Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University
When one author reviews, the work of another it is with the anticipation of a good, scholarly read, and the expectation of being able to commend the work and all those who have contributed to it. Almost all authors have been on the receiving end of the odd crank review on amazon not to start the task of reviewing a title with anything other than the most favourable of intentions. ‘What goes around comes around’ they say and unfavourable reviews have a habit of begetting unfavourable reviews of one’s own work. An author’s self-interest is served with a favourable review.
This book has a good index, which enables the reader to quickly locate any ship that they might be interested in. It also has a nice set of photographs (65 to be precise) in a central section, although the standard of reproduction could be higher. Overall, it gives the reader what it says in the title: an overview of naval warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945. Beyond this, it is hard to be positive about this book: to give the kind of review which is in an author’s best self-interest.
The problems start with the opening line of the introduction: ‘Perhaps it is best to start by identifying the area which I have called “The Narrow Sea”’ (p.x). Given that Shakespeare uses the term ‘narrow seas’ to refer to the English Channel (Act 3, Scene 1, The Merchant of Venice) and Peter Scott entitled his 1945 memoir/history of coastal forces The Battle of the Narrow Seas use of the word ‘called’ in the opening line is a little unfortunate. It suggests a sense of ownership of the term or label.
A further flourish of the pen can also be seen in the opening line of the acknowledgements: ‘As always, I have based my book principally upon official documents held at the various archives’ (p.xiii). The volume does contain some excellent selections from primary sources but without footnotes/endnotes or other references the only clue to where some of these documents came from has to be elicited from the list of thanks in the acknowledgements, and a blanket reference to National Archive file class ADM 199. The scholar’s worthy approach, and the reader’s sense of inquiry, are both thwarted by the absence of a vital tool for understanding the text. Publishers take note: in an age when ‘the general reader’ has a more than passing acquaintance through family history with the rudiments of archival research it is not just the academic market that expects to see proper referencing of source material. Select bibliographies (in this case just over 20 titles) are another way of minimising the value of any work to the reader.
There is also the rather puzzling relationship of this book to an earlier publication that the author published in 1984; Hold the Narrow Sea: Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945. It was not until I started reading the book that the structure of certain sections of it reminded me of something that I had read several years ago. The small print on the copyright page explains that the earlier title constitutes a first edition of the current volume. The revisions appear to include the addition of some of the first person accounts from ‘various archives’.
The process of revising the text does not appear to have gone smoothly. The volume feels very badly lopsided. The statistics tell their own tale. For a book covering the period 1939 to 1945, the fact that half the book (155 out of 289 pages including index and bibliography) is devoted to the period up to the end of 1940, is not a good sign. True, the early phases of the war did include operations in the English Channel in 1940 and the evacuations from France and Belgium. However, the latter phases of the war were not exactly without incident (the Channel Dash, the raids on St Nazaire and Dieppe and, last but not least, the largest amphibious operation in the history of the world). In many ways, the more-balanced 1984 text is superior to what is on offer in this apparent second edition.
In many ways, this is a disappointing book, and the 1984 version represents an altogether more useful text. However, there is so little available on warfare on the English Channel during World War II that for many readers this will still represent a ‘best option at the reasonable price of £25.00 recommended retail price. Even so, it could, and should have been much, much better. The dramatic material is there and the author clearly knows his stuff. An opportunity has been missed here.
Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Peter C. Smith, Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 3 March 2013
You can download a copy of the review here.