Victory at Sea in WW2: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order 1939-45
In this episode Dr Sam Willis speaks with Professor Paul Kennedy about the fundamental change in the balance of naval power and the strategic landscape that occurred in the Second World War. By the end of the war, the Italian, German, Japanese and French navies had been all but eliminated; the era of the big-gunned surface vessel ended; and America had risen as an economic and military power larger than anything that world had ever seen before. Paul Kennedy is the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of British History at Yale most well known for his 1976 book The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. In this episode Paul brings his sweeping insights to the question of seapower in World War Two.
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today I’m talking to a true legend of naval history, Paul Kennedy. Paul has a phenomenal CV, but perhaps you will know him best from his 1976 book, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. He is the J Richardson Dilworth, Professor of British history at Yale, and I’m speaking with him today because he has just written a fabulous book on the Second World War entitled ‘ Victory at Sea, Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War Two’, a book that is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Ian Marshall. Paul tracks the movements of the six major navies of the second world war on the Allied side The navies of Britain, France and the United States and the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The key question Paul explores is the fundamental change of naval power and the strategic landscape that occurred in these years as by the end of the war, the Italian, German, Japanese, and French navies had been all but eliminated, and the era of the big guns surface vessel ended, America had risen as an economic and military power larger than anything the world had ever seen before. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoy talking with him. Here is the brilliant Paul why this book, Why did you decide to write this book?
Why this book? actually accidental, purely accidental, seven years ago, I think I’m on the, on the verge of last of succumbing to many, many people’s urging s and try to do a reflections on and sort of second edition of rise and fall of a great powers, thirty years ago. I was also enjoying my relationship with the maritime artists, Ian Marshall, occasionally purchasing some of his wonderful paintings of warships built on the River Tyne, by my father, so to speak. That Swan Hunter Yard, and then listening with some real delight at Ian saying that he was doing a further set of maritime paintings. Original paintings with settings across the globe, but of aircraft carriers in the Second World War. And that was to be part of a permanent exhibit at the USS Intrepid carrier Museum in New York City. When the Intrepid came back from a two/three year refit. In the midst of that, a plan went wrong, the idea of a permanent exhibition of Ian’s Carrier, and Carrier Aircraft paintings fell to the floor. To encourage him because he had paintings also of battleships, cruisers, small ships, I suggested that he put together a nice illustrated history book that would be his fifth or sixth, on fighting warships of the second world war. If he did that, I would write the foreword. And as time went on, I discovered that while Ian was pretty good at writing, pretty good at doing more lovely paintings. So the Ark Royal coming out of Grand Harbour, Malta, for example, the Sheffield off Gibraltar, he was slowed down on the text idea. So I sort of got sucked in to agreeing to write a simple text for fighting warships. And then, as we were coming together in a collaboration and working with Yale University Press as being the best publisher to do these, a book which integrated these lovely, original paintings with a narrative texts and embedded them in the course of a narrative. Ian had either a heart attack or major stroke and died at Christmas time a few years ago. So this is an accident. I had a choice of either continuing with this project, but without Ian or just closing it up. And by that stage I was I was fairly invested. I felt I could return to doing the rise and fall of a great powers, maybe in another couple of years or so. And so I took over this working with University Press. And halfway through that project, I decided that I was going to make the book something more substantial.
It is not a simple text on fighting chips, which is started off
Not a simple text. So I insert that interesting, Chapter eight. It’s about it’s trying to look at the shift in the global power balances when the United States economy really gets underway from 1943 onward. So you have something of a book, which is a polyglot book. It looks like a coffee table book, perhaps. But it’s also a book for thinking about hegemonic war.
Yeah, absolutely. It is fantastic. Well, there’s also a good deal of rise and fall themes within this book, Why are you so interested in Rise and Fall stories, because it’s certainly something that you keep coming back to.
It may be as some of my friends from the northeast of England, including Sting, who went to my grammar school, would say that this is suggests somebody coming from a British industrial heritage, where when you were born, there was still an empire across the world, it was still a very large Royal Navy, the ships were still being built. Then of course of like a single person’s lifetime from at least coming in and 1945 to the current shenanigans of silly lady, Mrs. Trust. There has been a story on the British side of something akin to what I wrote about many years ago, in the rise and fall of British naval mastery. I returned to in a more substantive, comparative way, in rise and fall of the great powers, which I escaped from by rise, writing books on global 21st century trends and the parliament, the man on the UN, and engineers of victory, but I have somehow returned to it an underlying way, in this book victory at sea.
So maybe it does all taps back to the rise and fall of shipbuilding all the time. Is that what you’re saying?
If you think about it, the there’s a beautiful painting in the book, an emotional painting of the last of the big battleships that were built on the Tyne, HMS Anson, one of the King George the fifth class, and is coming down past the Walker Naval Yard, pass the row houses of Walse End and heading out to join the home fleet. It will be there in the British Pacific Fleet. In 1944 /45. It was almost the last symbolically the last of the story of British shipbuilding. A large battle fleet, the Pax Britannica if you like it, or slowly, slowly coming to an end. So I suppose there is something in that, but it’s also to do with, it’s not a British elegiac book, if you’re suggesting that. It’s really about who takes over. So it’s not so much a decline and destruction of a European naval powers under slow over extension of the British. It’s a it’s a story really, of how, from 1943 onward, a huge new navy of unbelievable dimensions and numbers comes to take over the Pacific and then the world order.
