Book Review – Surface and Destroy: The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific

Michael Sturma, Surface and Destroy: The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pbk. x + 248 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Klaus Schmider, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst


To this day, our view of the US submarine in the Pacific is informed by early post-war popular histories and motion pictures, which feature tales of daring, especially as regards the sinking of much of Japan’s merchant fleet and navy in 1943/45. It is to Michael Sturma’s great credit that he has addressed a more unpalatable subject: the decidedly unglamorous war waged on small Japanese coastal vessels which grew more and more important as rich pickings on the main sea lanes decreased dramatically towards the end of the war.

This war is different from the much more famous one involving the hunt for capital ships because it was virtually impossible to avoid coming face to face with an alien and much-loathed enemy; at the same time the dividing line between legitimate naval warfare and atrocity, and in some cases, outright war crime, grew increasingly blurred. As such, Sturma’s subject makes for a fascinating case study in the dynamics of escalation in small military units. A chapter on British submarine warfare in the eastern Indian Ocean makes clear that even the Royal Navy, with its impressive reputation of seeing to the welfare of shipwrecked enemy personnel, was susceptible to this.

Orders to the effect of what sort of target still warranted an attack and what to do with any survivors tended to be on the vague side. However, the post-Pearl Harbor mood music certainly encouraged those willing to err on the side of harshness, with one US Navy admiral even going on the record that he was willing to justify the torpedoing of hospital ships (p.47).

The extent to which the numerous atrocities perpetrated by Japanese submarine skippers encouraged this sort of behaviour is one aspect that might perhaps have been explored in greater depth. Otherwise, this thoroughly researched, richly footnoted book is a must for anyone interested in the Pacific War, submarine warfare or the dynamics of escalation.

Citation: Klaus Schmider, ‘Review of Surface and Destroy: The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 31 October 2015

A copy of the review can be downloaded here.


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