Archives For Book Reviews

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

frozen-in-time

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.

A Very Strange Way to go to War

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the triumphant return of the SS Canberra to Southampton upon the successful conclusion of the Falklands War. In his new book, A Very Strange Way to Go to War, author Andrew Vine replays for the reader the high drama of the sailing of the Canberra, a modern day cruise ship, into the very teeth of enemy action. Readers are walked through the early days of the P&O liner Canberra and her transition from ocean liner to cruise ship and her convergence with the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy as the Falklands were invaded.

Vine strings together a fascinating tale of the preparations aboard the Canberra for her use as a troop ship for Royal Army Paras as well as Royal Marines and subsequent sailing into the combat zone surrounding the Falklands. Among the strengths of Vine’s writing are his ability to paint a broad picture of the Falklands conflict for readers who may be unfamiliar with its details 31 years on while still integrating micro-level social history from interviews with participants in the action. Vine’s writing makes for very interesting reading, and while the book might have benefitted from being fifty pages shorter, A Very Strange Way to Go to War remains an excellent book both for those looking for a unique history of the Falklands War or maritime history.

japanese submarines

Operation Storm by John J. Geoghegan relates the obscure story of Japan’s last ditch effort to launch an attack on American soil in the closing days of World War II. Geoghegan, the executive director of The SILOE Research Institute’s Archival Division, devotes much of his writing to white elephant technology and thus his choice of subject matter is quite apropos. Over the course of ~400 pages, Geoghegan introduces the reader to the Japanese naval officers and designers who helped craft a Hail Mary strategy of launching an airstrike on the Panama Canal from the largest submarines of the war. Each submarine was designed as an underwater aircraft carrier to carry two or three specially developed strike aircraft and the path of their development makes for incredible reading.

Geoghegan also tells the backstory of the USS Segundo (a sub that often operated in conjunction with USS Razorback) which captured one of the subs in the uneasy days following the capitulation of Japan. Relying on extensive archival research as well as interviews with survivors of the Japanese program, Geoghegan provides readers with a highly readable account of this overlooked aspect of World War II history. In addition to the strength of his research, Geoghegan integrates the story into the continued development of America’s submarine program in the years following World War II. Finally, readers are brought full circle to the present day via two modern points of reference. First, one of the subs (I-401) was re-discovered in 2005 off the coast of Hawaii where it had been used for torpedo practice by the US Navy after the war. Second, the Smithsonian Institution displays the only surviving example of the subs’ Seiran attack planes at its spectacular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia near Dulles Airport. Operation Storm is highly recommended for anyone interested in obscure technology, warfare or a non-traditional history of World War II.

USS Samuel B. RobertsIn his latest book, For Crew and Country, historian John Wukovits recounts the incredible story of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts and her rendezvous with destiny in the Philippines at the Battle of Samar. Building off James Hornfischer’s excellent The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors which recounted the larger tale of the Battle of Samar, Wukovits focuses exclusively on the Roberts, her crew, construction, shake-down and foray into the Pacific theater. Divided into four parts, the book deals first with the molding of both the vessel and her crew, then moves on to early cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific, segues into the Battle of Samar and concludes with the aftermath of the battle.

While the back story is intriguing and important to subsequent events, For Crew and Country shines brightest in Wukovits narration of the Battle of Samar. Wukovits expended hours conducting interviews and poring over first-hand accounts and correspondence between crew and family members to piece together a gripping minute by minute account of the battle. Wukovits’ narrative technique is so effective that as readers burn through the book’s pages, they can smell the sulfur of battle, hear the ringing echo of the Roberts’ five inch guns pounding away at Japanese warships and taste the sea spray that douses the crew with each near-miss from Japanese salvos.

Although some readers may find Wukovits usage of vernacular history a bit tedious and slow, especially in the telling of the backstory prior to the battle, the technique is fascinating when applied to the battle itself. Unlike some texts which focus on big events and big actors, For Crew and Country eschews this approach to present readers with a moving narration of what a World War II naval battle was like for the common sailor. In sum, For Crew and Country is an excellent read and Wukovits has done much to honor the memory of the brave and intrepid crew of the Roberts.

battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.

war of 1812

In Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Dr. Ronald D. Utt has produced a magnificent 500 page tome that provides readers with a well-researched and highly readable account of the War of 1812 at sea. As Utt masterfully argues, the United States Navy truly came into its own during the War of 1812, a conflict that is undergoing a renaissance in the pop history circle as the bicentennial of the war began in 2012.

