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  • June 04, 2021 11:18 AM | David Eddy

    Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807-1867

    Anthony Sullivan

    While many people may understand what the slave trade was, very few understand the overwhelming task and steps that nations, specifically Great Britain, took to stop the trade along the African Coast. Anthony Sullivan's book provides an in-depth look at Britain's West Africa Squadron and its fight against the trafficking of human cargo over sixty years that is meant for any audience.

    Sullivan describes events spanning from the fight in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade in 1807 until the end of the squadron's operations in 1867. At that point the squadron, had detained 1,600 vessels, freeing an estimated 160,000 Africans from slavery. Sullivan's narrative is structured chronologically, with each chapter discussing different impacts that the squadron and the British government had during the years covered by the specific chapter. Topics covered in the book include international treaties, the squadron's operations along the coast, and the methods used to stop the slave ships in the open waters. For instance, chapter ten describes the treaty signed between the British and the Spanish in August 1835. The Spanish Equipment Clause gave the squadron the right to stop and search vessels flying the Spanish flag to see if they were equipped for slaving.

    While Sullivan covers every year of the squadron's participation off Africa's coast, his greatest weakness is that his writing seems rushed when talking about their operations compared to diplomatic resolutions between countries. Instead of going into detail about events, he simply mentions one and moves to the next. When describing the vessel Daring and its capture of the Spanish brig Centinella on June 30, 1812, in chapter two, Sullivan states that the brig was captured and then talks about how Daring captured another vessel a week later.

    Sullivan provides the reader with maps of the different areas where the squadron patrolled and first-class drawings of the vessels that the squadron and their allies used. These images allow the reader to have a better visual idea of the territories and boats Sullivan describes. However, Sullivan's most significant contribution to the reader is his glossary. His glossary defines naval words such as quarterdeck and pinnace, making the book easy to understand and enjoyable to read whether you are a novice or an expert in marine vessels. Sullivan supports his writing with an abundance of primary sources ranging from captains’ logbooks found in the British National Archives to the countless newspapers he used from the British Newspaper archives.

    Sullivan's book is very direct and organized chronologically, and it serves as a great reference point for anyone interested in studying a specific vessel within the squadron. In his two-separate appendices, Sullivan has a timeline of important events that he mentions in his book and the commanders-in-chiefs appointed to the squadron throughout the years. Sullivan's work provides an answer to a hole in the historiography of Britain's operations against the slave trade along the African coast. From scholars to your everyday reader, Sullivan's work is a great launching point in understanding the daunting task that the British's Africa Squadron faced for sixty years as they tried to end the African slave trade.

    • Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2020
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xxv + 372 pages
    • Illustrations, maps, glossary, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
    • ISBN: 9781526717931

    Reviewed by Charles Cox, University of West Florida

  • June 04, 2021 11:16 AM | David Eddy

    Captain Cook and the Search for Antarctica

    James C. Hamilton

    While the history of James Cook’s voyages and his accomplishments is well known to anyone interested in British maritime history, Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica by James Hamilton offers an in-depth focused look at the less researched subject of Cook’s travels, the search for the last unknown continent. Since antiquity, it was believed that a land in the south must exist to counterbalance the land in the north. Maps dating back to the Middle Ages frequently depict the legendary land Terra Australis Incognita, the “Unknown Southern Land.” Antarctica, as we call the land today, remained intangible and elusive to many explorers until the nineteenth century.

    Hamilton’s book explores the unofficial purpose of James Cook’s voyages: the search for the Southern Continent. While the British Admiralty maintained that the official purpose of Cook’s first voyage was scientific, to observe and record the transit of Venus, the voyage had a secret mission. The mission was revealed to Cook in a set of sealed letters after he fulfilled the official astronomical task. Cook was instructed to find the location of Antarctica, and if possible, claim the new land for England. An analysis of Cook’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic navigation in the Southern Ocean is the main focus of Hamilton’s book.

    Hamilton, a retired scholar of British history, begins his narrative with a brief summary of Cook’s life and his three legendary voyages undertaken in the years 1768-1779. He also offers a concise overview of prior attempts to locate Antarctica by Cook’s contemporaries. Using Cook’s journals and master’s log books, Hamilton moves on to analyzing Cook’s excellent seamanship and knowledge of ocean navigation. Hamilton stresses Cook’s remarkable competency as a captain and his unmatched bravery to venture more south than any man before him. Cook was able to sail as far south as 60 degrees south latitude on his first voyage. Even though he did not locate Antarctica then, the journey in the southern latitudes served as a “narrowing of options,” eliminating a large chunk of the Pacific Ocean from his future searching trajectories.

    Hamilton frequently emphasizes Cook’s accomplishments, not only as a skilled seaman but also as a scientist. He underlines Cook’s astonishing ability as a surveyor and a cartographer, as well as his observations of sailors’ nutrition and mental health. During Cook’s second voyage, where once again he was instructed by the Admiralty to search for the Southern Continent, Cook was able to cross the Antarctic circle three times. He reached 71 degrees south latitude, discovering and surveying South Georgia Island and South Sandwich Islands in the process. Even though Cook did not get to see Antarctica, only its ice barrier, he concluded that if the Southern Continent existed it would be covered by ice, uninhabitable, and of no commercial value to England. Ultimately, Cook’s voyages changed the understanding and maps of the Southern Continent and laid ground for future discovery.

    Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica is well researched and Hamilton’s exceptional historical investigation is noteworthy. Hamilton provides the readers with extensive excerpts from Cook’s and his scientist companions’ journals as well as from officers’ master log books. While these thorough accounts inspire the imagination and allow readers to perceive the journey and the search for the most elusive continent, the book is an academic read. I would recommend this book to scholars of maritime history and anyone who is interested in factual details of eighteenth-century seafaring.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiii + 303 pages
    • Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $42.95
    • ISBN: 9781526753571

    Reviewed by Ewa Silver East Carolina University

  • June 04, 2021 11:12 AM | David Eddy

    Britain and the Ocean Road: Shipwrecks & People 1297-1825

    Ian Friel

    The word shipwreck brings to mind horrific events and harrowing rescues. For most, they are rarely sources of information about the social, political, economic, and cultural forces from whence they came. Dr. Ian Friel, in Britain and the Ocean Road, takes the stories of the wrecking events of shipwrecks to explore the social, political, economic and cultural forces at work in Britain between 1297 and 1825. The wrecks featured in this work are neither extraordinary nor filled with treasure, but representative of important trends in Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy. Friel, a renowned maritime historian, uses his collections and research experience to weave a tale to Britain’s maritime supremacy in his first volume, Britain and the Ocean Road.

    Friel begins focusing on the beginnings of Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy in the Middle Ages with the twenty-three vessels burned in 1297 as a part of an internal conflict between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports over maritime trade and fishing rights. Moving forward in time, the cog Anne and other pilgrimage vessels of the fifteenth century represent Britain’s first major foray outside of the immediate area of the British Isles. This expansionist effort continues through the next two chapters discussing the birth of the British Royal Navy, represented by Regent, and the birth of the East India Company with Trade’s Increase.

    The second part of the work focuses on the solidification of Britain’s maritime supremacy and its global expansion. A portion of the second part of the work deals with the Royal Navy’s prowess. Using the stories of the three pirate vessels Resolution and of the wars with France through Berwick, Friel shows the solidification of Britain’s control and tactical prowess both against marauders and national navies. The last two chapters focuses on the economic capabilities of Britain’s oceanic prowess—slavery and exploration. Discussing Eliza and Fury, Friel indicates the economic necessity for controlling the seas and emphasizing the success Britain attained in having such dominance.

    Dr. Friel weaves an intricate web of archaeological, historical documents, and material culture evidence to tell the tale of Britain’s rise to a maritime power. The multitude of sources allows Friel to place the various wrecks within the larger historical contexts of the time period discussed in each chapter. This approach reaches all audience through the excitement of a shipwreck and allows Friel to explore Britain, its people, and their relationship with the sea. Friel also discusses in depth through the available sources the technological advances that allowed Britain to attain sea dominance, which features into the lives of the British people during each time period.

