Book Review: Big Gun Battles: Warship Duels of the Second World War

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by Robert. C. Stern

Barnsley, Eng.: Seaforth / Annaoplis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Pp. xx, 268. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $52.95. ISBN: 1848321538

The Last Big Gun Fights at Sea

Naval historian Stern (Destroyer Battles, Fire From Heaven, etc.), reminds us that despite the importance of air power in the naval operations of the World War II, there were a lot of gun fights between major surface forces -- in fact more battleship engagements than carrier battles – and then proceeds to gives us a look at some of these, the last “Big Gun” sea fights that closed out a tradition stretching back some four centuries.

Stern wisely does not attempt to give us a comprehensive treatment of all the surface actions by cruisers and battleships, as there were a remarkable number of them, some of which he has treated in earlier works.  Rather, he offers us a sampler of encounters from 1939 through 1944. In general, his coverage is better for actions between the Royal Navy and the Italian and German fleets, notably the River Plate, the Bismarck fight, Capes Spada and Spartiven, and so forth, but several notable actions in the Pacific theatre are included, such as the Java Sea and Surigao Strait. The details of the actions are generally well told, and unusually include more coverage from the Axis side than is common.

In many cases, Stern’s treatments are at odds with long-accepted versions of the events, due partially to the need to refute the lingering effects of wartime propaganda, notably the British persistence in denigrating the Royal Italian Navy, and also particularly due to the increasing availability of German, Italian, and Japanese sources on these operations. The maps are well done, making it easy to follow the actions described, and Stern is careful about technical terminology.  

Big Gun Battles is a useful read for anyone interested in the surface side of the naval war, and would make an excellent introduction to the subject for the novice.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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