Royal Navy in Eastern Waters – Linchpin of Victory 1935 – 1942 – Review

The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters – Linchpin of Victory 1935-1942 by Andrew Boyd, Foreword by N A M Rodger, published by Seaforth Publishing on 20th March 2017, ISBN: 9781473892484. This book contains 538 pages and is a heavy tome to read cover to cover. The book is well researched and is good value to the reader wanting to know some specific things from this era and area.

I must confess however that when I first saw the title, then the sub-title of “Linchpin of Victory, 1935-1943” I was ready to hold a negative opinion from the start – although perhaps that is not such a bad way to approach a book review. I felt that describing the Royal Navy in Easter Waters as the linchpin to victory was to downplay the considerably larger contribution to victory of the Atlantic and Arctic Convoys, not to mention the hard yards performed by the USA and Allies in the Pacific. Boyd’s book, however, lays out the strategy that saw the creation of the British Pacific Fleet in 1945 which was the most powerful British Fleet ever and capable of standing up to anything the IJN had left. Perhaps a more accurate title may have been Linchpin to the British Part of the Victory.

As I started to look through the book I was pleasantly surprised. It is not a book that is easy to sit down and read from cover to cover as it is written in an academic style. The amount of research in the book is simply outstanding, the notes alone stretch from pager 416 to page 500 with a further 27 pages of bibliography. The book is split into 4 parts contaning 8 chapters overall:

  • *Part I Prpararing for a Two-Hemispehere War
    • The Royal Navy 1935–1939: The Right Navy fir the Right War
    • Naval Defence of the Easter Empire 1935–40: Managing Competing Risks
  • *Part II Existential War in the West
    • Securing Eastern Empire War Potential after the Fall of France
    • The American Relationship, ABC-1 and the Resurrection of an Eastern Fleet
  • *Part III July 1941: The Road to Disaster in the East
    • Royal Navy Readiness for a War with Japan in Mid-1941: Intelligence and Capability
    • Summer and Autumn 1941: Reinforcement and deterrence
    • The Deployment of Force Z and its Consequences: Inevitable Disaster?
  • *Part IV An Inescapable Commitment: The Indian Ocean in 1942
    •  The Defence of the Indian Ocean in 1942
  • *Conclusion

In addition to the chapters, there are maps and tables as well as some illustrations. THe oreward is by noted naval historian N A M Rodger.

The book looks at the background of the fleet over the period, not the battles although some are mentioned such as the Force Z disaster. Rather this book concentrates on the politics, committees and people who effectively ensured that by 1945 the supply lines from Asia to the Mediterranean had been kept open across the Indian Ocean whilst at the same time building the most powerful British Fleet ever in time for the closing stages of the Pacific War.

There are some areas in the work that may raise eyebrows, like, for example, Boyd’s claims about what the Fleet Air Arm may have achieved should a carrier battle have occurred in the Indian Ocean. That said, the book is sitting at an easy to reach place on my bookshelf, where I can refer to its information as I read further about the British Pacific Fleet in particular.

Rodger notes that “this new account ought to startle the many comfortable ideas which have been doxing too long in the arm-chairs” and I would agree that Boyd’s work is a challenge to long held “truths”. It certainly achieved its aims with me in many areas and the prodigious amount of research present in the book does saves a lot of additional research for the reader while at the same time encouraging the reader to research more.

Well Recommended.

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3 thoughts on “Royal Navy in Eastern Waters – Linchpin of Victory 1935 – 1942 – Review

  1. Alan 25 September 2017 / 8:10 pm

    Thank you for a good review on what looks to be a serious and interesting book. It is a long time since I read anything on this and the books were older still, so it may be time for revision. Have seen more recent arguments for 1930s planning, saying that – as Britain cd not afford to be strong everywhere – the Singapore strategy was the least worst option. Sounds like this goes way beyond that, tho. Cd you say a bit more about some of his more surprising arguments and how convincing you found them.

    Like you, I would have said that the RN’s vital contribution to war was in the convoy battles v U-boats, to which I wd add the Med. In each, the RN was the main force engaged and each could have gone the other way had it fought less well. Surely the main Allied force in the East was always the USN?

    The initial ABDA forces were horribly outnumbered. That’s understandable when a hot war, that cd have gone either way, was being fought in the West and there was still notional peace in the East. But I had the sense that, even allowing for that, the British, Australians and Dutch were ill-prepared for the Japanese offensive; and that the Japanese out-fought them. Does he argue otherwise and, if so, how convincingly?

