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  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic

    Francis M. Carroll

    This work does an excellent job of placing the tragedy and human drama of the sinking of the passenger ship Athena on September 3, 1941, in various contexts: the outbreak of World War Two; German submarine strategy and tactics; and the deliberations of Franklin Roosevelt towards neutrality. Since the attack on the ship came immediately after the invasion of Poland and the declaration of war by England and France against Germany, but before any other attack on English targets, this event can be seen, as the author points out, as the first and opening shot of World War Two beyond Poland.

    The author constructs an excellent narrative derived from hundreds of first-hand accounts found in memoirs, letters, news accounts and other documents. He gives a vivid account of the attack on the ship, the transfer of passengers and crew to lifeboats, their survival overnight in lifeboats, their ultimate rescue and transport to Canada and the United States, and in some cases, the details of their later lives. Carroll presents a condensed version of the expansion of the Nazi regime in Europe in the 1930s; the litany is familiar to students of the period. However, for readers needing the context, the summary is very useful.

    For mariners, Caroll raises interesting issues: apparently the policy of "women and children" first was ill-advised since it led to separation of families and the lack of strong arms at the oars in lifeboats. Lifeboat procedures were so complex as to be difficult to fulfill under emergency conditions; yet order prevailed and the vast majority of passengers survived.

    The work, either explicitly or implicitly, also raises some thought-provoking historical questions. The treatment of the German position is not particularly sensitive to the dilemmas faced by the German commander and his superior officers. It is clear from Carroll's account that the torpedoing of Athena was a mistake, soon recognized by U-boat commander Fritz-Julius Lemp, who had concluded that the ship was a British warship because it ran without lights and maneuvered as a warship rather than a liner. Even so, Carroll still appears to reflect the British position that the event showed German ruthlessness, savagery, and inhumanity. At the same time, he includes enough evidence to show that the attack did not reflect those qualities. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.

    Carroll suggests that the Athena episode affected public opinion and official policy in both Canada and the United States. The evidence he presents on this score is far less detailed and compelling than the detailed account of the event itself. Even so, the information he provides can contribute to understanding the Canadian declaration of war, the changing attitudes towards neutrality in the United States, and the passage of the U.S. Cash and Carry Neutrality Law in November 1939.

    • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 218 pages
    • Photographs, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95
    • ISBN: 9781591141488

    Reviewed by Rodney Carlisle, Rutgers University

  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    German Capital Ships of the Second World War

    Siegfried Breyer and Miroslaw Skwiot

    The subtitle for German Capital Ships of the Second World War, “the ultimate photograph album,” provides the best possible description of the contents of this massive book. A joint project between one of the doyens of German naval technological historiography and a prominent member of the newer generation of European researchers and writers on the topic, this work contains one of the most comprehensive assemblages of photographs of Germany’s post World War I capital ships yet created, many of them rarely, if ever, previously published.

    The positive features of this work are the sheer mass of imagery, their breadth of coverage, their generally clear reproduction, and the frequent use of large-format presentation. There also are drawings detailing internal arrangements, general layouts, and detail changes. These, unfortunately, tend to be rather small, despite the large page size.

    The vast majority of the textual content of the book is contained in extended photograph captions preceded by short introductory essays for each chapter. Given the authors’ goals, this is not unexpected, but it makes for considerable difficulty in locating specific information of technical details, since there is no index. Furthermore, by their very nature captions tend to be presented in smaller print, and the publisher’s decision to place many of them within the background of the images reduces their clarity.

    Overall, this is a very useful book, especially for modelers of these ships, despite its rather high price.

    • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
    • 10” x 11-1/2”, hardcover, 432 pages
    • Photographs, drawings, tables, appendix. $78.95
    • ISBN: 9781591143253

    Reviewed by Mark Myers, New Bern, North Carolina

  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble’s Boys and the Tripoli Campaign

    Chipp Reid

    The Barbary Wars (especially the war against Tripoli) is one of those evergreen topics for naval and military historians. Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble’s Boys and the Tripoli Campaign, by Chipp Reid is the latest addition to that genre.

    The book tells the tale of Commodore Edwin Preble’s command in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War that ran from 1801 through 1805. Preble commanded United States Navy forces during the most dramatic period of the war, in 1803-1804. It saw the grounding and capture of the 44-gun frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor, the burning of Philadelphia by an American expedition, and several heavy bombardments of Tripoli by the United States Navy.

    Reid places the focus on the squadron’s junior officers, especially Stephen Decatur, Charles Stewart, and Richard Somers. In many ways the book is the tale of the war as seen through the eyes of these three, men who had grown up together and attended the same school during their youth.

    Reid, a journalist, provides a journalist’s approach. Intrepid Sailors is an adventure tale, and a ripping good one, with an emphasis on action rather than analysis. It is almost a twenty-first-century century update of Fletcher Pratt’s Preble’s Boys.

