World War II at Sea: A Global History

"World War II at Sea: A Global History" by Craig L. Symonds

WORLD WAR II AT SEA: A Global History. By Craig L. Symonds. Oxford University Press. 792 pages. $34.95

In his new book “World War II at Sea,” historian Craig L. Symonds has crafted an immensely readable history of the Second World War via the perspective of the world’s navies.

A professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, and current historian at the U.S. Naval War College, Symonds has a long resume filled with top-notch reads.

In addition to many works of Civil War history, Symonds has previously waded into World War II, tackling the Battle of Midway and more recently D-Day in his terrific book “Neptune,” which shined an important light on the Navy’s often-overlooked role in making the European landings a success.

In his latest book, Symonds has pulled the lens back even further, capturing not just a single battle, but the full scope and history of World War II at sea.

For decades that territory has largely belonged to renowned historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who chronicled the conflict in his 15-volume set “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.” For those reluctant to invest that much energy, Morison produced a condensed one-volume version titled “The Two-Ocean War.”

Symonds explains in the opening of his book, however, that Morison’s books and others did not go far enough in the analysis of the role of the world’s navies.

“No single volume evaluates the impact of the sea services from all nations on the overall trajectory and even the outcome of the war,” he writes. “Doing so illuminates how profoundly the course of the war was charted and steered by maritime events.”

That said, diehard World War II fans will not find a ton of new material in the book. After all, covering a conflict as large as the Second World War in a single volume makes it is impossible to do a deep dive on any one topic. Still that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of plowing these familiar waves again — and a pleasure it is.

Clocking in at 792 pages, Symonds' book dutifully covers it all. It opens with the stealth German U-boat attack on the British naval anchorage at Scapa Flow, a story that has oft been told, but in Symonds’ capable hands still feels fresh.

From there, he moves on to capture all of the highlights, from the evacuation at Dunkirk and the hunting of the German battleship Bismarck to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway and Leyte Gulf.

Along the way, Symonds’ introduces readers to all the major players, from U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King to Pearl Harbor architect Isoroku Yamamoto, whom Symonds points out had lived in the United States and visited Detroit Ford factories and Texas oil fields.

In addition to sea battles, World War II was inherently an economic conflict, one best illustrated by the undersea war designed to cut off vital supply lines. Symonds chronicles the U-boat war, focusing it largely around Karl Donitz, the commander of the German Navy’s submarine service.

He likewise touches on the story of American submarines, which played a vital and often overlooked role in strangling Japan’s economy, singling out two of the war’s top performing boats, Wahoo and Tang.

Throughout the book, Symonds deftly shifts from the 30,000-foot view of the war down to the 30-foot view, placing readers front and center to the war’s action. A gifted writer, Symonds makes such action come alive.

It’s been more than a half century since Samuel Eliot Morison first published “The Two-Ocean War,” which in the publishing business means we are long overdue for a fresh perspective and take on the topic.

Symonds delivers just that, producing a book that that doubles as both an entertaining crash course for the historically uninitiated as well as a riveting revisit of the war’s major stories for those with a deeper understanding.

Either way, it is a great read.

Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.