    Britain and the Ocean Road eloquently discusses the rise and solidification of Britain’s maritime supremacy from 1297 through 1825. Friel’s extensive research and accessible writing style makes this work relevant for the general public and researchers as a source for understanding Britain’s extensive maritime history with a unique approach of using shipwrecks as the starting point of the conversation.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 204 pages
    • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
    • ISBN: 9781526738363

    Reviewed by Allyson Ropp, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology

  • February 23, 2021 8:53 AM | David Eddy

    Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service, 1800-1815

    Mark Jessop

    In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Britain’s Royal Navy achieved an apogee of effectiveness rarely achieved by any national military. It mastered the technology of its tools, the sailing warship and smoothbore artillery which was two centuries old by that point. It also mastered the soft skills—administrative, logistical, and operational - needed for the best use of its hardware. It had mastered both in a manner that left most of its rivals far behind. This created a fascination with Britain’s senior service of that era which endures to this day.

    The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service 1800-1815, by Mark Jessop, is a product of that fascination. In it Jessop examines the Royal Navy at its apogee.

    The book looks at the period from 1800 to 1815. It starts with the end of the French Wars of Revolution which ran from 1793 through the Peace of Amiens in 1801. It ends with the Hundred Days campaign of 1815, covering the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812. The book opens with the Battle of Copenhagen and effectively ends with Napoleon boarding HMS Bellerophon in the aftermath of Waterloo.

    Jessop strove to immerse readers in the period. Much of the book is presented in fictionalized vignettes, describing major battles or important aspects of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800-1815. These frequently cover topics that are important, but often overlooked. Examples include a description of the Battle of Trafalgar related by three petty officers to the sister of a deceased comrade, dockyard workers’ view of their work, and a diary account of an encounter with an early steamboat.

    Jessop does an outstanding job of using period sources for this book. A good third of his sources are contemporaneous with the period, and significant fraction of the remainder represents postwar accounts by those who lived through the period. The rest date primarily from the late nineteenth century, a period in which naval history could charitably called more romantic than necessarily accurate.

    Additionally, the bibliography lacks late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century sources (such as the work of N. A. M. Rogers or his students, such as J. Ross Dancy) which reexamined primary sources and corrected the misconceptions created by late nineteenth century historians. The result is a skewed view of the Royal Navy, one which exaggerates its ills and focuses on the romance of the sailing era.

    Jessop’s coverage is too cursory for those familiar with the period to benefit from it. Similarly model makers or wargamers will find too little detail in The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age for their interests, but might read it for color.

    However, The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age serves as a good introduction to the period for readers unfamiliar with the period. Jessop covers the key aspects of naval history during the period, introducing technical aspects in in a manner accessible to those unfamiliar with them. For those bored by academic histories, this book will be engaging.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 180 pages
    • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9781526720375

    Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

  • February 23, 2021 8:52 AM | David Eddy

    Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard 1797

    Phil Carradice

    The French invasion of Wales in 1797 is one of the more curious events of the Wars of French Revolution. Almost a comic-opera, Clowes’s multi-volume Royal Navy history dismisses it with a single paragraph. The British victory is sometimes attributed to the French mistaking Welsh women wearing traditional red shawls and tall black hats for British Grenadiers.

    Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard, 1797, by Phil Carradice offers a fascinating and detailed look at this curious invasion, the last time a hostile army landed on Britain’s home island.

    The invasion, part of a larger scheme to invade Ireland, was one of two planned diversion invasions intended to distract attention from a French invasion of Ireland. Carradice discusses these, putting the Fishguard invasion in its historical context. Even before the Fishguard landing, the Irish invasion had fallen apart due to bad weather and ill planning. The other diversionary landing, planned for Newcastle on the North Sea coast never went beyond French-occupied Netherlands before its cancelation.

    The Fishguard attempt should also have been cancelled, It was a no-hope affair. Carradice reveals the 1500 soldiers were largely conscripted from French prisons, dressed in captured British uniforms dyed black, and armed only upon landing. Its officers were mostly foreigners drawn to France by the Revolution, but since disillusioned by its excesses.

    Carradice does a marvelous job of piecing together events following the landing. He follows the actions of the Legion Noire (named for their badly-dyed black coats) and the local Welsh militia. The forces on both sides were rag-tag. The British had a combination of fencibles, militia, and locals willing to take up arms against the invaders—all part-time soldiers. The French were more interested in stealing food and drink than fighting—much less marching to their intended final destination, Liverpool.

    Due to the obscurity of the topic, Carradice occasionally speculates. Speculations are clearly labeled, and seem well grounded in what facts actually exist. It would be fairer to call them extrapolations. They are not guesses.

