance of the ability to use the sea made it a naval war, even though a great deal of the fighting, of course, wasn’t anywhere near sea.

Does naval history draw in lots of other subjects?

Yes, there are a lot of people whose instinctive answer might be that it’s all about ships and battles. And it is about ships and battles, but it’s about much more. If you’re going to talk about a navy, you’re talking about a vast, complex organisation, which involves, in practice, all the resources of the state and society. It involves vast numbers of people, not only those who are actually fighting at sea, but those who are supporting and serving and manufacturing and supplying and so on. It involves enormous amounts of resources, not just money, but all the other things you need to sustain people at war, the things you need to build enormously large and complex technological artefacts—which ships are—and the immensely complex weapons and equipment that they use. And since naval warfare is inherently and inescapably technical, the secret of victory was frequently a question of effective technology against ineffective technology.

Let’s look at the books you’re recommending on naval history. First up is by James Goldrick and it’s called After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, June 1916-November 1918

In a certain sense, this is half a book because Goldrick has written two books. One is called After Jutland and one is called Before Jutland. And you won’t be surprised to learn that Before Jutland is the first half of the First World War and After Jutland is the second half of the First World War, and really they belong together. But for publishing reasons, they came out as two different books and so I selected one of them. They’re both extremely good and extremely good in the same kinds of ways.

And what story does this book tell?

It’s a story which has been told many times before, but nothing like as well. It’s a story of the war at sea, and predominantly, the war at sea in European waters, which is where a great deal of it—not quite all of it—was fought. It’s above all a story of the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy at war against each other. You might say that this has been done before an enormous number of times, and most of the senior officers wrote their memoirs. But as you find in so much naval history, earlier works nearly all just repeat the memoirs of the leading participants. And the leading participants, astonishingly enough, write about themselves and reproduce their own ideas. They don’t generally criticize their own ideas, or even other people’s ideas.

What James Goldrick does is to look at the war from the practicalities of what you actually had to do to fight at sea during the First World War. Very few people who’ve read books about the war will ever have been exposed to explanations of the practicalities. For example, take a simple question like how you navigate. How did you find your way around the North Sea during the First World War? It’s extremely foggy and there were no kinds of electronic navigation aids available at all. How do you find your way around? How do you meet your friends? How do you find your enemies? How do you simply avoid running aground or getting shipwrecked, all of which things happened very frequently. A lot of warships in the First World War were wrecked in and around the North Sea.

There were lots of other perils. Both sides laid minefields all over the place. Neither side knew where they had laid the mines very accurately, because the mine layers couldn’t navigate very well. So they knew roughly where they laid the minefields, but roughly is not really good enough. If you’re trying to find your way through a minefield, you really need to know very accurately indeed. And they couldn’t do it.

“Since naval warfare is inherently and inescapably technical, the secret of victory was frequently a question of effective technology”

Suppose two fleets are trying to meet one another, as in the celebrated example at the Battle of Jutland. Two British forces were trying to rendezvous. One was being pursued by the German fleet, and the other was pursuing it. But when it came to the point, the two fleet flagships—the big ships with every possible navigational aid available then, and a lot of experts on board—their respective ideas of their positions were 12 miles out. They thought they were going to meet but actually they were 12 miles apart. It makes rather a big difference, especially as they were trying to organise their formations to fight alongside one another. You’re trying to organise a formation to meet an enemy whose whereabouts and actual course and position you couldn’t predict at all accurately.

These are the kind of practical issues that very few people who read books on naval history have ever been confronted with. There are dozens of these issues related to how you man and organise ships and how you fuel them. Most of these ships run on coal because they’re steamships. But ‘coaling’ a ship was an immensely laborious and pretty dangerous job involving huge amounts of exhausting physical labour by virtually every single person on board, which has to be repeated every few days. A battlecruiser going at full speed is burning about 600 tons of coal an hour. Ships burn prodigious amounts of coal. The Grand Fleet, the main British fleet, has enough coal to stay at sea for about three days, after which they have to go back to port again, which makes quite a big difference to what you can do. So actually, continuous naval war really resolves itself into a series of short voyages. This book describes the practicality of taking your fleet to sea and fighting. It’s quite an eyeopener.

