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The Royal Navy In The Second World War

Published in History Today

The Royal Navy In The Second World War

Correlli Barnett - Hodder & Stoughton, 1991 - xvii+ 1052pp. £30

This admirable volume completes the Hodder & Stoughton trilogy whose first fruit was Sir David Fraser's And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army: in the Second World War in 1985, followed by my own The Right of The Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 in 1985. Now Correlli Barnett supplies the Navy's story; his 898 pages of text include a final chapter on the war against Japan, and it is one that should not be missed.

All three of these books can fairly be said to belong to the classic tradition of military history. It is not impossible, but it is – mercifully – difficult to deal with war except by narrative; the subject presents itself as a succession of blows and counter-blows, a dated sequence of causes and effects demanding a beginning, a middle and an end. Modern military history is further distinguished by the recognition that these strokes are not confined to – often not even primarily composed of – battle. Many are devised and delivered in studies, laboratories, factories, places of general assembly and private conclave. Modern military history is not just an account of uniformed men in violent action; it is the study of total society responding to its most searching test – total war.

No one has shown greater awareness of this than Correlli Barnett. His last two major works, The Collapse Of British Power, 1972, and The Audit of War, 1986, powerfully depicted the stages by which the British nation, having by huge and costly effort arrived at great victory in 1918, blindly or wilfully threw its fruits away. Politicians, pacifists, economists, Treasury officials. clerics, industrialists and Trade Unions, to say nothing of spurious military 'experts', led a shell-shocked people inexorably to the situation in mid-1940 which Barnett now summarises with words of doom:

a war without an ally against two great powers and potentially three; an ill-defended and immensely vulnerable Empire; an inadequate industrial machine; insufficient national wealth; and armed forces still too weak to meet the immense strategic burdens now falling upon them. And of the three armed forces, it was upon the Royal Navy that the greatest burden and the greatest strain was to fall, for its role was all-pervasive and its service in the face of the enemy unceasing.

This is the impressive backdrop against which Barnett displays the significant episodes of the war at sea and its vicissitudes. His narrative has an epic quality, proceeding from the ceremonial surrender of the Imperial German Navy to Admiral Sir David Beatty's Grand Fleet on November 21st, 1918, to the surrender of the Japanese empire to General MacArthur in Tokyo Bay on September 2nd, 1945. In that space of twenty-seven years, while the hard-pressed British people consoled themselves with their 'Finest Hour', the victory of 'The Few', the bells of Alamein, the defeat of the U-boats and the triumph of Overlord, the forces of self-destruction which Barnett had earlier described were silently and remorselessly at work. By 1945, he says,

the economic buoyancy which for two centuries had sustained the Royal Navy in its world mastery had been entirely lost. The technological dynamism which had once driven the expansion of British seapower had yielded to hobbling arthritis. And yet at this same time – it is a poignant paradox – the seamanship and fighting spirit of the officers and men of the Royal Navy had never been greater.

A series of splendid tableaux, spaced through the book, illustrate this tribute. Amid them all, shrewdly assessed and clearly drawn, stand the portraits of the chief actors – Churchill, to whom Barnett is kinder than I have sometimes known him, Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, who, he concludes, did not measure up to his admittedly daunting task, Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, the able, patient, clear-headed performer of a thankless task, Sir Andrew Cun- ningham, C-in-C Mediterranean, a great fighting admiral who followed Nelson's Trafalgar signal to 'Engage the Enemy More Closely' with total resolution, Sir Bertram Ramsay, who left nothing to chance – and a quarterdeck-full of others. It is invidious to pick and choose, but out of all the scenes so sharply drawn, I must mention two in very sharp contrast: the breath-catching elucidation of Admiral Tovey's sinking of the Bismarck, and the quite different but equally breath-catching exposition of Admiral Ramsay's planning of Operation Neptune, the sea- borne prelude and accompaniment to Overlord: logistics presented as an art-form.

Through it all we observe the wonderful restoration of the Royal Navy to 'the bold, hardy, resourceful and highly professional service that it was in Nelson's time'. Correlli Barnett thrills to efficiency. But he adds:

in 1945 the people of Britain, to say nothing of their leaders, saw British seapower as still majestically riding the oceans, when in truth it was like a ship still on an even keel, not yet perceptibly lower in the water, but with her bottom blown out.

And so he brings us to Tokyo Bay, as the strains of the sunset hymn fade and the flags of the victorious nations slowly descend:

The 'Amen' fell away on the evening air. In His Majesty's ships, so few amidst that immense American fleet, the White Ensign was gathered in. Sunset.

John Terraine is the author of The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 (Sceptre, 1988).