When you’ve definitely got you I mean, that’s where the key moment is in changes in 1943. But the book starts in 1936. So let’s think about the ways that the strategic landscape was altered from 1936 in the run up to that kind of key moment in 43.
Yes, and to help the reader I suggest in the, in the preface, that they might consider all of the uncontested aspects about when naval power and international power is in, say a year or two before the Second World War. In naval terms, battleships are still key. At least all the Admiralty think that’s so, the carrier admirals don’t, but they are in a second level. The largest fleet in the world is the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy has a whole host of bases across the globe and some of Ian’s paintings are showing these, these bases and warships coming in and out as a sea power challenged by three rising fascist navies, the Italian, the Japanese and the German, but there’s a substantial, if you like pro Western set of navies, the US Navy and its isolationism, the British Navy and the French. Air power has not yet shown itself to be what it’s going to be as the war unfolds. So there’s a lot of things happening there. Europe is still the center of the world, the colonial European Empire still exist. The nicest commission for young man and the young officer in the Royal Navy might be to be sent on a light cruiser to the Mediterranean Fleet. So you could enjoy yourself
Exactly to what happened to my grandfather?
Yeah, well, you see, you make port visits to to Naples and to Athens, you come in and out of Alexandria, you have a whale of a good time, the world has not changed. So it looks since the age of Queen Victoria. The fascist German challenge, especially with the air power is going to do something that’s going to punish the Royal Navy, all the way around the coasts of Europe, in 1940, in Norway, and then again of Dunkirk, coastlines, and then again, of Crete and Greece. And the Royal Navy is going to be so super extended, it will not be able to hold onto it Singapore base, and Malaysia and Hong Kong just two years later, is such an enormously fast transformation in the story of sea paw, and the great naval powers that were there before 36 and are simply not there when the atomic bomb was dropped less than 10 years later.
Yeah, so we got Italians, Germans, Japanese, French, the entire landscape is then without them
Without them. As attempts, of course by the French Navy and successive decades and administration said to go to try to rebuild together at least half the size of a Royal Navy. Japanese Navy is Forsworn from large ships, because of its post 945 Treaty regulations. The German Navy is eliminated, the Italian navy surrenders. Your it’s, it’s you could save as a comparison with the state of the Royal Navy in regard to all of the other navies in 1815 1816. But even that isn’t show isn’t true. The Royal Navy in the early 19th century is very worried about what these big American frigates could do and rather worried about the return of European navies. Pax Americana is significantly bigger than the Pax Britannica.
So why was 1943 so crucial to this change?
My argument and then those of you who know certain Kennedy books will shake their heads on this. My argument is you have to go and look at the underlying statistical and productive shifts and economic transformations and technological transformations of the war itself. In 1939, and even in 1941, the US economy was not on a war economy footing. It was the biggest economy in the world that Congress had, after the fall of France, worriedly given an enormous grants of funds to build the biggest Navy in the world. But that takes time. As I think most people here know, in those days, it took about six years to construct a large battleship from beginning to end, it was just a little bit shorter for aircraft carriers. So it’s only after June 1943, you might use this as a symbolic change time in the year that the first of the brand new Essex class fleet aircraft carriers arrives in Pearl Harbour to join Nemesis Pacific fleet as only one existing US carrier in the Pacific in June 1943. When the Essex steams into Pearl is followed a month later by a second Essex class carrier, then a month later third and so every month there is a new aircraft carrier joining the Pacific Fleet. When you start to do significant operations across the Central Pacific, the Gilberts, the Marianas the attacks on In the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet. In early 1944, the US Pacific fleet has 10 12 and more, aircraft carriers at its disposal. It’s absolutely astonishing transformation year.
And what was the Japanese production like at the same time.
So I wish I knew a great and substantive book on the history of Japanese naval output in the Second World War. In fact, I had to go back to things like, you know, Jane’s fighting ships 1943 1944 to see what was happening, and not much was happening. The Japanese had created the world’s best and most flexible and far ranging, attacking aircraft carrier fleet in the world navies by 1941. They used it to enormous effects, of course, and the attack on Pearl Harbour, and then rushing down to to enter the Indian Ocean in April 1940, early 1942. Then ranging far afield until the setbacks of a small Battle of the Coral Sea and a more substantive Battle of Midway where they lose four full fleet carriers. And then you look and say, Well, what is coming to replace the Japanese carrier fleet after 42/43? In the way the US carrier Navy is being completely rebuilt? And the answer is very little, indeed, some large battleships being hastily transformed to be carriers, some older, long held merchant ships being turned into smaller carriers, the Japanese simply do not have a productive capacity to build a new Navy after midway.
I’m gonna play devil’s advocate a bit here. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the defeat of Japan was inevitable, the crashing of Japan was inevitable.