    He also clears away myths associated with the invasion especially that of the French surrendering because they mistook Welsh women for Grenadiers. A good story, but as Carradice reveals, it was just a story. The French decided on surrender the night before they surrendered, and the women with their red shawls and black hats were first seen the following morning.

    The book is meticulously researched. Carradice draws on a surprisingly large volume of primary sources, including the Cawdor Papers, and documents from the Carmarthen Record Office, Pembrokeshire Record Office and British Public Records Office at Kew. His bibliography includes a dozen previously-published books on the campaign, some dating to the early nineteenth century.

    The book is primarily for those interested the history of the French Revolutionary Wars. Model-makers will find nothing useful in it. Wargamers may find it contains enough information for a miniatures campaign on the subject. Britain’s Last Invasion is a delightful read, offering a detailed and entertaining account of an obscure and curious invasion.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiv + 217 pages
    • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9781526743268

    Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

  • February 23, 2021 8:50 AM | David Eddy

    Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

    Benjamin Armstrong

    Cutting-out, amphibious raiding, and irregular warfare are firmly cemented in American naval strategy today, and many of the most famous exploits of the modern United States Navy and Marine Corps involve these irregular tactics. The tradition of maritime raiding and irregular warfare is not rooted in twentieth or twenty-first century developments but has its origins in the fledgling American Navy and Marine Corps of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Between the American Revolution and the 1830s, American naval forces experimented with and mastered irregular tactics that allowed their forces to become unpredictable and effectual combat units. In his necessary and insightful work, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, Benjamin Armstrong illustrates that United States irregular maritime tactics originated in the first decades of the nation’s existence, and that they played an instrumental role in both military and diplomatic relations that shaped the course of the young country. Armstrong’s book is a valuable examination of irregular tactics that are often overshadowed by studies of traditional tactics in United States naval history, but which were instrumental in the nation’s naval development.

    Drawing on excellent research compiled from primary sources across the globe, including British, Canadian, and American archives, Armstrong has crafted a work which traces the daring raids of American sailors, marines, and citizens between 1775 and 1840. Armstrong examines “guerre de razzia,” or war by raiding, in a series of case studies of irregular naval actions during the American Revolutionary War, Quasi War, Tripolitan and Barbary Wars, War of 1812, and Sumatran counter-piracy actions of the 1830s (p. 5). By tracing the actions of famous raiders like John Paul Jones and lesser known officers like Stephen Decatur who were equally adept at irregular maritime warfare, Armstrong proves that guerre de razzia deserves to be counted amongst larger fleet actions as a deeply ingrained portion of United States naval strategy.

    Armstrong expertly uses case studies to illustrate that technological advancement, civilian-military coordination, and diplomacy were all key elements of early American raiding. His background as a special forces officer gives added insight to his understanding of irregular warfare. He additionally contextualizes his work adequately within existing American naval historiography. Despite a tendency to linger on the minutiae of command structure and diplomatic relations surrounding military actions, Armstrong otherwise uses exciting prose to describe naval raids. The largest shortcoming of Armstrong’s work is that he does little to emphasize that irregular warfare arose out of necessity due to material and manpower shortages within American navies that fought against maritime giants like France and Great Britain, and though it became tradition, it arose from want of proper fleet resources. Despite these minor oversights, Armstrong presents a fine work that is a valuable addition to American naval historiography and which accomplishes his goal of proving that irregular warfare was, and is, a key element of American naval tradition, strategy, and tactics. This work is a valuable addition to the libraries of all those that study the United States Navy or irregular warfare.

    • Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 264 pages
    • Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95
    • ISBN: 9780806162829

    Reviewed by Andrew Turner, East Carolina University

  • February 23, 2021 8:48 AM | David Eddy

    Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea

    Antony Adler

    In studying the history of oceanography, humanity’s fears and fantasies about the future are not always aspects of the topic which readily come to mind. The development of marine science as a field and the ways that it has affected conceptions about the future is explained nicely by Antony Adler, currently a research associate in the history department at Carleton College, in Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea. Within this work, Adler established five different periods and topics of focus: an overview of early marine science, the development of European costal marine stations, aspirations for international collaboration, later developments within the field during the Cold War, and the ways that boundaries between field and laboratory are currently blurred in marine science. By arranging his book in this manner, Adler was able to expand neatly on each of the areas and give readers a solid overview of the history of marine science with a focus on the imagined futures, anticipations, and anxieties embedded within the field.

