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Response to Review no. 188

I was interested to read Richard Harding’s views of my latest book Seapower Ashore and grateful to learn that his views generally chime with other reviews from as far afield as Australia and America. As a former naval officer who is by no means a professional academic, I can also relish the one panning review which Seapower Ashore has had – so far – as this came from the editor of a rival magazine.

And at the risk of being even more boring, I agree with most of Harding’s criticisms. I have dealt inadequately with the role of the Royal Marines: but they have their own powerful advocates and in any case the subtitle 200 Years of Royal Navy Operations on Land was meant to be inclusive of the Royal Marines, who, of course, are an integral part of the Navy. Neither have I addressed the role of seaman as infantry, nor have I dealt, much, with how naval operations on land have been integrated into the wider spectrum of operations ashore, nor how sailors were trained and exercised in these roles. This later point is of special interest to me because a considerable portion my own basic naval training in the early to mid 1960s was taken up by parade training and small arms practise, and I have always been fascinated to observe how the pageant of the Field Gun (note the capital letters) as practised at Earls Court has become separated from the actuality of the naval operations which we were expected to fight during the Cold War.

The reviewer could have gone on to mention the many other extraordinary naval operations ashore which I did not mention. There was, for example, Abyssinia in the 1870s – the last time, I think, in the nineteenth century that the Navy took its rockets ashore and used them. Also, the first fixed shore defences of Scapa Flow in the World War I were field pieces landed from the Grand Fleet’s cruisers. And what about those extraordinary operations of armoured trains and river gunboats far from the sea during the Russian Revolution? And should the Battle of Obligado – an undoubted naval victory using ships rather than landing parties – against a country that does not even possess a coastline have qualified for an entry?

One of the reasons why some of these subjects are not addressed in Seapower Ashore is because I could not find the specialist authors who knew the subject or had the capacity to do the research. In the course of my research and since publication I discovered more of these and would be delighted to meet more. Perhaps if the reader can name the country and date of the Battle of Obligado he or she would kindly volunteer a contribution to the next volume.

I could certainly have made rather more of the concept of manoeuvre warfare – as illustrated in several of the chapters but especially in Andrew Lambert’s on the Baltic – and the role of the Royal Navy in joint and combined operations. These subjects were however outside the scope of what I had intended by assembling my cast of distinguished contributors, though I should have made them more explicit or referred to them more fully in my forward.

I disagree with Harding’s suggestion that the role of naval guns in warfare has diminished. On the contrary, Ivor Howcroft’s essay about Walcheren and the Lee Willet’s final essay about Tomahawk was intended to show how the role has been continuous and continues. Perhaps I should have included a chapter about the Role of the Fleet Air Arm in bridge-busting in Korea in the 1950s or the role in World War I of monitors – like M33 which is now being restored in Portsmouth – at the Dardenelles, off the Belgian coast on the flank of the German army, and in northern Russia. I was also fascinated when I realised that, as late as the 1940s, the battleships and battlecruisers still had their field guns or rather field howitzers embarked. In one book by a notable author which I reviewed recently, he wrote about the 3.7-inch gun being removed from one of these ships without realising that it was a howitzer and not an upperdeck mounting.

In summary, this is one of those rare occasions where, if I had more time I would have written, or rather edited, a rather longer book, and would included more incidents and rather more analysis of what was happening to the Navy, The Royal Navy that is, over the 200 year period which the book covers and how it occupied itself, especially while it effectively ruled the high seas. Here, surely, are lessons for the USN today.

Finally, I would draw the reader’s attention to my purpose in editing this volume. As well appealing to the general reader, I wished to draw attention using a series of short, scholarly, readable essays, to the Navy’s traditional role in land warfare. Not least in my intended readership is the Navy itself – and other navies – who in taking onboard the phrase ‘littoral warfare’ are in danger of reinventing the wheel. At the end of the Cold War, the major navies of the world all had to emerge from a straightjacket of conceptual thought that had forgotten about Corbett and had been following their own, perhaps distorted, interpretations of Mahan. Seapower Ashore was intend to remind us all that decisive battle at sea is a comparatively rare event compared to the myriad operations when the Navy has intervened ashore, whether supporting the army ashore, or demonstrating its capacity to operate independently.