Book Review: World War II at Sea: A Global History


by Craig L. Symonds

Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxii, 772. Illus., maps, graphics, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0190243678

The Greatest Sea War

Noted naval historian Craig Symonds has given us a short, comprehensive global history of World War II naval politics, strategies, and campaigns, primarily from the top level decisions and planning regarding these events, but covering operational and tactical matters as well, by all major naval powers, as the war unfolded, and how the events were interrelated throughout the greatest sea war in history.

World War II at Sea is a global history of the great conflict from the naval perspective. Symonds begins by describing the political climate prior to the war, including the effects of the Washington and London Naval treaties on warship construction and future naval strategy for the major naval powers, and the importance of the Anglo-German naval agreement. Along with the top level perspective from the major decision makers, which is the main focus of the book, the author delves frequently into the battles, actions, and decisions made by on-the- scene commanders and warriors, which ultimately shaped the victories, and defeats, that wrote the final history of the war at sea. Opening with Hans Langsdorf’s operations with the Graf Spee that culminated in her momentous clash with the Royal Navy off the River Plate, Symonds takes us along on Günther Lütjens’ cruise and death in the Bismarck, through the many clashes of the British and Italian fleets in the Mediterranean, to Chuichi Nagumo and Raymond Spruance at Midway, and Takeo Kurita and William Halsey at Leyte Gulf, in the culminating naval action of the war. Symonds describes these actions, and many others, concisely and clearly, setting them within the framework of the greater war and discussing their strategic effects on future operations. Definitely writing from the human perspective, he describes the events and the human impact they had on leaders, warriors, and civilians. The strain of command, the brutality of war, and the enormity of responsibility that people faced making the grand decisions at sea which shaped, to a very large extent, the course of events in the Second World War.

This is a short global history (650 + pages, including notes and bibliography!), but Symonds manages to discuss all the major decisions and cover the events of the war at sea in some detail, even delving into the operations of the smaller naval powers. That the book is so full of detailed facts and statistics, along with major events, is a tribute to Symonds’ style, as he displays a very comprehensive and thorough knowledge of the subject.

Symonds is especially good in outlining the decisions made at the top level by the major political and military leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler, Raeder, Doenitz, Yamamoto, Nimitz, King, Pound, Tovey, Cunningham, Somerville, Iachino, Darlan, and many more. This helps give the reader an excellent perspective on the timeline of the decisions and actions taken, and the discussions and circumstances that shaped those decisions made before and during the critical moments of operations, from top level strategic conferences to the bridges of engaged warships. And since the readers get all the major decisions and events as they happen, they get to see how these events interrelated to each other, even as they took place and sparked further developments. This feature of the book allows the reader to see how naval events effected the war as it unfolded, and the interrelationship between them and their effects on other events as the war proceeded. For example, we see how the U-Boat war and the Allied shortage of shipping capacity, and later of landing craft, affected military decisions and operations. The strategic facts underpinning decisions of the major naval leaders from all the powers are put in order so that the reader can see the conflict at sea from a global decision making perspective.

The main focus of this book is to explain the grand strategic perspectives of the opposing forces during World War II, and their use of sea power to further their objectives or to frustrate the objectives of their enemies. This focus is interwoven into the text to make a well rounded, unbiased account of the war at sea, and its fundamental effect on the global war. The importance of the fighting on the Eastern Front, and elsewhere is often mentioned but not fully explored, as that is a subject beyond the scope of the book, but Symonds necessarily reminds us that the tremendous contribution of the Soviet Union's Red Army and Allied sea power were the two primary factors that brought victory to the Allies.

A career USN officer, Symonds offers a completely impartial look at all sides and forces involved, showing his dedication to historical accuracy over political correctness or propaganda. This in my view makes him a credible, accurate historian, and the avalanche of valuable information and detail that pours out as one opens this volume shows his passion and dedication to the subject. Having read naval history since I was 7, and thus accumulating a respectable amount of knowledge, I found that this book lays out the events and their importance as they happened, and how they interrelated to each other, allowing the readers to gain a complete strategic picture of the war at sea, thus putting their own studies into perspective. I found this work to be a good refresher course on the naval side of the Second World War, with a strategic emphasis that readers rarely see, since most works focus on specific campaigns and events.

In addition to his text, Symonds’ bibliography is a valuable reference to works on naval warfare and World War II at sea, as it includes almost every important work on the subject.

Several reviewers have claimed the book contains “errors”. Technically they are correct, there are a few bloopers in World War II at Sea, but these are relatively minor. For example, Symonds mentions a "Cruiser Wainwright" (p. 264 when in fact the USS Wainwright was a destroyer, and he later states that U.S. submarine ace Dudley W. “Mush” Morton was killed in 1944 (p. 394), when the correct year is 1943. There are some others, but overall these number relatively few in a book of such broad perspective and extensive detail, they do not significantly change the value of the work. One area I would like to have seen more mention of was the Axis blockade runners, their often impressive adventures and role in furthering the Axis war effort. Nevertheless, overall, I give a "WELL DONE" to Craig Symonds for this book.

World War II at Sea, A Global History is a good book to read for veteran naval historians, and is especially useful for readers new to the subject, and I highly recommend it, and am looking forward to reading more of Craig's work.


Note: World War II at Sea is also available in several e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Thomas Carpenter has had a lifelong passion for military history, especially naval. After seeing the movie Sink the Bismarck and being given a used copy of The Monitor and the Merrimack by Fletcher Pratt when he was 6, Tom has spent his entire live life reading and collecting naval history books and information, visiting museums, playing and working on naval war games, including miniature ship combat rules. Born in the Midwest, Tom grew up in San Diego, a huge US Navy town full of naval facts, items, personalities, and influence. A small business manager and truck driver, Tom is a self-taught amateur naval historian and wargamer. His quest for naval facts and knowledge is fueled by his passion for naval history and war gaming, along with the need for accurate analysis of information to create accurate, playable simulations of naval combat.


Reviewer: Thomas Carpenter   

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