    In Neptune’s Laboratory, Adler presented each chapter remarkably well. In the first section, Adler focused heavily on the history of marine science and the way that it developed as a field, including the development of some standard procedures. This history acted as an important foundation to understand the later segments, and the reasons that developments and legal issues arose within marine science. In focusing each of the chapters on the themes of fantasy and fear, Adler’s work created a relatively comprehensive look at the ways in which individual aspirations and societal viewpoints regarding marine science changed from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the present day.

    Along with containing a solid history of marine science’s development along a set theme, Neptune’s Laboratory also has the added benefit of being written in both a scholarly yet accessible manner. Adler’s sources were extensive and clearly referenced throughout the work so that points of interest have the potential to be researched further by interested readers. The book is also accessible to readers who have no previous experience on the subject, due in part to the goal Adler set for his book. Adler explained the development of the themes of anxieties and anticipations throughout the history of marine science, and did not solely provide the technical and legal features of the field.

    Overall, Neptune’s Laboratory contributes nicely to the study of marine science, as it covers a wide range of topics in the broad history of the field, all connected under a unifying theme. Alder’s use of accessible and scholarly language makes it both an excellent starting place and a beneficial addition to current scholarship. Adler’s division of information provided a clear organization of content in a cohesive manner, each portion of which had an important role within the work. These features all worked together to nicely support Adler’s main goal of demonstrating the ways that fantasy and fear fit into scientific research on maritime topics and the ways that humanity’s and individuals’ perceptions of the future have helped to lead to important developments in marine science.

    • New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 241 pages
    • Illustrations, notes, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9780674972018

    Reviewed by Bethany Earley, East Carolina University

  • November 20, 2020 12:32 PM | David Eddy

    Heroes of Coastal Command: The RAF’s Maritime War 1939-1945

    Andrew D. Bird

    Andrew Bird’s latest work, Heroes of Coastal Command: The RAF’s Maritime War 1939-1945, is an excellent collection of historical narratives from members of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command during World War II. Coastal Command’s primary task was the defense of British military interests on the ocean, such as providing protection for the Allied convoys. Bird joined the Army Reserves at the young age of 18, and later the Royal Air Force Reserves. He has presented, written, and acted as a consultant on historical documentaries, and became a member of the Society of Authors in 2003. The book follows the personal stories of different pilots and officers of the Coastal Command. Overall, the book contains nine chapters, with a centralized emphasis on the bravery of these men but does not form a single argument.

    Bird portrays service members such as Commander Jack Davenport, the only pilot of the Royal Australian Air Force to be awarded the George Medal for his heroic rescue of a pilot trapped in a burning aircraft. Another is that of Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg, a New Zealand recipient of the Victoria Cross. Trigg’s B-24 Liberator pressed an attack on the German U-468, despite the damage to his aircraft. After dropping its depth charges on the U-boat, the Liberator crashed into the sea with no survivors. Trigg’s Victoria Cross is the only one awarded based strictly on the testimony given by an enemy combatant. Still another story is of Lieutenant Alfred ‘Ken’ Gatward and Sergeant Gilbert ‘George’ Fern. Together, the pair flew a Beaufighter from Thorney Island, east of Portsmouth, England, to Paris. Their mission was to air drop a large French flag over the Arc de Triomphe. They were also to strafe the Ministère de la Marine, and upon flying over it after a successful attack, drop a second French flag before they turned back to England. This was an attempt to boost the morale of the subjugated citizens of Paris. These are just a few examples of the extraordinary actions taken by the men and women of the Royal Air Force described in this book.

    Bird is meticulous with his facts. The book is filled with dialogue and small details that are well collected and researched. However, the chapters can be difficult for the casual reader to follow. Names, places, ranks, and abbreviations were heavily referenced, often with little to no context, making this work less comprehensible to those unfamiliar with history, the Royal Air Force, or British geography. The author is superfluous with details, which causes the overall flow of the historical narrative to be cumbersome. With the limited page count of the book, the author’s inefficient economy of words proves especially detracting.

    The critiques should not amount to a denunciation; quite the contrary. The author’s excellent sources include military documents, unpublished memoirs, private diaries, newspapers, and archival sources. However, the book is not making a historical argument; it is simply communicating a story. Thus, Bird wrote a thoroughly informative narrative of the brave heroes of Coast Command.

    • Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 277 pages
    • Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95
    • ISBN: 9781526710697

    Reviewed by Tyler David Mclellan, East Carolina University

  • November 20, 2020 12:31 PM | David Eddy

    Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The true Story of `Food at Sea in the Georgian Era

    Janet Macdonald

    It is good to see that this fine book has been reissued and is again available. The subject is far more interesting than its bare title suggests, and the author Janet Macdonald writes in an engaging and very readable style.

    As she points out, the ‘horror story’ of ships’ crews subsisting usually and continually on just rotten meat and weevilly biscuits cannot have been the accepted norm in the navies of old; a ship’s equipment and its armament were worked exclusively by muscle-power, for which regular intakes of calories for energy were needed as well as physical health. In the navy, food was at least plentiful, nourishing and served regularly, more so than could be said for that available to many categories of workers ashore. The whole story of what the foods were, how they were supplied, how the men and the officers ate, diet in health and sickness and how other navies than the British Royal Navy ate are covered in lively fashion. For any still intrigued to investigate further, an appendix of sea recipes for food and drink closes the book, from ship’s biscuit and salt beef through sea pie and lobscouse to rum punch.

    An immense amount of research has gone into this work and the result is an account that is both entertaining and very informative to all who have an interest in the ships and seafaring of past eras.

    • London: Frontline Books, 2020
    • 6” x 9”, softcover, 224 pages
    • Illustrations, bibliography, index. $24.95
    • ISBN: 9781848327474

    Reviewed by Roger Marsh, Killaloe, Co. Clare, Ireland

  • November 20, 2020 12:27 PM | David Eddy

    Undersea Warriors: The Untold History of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service

    Iain Ballantyne

    Most of the Cold War was not fought on terrestrial battlefields between traditional military units. Instead, the decades long conflict was predominantly conducted covertly via highly specialized and technologically advanced forces designed to track, spy, and, if necessary, destroy enemy targets. Arguably, the most advanced and secretive technology deployed during this period was the submarine. In Undersea Warriors: The Untold Story of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service, author Iain Ballantyne unveils a comprehensive narrative that details the development and utilization of the submarine and submarine forces by Britain over the course of the twentieth century and into the present. The work is particularly focused on the Cold War period that witnessed the most intense submarine developments and actions as both East and West consistently attempted to maintain an edge on the other in the struggle for global supremacy.

    Although not a traditional historian, Ballantyne has spent decades as a journalist and author writing about military affairs, particularly those of the Royal Navy. He has personally spent time embedded as a journalist on most types of naval vessels, providing intimate firsthand knowledge that highly informs his work. Ballantyne does his due diligence with the primary and secondary literature, especially in technical matters, but his writing shines the brightest when he describes the drama of high intensity underwater operations. Through personal interviews and access to the journals and diaries of several key figures, Ballantyne ably places the reader directly in the control room during some of the most perilous missions and events, many only recently declassified, experienced by British naval submariners. Most of the narrative focuses directly on these figures; men such as Tim Hale, Rob Forsyth, Doug Littlejohns, and Dan Conley, whose stories traverse the history of British submarine forces from the early days of clunky diesel-powered vessels to the height of advanced nuclear submarine technology. Ballantyne interweaves their personal biographies into a tapestry that highlights not just the larger history of British submarine forces, but the intimate experiences of the commanders and crews of the vessels that daily braved life and limb to fulfill their duties.

    Undersea Warriors does suffer, however, from a writing style that strikes an uncomfortable balance between history and journalism. Ballantyne’s writing often feels disjointed as he jumps clumsily between traditional historical narrative, which is not his strength, and his more vibrant accounts of the personal experiences of his chosen protagonists. Furthermore, while his firsthand knowledge of naval operations provides excellent detail, Ballantyne often seems to assume the reader knows as much as he and utilizes naval jargon and technical language without always providing full context and explanation.

    Despite such issues, Undersea Warriors succeeds in documenting the importance and drama of submarine warfare during the Cold War era. It maintains a comprehensive scope while simultaneously reveling in intimate detail. It should stand as an important reference point for naval scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike for years to come.

    • New York: Pegasus Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xiii + 482 pages
    • Photographs, map, glossary, bibliography, index. $35.00
    • ISBN: 9781643132136

    Reviewed by Eric Walls, East Carolina University

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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