Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review: Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II, by Eric J. Grove

Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987, pp. 487.

In comparison with the rest of the vast literature on the history of the British navy, books attempting to offer a broad and detailed treatment of events since 1945 are a relative rarity. Easily one of the most ambitious is Eric Grove's Vanguard to Trident, which covers the evolution of the institution from the end of World War II to the mid-1980s.

In fairness the book offers little to those looking for coverage of the cultural, social or political aspects of the Royal Navy's history in the life of Britain and the world in this period, and much the same goes for the way larger historical events and trends shaped the Royal Navy. The external developments from which Grove's story is inseparable--the performance of the British economy, or relations with the U.S., for example (or even developments in the British armed forces more broadly)--are discussed only to the extent to which one cannot avoid discussing them and leave the story coherent. The result is that those looking for a history more attentive to the broader context--economic, social, political, cultural--will need to look elsewhere.

Instead the book is primarily concerned with changes in the Royal Navy's doctrine and organization, the size, composition and technology of its forces, and its deployment and operation in real-world operations globally from 1945 to the mid-1980s--covering which the book at times seems to bury the reader in data, in part because of its structure. The four hundred rather large and packed pages of the main text are split up into just ten long chapters without much in the way of internal subdivisions to split them into more digestible pieces; while they generally lack convenient passages previewing what follows or recapitulating and condensing what preceded. Given the sheer range and diversity of what is covered in them, which ranges from references to Britain's broader economic stresses and relations with other powers to clashes of personalities within the government, from the modernization of specific weapons systems to isolated incidents and whole campaigns overseas, this makes the chapters often seem cluttered, while coverage of the progress of any one development--the budget, the carrier force, National Service--tends to be highly discontinuous, such that anyone following any one of these matters over an extended period has to do a lot of work putting the picture together from the fragments. This may reflect a significant feature of the book, namely that it chronicles the changes much more than it analyzes them, anything like authorial insight generally limited to showering the principal figures in his narrative with flattering adjectives (its discussion of Admiral Mountbatten in particular coming off as sheer hero worship).

However, the volume of information collected on these subjects here--largely based on the use of primary documents, and comprehensive in its coverage and attentive to a wide range of smaller but important details from aircraft ranges to personnel policies--is undeniably impressive. Moreover, after the first three chapters' coverage of the broad reshaping of the Royal Navy from 1945 through the mid-'50s, the book becomes more readable, in part because of the subject's narrowing. The blizzard of conflicting visions of the Navy's overall organization, and repeated systematic reviews and modifications amid retrenchment and decolonization; the intricate downsizing of the vast, diverse fleet of the war period; the numerous, oft-modified, oft-delayed procurement programs; and bewildering array of deployments and responsibilities; that made up the life of the Royal Navy in the 1940s give way to a less diffuse, less complex story afterward. The chapters also become more focused (with Chapter Six offering a robust overview of the submarine force's status, mission and size in the generation after World War II, Chapter Seven the "east of Suez" mission in the 1960s, Chapter Eight the winding up of that mission afterward). Also affording some compensation for the structure's more difficult aspects is the abundance of handy appendices packed with helpfully comprehensive tables (covering force size and composition by ship type and readiness state, tonnage, personnel numbers, and budgets by year and area, in many cases through four whole decades), and biographical profiles of the more prominent figures in this portion of history.

Of course, even granting the book's excellence at what it sets out to do--its bringing together this vast amount of information on its subject--still leaves it three decades out of date. However, those whose main interest is the transition of the Royal Navy from World War II to the post-imperial era (largely accomplished as of the 1970s) are unlikely to find its having been published in 1987 a problem. Indeed, where the fundamentals of that subject is concerned, this is possibly the best single-volume treatment available today.

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