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Monday, July 15, 2013

“Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”, by Robert K. Massie

880 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 9780679456711

Anyone who read and liked Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War should appreciate his new Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. As in the earlier book, although the ships and navies of the two rival nations are always at center stage, it is the people who built those ships and directed their activities and operated them and – in this book – fought them that really make the text vivid.

And what personalities! Winston Churchill; the extraordinary Jacky Fisher, the true father of the Dreadnought-type battleships that defined the era; the glamorous Admiral David Beatty, who captivated the British public; Kaiser Wilhelm; Admiral Franz von Hipper, and so on and so forth. If anything, the narrative in Castles of Steel is even more compelling than that of the first book because it deals with the drama and chaos of the Great War itself. Massie’s narrative lucidly explains the course of the naval war from the very opening days until the German High Seas Fleet scuttled itself after the conclusion of hostilities to prevent its delivery to its enemies. Along the way, several complex, controversial episodes are examined, including the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and the Battle of Jutland, the great clash of battle fleets towards which decades of naval technical development had been aimed.

Massie does not shy away from exploring the bitter in-fighting that erupted after the guns of battle had fallen silent, and he appears to present the arguments on both sides of controversies fairly. Although his portrait of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty is as an ambitious politician whose directives sometimes seeded chaos rather than order, Massie by no means holds Churchill solely or perhaps even chiefly responsible for the Gallipoli debacle. The admirals and generals on the spot are shown to have repeatedly erred and provided London with faulty advice. With Jutland, Massie’s basic sympathy is clearly with the quiet, somewhat cautious Jellicoe rather than with his flamboyant subordinate, David Beatty, who according to Massie later did much to rob Jellicoe of deserved credit while evading blame for his own errors.

Castles of Steel will thoroughly dispel the notion that the two great fleets were largely passive throughout the war (excluding Jutland) and that the naval war was a bit of a sideshow to the real action on land. He shows how decisive even an indecisive result at sea could be (as long as Britain could maintain its blockade on Germany while avoiding strangulation of its commerce by the U-boat campaign). Massie is also strong on showing how Jutland – whatever its tactical outcome – must have been a strategic defeat for the High Seas Fleet, since it left the U-boats as Germany’s only offensive option at sea. That in turn led to America’s entry and Germany’s certain defeat on land. Massie is not as interested in the details of the U-boat war; although his chapter on the subject is able and informative, he does not attack it with the same passion and detail as he does the surface ships. In that he resembles his hero in this book, Admiral Jellicoe, a master of surface warfare who respects and fears these new weapons, but does not really make them his own.

A masterful story-teller, Massie’s prose easily takes the reader in and makes it hard to set this book down. I recommend this monumental achievement, even if you are not at all interested in military history. This is history as high adventure.

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