    The book is drawn from original sources, including Congressional and United States Navy records. Unfortunately, Reid occasionally pays too little attention to detail, leading to uneven accuracy. Reid describes Intrepid as having lateen sails, yet drawings of the ship by the squadron’s midshipmen clearly show it as a conventional square-rigged ketch. Intrepid lacked even the lateen mizzen still occasionally used on the Mediterranean at that time, instead having a boomed gaff on the mizzen. Similar errors of varying significance bedevil Reid’s text, including discrepancies in frigate ratings, issues with armament and details such as uniforms for sailors in the United States Navy circa 1803.

    Reid is also so focused on what was going that he often neglects the why behind the what. Reid never explores the reasons why Tripoli failed to fit out Philadelphia for sea, and never examines the factors that led to success in burning Philadelphia and failure in using Intrepid as an explosion ship.

    Intrepid Sailors does provide a solid description of events in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. It outlines what happened, providing a good introduction for those seeking a readable and excitingly-written account of that war. It also offers a workmanlike description of the lead-up to Preble’s arrival, and follows the post-1804 careers of those featured in the story.

    Those familiar with the First Barbary War are unlikely to learn much new from Intrepid Sailors. Unless you absolutely have to read everything written about this war, do not feel guilty about giving Intrepid Sailors a pass. For those seeking a rousing basic introduction to the war with Tripoli or simply seeking an exciting tale, Intrepid Sailors is a worthwhile read.

    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 294 pages
    • Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $35.95
    • ISBN: 9781612511177

    Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    The Many Aspects of Ship Modeling: Western Ship Model Exhibition & Conference 2011

    Donald Dressel

    The Western Ship Model Exhibition in 2011 presented almost two hundred ship models to its visitors, ranging in period from the early sixteenth to the early twenty-first centuries. The core of this publication illustrates them all with sharp color photographs.

    The Many Aspects of Ship Modeling is for ship modelers and those who appreciate and enjoy the products of such craftsmen. The useful introductory essay and informative captions add much to the feast of imagery. There is also a brief history of the Western Ship Model Exhibitions and Conferences since their inception in 1994, and a brief bibliography.

    The most compelling feature of this work is the way that it demonstrates the sheer variety of materials and approaches that ship modelers use for their creations. In addition to the usual wooden models, there are multiple examples here that use plastics (of various types) and even paper as the basic materials. As one would expect, there are many very fine scratch built creations depicted, but it also portrays excellent models made wholly from kits, either as the manufacturer intended or heavily modified to enhance accuracy.

    The author, Donald Dressel, makes it clear that he applauds this variety. His introduction, and the captions, are free from prejudice for or against the modelers’ particular approaches and highlight their accomplishments.

    The Many Aspects of Ship Modeling is a niche publication, but its message that there are so many different approaches to ship modeling deserves the widest possible circulation.

    • Florence, Oregon: SeaWatchBooks, 2013
    • 11” x 8-3/8”, softcover, x + 118 pages
    • Very extensive illustration, bibliography. $32.00
    • ISBN: 9780983753230

    Reviewed by David Evans, Aurora, Colorado

  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy, 1771-1831

    S.A. Cavell

    In her work, Midshipman and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy, 1771-1831, S.A. Cavell takes a detailed look at the men and boys who made up this group of “young gentlemen,” and discusses current research and theories related to the social backgrounds of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys.

    Cavell begins the book with a chapter that distinguishes midshipmen and quarterdeck boys from other positions within the Royal Navy. This chapter also includes the definitions of other terms related to these youthful officers in order to set the stage for the research and arguments presented in the text. This foundation proves to be one of the book’s greatest strengths, as the author does not assume all of her readers will have intimate knowledge of military terminology or naval history. A majority of the text is also devoted to analyzing how recruitment trends among midshipmen and quarterdeck boys fluctuated over time, and Cavell makes an admirable effort to provide readers with the historical context of her research by examining how major events, such as the Napoleonic War, impacted those trends. She consistently offers clear and succinct explanations that inform those who lack an understanding of military definitions or historical statistics, without boring those who might already be familiar with the information. In doing so, Cavell widens the appeal of her work and makes it suitable as an introduction to midshipmen and quarterdeck boys, as well as a more detailed look at the Royal Navy’s junior officers and recruitment statistics during this period.

    In addition to explaining the complexities of military terminology and recruitment trends, the author also establishes the factual basis for her conclusions with numerous citations and an extensive bibliography. While analyzing the varying social backgrounds of midshipmen and the recruitment process during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cavell

    references several primary sources such as ships’ rosters and wage listings. These documents are then condensed and incorporated in the book’s appendix as graphs or charts. The decision to present this information to the reader is not only considerate, but also a practical way to strengthen the author’s arguments by clearly displaying the research that she conducted.