Although the US Navy fought several notable battles during the American Revolution, including John Paul Jones’ famous duel with HMS Serapis, these were primarily performed with foreign crews and former merchant vessels adapted for naval service. The War of 1812 was the first time that the fledgling US Navy faced a first world power in a declared war and its spectacular results allowed the Navy to create epic lore and traditions in only three years.

Utt skillfully guides the reader from the opening salvos of the war through the US Navy’s early single-ship victories over the vaunted Royal Navy to the two squadron level clashes on the Great Lakes, privateer derring-do against the British merchant marine, and the later and lesser known naval actions of the war. Readers will be unable to put down the book at certain points, especially when reading the chapters concerning privateering and some of the lesser known single-ship voyages against British merchant and warships. The heroic and honorable actions of officers and sailors from both sides will keep readers captivated with tales of a breed of gentlemen warriors whose time has long since passed.

Among the many strengths of Utt’s work is his organization of the book into chapters that take the reader from events at sea to land and then back to sea. In most cases, Utt keeps his narration of the land war to only a few pages in order to give readers an idea of how the sea war affected the land war and vice versa. At times the land war descriptions can grow a bit tedious as Utt jumps between the numerous Indian tribes, Americans, Brits, and Canadians who intermingled in the land conflict. For readers concerned more with the war at sea, the land warfare chapters are sometimes roadbumps in the greater storyline. This minor weakness, though, does not overshadow the overall excellence of Utt’s book.

Another strength is Utt’s strong documentation and endnotes – he has clearly worked to craft a book that is both historically accurate and accessible to the everyday reader. Overall, in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Utt has created a fantastic piece that opens the naval battles of the War of 1812 to a wider audience.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

Roald AmundsenIn his latest book, The Last Viking, author Stephen Bown documents the epic life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is best known for winning a dramatic race to the South Pole and becoming the first human to reach the bottom of the world. Bown presents readers with a modern retelling of Amundsen’s life and stunning achievements. Amundsen was not only the first to journey to the South Pole, he also was the first to reach the North Pole and to sail the Northwest Passage.

Divided into five parts, The Last Viking chronicles each of Amundsen’s polar explorations including his last ill-fated voyage to rescue the stranded crew of an Italian airship in the Arctic. Bown, though, resists the urge to focus solely on Amundsen’s explorations and presents readers with a portrait of a confident leader whose drive and attention to detail helped him become one of the most successful explorers of the 20th century.

Utilizing contemporary newspaper accounts and previously untapped archival materials, Bown describes in detail Amundsen’s voyages, personal financial problems and character flaws. The reader also learns of the behind the scenes struggles Amundsen endured with duplicitous agents, rival explorers driven by nationalism, and the cataclysm of World War I which hampered one of his voyages.

Each section of the book opens with a map of the region corresponding to the exploits Bown documents in that section. This is especially helpful to understand the vast distances Amundsen covered either by ship, sled, skis, airship or plane.

In a world where little is left to explore, Bown transports his readers to a time when great men battled nature to explore the earth’s last remaining terra incognita. As the winter months approach, readers would be well served to buy The Last Viking and curl up in front of a roaring fire to enjoy Bown’s gripping account of Amundsen’s epic polar adventures.

clipper shipWhen America First Met China provides readers with a fast paced and highly readable account of America’s first commercial encounters with China. Author Eric Jay Dolin traces the origins of America’s trade with China in the years following the end of the American Revolution through the tumultuous period of the Opium Wars and concludes with the role of Chinese laborers in tying the nation together with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Throughout the book, Dolin introduces the various American, British and Chinese personalities who made the early China trade one of the most colorful periods in maritime history. Men such as Robert Morris, Samuel Shaw, Dr. Peter Parker (no relation to Spiderman), Amasa Delano (a distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Charles Elliot, Lin Zexu, and Howqua all come to life through Dolin’s writing. Many of the men, while not household names today, made lasting contributions to American trade, prestige and foreign relations. For instance, a gift from one of the personalities involved in the early China trade, Stephen Girard, helped establish Girard College in Philadelphia – a school for white male orphans which has since become a full scholarship grade 1 – 12 school for children of low-income single parent families.

Additionally, the products involved in the China trade – tea, fur, silk, opium, sandalwood and beche-de-mer are all described in detail. The reader is given a thorough understanding of the economics and production techniques of each commodity without being driven to boredom. Having previously written about both whaling and the fur trade, Dolin is experienced in describing the details of 19th century industries.

Overall, Dolin does an excellent job of detailing the origins of America’s commercial trade with China and its ebb and flow through the post-Civil War Reconstruction years. The numerous illustrations of period engravings, sketches and paintings help the reader better grasp the locations, ships and products involved in the China trade. When America First Met China is accessible to readers with any level of knowledge about maritime or Chinese history and is worth the read.