Book Review: War at Sea: A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century


by James P. Delgado

Cambridge, Ma.: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 488+. Illus., maps, plans, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0190888016

Underwater Archaeology and Naval History

Former National Park Service maritime historian and marine archaeologist Delgado has written a history of naval warfare through based on a close examination of some of the many surviving wrecks lying on the bottom of the seas or lakes or buried under now-solid ground, as well as from other evidence. Opening with two chapters that cover developments from earliest times through the introduction of the war galley, the great sea fights of antiquity and on through the Middle Ages. Delgado then devotes chapters to the early influence of gunpowder on naval warfare, the Age of Fighting Sail, naval warfare in the Americas in pre-Columbian and colonial times, the introduction of steam and iron, and trends during the long nineteenth century. There follow chapters on each of the world wars and one on the decades since 1945, a period in which ships have been sunk in weapons trials, combat, or accident, such as the USS Scorpion (SSN 589).

As he discusses trends and events in each period, Delgado uses evidence from wrecks, many of which he has personally examined in situ, as well as salvaged vessels, such as HMS Mary Rose or HSwMS Vasa, modern replicas such as the trireme Olympias, and relics rescued from the sea floor, such as war galley rams, helmets, and armor of Kublai Khan’s fleet that attempted to conquer Japan, or the turret of the USS Monitor. He often provides interesting details on the circumstances that led to the locating and evacuation of the ships or relics. He also draws upon artistic depictions of ships and sea fights, and, of course on the rather rich documentary sources.

Delgado reminds us that many wrecks are at risk not just from having been under the seas for long periods, but also from modern looters, who seek artifacts or steel to sell as salvage; many warships sunk in southeast Asian waters – HMSs Prince of Wales and Repulse, HMAS Perth¸ USS Houston, HNMS Java, and others – have been wholly or partially dismantled, a loss not only to history, but a gross violation of war graves.

While not strictly a history of naval warfare or of warships, War at Sea offers a unique look at the evolution of these across the millennia, with some useful insights into technological change and the conduct of sea fights.


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


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


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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