BOOK REVIEW – The Development of Mobile Logistic Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953

Peter V. Nash. The Development of Mobile Logistic Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 320 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz
British Commission for Military History

Field Marshal the Earl Wavell is reputed to have said, “Amateurs talk strategy whilst professionals talk logistics.” The general soundness of this view is amply displayed in The Development of Mobile Logistics Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953, a well researched and well written survey of how two navies were required by force of circumstances to reinvent their operational doctrine through the adoption of at-sea resupply to meet the changed strategic environment of the Pacific theatre between 1942-5. If the general lines of the story are recognized by many, the actual means adopted and the revolution in naval operations that it portended have been largely ignored previously and Nash fills this void ably. The work is profusely illustrated with appropriate photographs, maps, and technical diagrams taken from many of the primary source materials accessed and never fails to inform. Nor does the work ever become stale in discussing a topic that lacks the appeal of battle or the drama of recounting a life of strong personality.

Though the work seeks to survey the story of mobile naval logistics for the first half of the last century, in truth, it is primarily focused on the period 1944-53: the last year of the Pacific naval war through the years to the Korean conflict. This is understandable, as this was the moment when mobile logistics came of age. Yet, surveying the first 40 years of the story in a mere 20 pages is probably the books only real weakness, as the context of why more was not achieved is never really engaged by the author. After all, the Royal Navy had much experience in supporting out-of-theatre amphibious operations in the First World War, such as the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia, with their heavy logistics demands and the lessons that these evolutions offered along with the yearly combined exercises of the British staff colleges is not traced. As the Royal Navy examined the lines of a possible Japanese conflict at length between the wars, the question arises why the British did not feel compelled to further develop such mobile support. The short answer is that the British would fight a limited war based on attacking Japanese commerce to force a fleet action leaving it to the negotiations that followed to restore any loss of territory experienced such as Hong Kong. Thus, the strategic requirement and operational necessity were missing.

Still, such shortcomings are on the margins and Nash is to be credited with surveying the operational changes, the bureaucratic evolutions, the progressive technical means adopted along with the role of reserve fleets and mobilization. If the United States Navy was the superior agent of change given its wealth and industrial output, the Royal Navy did well, indeed, to catch up in World War II and held its own during the Korean War. Given the fiscal pressures operating against both navies following 1945, a reversion to type was always a possibility at a certain point, but, here, Nash shows how the adoption of jet-propelled aircraft with their higher demands in logistics support, especially in fuel and ammunition, ensured that mobile logistics was a force to stay. Nash is particularly good at highlighting the ethos of each navy as it relates to logistics, and this difference is fundamental to understanding why the Royal Navy, master of innovation in so many spheres of naval warfare, would not drive this revolution. Its executive officers vis-à-vis their American counterparts generally had a lesser grasp of logistical issues, and if the Naval Staff was originally formed to allow the Admiralty to better concert its plans with the War Office, then its evolution where logistics now found a home was largely a response to having to concert its plans with the Americans in a second global conflict. This was all to the good and coordination between the services on logistic issues continued in the uncertain peace following, if not always on a reciprocal and balanced basis.

Yet, the broader story is also one of how each nation faced making war (the dog that fails to bark in Nash’s work) as the British ever set their strategies to what was economically affordable and cost-effective, whilst the Americans, once actually engaged in hostilities, could waive any financial limitations and seek the means to victory. Thus, Nash never really addresses the cost-effectiveness of mobile logistics support and the balance desired between afloat and ashore capabilities. As surplus capacity existed in both navies following 1945, it may be the issue falls largely outside the bounds of his study, but it is ever a current problem. Filling as it does a noticeable void in historiography, this work is highly recommended to the naval professional and to the serious student of war. As for the generalist reader, price alone may daunt the work’s appeal but Wavell’s warning remains ever so.

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