James Goldrick is really good at these kinds of things. That’s partly because he is a very unusual man, in that he has made two highly successful but quite different careers simultaneously. He is an Australian naval officer who had a highly successful career and retired as a rear admiral. And he’s a naval historian. And somehow, although these are both—as I can testify—extremely demanding full-time professions, he’s managed to do both of them. He’s managed to write a whole series of fascinating and interesting and important books and articles and a distinguished naval career in the Royal Australian Navy. And he’s made himself an expert in the First World War and fighting in the North Sea, which is not the sea in which he has spent all his naval career, though he’s visited it pretty frequently.

Let’s go on to the next naval history book you’ve chosen, Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. What story does this book tell?

He tells a very interesting and quite sensational story. It caused a huge stir when it came out. It tackles two themes, which most people would say were not related at all. One is the story of the rise of the Grand Fleet, the great British battle fleet that fought in the First World War, a technical story of ship design, and so on, and why things didn’t go exactly right for the British when the war came. The second is a story about the social and psychological world of British naval officers. What sort of people were they? What did they think, how and why did they think it? Who became a naval officer, and what was the kind of world in which they were shaped? It’s written in a highly surprising, unusual way. It starts in the First World War, running up to the Battle of Jutland. It leads you into the Battle of Jutland. And, at the height of the battle, it stops and asks how they had got there. It then goes back 25 years, to a celebrated naval disaster in 1893 when the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet was rammed in a collision in naval manoeuvres and sank, taking the commander-in-chief with her. The commander-in-chief had been a man identified with the doctrine of initiative and independence, that the commander-in-chief must rely on his captains to use their initiative to conduct their ships according to his wishes. But after the collision, which arose entirely because the captains had failed to think for themselves, the dead admiral was blamed. It was all his fault. He shouldn’t have talked about initiative. They should have been running on rigid tramlines. Everything should be ordered by the commander-in-chief in person and no captain should presume to sharpen a pencil without authority.

And the whole mental world of the Royal Navy, as Andrew Gordon explains it, was shaped as an authoritarian, centralised world in which bigger and bigger fleets were more and more tightly organised, running according to more and more rigorous rules. And so he leads us all the way back to Jutland again.

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He explains it in many ways but, in particular, he draws attention to the different characters. Sir John Jellicoe, the commander-in-chief, is the supreme professional in a world of rules. Everything is run according to massive volumes of Grand Fleet battle orders. Every captain has got battle orders the size of several telephone directories.

But the battle cruisers are run by Sir David Beatty. And Beatty is a completely different person. He is the supreme chancer, a handsome, lucky, brave, brilliant, but less than thorough man who’s got to the top by a whole series of lucky—and, in some cases, unscrupulous—manoeuvres. His battlecruisers’ interaction was going to exemplify why rules and regulations were what was wrong with the Navy. They were going to show what dash and gallantry would do. What it actually did was cause three battle cruisers to blow up because they had dismantled all their anti-flash precautions. So the Beatty approach comes unstuck quite badly, but it doesn’t stop Beatty himself going on to be First Sea Lord in the post-war Navy.

Was Beatty Jellicoe’s second in command at Jutland?

Strictly speaking there were two separate commands, the battle fleet and the battle cruiser fleet. Beatty had just managed to get his ships a separate command. Up until then he had been the second in command, but a slightly detached command.

What Andrew Gordon is doing with great technical skill is explaining how, in his interpretation, a lot of what had happened goes back to bad mistakes made 25 years before. But the force of the book is quite considerably more than that. Andrew Gordon wasn’t just a good, if very eccentric, historian. He was also an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, at a time when the RNR’s main job was mine sweeping. That is a very skilled business indeed, which involves extremely precise navigation. And Andrew is a watch-keeping officer with many years of experience of mine sweeping in fog and in the North Sea; a man who could write from complete personal understanding about the business of organising a big fleet steaming in company because, unlike almost all other naval officers nowadays, he had done an enormous amount of it himself. There are very few naval officers who can remember doing this kind of thing now. The RNR doesn’t do it anymore. And he was quite unashamed to say things which no modern academic historian would say, that this experience has vital lessons for us today, not as historians but as naval officers. And he says, in so many words, ‘you admirals are in the same position as Jellicoe. Pay attention to this because it matters.’

