From the Dardanelles to Oran by Arthur J Marder

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  • This book is essentially a welcome reprint of a set of five separate monographs, originally published in 1974, on:

    - The Dardanelles (‘revisited’).

    Marder, having access to previously unavailable sources, re-analyses this campaign and revises his verdicts as given in ‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’. His grasp of detail is exhaustive and there are several threads to this, for instance IF scarce air resources had been prioritised on spotting THEN HMS Queen Elizabeth would have taken out the Turkish forts in rear, where they were defenceless, and THEN the trawler minesweepers would have cleared the way for the Fleet to invest Constantinople and then Turkey MIGHT (this is left moot) have been forced out of the war in early 1915. The villain is the admiral on the spot, Carden, who was clearly not up to the job but Marder does not get as far as pointing out that Fisher - who had had the foresight to substitute Jellicoe for Callaghan as commander of the Grand Fleet - should have sorted this out in advance. Keyes as Carden’s Chief Staff Officer comes across (not uniquely) as thick, which we knew, and, gung-ho as he was, one must remember that his later ‘victory’ at Zeebrugge failed to achieve anything. Here and in the next section, as it was put to me by a superior in 1960, ‘You don’t tell the King his crown’s on crooked’. And as in the next section, the technical ignorance of senior officers impeded analysis on the spot.

    - Lessons for the RN from the 1914-18 war.

    The terms of enquiries being emasculated in order not to embarrass senior officers, or the Admiralty as an entity, plus, here again, want of sufficient scientific and mathematical sense, reduced the scope and effectiveness of post-war analysis and prevented the right lessons being learned about mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare especially convoy, amphibious operations, naval aviation, and many other matters. Failure to think was too often compounded by inability to do so. In spite of useful innovations like the Imperial Defence College, the RN Tactical School and the Naval War College, what reports did get produced were either so highly classified or became so buried in the Admiralty bureaucracy that those charged with running the war later were mostly ignorant of their existence. Improvements that might have been made foundered for want of money. To borrow Percy Scott’s phrase, at sea paintwork was more in demand than gunnery, and too often promotion went to officers for whom action was a substitute for thought. Negative results included the loss of HMS Royal Oak because of the defences of Scapa being allowed to lapse, of HMS Courageous because of mistaken belief in anti-submarine ‘Hunting Groups’, ships for Norway (and for Dakar) not being tactically loaded, pointless expenditure on the Northern Mine Barrage and Q-ships, and near-fatal damage to HMS Illustrious because of her being misemployed by Cunningham in January 1941. The last was an example of how, Taranto notwithstanding, the bleeding off of all talented air-minded junior officers to the RAF in 1918 left almost nobody in the senior reaches of the RN with an understanding of air matters, following soldiers Smuts and Trenchard’s victory for the erroneous argument by analogy that the Air is indivisible - whereas in fact in maritime warfare the air is a crucial dimension of strategy and tactics. Post-war analysis of the RNAS achievements in WW1 might have exposed this.

    - The RN and the Ethiopian crisis of 1935-6. (The Italian invasion of Abyssinia)

    Marder: “.. the orthodox judgment on British policy is far too simplistic, ignoring as it does powerful military considerations.” He explains all this in fine grain, and it is mostly a story of the cumulative effect of peacetime complacency and economy leaving us with very constrained military and particularly naval options. Our naval C in C Mediterranean, WW Fisher, although initially short of ships, men and AA ammunition, was sure he could throttle the Italians both in terms of their Abyssinian adventure and their seaborne trade. London, in the shape of Eden and the Chiefs of Staff led by Chatfield, was worried that damaged ships could not be docked in the Med - we had moved out of Malta because of the inadequacy of her AA defences - and that a possible war with Italy would leave us nothing with which to defend against Japan in the East. We could not get France properly onside given the duplicity of Laval and so could not provide the League of Nations the lead that only Britain could give. Appeasement was the result and this provided a green light for Germany to take the Rhineland, and the end of any credibility or purpose to the League. The one good result was a long overdue, massive naval rearmament programme. Marder also shows us in passing the first gleam of the idea of an air attack on Taranto and also how frantic signals traffic enabled Germany to break our naval codes and how Chatfield, whom he likes, had a somewhat misplaced belief in the effectiveness of our ships’ AA gunnery.

