Churchill’s Greatest Fear by Richard Doherty

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  • This is a one-volume history of the Battle of the Atlantic. The author is a prolific and established military historian; this appears to be his first treatment of a naval subject. It is written from a Command perspective and provides an economical narrative covering a very complex subject. It includes a background sketch of the original development of submarines and World War I and post-WW1 anti-submarine warfare. It is a very useful single-volume primer for further reading on the topic for anyone coming new to it.

    Doherty’s underlying comprehensive research enables him to pick his way successfully between the often conflicting offerings of his predecessors (the older ones writing, of course, without reference or indeed probably knowledge of the interceptors and code breakers’ contribution). We are provided with a thoughtful analysis which often challenges received ‘truths’. What comes across very strongly is our superior Command organisation, albeit punctured by some blunders, and our steady succession of key technical advances. The learning curve for all is clear; the crucial contributions to victory of several relatively junior individuals contrasts with many senior staff and their principals operating at or beyond the limits of their imagination, coupled with painful re-learning of lessons from the previous conflict.

    The text is supported by a good selection of maps, photographs and other illustrations, and a comprehensive bibliography. Even five pages of book titles alone cannot cover everything; for the personal experience of weather and war in this bitter sixty-eight month battle I would refer the ready to Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, JPW Mallalieu’s Very Ordinary Seaman and AH Cherry’s Yankee RN. References to (mostly secondary) sources are carefully annotated, together with a guide to the relevant records in the National Archives which have also been consulted.

    In all the excellence I have some bones to pick with Pen and Sword. On p.36 is a lonely little table, untitled but apparently an analysis by cause of merchant sinkings by numbers and tonnage from an arbitrary four months (in 1940 but it doesn’t say so), perhaps lifted from Roskill Vol.1 p.615 but with a misprint in the totals line; whether this is all merchant shipping or Allied or just British, and for which area - the whole Atlantic, the whole world or what - is not stated (actually, Allied). Either provide complete tabulated and identified statistics like this for the whole war, and preferably as an appendix, or leave this anomaly out altogether. Actually, I would have found a tabulated account of sinkings by cause by month for the war as a whole helpful to keeping mental track via the individual sinkings recorded in the text. Similar statistics for sinkings of and critical damage to U-boats would also have been useful. There is sometimes overlap and underlap of statistics in the text, which is awkward to follow. Next, it would be helpful if the chapters had topic titles and if these were repeated on the page titles as this would help one cross-reference the citations. Thirdly, there is some repetition in the text which better editing might have resolved. Lastly the title, a riff on a Churchill quotation (unreferenced but it is from his The Second World War, vol.2 ‘Their Finest Hour’, p.259), seems a touche melodramatic.

    However, in summary I have here a very readable reference for the future, which has in some respects recalibrated my understanding of this conflict. 4/5.

    For this review I have tossed in a pic of a corvette for those who would like to imagine what fun four weeks at sea with the wind sometimes Force 11 could be.

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