Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Battle of the Atlantic

Well, I did say I'd read three, didn't I? :) This was the most recent one I read, in fact, I've only just finished it. Admittedly, I have read an awful lot of other books in the period between the book I just reviewed and this one that I haven't written about yet, but I think this one is worth posting about. Just to clarify, this book is by Bernard Ireland.

First off, I have two complaints that could easily have been rectified with a little forethought, problems that are particularly unjustifiable because Pen and Sword is supposed to be a military history specialist. There were absolutely no footnotes, endnotes, or even a short bibliography. In short, although the blurb claims it draws on a wealth of source information, there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. There aren't even suggestions for further reading. The only sources given were a number of statistical charts and tables (which I confess I rather ignored, as they interrupted the flow of the writing, and the information was also given in the text). The second complaint is this: typos. Not a huge number, certainly not as many as I'm liable to make in a first draft, but again something that I think is somewhat inexcusable and could be rectified with decent proofreading. One or two made sentences hard to understand as the grammar was dodgy, the rest were just irritating.

That aside, I have a mixed response to the book. It was, again according to the blurb, supposed to be somewhat revisionist, suggesting that the Battle of the Atlantic was never really up in the air. In fact, the suggestion seemed more that after America entered the war the ultimate result of the Battle of the Atlantic was never in real doubt, something which I certainly wouldn't class as all that revisionist. The main reason I got the book out the library was because I was expecting a nicely controversial, well-argued alternative to what we've been given in class (to be fair to John, he has told us about the alternative view point but I agree that the Battle of the Atlantic could have been decisive prior to America's entry into the War). Instead, I found a book that was mostly of mediocre quality, did not talk all that much about Ultra (again something touted in the blurb which attracted me to the book), and had an over reliance on acronyms, which you were told about once and which then popped up much later in the book when you couldn't quite remember what they stood for. The referral to Germany as 'the enemy' was also confusing, as in some contexts it sounded at first like the author was talking about Britain as Germany's enemy. Certainly there was nothing all that new in the first few chapters, although the narrative was quite interesting and I determined to finish the book.

I was glad that I finished it, it must be said. The last three chapters were excellent, covering the end of the war (these chapters being significantly longer than the chapters in the previous book, I know three chapters doesn't really sound like a great deal) in the Atlantic, after the battle was technically won. The use of aircraft is covered excellently, something I hadn't realised was lacking in the BBC version. In fairness, the BBC version did not cover this period of the campaign in any sort of detail at all. The new technologies and the German attempts to counter them were well written, and the hunting down of u-boats was, again, something that fell outside the scope of the previous books I'd read. In short, while the first part of the book was mediocre, I found the second part particularly fascinating. However, on the basis of the flaws mentioned above, I would still recommend the BBC book above this one, for the simple reason that the main part of the campaign is better covered in the other book, with only the ending being well covered in this one. And, of course, there is still the issue that not a single source for this information is given.

In short, the blurb did an excellent job of making me want to read the book, but most of it was average rather than outstanding. The omission of any references and the typos could, I'm sure, be easily rectified to improve the book in general, but the writing was, to be honest, not as great as in the BBC account of the same title. I was disappointed with all but the last few chapters, which gave a detail and balance that I had previously been unaware with, in terms of how the ultimate hunting down and persecution of u-boats was conducted. Flawed, but still interesting. Perhaps worth getting out the library and just reading the last three chapters.

The Battle of the Atlantic

Yes, I know I reviewed a book with the same title not so long ago (well, okay, a fair while ago but I've not been posting for a while because I've been busy at college), but it seems to be a popular title. I have actually now read three books with this title, this being the second, and I would class this as the best history of the campaign as a whole from the three.

It's the BBC version, written by Andrew Williams, and proved not only informative with regard to both sides of the story, but also liberally filled with first hand accounts which brought the campaign to life. It's a well produced book, with good organisation of chapters, an excellent section on Enigma, and I didn't notice any typos which is always encouraging. Very readable and enjoyable, it was also informative enough that I used it as a reference source for an essay plan on British incompetence and lack of resources 1939-1941. I was particularly impressed with the focus on the intelligence battle and on the information about the u-boat service from crew members through to the command systems. An enjoyable read as a book and not just as a history book on a campaign you should probably know about, I was certainly impressed. Where it lacks is that it relegates the last two years of the war, after the battle was won, to a single chapter. Certainly understandable, it in no way detracts from the excellent narrative of Autumn 1939-Spring 1943.

In short, if you want to learn a little about the Battle of the Atlantic, a battle vital to keep Britain fighting in World War Two as the island was hugely dependent on imports both to feed the population and to provide raw materials for the war industry, this book is the right one to get. There're good explanations of the important technical points, and a welcome reluctance to use obfuscating terminology that makes you rely on a technical dictionary to understand the text. It's also an interesting read as a book.