The Royal Navy’s War – Paul Kennedy

In this blogpost, Paul Kennedy describes the Royal Navy’s key role in the 1939-1945 war at sea. He also calls attention to the beautiful paintings of marine artist Ian Marshall which are reproduced in full colour to illustrate his new one-volume naval history of World War II, Victory at Sea.

Painting by Ian Marshall
HMS Ark Royal, Grand Harbour, Malta, 1938. The Royal Navy’s most famous fleet carrier, seen here as it is towed out of the historic Grand Harbour of Malta shortly before the war’s outbreak. This warship achieved great battle distinction in Atlantic operations, the destruction of theBismarck, and Malta convoys before it was sunk byU-81in November 1941.

There are many remarkable aspects to my new book, Victory at Sea, that might be the subject of an individual blog, but one I would like to call attention to is the way the book, and perhaps especially Ian Marshall’s illustrations, confirm how much the 1939-1945 war at sea was the Royal Navy’s War. It was there at the very start, pushing out patrols and hunting-groups in search of the German surface raiders; and it was there at the very end, with British warships (e.g. HMS Duke of York) among the Allied fleets in Tokyo Bay in 1945, and another bidding Godspeed to President Truman in Plymouth harbor after the Potsdam settlement is over.

By my count, a full 23 out of the 53 beautiful Ian Marshall paintings are of ships and naval actions involving the Royal Navy, and they range from paintings of storm-tossed little escorts to magnificent ones of the HMS Ark Royal being slowly towed into Malta’s Grand Harbour. The very cover of this book shows, dramatically, the Bismarck under attack by the puny (if also very effective) Swordfish torpedo planes.

Painting by Ian Marshall
The Bismarck under attack from Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers,1941. Only three days after sinking HMS Hood In the Denmark Strait (on May 24, 1941), the great German battleship’s steering was crippled by torpedo attack. The Swordfish look miniscule compared to the warship itself.

Chapter after chapter of this book is devoted to what was really the greatest, longest-lasting maritime struggle of all, the Battle of the Atlantic, not concluded until the serried ranks of Doenitz’s U-boats were tied up in Allied harbours. And from chapter 5 there begins another campaign story, that of the Battle of the Mediterranean, including the Taranto Raid and the many Malta convoys. A whole number of Ian Marshal’s paintings are of British warships at Malta, because that was one of his favourite places as a backdrop to his art.

And this was a Royal Navy which was willing to take incredible losses in the fight to keep control of the sea. Of course Churchill would have it no other way, but the service itself never flinched at the high costs of fighting – there is considerable detail throughout this book of the huge losses of merchant ships and escorts in the Atlantic and Arctic convoy campaigns, the stupendous cost in Royal Navy destroyers off Dunkirk and Crete, the terrifying Malta convoy experiences – just count how many cruisers and destroyers, not to mention the many original carriers, were lost against enemy action in this war.

And yet this was a navy that was still receiving newer and more effective warships from the hard-working British shipyards throughout the war: new King George V-class battleships, the Illustrious-class carriers, Town-class cruisers then many new light cruiser classes, fleet destroyers, frigates, sloops, corvettes. If the lengthy conflict wore down the British economy, there was no sign of that until the very end – although it was clear by 1943 (this is one of the big points stressed in this book) that the US Navy was emerging as a far larger force than anything that had been seen in world history. And this is why, surely, the subtitle of this book ‘Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II’ is most appropriate.

Paul Kennedy is J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

About the Book

Victory at Sea
Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II
Paul Kennedy with paintings by Ian Marshall

A sweeping, lavishly illustrated one-volume history of the rise of American naval power during World War II

“An authoritative global narrative [and] lavishly illustrated with watercolour paintings by the fine marine artist Ian Marshall, together with excellent maps and graphs . . . I believe the Royal Navy and US navy to have been the outstanding wartime fighting services of their respective nations. Kennedy offers them a fitting tribute and a penetrating analysis.”—Max Hastings, Sunday Times

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment