Edwyn Gray, Hitler’s Battleships. Leo Cooper: Barnsley, 1999. Appendix. Index. Cloth. 195pp.
Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University
Academic historians are sometimes accused of talking to each other rather than informing the public, of wrapping their books in the complexities of historiography and archival inquiry in the search for the intellectual cutting-edge of their discipline, and of publishing tomes at prices guaranteed to minimise their readerships. Many of these accusations are undoubtedly true (viz. the impact agenda in the REF exercise in the UK). The products of the labours of academic historians may take more than a decade to appear in comparison to the more fleet-of-foot “populist” historians who can turn out books at a faster rate, and at a price that can support a career as a professional writer. The gulf between the academic and the populist historian is considerable and the flaws of the latter are particularly evident in Edwyn Gray’s Hitler’s Battleships.
A writer of both popular history and popular fiction, Gray undoubtedly offers a good read at a good price. It is an engaging account of the rise and fall of the larger units of the German surface fleet. Gray does a good job of weaving together the disparate fates of Hitler’s battleships (an inexactly applied term as the author freely acknowledges) into a coherent and involving narrative. Well written overall, in places the writer’s literary flourishes are perhaps a little distracting: ‘The dead and dying lay in heaps, their white uniforms red with blood, while the living did their best to place the wounded behind cover’ (p.121).
The action moves from the River Plate to the fjords of Norway at an even pace with flowing prose. The author knows his stuff and a familiar set of tales are well told against the backdrop of German naval strategy from 1919 to 1939, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 and the rise of Nazi Germany. Structurally the book is a triumph of narrative history, and the author does not allow himself to be bogged down with discussion of technical matters such as power plants, size of secondary armament and thickness of armour belts. Forty-four well-chosen photographs designed to give the reader an understanding of the ships and the personalities who directed them support the book. Those familiar with the face of Karl Doenitz and the shape and form of pocket battleships might find the photographs less useful.
However, for the more discerning student of the war at sea the volume has a number of serious flaws. The book does not challenge existing orthodoxy or offer new perspectives on the topic at hand. The idea that there is on-going debate about some of these issues has no place in the text. That her crew scuttled the Bismarck slips without further comment into the account of her final minutes.
Beyond the photographs (many sourced from National Archives II at College Park MD) no reference is made to material in the archives in Germany, the USA and Great Britain. Where primary sources are used (such as signals to and from Bismarck in May 1941), no guidance is offered as to their origin or their translation into English. Indeed, there are hardly any references at all. This is not surprising. The bibliography consists of just thirty-five memoirs and secondary sources (they are not even placed in alphabetical order) and their selection seems to be random at best. The text shows a far better understanding of the war at sea than would be arrived at by reading the works that constitute the bibliography. The official histories by Captain Roskill and Samuel Eliot Morison are noticeable by their absence. Similarly, the published volume of Fuehrer Naval Conferences has no place in the bibliography. There is no reference to articles published in journals. Most of the titles featured in the bibliography are pre-1980. This is the war at sea as understood in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As such, the volume is comparable to some of the titles listed in the bibliography such as Cajus Bekker’s Swastika at Sea (1953) and Hitler’s Naval War (1974). Do not look for reference to the ULTRA secret in the otherwise excellent index because you will not find it.
A triumph of writing over substance this book demonstrates the gulf between academic and populist history. It should be possible to find a happy medium between the two with credible research, and an up-to-date understanding of the literature made accessible to the general reader by an engaging writing style and publication at a reasonable price. This book has its qualities but it is a long way from this ideal. It is a well-written but seriously dated account. As an introduction to the subject, it serves a useful purpose: for any other purpose, its limitations are too extensive to make its purchase a sensible investment
Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Edwyn Gray, Hitler’s Battleships’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 20 February 2013
A copy of this review can be downloaded here.