    - Winston Churchill’s Tenure as First Lord (3.9.39-10.5.1940)

    Winston now steps out from the wings. Marder, in a supplementary paper, uses interviews and other references to refute Roskill’s stance that Churchill pushed Pound around. Marder’s take is that Pound handled Churchill with great subtlety - both had learned from 1915 - never taking him head on but stonewalling him with careful staff work and logic so as, for instance, to sink the mad idea of sending a surface fleet to the Baltic. The suggestion is also that sometimes when Pound wanted something he used Churchill to send the appropriate signal. The odd lunacy, like Unrotated (AA) Projectiles, did get through. Meanwhile it was Churchill who pushed through the interception of the Altmark for instance so he wasn’t always wrong. His thrust and leadership were vital, reached deep into the Service and the country, and were much appreciated by Pound and others. However Churchill was extraordinarily mercurial and could be spiteful to juniors, for instance to the Captain who pressed upon him the Naval Intelligence Department’s (correct) figures for U-boat sinkings as opposed to Churchill’s inflated claims. Daladier comes on in a bit part stonewalling what would have been our timely mining of inland waterways used by Germany. The reasons for the Norwegian campaign being such a shambles are analysed in depth with Marder’s usual forensic skill.

    - The Attack on the French Fleet at Oran, 3rd July 1940

    Marder opens with a resumé of the convoluted political manoeuvring relating to the French Navy as France collapsed before the Blitzkrieg. Against an unstable situation not just Britain, France, and Germany but also Hitler’s jackal Italy, and the United States (worried because their big ships were nearly all needed in the Pacific) were all involved. As VCNS (Phillips) put it, ‘While having no reason to doubt Admiral Darlan’s good faith [Ha!] it was clear the events might put it beyond his power to control the future of the [French] Fleet if it was not handed over to [Britain]’. Churchill and Pound saw this and so did the British Chiefs of Staff, and drove the only possible solution, but many senior RN officers (and the perfidious Darlan) failed, or could not bring themselves to grasp this. France had already broken its word to Britain by surrendering unilaterally. Marder makes very clear the difference between how the situation was seen in London and what we now know from all parties’ records. The threat was real and the attack was lauded by naval professionals abroad, except of course in France, and in Germany which tried to exploit the event for propaganda purposes. As events unfolded Marder shows us how Somerville and London’s signals crossed; how the 57 year old Somerville was being pestered by Churchill during the previous night; how our successful coups de main in Portsmouth and Plymouth reinforced the belief that the Germans might easily take control of French ships in Toulon; the effectiveness and otherwise of the various gunnery, torpedo and air attacks on the French; and how as a major failure the Strasbourg escaped unharmed to Toulon. Somerville admitted that his heart was not in the operation. Marder canvasses the results both strategic and political, positive and adverse, of this inevitable action. The reader’s verdict will depend on his choice of metrics and how he weights them.

    We also see how Admiral North’s essentially insubordinate signal after the event marked his card with Churchill. Although saved temporarily by Pound, North was to be used as a convenient scapegoat for Admiralty failure later in the year.

    As a coda to Oran we see how Cunningham, icy calm in spite of Churchillian harassment which failed to weigh the possible dire consequences of the French blocking Alexandria harbour, managed to secure a solution that took the French ships out of service without bloodshed.

    My own dealings with the French Navy in the 1960s showed me that de Gaulle had made sure that the nation which had succoured him in 1940 and provided the platform from which he made himself supreme ruler of France, was still ‘Albion perfide’.

    This essay is required reading for anyone wishing to understand the events at Mers El-Kebir. There is far, far more than I have been able to summarise here.

    For the book as a whole, the RN apart, the (initially invisible) linking factor is Churchill, as First Lord for the first, fourth and fifth topics, as Chancellor 1924-9 for the second, and as the Government’s gadfly for the third.

    The book is well indexed and sources clearly identified, including the galaxy of admirals personally consulted by Marder and references to original papers in the National Archives that he used - and those not exclusively naval ones. The publisher provides clearer versions of the maps at the end at . There is an introduction by Barry Gough but I do not think this adds greatly to the work.

    In 1974 this book was, and still is, a major contribution to understanding the Second World War and this Seaforth reprint is very, very welcome.

    Missing, currently, from Seaforth’s Marder corpus is ‘Operation Menace: the Dakar Expedition and the Dudley North Affair’. Judging by the rest of Marder’s work I believe a matching production of this would be of great value.

    P.S. Second pic is the Strasbourg.

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  1. Naval_Gazer
    A well-observed and informative review. I'm not sure I need to read the book now. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing as there are so many out there and time is all too short.