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  • Naval Warfare, 1919–1945: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea
  • Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
Naval Warfare, 1919–1945: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea. By Malcolm Murfett. New York: Routledge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-415-45804-7. Maps. Glossary. Appendixes. Notes. Select bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 629. $198.00.

Never at any time in the twentieth century has military history ever been all that popular with the rest of the academic community. Naval and maritime history, though, enjoyed significantly more prestige a hundred years ago than it enjoys now. Today the oppressed minority in military history circles with studies of ground forces dominate the sub-field.

Despite these trends, Malcolm Murfett of the National University of Singapore has written an impressive history about naval combat in the Second World War. In highly readable prose Murfett offers a narrative that focuses on the operational level of this conflict. His words show strong familiarity with his subject. He includes an extensive bibliography, and a number of useful appendixes on convoy statistics, nautical terms, and other matters.

The first chapter on naval affairs between 1919 and 1939 loses its focus often and wanders into topics best left to other studies, but after the war starts Murfett’s account is informative and riveting. He directs his readers’ attention to largely forgotten events like the battle of Sirte, and the Soviet evacuation of Odessa, and [End Page 1364] offers different takes on well-known topics like the “channel dash” which the British saw as a humiliating example of their impotence, but which was a strategic blunder on the part of the Germans in that it destroyed the fleet-in-being strategy that tied up Royal Navy assets. Murfett argues that “raw power alone was rarely sufficient to determine the success or failure of any encounter at sea in the years leading up to 1945” (p. 461). Instead, a number of factors such as joint operability, the ability of services to learn, and the leadership of key individuals were often key. “Success—whether in individual forays or large campaign operations—was never something that any power could take for granted since the unpredictable and the imponderable were elements that could combine to thwart even the best laid plans and offset the advantages of power and domination that one side possessed over the other” (p. 498). His narrative more than supports these positions.

There are shortcomings with this book, though. There are many maps but they come in an appendix, not in the body of the text. The quality and resolution also leave a lot to be desired. Only one of the 19 tracks, in any way, the movement of ships. None of them depicts an engagement. The biggest problem, however, is the price. Various on-line booksellers are listing it at between $160 and $200. As a result, it is going to be difficult for even medium-sized research libraries to buy this book. The limited audience it is likely to receive is unfortunate. This book is an excellent introduction to naval history and World War II, and Murfett designed it for a much wider audience than book shelves at a few dozen libraries. As it is, instructors looking for source material from which to get lecture notes are likely to be the main people reading this book.

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
U.S. Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island