Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Writing on the Post-1945 History of the Royal Navy: A Few Thoughts

Looking into the subject of British military history, one is quickly struck by how little of it is devoted to the post-1945 period, and this clearly applies to the British Navy. There are books about particular episodes--for instance, quite an outpouring of works on the Falklands War. There are also quite a few studies of smaller subjects, especially in the academic, think tank-type specialist literature, like the development of Britain's sea-based nuclear deterrent.

However, more comprehensive treatments are scarce. In contrast with the norm for other subjects, where authors tend to get more precise and prolific the closer they get to our own time, general histories of British naval power (as with Paul Kennedy's generally excellent The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery) tend to cover the post-war period in just a few broad strokes. And books specifically attempting a comprehensive treatment of the Royal Navy's evolution in this time--its transition from a superpower-level force to something more expected of a mid-sized West European country--are downright rare in contrast with those about the age of sail, the Victorian era, the world wars.

Of course, a familiarity with the biases of the field--such as Jeremy Black has noted--affords one explanation. As he noted, the tendency among historians has been to concentrate on the premier forces, and the biggest and best-known wars.

After 1945, the Royal Navy ceased to be the world's premier force, a distant second to the United States Navy, and then a third to the Soviet Navy--with the two other navies not only larger, more lavishly equipped and more active in world affairs, but setting the pace of technological and tactical developments. And of course, even in writing about those two navies, there has been nothing to compare with the global conflagration of 1939-1945.

Instead there is the Royal Navy enduring round after round of defense reviews and budget cuts and endless retrenchment driven by economic weakness and the declining legitimacy of imperial and martial ideals at home and abroad, while being outsized and outclassed by a growing number of foreign forces; and in the meantime carrying on with innumerable operations of smaller scale and consequence, short on the more conventionally "dramatic" and "exciting" actions (like surface actions), and these apt to be on the fringes of larger events (as in the Yangtze incident), in support of another, leading actor (as in Korea) or even ending in frustration (as in Suez).

Black noted, too, that historians tend to favor operational history and biography--and one might add to this that, dry as many find history, a romanticized view of war and a nationalistic sensibility can and does affect what historians choose to write about. With nothing here quite comparable to a Trafalgar, or even a Cape Matapan; and still less the figure of a Nelson, or even a Jackie Fisher; this leaves it an even less attractive subject. Indeed, the tale of the dismantling of Britain's world power status, with all its controversies and frustrations and humiliations (epitomized by the Suez affair, by Harold Wilson's having to eat his words about Britain being a world power and influence or nothing in the wake of the pound's devaluation), still relatively fresh in the memory, is far less appealing from such a standpoint than the empire's rise--cause for lament rather than triumphalism (out of which Correlli Barnett has made a career).

Additionally, in contrast with earlier periods, like the early twentieth century when the prospect and actuality of war with Germany dominated British strategic thinking, a study of the Royal Navy in the post-war era lacks a convenient center, leaving it all the more diffuse. Decolonization meant numerous separate conflicts, interacting with each other and with the Cold War--with a discussion of these made all the harder by how, for much the same reasons given above, many of the smaller conflicts that need to be taken into account have been only slightly covered. (Despite the salience of the subject given today's politics, how much time has English-language historiography given the war in Aden?)

However, whatever one makes of the cause, the neglect is unfortunate. Whatever else one may say, the Royal Navy was not just the world's second or third-largest navy for the second half of the twentieth century (and West Europe's largest), but globally active in a period that saw the "closing shop" of the biggest colonial empire in history, and the Cold War. The legacies of these actions and events, from the South Atlantic to South Asia, remain very much with us, and just as they are part of the Royal Navy's history, so are they part of its history. Additionally, the story of that navy's accommodation to Britain's reduced circumstances is well worth considering in itself, as precedent and parallel to other developments (for instance, the contraction and recovery of the Russian navy after the Cold War, so much in the news now).

Naturally, while recently giving so much attention to the larger picture of post-war Britain while completing my recent writing on James Bond (whom you will remember is a British naval officer), I had recourse to what has been written. And the most satisfying book on this subject I have encountered so far has been Eric Grove's Vanguard to Trident, reviewed here.

Review: Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II, by Eric J. Grove
The Cult of Ian Fleming
Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Review: James Sadkovich's The Italian Navy in World War II

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