How to Lose a War at Sea – Book Review
The fate of nations have risen or fallen in some of the great naval battles of history. Decisive engagements such as Midway and Jutland are firmly imprinted in the history books, along with the names of commanders like admirals Isoroku Yamamoto or George Dewey. But are military might and genius the only factors in winning a great victory at sea? Don’t the opposition’s lack of preparation, inferior strength, lack of training, poor logistics, or just plain bad luck play a role, too? The recently released How to Lose a War at Sea, edited by Bill Fawcett, examines great naval blunders from the Revolutionary War to late 20th century. Fawcett is the editor and author of other books on mistakes in history such as You Did What?, It Seemed Like a Good Idea, and How to Lose a Battle.
How to Lose a War at Sea includes 33 short, action-packed stories of how naval battles were won and lost, and gives readers insight into why certain battle decisions were made and why they led to the defeat of a ship or fleet. The battles explored include:
- Battle of Chesapeake
- The Philadelphia and First Barbary War
- Battle of Tsushima; Russo-Japanese War
- Nelson’s campaigns of The Nile and Trafalgar
- Naval Battle of Santiago
- Germany’s battlecruiser Goeben
- Battle of Taranto
- Battle of Cape Matapan between British and Italian navies
- The Kriegsmarine’s battleship Bismarck
- Battle of the Atlantic
- Battle of the Coral Sea
- The Marianas Turkey Shoot
- Battle of Leyte Gulf
- Operation Morvarid, Iran-Iraq War
These are just a few of the 33 conflicts examined in How to Lose a War at Sea.
Each chapter covers a single naval action. Though each chapter is short, readers learn the nuances of the battles that resulted in these notable naval blunders.
The chapter covering the Battle of the Coral Sea, for example, discusses the Japanese objectives concerning the invasion of Port Moresby and Tulagi, the presence of Japanese aircraft carriers, and how the Japanese goal was thwarted by the nearly equal presence of American carriers. Both forces put up a fierce fight but it was a major engagement in which ships never saw each other; the Battle of the Coral Sea was one of the first major engagements in which air power determined victory in battle in the open sea. The military blunders that occurred in this battle mainly fell on the Japanese, and they happened almost from the start of the battle. As the Japanese carriers and invasion fleet were moving to take Port Moresby, a small group of Japanese submarines were sent ahead of the fleet to scout for US ships. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the US fleet managed to slip by the submarines undetected. Next, both sides performed initial aircraft scouting. Within the first day of fighting, Japanese scouts spotted what they thought was a carrier with escort, which in fact were a fleet oiler and destroyer. Seventy-eight aircraft were launched to attack—only to discover over an hour later they were attacking the wrong targets. By the middle of the day the Japanese scouts spotted elements of the US fleet consisting of cruisers and destroyers. In response, the Japanese carriers changed course to intercept while planes from Rabaul were sent to attack the American fleet. The first day for the Japanese was filled with bad reports, a commitment of forces to the wrong targets, failed opportunities and an entire day with very little results.
Another chapter, “The Enigma that Wasn’t,” covers the Battle of the Atlantic when British military intelligence adopted the ULTRA system to decipher enemy communications, which helped reveal U-boat locations and movements. U-boats were attacking Allied convoys in the Atlantic with great success, becoming a major concern for the supply effort of World War 2. The book goes in to further discussion about Allied attempts to avoid the unavoidable U-boats such as zigzagging across the Atlantic, convoy tactics with destroyer protection, or all night scanning for torpedoes. Unfortunately, the Allies could not combat the coordination efforts of U-boats as they converged upon their convoys.
Despite being undetectable as submerged vessels, the U-boats used the German encryption machine known as Enigma to receive encrypted messages from command. The deciphering efforts of the German code system was not an overnight incident, and it was not a “Hollywood-eque” turning point. It took time for the Allies to understand the messages they could decipher, and it required trial and error of where to move convoys to avoid U-boats. The Kriegsmarine realized that their communications were no longer a secret to the Allies. In the following months of the war, the US Navy was able to lend more convoy support, were able to track U-boats that traversed near the coast, and conducted a campaign-like effort to track down U-boats. There was no “aha” moment with the destruction of U-boats in the Atlantic. It is hard to find in this chapter that there was one blunder or mistake the Germans made.
The book also covers some mid- to late 20th- century conflicts, such as Operation Morvarid between the small navies of Iran and Iraq in November 1980. This battle took place just two months after the start of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), and played a crucial role in the devastating loss of Iraqi naval units and the destruction of the Iraqi Mina-al-Bakr and Khor-al-Amaya oil rigs. The chapter covering this operation goes into detail of how the battle unfolded, and how even though it was a victory for Iran, the battle was nothing more than a slugfest of disjointed naval operations on both sides. The oil rigs were installed with radar to monitor Iranian aircraft, which led to this Iranian operation to destroy the rigs. The following day, two Iranian ships attacked Iraqi ports of Umm Qasr and Al Faw. Iraq’s response was an attack with torpedo boats, which then lead to Iran calling for air cover, however they had already lost one of ships to Iraqi fire. The Iranian aircraft that did arrive managed to sink a few of the Iraqi torpedo boats. The original Iranian task force of the operation, Task Force 421, required Iranian F-14 Tomcats and F-4s to withdraw from the area. What followed was more Iraqi fighter craft entering the fight with several being shot down. Overall, the fighting that occurred during Operation Morvarid cost the Iraqi navy nearly three quarters of its navy, which was not a big force compared to the Iranian naval forces, and they were lost almost entirely to reactionary decisions without any real foresight for victory in the battle.
Despite this book being a great on-the-go-read, the title and book description are slightly misleading. The publisher’s (HarperCollins Publishers) description of the book leads one to believe that readers will learn about specific “blunders”, “disasters,” and “mishaps.” As pointed out in the chapter The Battle that Wasn’t, it is difficult to find what the specific “blunder” or “disaster” was that lead to the Germans losing so many U-boats. The chapter, as with many chapters in the book, does a fine job of pointing out the details of a lost battle, but it makes no specific arguments as to what led to a disaster or what could have been done differently to avoid it. Arguments can be left up to the academics in another book, but How to Lose a War at Sea gives you the straight facts of sea battles while coming up short on analysis.
How to Lose a War at Sea should appeal to all readers who enjoy naval history. History buffs who regularly read detailed accounts of naval battles will enjoy this as a light read, while those just getting their sea legs wet will find it a good introduction to understanding the details of naval battles. While this is an enjoyable quick read, readers may wonder why some battles were omitted from the book. Conflicts that come to mind include Action in the Gulf of Sidra (1986) between United States and Libyan naval forces, the Falklands Crisis which led to the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano in 1982, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 in which a Pakistani submarine managed to sink an Indian frigate and chase off another with a torpedo. While some of these incidents may not be within the realm of a “war,” it would still be interesting to learn about the details of these conflicts in this book. Regardless, How to Lose a War at Sea is a great read to jump right into the battle of popular naval conflicts.
About the Author
Ed William is completing his Masters in Library and Information Science degree at San Jose State University, while currently working in public libraries. This allows him access to databases of historical content while reviewing wargames and books. He took an interest in military history and wargaming as a teenager after discovering that one of his hometown heroes is General George S. Patton. Ed is the author of an article that explains how to convert interactive games in Armchair General magazine to PC scenarios using the Combat Mission series.