BOOK REVIEW – The Royal Navy: A History Since 1900

Duncan Redford and Philip D. Grove, The Royal Navy: A History Since 1900. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014. 363 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History

Writing a single-volume history of the navy which can claim to possess the greatest and most varied operational experience from the twentieth century forward represents a singularly difficult task. Compression is essential and accepting that much of necessity will fall by the wayside, ensuring that which remains is faithful to the greater story while retaining both interest and value to the reader becomes an almost insurmountable challenge. When the effort is guided by the hands of two authors, consistency in approach poses a further barrier. Duncan Redford and Philip D. Grove have in the main negotiated these pitfalls in a lavishly illustrated work for the generalist reader though rather less so for those more attuned to the subject. In fairness to the last observation, The Royal Navy: A History Since 1900 is but one work of many in a greater series covering Britain’s Navy from the eighteenth century jointly produced by the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the publisher. Thus, taken together the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

As for their efforts, if the work is solidly anchored upon official primary sources and the best of the secondary literature, then the authors fail to offer a fresh interpretation of the Royal Navy. The accounting rendered is one that incorporates the previous views of traditionalists and revisionists with equal vigor and while a balanced assessment might have resulted, too often the conclusions reached fall between the opposing stools for the contrarian view is never engaged. The history that unfolds depicts a service almost always successful operationally, but invariably trapped by forces greater than itself be they strategic, political or financial. Ironically, winning victories in war if the ultimate expression of naval effectiveness at one level did little to guarantee institutional success for the service at another. Truly, the greatest period of peril for the Navy, if not for the nation and the empire that it defended, was when peace prevailed. Why this irony proved so is a missed opportunity to set the story of the Royal Navy within a broader context. At a minimum, a final chapter drawing appropriate conclusions could have been provided.

The difficulty of writing a survey is that judgment when rendered often appears sweeping and not nuanced and requires the reader to take a lot on faith. Exceptions to any rule can always be found, but when present multiple times calls into question the whole edifice of what is offered. Hence, this reviewer cannot accept the verdict that Jutland remained a tactical victory for the Royal Navy. The defeat of a superior British force at the hands of a lesser adversary was without precedent. Such was the loss inflicted on Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet that the late intervention of Jellicoe’s Battle Squadrons did little to redress. This was understood within the Navy and explains why the battle assumed the proportions that it did at the moment of crisis and in the years that followed. Likewise, the conclusion that Admiral Sir John Fisher’s strategic thought had migrated from dreadnoughts to embrace flotilla defence and sea denial must be treated with caution. Certainly, ample evidence exists that Fisher saw the potential of the submarine and questioned whether the surface fleet could continue to operate in their presence. Yet, the World War found the Royal Navy singularly lacking in a mining capability and Fisher deprecated the deployment of heavy ships on subsidiary operations such as to the Dardanelles. Submarines and flotilla craft had their place and they remained more preferable to the Admiralty than maintaining large numbers of troops to meet an invasion not likely to occur in any event, but the strategy was not as settled as indicated.

Nor is it correct to avow that the Army and the Navy had ‘vile relations’ before the World War which poisoned cooperation in combined operation leading the service to pursue economic warfare as a strategy once command of the sea had been secured. Strategically, a Committee on Combined Operations under the auspices of the Committee of Imperial Defence was formed in 1905 to define set-piece serials that could be executed promptly upon the outbreak of war. The fruits of their labor were seen in 1914 when multiple expeditions to the Pacific and Africa were quickly initiated. Intellectually, cooperation was close with strong ties developed between the naval War Course and the Army Staff College. Indeed, the utility of combined operations was a feature even at the Indian Staff College when that school formed in 1905 with all drawing upon the lessons of the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Era and what had recently occurred in Manchuria. Meanwhile, operations in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and in Somalia in 1903 demonstrated that both services could work effectively side-by-side in amphibious operations.

Still other questionable assertions exist. The Navy before Jutland deprecated night action not because it failed to train for such encounters, but more importantly because it viewed itself as the superior force. Chance was thought to play too great a role and negated the advantage conferred by force of numbers. This view was not wrong, but it assumed contact could be retained with an adversary determined to escape until it was day once more. More troubling is the summary provided on the interwar naval arms control agreements which treats the limits imposed as absolute and static. In truth, variations to the rules existed to account for the dissimilar nature of the several fleets and to allow agreement to be reached at all.

These pitfalls must be expected in a work seeking to cover a topic offering endless variation in fortunes and endless possibilities for analysis. As such, the military professional and the academic historian will find The Royal Navy Since 1900 a disappointing read because brevity no longer suits their needs. For the non-specialist though and with the money to spare, what remains is a worthy introduction and can be recommended with these qualifications.

(Return to December 2015 Table of Contents)

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