    Although thorough details and evidentiary support are certainly positive attributes of this text, sections of Cavell’s work might come across as dry or tedious to some readers due to the large amount of statistical analysis. However, Cavell is able to balance her factual explanations with personal insights from various midshipmen and quarterdeck boys. The author includes brief excerpts from the personal correspondence of young men who entered the ranks of the Royal Navy’s junior officers, which enables Cavell to humanize the midshipman and quarterdeck boys instead of reducing them to mere statistics. In the end, the author accomplishes the task of educating readers about the social backgrounds and recruitment statistics of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys from 1771 to 1831, while still offering her audience a compelling look at some of the individuals who filled those positions. 

    • Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, x + 245 pages
    • Illustrations, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $99.00
    • ISBN: 9781843837190

    Reviewed by Ashley Goethe, University of West Florida

  • August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

    On The Account: Piracy and the Americas, 1766-1835

    Joseph Gibbs

    Piracy has long been a topic of great interest to both scholars and the general public. Thanks in no small part to popular culture and a recent renaissance of the swashbuckling genre in literature and film, people often mistake piracy as a romantic and even heroic undertaking, forgetting the often cruel and bloody nature of real pirates. Joseph Gibbs’ On the Account: Piracy in the Americas, 1766-1835 reminds readers that pirates were criminals, driven by no more honorable motives than money and mayhem. Gibbs, like other maritime historians, seeks to dispel the myths that have arisen over centuries of embellished accounts of piratical acts. He does this by presenting primary sources, drawn from court transcripts, first-hand accounts of battles with pirates, and surviving victims of piracy. These sources are free from long periods of storytelling, thereby eliminating the gradual degeneration of the facts.

    Two aspects of this book immediately stand out that set it apart from other scholarship pertaining to piracy. First, Gibbs does not provide much in the way of analysis, allowing the information to come from the sources themselves. Thus, there is little that sheds new light on pirates or their actions. Indeed, in his introduction, Gibbs does not claim to offer analytical scholarship, stating that his primary aim is to present original evidence to modern readers. He has, on the other hand, guided readers through the documents with helpful footnotes that explain some of the references of the past that might otherwise not be clear. In fact, the footnotes provided in the text are the greatest strength of the book, presented in such a way that will certainly ease the research process for the academic or simply make the documents less confusing for the general reader.

    The other characteristic that makes Gibbs’ book different from others is that readers will not find material pertaining to the most famous names in piracy. As the title of the book suggests, the primary source documents come from the latter years of the Age of Sail, from 1766 to 1835, and not from piracy’s Golden Age of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Aside from the fact that few of the pirates mentioned in the book are well-known to readers, few of them are readily identified as pirates in the classic definition. The majority of the sources deal with mutineers and privateers (including Jean Laffite, arguably the most famous of the characters identified in the book). While mutiny was a criminal act, it did not always lead to piracy, and privateering, while essentially piratical, was legal. Even the Barbary Pirates, to whom one chapter is dedicated, were agents of the North African nations out of which they operated. Nevertheless, Gibbs’ decision to focus on these other forms of piracy does not take away from the value of the book, and it is to his credit that he chooses to break out of the comfortable realm of popular history.

    If the book has a weakness, it is Gibbs’ decision to edit the documents, altering some of the original texts in the interest of clarity. For instance, he replaced the archaic “long s” (ſ) with a standard lowercase “s.” Another example is the word “goal,” which Gibbs changed to “g[ao]l” in order for readers to recognize the old spelling for “jail.” In some cases, such changes disrupt the flow of the text and are largely unnecessary, but they are not enough to diminish the quality of the work.

    Overall, this book is quite engaging. It presents evidence of piracy in an age where other topics have long taken precedence, and it does so without resorting to exaggeration. On the Account is a must-read for anyone desiring a complete understanding of piracy in the Americas during the Age of Sail. 

    • Eastbourne; Portland, Oregon; and Vaughan, Ontario: Sussex Academic Press, 2012
    • 6-3/4” x 9-3/4”, softcover, xii + 249 pages. $49.95
    • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. 
    • ISBN: 9781845194765
    • Distributed in the United States by International Specialized Book Services, Portland, Oregon

    Reviewed by James R. Wils, Winterville, North Carolina

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The Nautical Research Guild regularly publishes reviews of books about naval/maritime history and ship modeling.  Each issue of the Nautical Research Journal includes several book reviews, but there are often more book reviews than the Journal can accommodate. 

The listing below includes book reviews for each issue of the Journal starting with Volume 58.  You may browse the reviews by the issue of the Journal, by book title, or by author.

Book reviews marked 'Journal Only' (and are not clickable) are found in the pages of the listed issue of the Nautical Research Journal.


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