Book Review: Great Naval Battles of the Pacific War: The Official Admiralty Accounts: Midway, Coral Sea, Java Sea, Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf


by John Grehan, editor

Frontline: Yorkshire / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. viii, 339+. Illus., diagr., indices. $42.95. ISBN: 1399011685

The Royal Navy Reports on the Pacific War

If you want to follow, minute by minute, five of the major engagements of World War II in the Pacific as recorded by the British, then this is the book for you. The account of each engagement is drawn from the pertinent official Admiralty Accounts, each written by a different author and at different dates, and each also drawing extensively on contemporary US and Japanese reports as well as on immediate post-war interrogation information. It therefore represents what participants knew and understood about what was going on at the time or shortly thereafter. At the end of the description of the course of each battle there is a succinct and clear summary of its significance and results, enabling the reader to better grasp the flow of the naval war.

The first battle addressed is the Battle of the Coral Sea, beginning Part One with a description of the strategic situation in April 1942. The account then goes on to address the May actions at Tulagi, then off Misima, including the Japanese air attacks, and finally the air battles of 8 May. What this reader found most instructive was the estimation of the results of the battle. It was the first setback for the Japanese navy since the attack on Pearl Harbor and forced the abandonment of their plan to invade Port Moresby. The battle also made clear that aircraft were now the principal offensive weapons for both the US and Japanese fleets. This insight led to valuable changes in the way the US Navy organized, structured, and used naval air power.

In Part Two, the second battle to be considered is the Battle of the Java Sea, engaging British, Dutch, and Australian as well as US ships, although, since it took place before the Coral Sea engagement, this leads to some confusion in chronology. This is compounded because the Java Sea defeat drove the Allies from the Netherlands East Indies, advancing the Japanese flood through the Philippines, Malaya, Burma and Singapore, putting them at the door of Australia and India. The thorough Japanese preparations for these attacks showed up the weaknesses of the unprepared Allies, weaknesses which they moved fast to rectify. Valuable appendices at the end of this section answer some of the question raised in this account.

Part Three of the book deals with the Battle of Midway, a stunning US victory, due in part to good luck, to Japanese errors, to Admiral Nimitz’ willingness to take risks, and to the lessons the Allies learned and changes made after the Java Sea. This account, like the others, spells out the situation, the objectives of both sides and the forces on each side. Much of the detail of the Battle of Midway will be well known to readers but what these accounts add is the lived experience of those involved. Each of these battle accounts also give the exact location by latitude and longitude of the vessels engaged at almost every moment, including precise maneuvering, as well as the orders received and the information those orders were based on. They also closely follow air operations. This level of detail can be somewhat overwhelming and perhaps even distracting but is redeemed at the end of each part by sections on lessons learned and their effects.

Part Four of the book deals with the naval operations of the campaign for Guadalcanal which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. This includes the four Japanese offensives and then, finally, the Japanese on the defensive. Among the valuable lessons pointed out in this section is that in the confusion of battle it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish friend from foe. The numbers of aircraft and types engaged in each event is spelled out which is critical for explaining that while the Japanese had a superiority in surface ships, the US maintained command of the air.

Finally, Part Five, the longest of the five parts, covers the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the fall of 1944. It deals with the organization of the allied and enemy forces and then moves chronologically through each of the notable events beginning with the approach of the Japanese on 24 October and including the three almost simultaneous battles of Surigao Strait, off Samar, and off Cape Engaño. Finally, the culmination lasting from 25-27 October is the pursuit of the Japanese Center force. A section on the results of the battle shows that although it was a decisive defeat for the Japanese, they were not annihilated. While Leyte Gulf spelled the end of effective Japanese control of the Philippines, and henceforth they were mostly restricted to a defensive posture, it wasn’t until July of the following year that what had been begun at Leyte Gulf was finally realized. The many footnotes in this section are of particular value, especially in demonstrating the sources on which the account is based. These include Admiral Halsey’s dispatches, reports on the interrogation of Japanese naval officers, CinCPac reports, sighting reports, and the carrier Lexington’s Fighter Director Narrative.

Among the many interesting pieces of information revealed in this book are some that illustrate how important terminology can be. For example, what the Admiralty knew as cruisers, the US called heavy cruisers. The frequent use of direct quotes from Operations Plans also adds greatly to the feeling of the immediacy of the accounts. Moreover, these detailed accounts allow for a very close look at the many factors involved in these engagements. We find that surprisingly often the newest and best US radar was not available on the command vessel. The reasons for this remain obscure, although it added greatly to the many times communications were misinterpreted. The Allies were often dealing with different and sometimes conflicting reports about enemy location, composition, and strength, leaving a lot of difficult decision-making to the commanders. Japanese movements and understanding of the situation though, depicted throughout the book, were based on interrogation reports and had not been available to the Allies at the time. The great importance of the weather to naval actions, particularly the way it could disrupt the best of plans, is also emphasized throughout these accounts.

This book, although sometimes seemingly drowning in detail, is a wonderful source and well worth the read. It adds precise evidence and provides confirmation of what historians over the years have pointed out was important about these battles. Its invaluable immediacy, illustrated by 16 pages of photographs, vividly illuminates the truth of the old adage about the fog of war, and while the index of persons and that of vessels is helpful, the lack of a general index is a regrettable omission. But perhaps what this book does best is to make very clear the advantages and disadvantages of the Allies and the Japanese, pointing to the not surprising outcome of the war at sea.

Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and Executive Director Emerita of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., Churchill, Master and Commander, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940, Nimitz at War, and Global Military Transformations



Note: Great Naval Battles of the Pacific War is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams   

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