Robert C. Stern, The US Navy and the War in Europe. Seaforth Publishing: Barnsley, 2012. Appendix. Index. Cloth. 306pp.
Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University
Stern’s The US Navy and the War in Europe draws together previous research to provide a thorough, scholarly study of a comparatively neglected aspect of history of the United States Navy in the Second World War. With its big fleet actions and the dramas of Pearl Harbour, Midway and Guadalcanal, the war in the Pacific dominates the history of the United States Navy between 1941 and 1945. Stern’s book is an excellent reminder that, if the Navy’s contribution in European waters to winning the war was far smaller than in the Pacific, it nevertheless deserves attention and analysis.
The landings in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe were less than easy operations. The European campaign depended on their successful outcome. If the Atlantic lacked the big gun encounters of the Pacific then the grim attritional struggle against the U-boats nonetheless tested man and vessel to the technical and human limit. The war in European waters was very different to that in the Pacific offering the United States Navy complex and changing challenges.
The author takes a broad approach to his subject setting naval strategy and combat against a background of domestic American politics, relations with the British and interactions between political and military personalities. The approach is refreshingly modern with military history firmly situated in an appropriate range of contemporary contexts.
Of the eight chapters, the first two (dealing with the evolution of American neutrality policy and the steady move from neutrality to non-belligerency, to effective participation in the Atlantic struggle from September 1941) are perhaps the least satisfying. Patrick Abbazia’s Mr. Roosevelt’s Navy remains a tough text to top, and Stern’s notes show that he has relied heavily upon it. In the remaining six chapters, dealing with the struggle in the Atlantic, Mediterranean landings and operations on the shores of Western Europe, Stern has much more scope to eclipse the current historiography, and he makes good use of American archival sources. A similarly extensive trawl of British Archives might have helped him to further analyse the issues at work in the Anglo-American naval relationship. Similarly, given the evolution of the Royal Canadian Navy and its significance in European waters, Canadian Archives might also have yielded some interesting new perspectives. However, an author can only do so much and only so much will fit into a single volume.
What Stern gives us is a highly readable, comprehensive single volume history of the United States Navy in European waters. It compares favourably with the inevitably rather dated volumes of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II which cover the same ground. That being said, there are inevitably limitations with a text that covers such a large topic area and timescale. The author does not enjoy the scope to go into particular depth, or to engage in extended historiographical analysis and debate. There are also occasional mistakes such as the suggestion that the topography of the Slapton Sands Training Area resembled that at Utah Beach because of ‘shingle bench’ [beach?] backed by ‘tidal pools’ (p.219). It is, in fact, backed by a freshwater lake known as Slapton Ley. However, these are the kind of minor errors that almost inevitably filter through into the final draft of any book.
One might also take issue with one of the overarching themes of the book that the British believed that ‘the experience they had gained…demanded more respect than the upstart Yankees seemed prepared to give’. If this was the case, then it was not an instance of highhanded Brits telling former colonial cousins their business, but an attempt to save American lives by imparting hard learned and costly lessons. Too many British lives had been lost between 1939 and 1941 not to try to share best practice with a service that the Royal Navy fully respected and appreciated, even if it did not always see eye-to-eye with it. The United States Navy still had not learnt some of those lessons by 6 June 1944 and American naval units took casualties as a result. Fuehrer der Schnellboote Petersen later reflected on engagements between his flotillas and the invasion force: ‘The enemy had many new units – especially American units – which were neither used to the area nor to S-boat warfare, and which were therefore easier targets for…[S-boats] than the experienced British Channel destroyers.
The illustrations in Stern’s book are one of its most attractive features. They range from ship photographs and maps to line drawings sourced from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Naval History and Heritage Command. The standard of reproduction is very high, matching the high production values evident in every other aspect of the book’s look and layout. The images are appropriately captioned and well placed within the text, instead of being grouped into a series of plates at the centre of the book. They work well with the text, giving visual emphasis and explanation to the episodes and arguments contained therein.
The ten-page index, two appendices and full bibliography underline the scholarly credentials of this particular book. In addition to primary sources, Stern utilises journal sources and key internet sites such as u.boat.net and the Arnold Hague Convoy Database at www.convoyweb.org.uk. At a recommended retail price of £35.00, this book sits on the edge of the populist/academic market. It has value for both. Written in an open an engaging style Stern pulls together his various sources to offer the reader a detailed picture of our current understandings about the United States Navy in European Waters. The author and Seaforth Publishing are to be congratulated for producing great history at a sensible price.
Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Robert C. Stern The US Navy and the War in Europe’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 22 February 2013
A copy of the review can be downloaded here.
 , TNA: PRO 223/28, Tactical and Staff Duties Division (Foreign Documents Section), German E-Boat Operations and Policy 1939-1945, War Diary Schellboote Command, 1 June 1944.