Nearly, the Japanese Navy and Imperial High Command and Tokyo, sorted it was not. They had believed that after the early strikes, and the beating away of the Anglo American fleets in 41/42, If they could secure and build up an external defensive rim all the way from the Alaskan, from the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska, all the way down through to New Guinea and and onto Burma, You could hold that ring, wait for the Americans to come, keep beating them back until they agreed at least to some compromise peace, which, under optimal scenario, would recognize Japan’s special place in East Asia, and then go away. So we had the victory, at the minimalist, you would agree to get a compromise peace where perhaps you had to fall back. But you are not having any demolition of Japanese power or anything else to, heavens forbid to do with the Emperor. So there were people in Tokyo who thought that the war was winnable in the sense that a defensive war was winnable. Inevitable? This is a question which is put so much in A level history was the coming of the first world war inevitable. And you’re supposed to dodge that one and say nothing in history is inevitable. All I can say being believing in the, you know, be the art of a realistic here that if an angry United States was beginning to move across the central and southwest Pacific after 1943, with now the largest air force, and the largest Navy and fleet carrier Navy and supply chain Navy in the world. What was inevitable is that there’s American Force was going to strike harder those Japanese positions, and probably roll them up and advance towards the Philippines and on to Tokyo. Nobody knew at the time, of course, in 1943, but there was something being developed in the southwest deserts of United States called the atomic bomb. So that’s off our description of the inevitability of things.
Fascinating. I really enjoyed your chapter on the causation chain. I wasn’t expecting to read that. Can you talk to us a little bit about that chapter
Is an illustrated appendix in Victory at Sea, which to my my three irregular and super critical sons was called a balloon chain or a sausage chain. All I was trying to do well before we now have this debate about supply chains from China and Taiwan semiconductors leading across to the end result being American cars or American or your new handheld telephones, that’s the supply chain. The supply chain here was the absolutely vital material of aluminium. As it’s pronounced in one part we did the aluminium on the other part of the Atlantic, which was necessary to be it was it was a vital part of all of the new aircraft. The aircraft would have aluminium propellers they’d have aluminium parts all the way around a part of the steel engine they they work well where do you get all of his aluminium from it doesn’t really matter. And Kennedy argues that there’s a wonderful way of understanding the material story behind the American victory in the Pacific. Now it’s to start with bauxite ore mine in Dutch Sui Nam or Guyana in South America move that ore in an ore ship across to the Mississippi move it up in Mississippi, to the American gigantic factory of Alcoa, the aluminium Corporation of America, turn it into slabs of aluminium send the slabs out to a variety of, of sub producers have the particular parts of all made out of aluminium sent to their little factories around a giant Pratt and Whitney engine factory in Hartford, Connecticut have the engine transported over to the Grumman factory in in Long Island. And the end result is of course, those and fantastically successful American aircraft carriers, the Hellcats, which shoot down 90% of the Japanese aircraft in the Pacific War. The Hellcats when they get on Essex class carriers and fly to the Pacific. Shoot out the Japanese aerial Navy in the great Marianas turkey shoot. And you can look at a 10 Point chain from the Bauxite hills to the victory in the Pacific and say, Aha, any disruption of this chain along the way would have meant that the aircraft production could not have occurred because the engines would not have been there or the propellers would not have been there. It’s a fascinating way of thinking about maritime history in the broadest sense. So let me go on one more minute. I’ve asked Evan Wilson at the Naval War College his question, Could you do a similar supply chain like bubble illustration or sausage illustration of particular naval stores in the Baltic in the late 18th century, and how those pines how those supplies of the backdrop core to the Great British shipbuilding industry in the age of sail could be tracked all the way through to the victory and fighting Tamirare but you when you say where did the sails come from? Where does the flax come from? Where do the cross beams come from? You need a supply chain of your own. Think about this something more than naval history than just add admiras spotting the enemy fleet and going into action. Yeah,
to me, the obvious answer to that is that without any pines, you’ve got no deck planks. And we certainly didn’t have enough pine forests to make the deck planks, we had the oak or we had some of the oak, but the pine was a problem.
Case in point. Right now, as you may know, from looking at anxious articles in say, the especially American press, right now they’re beginning to discover that most of the world’s microchips are made in a single factory in Taiwan, and it has become absolutely strategically critical because if that went, then all of US industry will start collapsing in the next month. Man, talk about supply chains in peacetime as well as in wartime.
Well, absolutely fascinating stuff. Paul, thank you very much indeed for your time.
I’m really delighted to be with you. I’m really delighted to talk about victory at sea, the different levels of seapower . Thanks for inviting me, it was great
Thank you all so much for listening. Now, if you’re interested in this period, do please check out our fantastic YouTube channel where you will find, among other things a 3D animation of the Shokaku, one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbour. If you’re interested in the deeper history of 20th century sea power, there is much more including an animated ship plan with the extraordinary K class submarines and an eye witness battle plan of the Battle of Tsushima, brought to life. That’s all for now. Do please remember that the podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, you can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at hec.lr foundation.co.uk. And the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk where you can join up and there really is no better way to spend a little bit of money
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