    Thereafter, I guess the Empire and Commonwealth did well in maintaining a force in being in the Indian Ocean. But surely that was never the main focus of interest for the Japanese Navy? When the Japanese did send a fleet that way I’d thought it was mostly a dodging and hiding job. Given the balance of forces, that seemed wise. Is he really claim the Fleet Air Arm cd have tackled Japanese carriers. How?

    While it is useful to be reminded that the RN did eventually send a powerful fleet out there, surely by then the USN had already broken the back of the Japanese Navy?

    In the last few decades we seem to have had a slew of ra-ra, Britain is best, naval histories. Often they are useful correctives to what has gone before. I wonder, tho, if this is being pushed too far?

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    • Thomo the Lost 26 September 2017 / 2:35 am

      Thanks Alan

      I am thinking I should write further on this. Briefly now, yes, he seems to think that FAA would have been a match for then IJN pilots, and this may have some merit given the number of American aircraft being used. I wonder the effectiveness of the Seafire for example however but the F4Us in British colours certainly would have performed well.

      He all but absolves Churchill from blame over the Force Z debacle – perhaps not too far from the truth.

      I am still trying to make my mind up about Ceylon. Will have another read of that section this weekend I think.

      Overall though, I think the book is a worthy addition to the bookshelf as long as it is understood that he is not going into deep detail on battles and tactics but rather the whole “back-office” work of the conflict.

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  2. Alan 7 October 2017 / 7:26 pm

    You’ve inspired me to dip back into Peter Smith’s ‘Task Force 57.’ It’s odd how sometimes a book can seem a bit disappointing when first read and then much better when you come back to it. It is old (published in 1969). It is good that our understanding of the past is developed and modified by scholars with new ideas and access to more documents.

    I should not criticise without reading Boyd’s book. It sounds like his arguments are backed-up by lots of research.   That said, he does seem to be cutting across not just the received wisdom of earlier historians but that of some at least who were there.  Of course the focus of that Task Force 57 book is on 1944/5, but Smith does a little about the Japanese raid into the Indian Ocean and I got the sense from it that our admiral in charge there, a good fighting one (Sommerville), did not rate his chances.  He seems to have thought his least worst hope was a dusk air attack.  

    Historians writing immediately after the Second World War generally had a strong impression of the fighting qualities of the Japanese Navy. More recent historians focus more on Japanese weaknesses eg in damage control and particularly in the training-up of new pilots. Still, is there any doubt that the pre-War trained Japanese airmen were top notch.  As casualties were replaced by inadequately trained men the average quality of Japanese aviators plumeted, but I wd have thought that in 42 there wd still be many of the good ones left.  And those pre-War pilots really knew their planes.  Even assuming that the Fleet Air Arm was able to replace its (mostly second-rate) British machines with US ones (and in reality it hadn’t completed the transition even by 1944) the pilots wd be new to high-performance aircraft.

    Fleet Air Arm airmen who joined before the War were also extensively trained and they achieved great things in their often inadequate aircraft, but there were never enough of them.  And, like the Japanese, the British had difficulty in training-up replacements.  That Task Force 57 book has an intro by Admiral Sir Michael Denny, who captained the carrier Victorious when she fought in the Indian Ocean and then the Pacific (in 44/45).  He says, “At the commencement of World War II the air threat to the United Kingdom was such that His Majesty’s Government was rightly spending money on constructing airfields for the RAF, and airfields for the Fleet Air Arm were regarded as of secondary importance.  In general, adequate airfields with suitable range and training facilities for the squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm were not available; further, this young and potentially powerful part of the Navy had only been transferred from the RAF to RN control in April, 1938.  Many experienced RAF officers and men were rapidly withdrawn form the Fleet Air Arm, with consequent weakening of ‘air expertise’ in the Navy at a time when the Fleet Air Arm was expanding.  As a result, the training of Naval Air Squadrons was not nearly good enough.  Except in the actual handling of aircraft in the air, the standard of the Naval Air Arm after its expansion was below that of the remainder of the Navy in practically all matters.”

    British carriers tended to carry fewer aircraft than Japanese and American ones.  In part that was because of a trade-off between armoured flightdecks and storage space.  However, I think (need to read and remind myself) that the RN carriers often had insufficient pilots and aircraft to enable them to operate up to capacity.  

    I don’t know how the Brits wd have compared with the Japanese in the wider techniques of carrier warfare.  That Task Force 57 says that by 1944/5 the RN had a lot to learn about high-intensity carrier warfare from the Americans.  By then the Japanese would also be trailing, but wd be closer to American standards.  In 42 the Japanese wouldn’t have the benefit of most of that experience but, tho nobody envisaged the big carrier v carrier battles pre-war, I think the Japanese had trained for it more than the RN had. 

    Anyway, a fascinating subject.

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