And I can tell you, it caused a sensation in the Royal Navy and an almost equally large sensation in the US Navy, which is what he was really pointing at.

Was it a helpful sensation?

I think it was a helpful sensation. I wonder if they’ve forgotten it now. But it made them think about a lot of things which they hadn’t been thinking about at all. And it’s really not what modern historians expect to do. Historians expect to stay safely in their universities. They don’t expect to set out and teach admirals—or anybody else for that matter—how to run the world. But Andrew Gordon was very willing to do it and with immense style and wit. It’s a tremendous read and very, very funny.

Let’s go on to the next of your naval history books, which is by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks, The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service Since 1945. Why have you chosen this one?

I chose it because it does something which few other people have achieved, or even really tried. Hennessy is very well known as a modern historian. He started out as a journalist on the Times. Then he worked himself into being what he called a contemporary historian—i.e. very recent history. He became an expert on nuclear weapons, on intelligence, and on various aspects of government, on which he wrote a whole series of important books. And then he came to submarines. Now who writes about submarines? Ex-submariners usually. But he wrote about the modern post-war, British submarine service. It’s immensely secret. Pretty well everything he was writing about is very heavily classified. On this subject you’d expect people either to write bland memoirs full of harmless anecdotes and to skirt around all sensitive subjects, or perhaps you might get an official history, full of judicious vagueness whenever it gets anywhere near anything really interesting, with all the personal names left out, and definitely no good stories. But Peter Hennessy—James Jenks is basically his research assistant, but a serious research assistant who’s got his name on the title page—has found an enormous number of friendly submariners who were prepared to steer as close to the wind as they could manage within the Official Secrets Act, and in some cases quite a bit closer, in order to let the world know what they’ve been doing.

Modern submariners are really the silent service. The RN is not good at being the silent service. It talks too much. But submariners are genuinely silent. And I’ve never read anything like this before. I knew a few of these stories but there’s a huge amount more in the book which I didn’t know—and I don’t think most people knew. Did you know, for example, that since the Navy acquired nuclear submarines, which is to say from the 1960s onwards, the British submarine force has been spending a very large amount of its time in Russian waters, taking part in Russian exercises, uninvited, and almost always unobserved—though not quite always. Just once in a while the Russians got this sense that there were more people present than there should have been. And there were a few incidents. But actually, the Russians played the game. On at least one occasion a British submarine was depth-charged and forced to surface in the middle of Russian exercise. They were just sent away with a flea in their ear—because, of course, the Russians were doing exactly the same thing, just nothing like as competently. And, for a very long time, they didn’t know that they were being followed because Russian submarines were amazingly noisy. They made so much noise they couldn’t hear themselves think and they certainly couldn’t hear anybody else nearby.

But then American traitors, American naval officers known as the Walker spy ring, betrayed the secret to the Russians, who suddenly discovered that they were being tracked everywhere. They discovered that the position of every single Russian missile submarine in the North Atlantic was known, and that, if it had come to nuclear war, most of them would have been sunk before they’d fired their missiles. That was a rather uncomfortable discovery. It precipitated a massive effort to get right all the things they had got wrong and to build new classes of submarines, which didn’t make so much noise and so on.

All this is really interesting and really important. If you think that nuclear weapons are of any significance or interest at all, this book is just packed with new information. And it’s also packed full of fascinating, in many cases horrifying, and in some cases very funny, stories.

You mentioned that in the First World War a ship could only go to sea for about three days. How long can a modern nuclear submarine go to sea for?

It’s certainly not constrained by fuel running out. It’s basically constrained by the endurance of the crew. I think I’m right in saying that the standard patrol length of a missile submarine now is about two months. They could stay at sea much longer, the reason they don’t is because, humanly speaking, the effects will be too destructive, and also too dangerous. This is a world where you have to think very seriously about the mental state of your people. You don’t want to drive them to a nervous breakdown. They take great care to select people who are calm, stable, reliable characters, not easily given to panic. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea that they should be able to look forward to a nice long time on leave with their families.

Let’s move on to the next of your naval history books, which is Thomas and Trent Hone’s Battle Line: The United States Navy 1919-1939.

I wanted to include books about the US Navy. There’s no shortage of books about the US Navy, most of which are perfectly dreadful because they’re practically all written about the glories of America. And they’re written entirely from inside. They’re not reflective. They’re not good at stepping outside themselves and asking whether it looks that way from outside, or whether other people do it the same way.

The Hones are father and son and they’re very good. They do know a lot about the outside world. And they do write with a good sense of the big picture, the outside world, what was going on around the US Navy, what was going on around the US. Most books about the US Navy are about glorious US victories, which the US Navy wins single-handedly. Here we’re looking at the US Navy in peacetime, in a period which tends to be dismissed by US naval historians as all a bit of a disaster because the politicians are frightful people who are to blame for everything and failed to give the US Navy all the money it wanted, which is very wicked thing. So the story of the US Navy between the wars has not been written up very intelligently.

But this is a very intelligent book at different levels. It talks about the professional challenges which they faced, trying to prepare the US Navy for a future war. Everybody faces the challenges of the future, of course. If you’re building an armed service, by definition, you’re preparing for the future, which is always unknown. So the only thing you’ve got to go on is the past, or your vision of what the past means. And the US Navy, because it basically had to stop shipbuilding at the end of the First World War because of the Washington Naval Treaty, was stuck with a battle fleet designed according to the ideas of about 1910.

Moreover, you do have to have at least a public theory as to why there may be enemies out there. And this was difficult for the United States because it had no serious enemies. It was too far away from any possible enemies for it to be plausible to imagine that they were going to be attacked. They finished up fighting a war against the Japanese but the Japanese were never anywhere near the United States. The best they managed was to overrun the United States’s colony in the Philippines. There was never any danger that the Japanese fleet was going to steam under the Golden Gate Bridge and bombard San Francisco. They never got within 2,000 miles of there and never could have done.

“Most people have guessed the future wrong, because that’s the nature of the future. The US Navy got it very wrong”

So what was the US Navy there for? Theoretically, it was there to steam across the Pacific to fight a great battle against the Japanese because they were there. But actually, that wasn’t ever going to happen either. Because the Japanese had found out what the US Navy was going to do, and didn’t intend to hang around and wait to fight a battle on US terms.

The US Navy had a huge force of destroyers built at the end of the First World War to fight a very particular kind of war in a flat calm in the Caribbean. Who were they going to find in the Caribbean in a flat calm? South American navies—they’d planned to do that in the 1880s, against the Chilean Navy, the great threat to the survival of American democracy. But this time this was not such a plausible line. So now it was going to be the German Navy, but how was it going to steam across the North Atlantic, given that it was actually incapable of doing so because it didn’t have the range? Anyway, it was going to arrive in the Caribbean, there was going to be a huge battle and it was going be fought in the Caribbean, because that was the only place a US Navy could fight it. And so that was where it had to be.

So they built this new fleet. They’ve got an enormous fleet of destroyers, which are not fit to go to sea in the open Atlantic and which, by 1939, were all worn out. Another problem is that they’ve got some very, very old battleships, which are the great battleships which are supposed to be able to steam across the Pacific. But they don’t have the range to steam across the Pacific. And the US Navy doesn’t have any oilers to refuel them, to take them across the Pacific. So actually, the great plan to steam across the Pacific and fight a battle against the Japanese is impossible.

And, by the 1930s, there are some people in the US Navy, who can see all this. The question is, what do they do about it? The cost of building a new navy that is fit for purpose would be huge. Congress refused to provide the money. So they were stuck only with the old ships and they carry on stuck only with the old ships, basically until about 1937 or ’38 when somebody notices that something untoward has been happening in Europe, and some people are beginning to say that perhaps they ought to start getting a few more ships just in case something were to happen.

