The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill

The War at Sea, 1939-1945, S. W. Roskill

Volume I: The Defensive

This is the first volume of the official British history of the Second World War at sea, and covers the period from the outbreak of the war in 1939 through to the early disasters in the Pacific in December 1941.

This volume covers a huge amount of subjects. Amongst the topics covered are: the campaign in Norway, with a detailed look at the two battles of Narvik; the battle of the River Plate; the battles of Calabria, Cape Spartivento, Cape Matapan and the first battle of Sirte in the Mediterranean; the operations to support the British expedition to Greece and Crete, and the evacuations from both of those places; the evacuation of the BEF from France in 1940, including the evacuations from Dunkirk as well as those from north west and western France; the naval actions against the French fleet in North Africa after the fall of France; the early commando raids in northern Europe, including the raid on the Lofoten Islands; the naval actions to support the fighting in North Africa, especially during Operation Battleaxe and Operation Crusader; the first Malta supply convoys and the Tiger convoy that carried tanks to Egypt through the Mediterranean at great risk and finally the lose of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in December 1941.

The main sources used for this book were the official British records, but by the time these books were written the British Admiralty had take possession of vast amounts of German records, which mean that Roskill was able to present the German view of events. Roskill also made use of published and unpublished private accounts of the war.

The text is supported by forty three invaluable maps, ranging in scale from detailed maps of individual actions up to a map showing the world divided into the Naval Command Areas as they stood in September 1939, as well as just over fifty photographs.

The early date of publication does mean that some aspects of the war were still top secret, most famously the cracking of the German enigma codes. This can distort some aspects of the narrative - a good example is provided by the battle of Cape Matapan. Admiral Cunningham, the British commander-in-chief at Alexandria, was informed in advance that the Italian fleet was about to make a sortie. Local intelligence sources also provided evidence of upcoming activity, but in 1954 this was all still secret. In many early accounts of the battle the British discovery of the British fleet is credited either to Cunningham's intuition, or to an chance discovery of the Italian fleet by an RAF Flying Boat. Here there is a hint that Roskill may have had some access to the Ultra intelligence, for he states that Cunningham received news of a possible Italian sortie on 25 March, two days before the flying boat was sent out.

The main value of this book is that it provides a detailed accurate narrative of just about every action that involved the Royal Navy during the first two years of the Second World War. While some of Roskill's conclusions may no longer be considered valid, his well researched accounts of the events themselves are still invaluable.

Author: Captain S. W. Roskill
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 686
Publisher: Naval & Military Press
Year: 2004 (New Edition), original publication 1954


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