Just Finished my 50th Book Review of the Year!!
Review by Martin Koenigsberg
Written in 1988, The Price of Admiralty is the Military writer John Keegan’s Naval Warfare history, a companion to his great Face of Battle and Mask of Command , books about land warfare and command, control and strategy.
To tell the story of modern Naval warfare, he chooses to focus on four particular good (or only) examples of fleet warfare, the classic battle off cape Trafalgar in 1806- that sealed the British Empire as full Master of the Oceans until 1914, 1916’s Great clash of Imperial German High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s dreadnaught based Battle Fleet at Jutland, and then two of WWII’s epic battles, the Carrier Clash Midway, and the more drawn out epic of the Battle of the Atlantic. Keegan uses these exemplar battles to takes us through the whole development of Wind powered combat and it’s transition through Coal powered steam to Diesel and Fuel Oil based Navies. Along the way we see the Royal Navy start in a existential battle with Spanish and French Napoleonic Navies- then transition at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th to a strategic opposition with Imperial and then Nazi Germany. The Americans come on the scene with their Spanish American war Colonial land grab- and influential author Mahan- and then to world Power status in WWI. The lightning rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy from nothing in 1870- to the Destruction of a Russian fleet with pre-dreadnaughts in 1905- and a strong dreadnaught based navy to become a Pacific Power by 1918- and then to lead the world in Carrier technology in the 20s and 30s- Keegan takes you through it at a fast but not impossible clip. He tells the story of a difficult complex place to fight, on water, and all the layers of technologies and counter technologies that these struggles called for from the nations that choose to take on the challenge. The wooden ships of the late 1600s – to the 1850s, with their broadsides of cannon throwing more weight of shot than most land armies could dream of were massively destructive- but hard to communicate with at sea- and of course in some ways captive to the winds for their movement, did not lend themselves to decisive battle, so the Royal Navy in General and Admiral Nelson in particular tried to teach basic rules tactics- and then rely on the strength of their officers, seamanship and gunnery to carry the day. The rise of the big- gun battleships- a whole generation named after HMS Dreadnaught in the early 1900s led to a less conclusive battle at Jutland where the ships’ destructive power was made clear- but how to properly use the many more types of naval ships was still unclear and in flux. Keegan adds more content on the small ships (Destroyers, Torpedo boats and submarines) fighting at Jutland- that really helps the reader understand how technology and doctrine can get out of sync as sailors often hold on to out dated ideas while their gear is taking them in another direction. Then the Aircraft Carrier and the Submarine- and Radar/Automatic Cannon for AA/DepthCharges/Torpedo improvements/Sonar and Mines – come into play for Midway and the Battle of the Atlantic. Pearl Harbour’s destruction of the American battlefleet makes the Americans base their Battlegroups around Carriers – more like the IJN- and now Admirals need to understand fighting with Aircraft- and finding the enemy with aircraft as well. In the Atlantic, the U-boats try and use their “Wolfpack” gang attacks on shipping- while the US/RN/RCN/Allies use their cryptography and technological tools to fight the “U-Boat Menace”. Keegan shows us how the Allies kept closing the “Air Gap” in the central Atlantic, having found the Airplane the best Anti Submarine Warfare weapon- finally adding small aircraft carriers to Convoy protection packages to drive off the Nazi Kreigsmarine. The move/countermove, technology/countertechnology in Naval warfare is as intense as any other arms race- and more intense than some others. Keegan brings it alive in a way that will content the general reader- and excite the military enthusiast for more books on the topic, the mark of a great writer. There are some adult themes and Keegan is clear to give graphic accounts of how intense the damage from massive projectile, bomb and torpedo warfare can be , so this a book best read by the Junior reader over about 13/14. For the Gamer/Modeler/Military Enthusiast this is a strong resource- but perhaps not directly. These exact battles are refought by gamers- but the gamer will get even more from understanding the overall development of the navies of each period- and how to create other scenarios to test theories or game engines. The Modeler gets a lot of ideas for builds and dioramas, more from the prose than from the above average b/w photos that accompany the text. The Military enthusiast gets a good survey history of Naval warfare-a good base from which to learn further. Keegan even give us some good Cold War Content- discussing the NATO Navies’ ASW warfare efforts and even applying his analysis to the then recent Falklands War- where the Royal Navy had to keep its Carriers out of land based Aircraft range whilst achieving the Air Superiority they needed if not the Air Supremacy they desired. At the same time their Quieter Subs could keep the Argentinian Navy with its WWII era gear outside the “Exclusion Zone” with relative ease. I think this book is a worthy addition to any Naval Library, and a good book for the Military History novice to read from one of the masters of the craft.
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