Book Review: Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night: 1904-1944


by Vincent P. O'Hara and Trent Hone

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2023. Pp. xiv, 305. Illus., maps, tables, append., notes, index. $39.95. ISBN: 1682477800

Naval Night Combat in the Early Twentieth Century

The masterly and entertaining introduction to this book describes the history of naval warfare at night and explains how it remained relatively rare until the mid-Nineteenth Century. At that point navies began to change rapidly, mostly driven by technological developments including the advent of steam power, armor plating, more powerful guns, and torpedoes launched by fast-moving small torpedo boats. Other developments such as destroyers with rapid firing guns, searchlights and perhaps most important, radios, made night combat ever more feasible. But 1850-1904 was an era of relative peace and it was only the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 that first provided the opportunity for navies to use these new technologies in anger. However, as this book so convincingly demonstrates, it took more than just new technologies to achieve success in night battle. Only those nations that deliberately encouraged and trained their sailors in the skills and aggressiveness necessary to take best advantage of the new technologies and to develop new doctrine and tactical practices to put them to best effect that consistently achieved victory.

This book, arranged more or less chronologically, details how each of seven nations between 1904 and 1944 developed tactics, doctrine and techniques for naval night combat dependent on their unique perspectives and strategic circumstances. Each chapter, written by a different expert in the field, illustrates one or more of the issues involved in night actions and shows how, in spite of progress, many of these same issues persisted into 1944.

Chapter One opens the discussion by showing how the Russo-Japanese war was an example of “Stumbling in the Dark,” as a result of which the Russians learned to build up mine and torpedo capabilities while the Japanese began to focus on what would eventually be their devastating night-fighting techniques. Chapter Two demonstrates that the Germans, facing Russian, French and British enemies in World War I, could not compete in capital ships so instead built up light forces – torpedo boats – and painted them black for night attacks. They also made advances in searchlights, night-signaling, and night-recognition procedures. In fact, though, torpedo boats played little role in the war, and none at the major naval battle of Jutland.

Chapter Three details British developments in naval night fighting between 1916 and 1939. The record during World War I was poor, where instead of preparing to fight at night the focus was on resuming action the next day. In the interwar years, especially given the unfavorably foggy conditions in the Channel, night fighting continued to be uncertain, although there were promising developments in several fields. A Tactical School, established in 1925, gave much attention to night action, particularly to the development of naval aviation for that purpose. The development of radar and direction finding on radio interception much improved situational awareness, as did improved binoculars and better plotting tables. Finally, high-risk ship handling and aggressiveness were emphasized.

As Chapter Four demonstrates, Italy between 1940 and 1943 was forced to fight. with limited resources. Italy concentrated at first on fleet actions in daytime. Not until the disastrous British raid on Taranto Harbor did Italy’s German allies belatedly tell them about the shipborne radar they had developed. Then, from spring 1942, effective radar, aggressiveness, and better shooting improved the performance of the Italian navy, although they continued to be hampered by low oil reserves.

Chapter Five discusses the Japanese navy’s development of excellence in night fighting between 1922 and 1942. The Japanese recognized as early as 1922 that the terms of the Washington naval treaty of that year gave the US and the British a permanent advantage in the number of ships allowed. The conclusion they drew was that supremacy in night fighting would allow them to whittle down enemy forces in preparation for what they believed was the inevitable climactic fleet battle. As a result, over the decades they vigorously trained their sailors in night fighting, giving them the tactics and the tools they would need to succeed. Concentrating on speed and firepower they built destroyers and cruisers and developed the phenomenally fast and long-range Long Lance torpedo with its massively powerful warhead. Practically wakeless, it was invisible at night. They also developed excellence in night optics, in flashless powder and in star shells, all of which enabled them to wrack up successes early in World War II.

Chapter Six shows how, between 1942 and 1944 the US Navy transformed its night combat tactics, creating coherent plans and doctrines, and introducing rigorous training. This, combined with excellent radar and the introduction of the Combat Information Center, finally enabled the US to bring down the powerful Japanese navy. All of this, of course, was greatly assisted by the unmatchable production pouring out of American factories. Finally, Chapter Seven outlines the Royal Canadian Navy’s battles, acting under Britain’s Plymouth Command and concentrated in the British Channel. Weather conditions there with fog and heavy seas made night actions particularly challenging but the Canadians met these with gradually improved technologies and organization.

Each chapter of Fighting in the Dark is introduced with a memorable anecdote, and many are followed by a “lessons learned” section. An excellent conclusion wraps up this highly readable and cogently argued book, and a useful appendix adds to its value, as do the extensive notes. While some of the issues addressed here are well known some deal with less familiar navies and the national and structural imperatives that drove them. To be sure, each author has his own style, and some concentrate more than others on describing actual battles. But they all cover important ground and together they give an unmatched picture of why and how night naval actions developed during the first half of the Twentieth Century.




Note: Fighting in the Dark is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams   

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