And then, in 1940, there is the war against the Germans and the Norwegian campaign and, suddenly, the US Navy contemplates with unspeakable horror a modern naval world in which there are aeroplanes not doing the things which the US Navy’s aeroplanes were doing, and ships doing things that the US Navy was not equipped to do, ships with anti-aircraft guns, of which the US Navy had hardly any. They woke up to the fact that their guesses about the future were even more out than everybody else’s guesses. Most people have guessed the future wrong, because that’s the nature of the future. The US Navy got it very wrong. Anyway, Hone and Hone are really very interesting about what the US Navy was doing in the interwar years, what it was really thinking and what happens when it begins that nasty process of colliding with the modern naval world and discovering that it’s got entirely the wrong kit  facing in the wrong direction.

Let’s move on to the last of your naval history books, which is Craig L. Symonds’s World War II at Sea: A Global History. Tell us about this book and why you’ve chosen it.

I chose it, partly because I wanted to get an American perspective and Craig Symonds is, I think, one of the best US naval historians. Again, he’s not trapped in an American bubble. He is good at standing back and looking at the whole war—obviously with an American perspective—but understanding the significance of what’s going on around the world, because this really is a world war. When most people talk about the ‘World War’ they’re not really talking geography at all, they’re talking about a period. But Symonds really is looking at the war from a worldwide perspective. There are not too many people writing who do this well, and seriously. Most of the immense mass of literature about the Second World War is really about particular parts of the world, particular services, particular countries and particular periods, often rather short ones. This is at least a history of all the major elements of the war—obviously fairly high-level—between roughly 1940 and 1945.

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Of course on any realistic count, you’d have to say that the elements which went to make up the Second World War start much earlier than that and end much later than that. My own estimate would be that the Japanese war against China is one of the main constituents. And you’d have to date that from 1937. And it finished after the USA pulled out, but the Chinese carried on the civil war until 1947. So, really, a history of the Second World War that runs from 1941 to 1944 or 1945 is really only a small part of the whole thing.

At the end of the war, when the US forces occupied Japan, the occupying powers forbad Japanese journalists and historians from referring to the war using the phrase which was standard in Japanese, which is ‘the Greater East Asia War’. But Greater East Asia War is a very accurate and not a contentious description for what was going on, or had been going on, since the mid-1930s. But the US did not want it. And, in particular, the occupying forces, which was the US Navy, did not want it. They insisted that the Japanese adopt the US Navy standard term, which was ‘the Pacific War’. That eliminates the Chinese altogether. It eliminates most of the war, it eliminates all the armies, it eliminates all the millions of dead, and it reduces the whole thing to a series of naval skirmishes on the remote margins of the real battlefield—but skirmishes that heavily involved the US Navy, and which the US Navy won. So it’s a brilliant piece of public relations, a brilliant piece of propaganda. It captures the war for the US Navy, which has owned it ever since.

Since the end of the Second World War, what has been the most transformative thing in naval warfare?

Probably nuclear submarines because they are the first real submarines. In the Second World War, what were called submarines were still essentially submersibles. They stayed on the surface most of the time, and dipped down now and again. But nuclear submarines are real submarines in the sense that they can go to sea and stay at sea for months, continually submerged. And that makes for  a completely different world.

And looking to the future, is drone warfare going to transform navies? Or is it just a new kind of weapon?

Generally I insist that I’m an historian and my job is the province of the past, not the future. But, so far, I haven’t seen drones do anything that aeroplanes haven’t been doing for a long time. It’s just that they’re a lot cheaper and they don’t have pilots on board. I think the time will come before  long when carriers fly fewer and fewer aeroplanes with pilots and more and more aeroplanes without pilots, but whether that will make a fundamental change, I don’t know.

Interview by Benedict King

July 23, 2021

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Nicholas Rodger

Nicholas Rodger

Nicholas Rodger is a British naval historian and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College Oxford.

Nicholas Rodger

Nicholas Rodger

Nicholas Rodger is a British naval historian and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College Oxford.