Battle At Sea

Author: Reg Grant
Dorling Kindersley
Year: 2008
Genre: Nonfiction
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

I'll admit, I've become cynical about the quality of naval literature these last couple years. In late 2006, I seriously believed that a revolution was in the wings - authors new to the field were writing outstanding books, and it felt like naval history was finally entering the mainstream. Three years later, and not a whole lot has changed. I'm still waiting for that "revolution" to happen, and bookstore shelves don't seem to be filling up with new titles very quickly.

Starting around 2005, the British publishing giant Dorling Kindersley has added military history to its usual library of history, science, and movie license titles. Even though they've previously published books with titles like Battle, Weapon, and Warrior, Battle At Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare came as a surprise to me. As much as I try to follow DK's release schedule, this one started showing up on Borders shelves without any prior warning. Has DK finally managed to bridge that seemingly inseparable gap between us hard-core naval geeks and well, everyone else? Almost. While Battle At Sea certainly isn't a detail oriented "Grognards only" type of book, it's accessible enough to the common reader while still giving us hard-core types plenty to chew on.

Battle At Sea begins with a short history of the evolution of fighting ships, accompanied by a useful glossary. The book is divided into four sections: The Age of Galleys 1200 BCE - 1550 ACE, Guns, Sail, and Empire 1550-1850, Steam and Steel 1830-1918, and Carriers, Submarines, and Missiles 1918-Present. Each of these chapters opens with a brief introduction to the naval developments of that period, along with an illustrated timeline. These chapters are further divided by broader subject (for example, "Rivalry Across the North Sea"), and finally by individual conflicts ("Second Anglo-Dutch War," "Japanese Invasion of Korea," etc.).

At its heart, Battle At Sea is a veritable Encyclopedia Obscuria of virtually every famous naval battle in history, along with dozens of little-known and inconclusive naval encounters. The scope of this book encompasses the last 2,700 years, starting with the Battle of Lade fought between the Persians and Greeks in 494 BC and ending with the October, 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Depending on its importance, each battle receives anywhere from a small capsule summary to two full two-page spreads. Each battle description includes information on the date and location of the battle, the forces on each side, the losses incurred, and the outcome of the engagement. Spread throughout the book are small illustrated side-panels focusing on famous figures in naval history, weapons and technology, warship tactics, accounts from battle participants, and life on board. The topics discussed range from wolfpack tactics, to "crossing the T," shipboard medicine, how submarines work, compound engines, and naval communications.

The main selling point of Battle At Sea is definitely its visual factor. Although this has always been DK's strong suit, they've really outdone themselves here. Every page of this book has an illustration (most of them several) of some kind and the overall effect can be overwhelming. Open this book to any page, and you'll find maps, 3D battle plans, paintings, models, diagrams, vintage photographs and portraits, and images of weapons and equipment, all seamlessly incorporated into the text. The fact that someone published a naval book with more than just a couple maps is enough to knock me on my ass, but browsing through Battle At Sea made me feel like a kid in a candy shop! Most fascinatingly of all, this book features photographic "guided tours" of seven warships, taking the reader inside a replica Greek Trireme, Nelson's HMS Victory, and the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook.

Despite my gushing praise, Battle At Sea isn't perfect. Technical and history inaccuracies pop up with frustrating regularity, and should have been caught in the editing process. Looking through the World War II segments, I noticed paravanes described as anti-submarine weapons but later correctly described as mine-clearing devices, a British Vosper torpedo boat captioned as being an American PT boat, and an interior shot of a "German U-boat" that's actually from a British submarine. And despite being visually stunning, it's not always visually sensible. The isometric maps that accompany the descriptions of major battles are rendered in a simplistic comic book fashion that looks anything but professional. Ironically, the top-down maps that depict many of the minor battles are easier to follow.

Even though I consider myself a stuffy "old school" naval enthusiast who can't see the trees for the forest, Battle At Sea, warts and all, was a real breath of fresh air.  It's beautifully illustrated, sprawling, and provides an excellent jumping off point for anyone who wants to dig deeper into naval history, but isn't sure where to start. The hardcover equivalent of holding the world's biggest naval museum in your hands, Battle At Sea is worth the admission price and return visits




2009 SUBSIM Review