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  • The Development of British Naval Thinking: Essays in Memory of Bryan Ranft
  • John B. Hattendorf
The Development of British Naval Thinking: Essays in Memory of Bryan Ranft. Edited by Geoffrey Till. New York: Routledge: 2006. ISBN 0-7146-8276-4. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xv, 214. Hardback $170.00; paperback $46.95.

In this valuable volume, Geoffrey Till has gathered together an excellent collection of essays by nine leading British experts on the history of British naval strategic thought. The volume is a Gedenkschrift in honor of Bryan Ranft, a long-serving member of the faculty of the Royal Navy College, Greenwich, who served as its Professor of Naval History in 1967–77 and also taught in the War Studies [End Page 1332] Department at King’s College, London. Ranft’s teaching touched generations of naval officers as well as generations of graduate students in naval history at King’s, influencing directly all of the contributors to this volume. In addition, Ranft played a key behind-the-scenes role in the work of the Navy Records Society, making his most important scholarly contributions through that venerable organization with editions of the Vernon and the Beatty papers. Appropriately, this volume touches the essence of his teaching in explaining why the Royal Navy was the way it was.

Over his academic career at Greenwich, King’s, and the Joint Services Command & Staff College, Geoffrey Till has made his reputation as the leading student of modern British naval thought with many volumes touching on this theme. Turning here to collaborative scholarship, Till complements and extends his own work with a volume that lays out a useful and detailed chronological history of naval thought in Britain. He leads off with an introductory essay that raises the provocative question of whether or not British naval thinking was a contradiction in terms. Here, he thoughtfully addresses the major challenges faced by all in the Anglo-American world who attempt to lift the discourse from a focus on the current means of war to one that deals with the purposes of war through an understanding of past experience. At the same time, he lays out the scope of the book in going beyond a strict discussion of naval theory and doctrine to look at the uses of naval history and the interconnections for naval thought with domestic and international affairs.

Following Till’s introduction, N.A. M. Rodger explains on a broad level that there was no understanding of naval strategy in the accepted modern sense before the late nineteenth century, although one can isolate in hindsight an element of strategic thought within broad policy. Modern naval strategic thinking took root in Britain only in the 1880s and 1890s, although in earlier centuries there had been a consistent policy that placed naval home defense as its first priority.

Andrew Lambert follows with an overlapping chapter on the development of education in the Royal Navy, 1854–1914, showing in detail the development of British naval thinking with the successive contributions of John Knox Laughton, the influence of Mahan from America, and Julian Corbett. Geoffrey Till follows Lambert with an essay that shows that a large group of thinkers in early twentieth century Britain developed a line of thinking with enough internal coherence that it could be considered a distinctive school of thought. He expands from the usual list of suspects to show the importance of the contributions of Charles Callwell, Reginald Custance, David Hannay, George Aston, and Cyprian Bridge. In doing this, he points to the key elements of nascent thinking about amphibious and joint warfare in connection with naval thought.

Andrew Gordon provides an incisive analysis of how the Royal Navy’s expectations, assumptions, and preparations leading up to 1914 were out of tune with the situation the Navy faced in World War One. Its self-imposed handicaps involved initially instituting the wrong doctrines and being inflexible in adapting to new solutions created by new technology. Till follows with a study of the post-war reactions in naval thought in the 1920s and 1930s. Here he focuses on the dominant contribution of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, but also links his [End Page 1333] thinking to...