Tag Archives: History

Warship Diplomacy: British Intervention in the Baltic from 1800-1801

By Jason Lancaster

Setting the Scene

In 1801, it seemed as if Britain had made the entire world her enemy. Her allies had dropped by the wayside, Spain had swapped sides and allied with France, Austria was defeated, and Russia, under Tsar Paul, schemed to divide Europe between itself and France. Three coalitions formed against Republican France had already collapsed, leaving Britain friendless and alone. Yet, Britain fought on, alone. Britain relied heavily on naval stores, which came out of the Baltic; supplies such as fir trees for masts and spars, hemp for cordage, and tar and pitch. As the French revolutionary armies swept across Europe, borders changed and the number of ports Britain had to blockade increased, stretching the Royal Navy to the limit and further increasing the requirement for Baltic naval stores. Merchants from overrun nations transferred their cargos and vessels to neutral flags, such as Denmark and Sweden. As a result of this, the merchant marines significantly increased after the wars broke out in 1793.  Many of the ships carried legitimate cargos, but some carried contraband. However, to a nation fighting for its life, all goods going into an enemy port could be constituted a threat. As the struggle at sea intensified toward the end of the 1790s, the need for the Danes to protect their convoys from privateers, as well as the Barbary pirates, increased. Convoys escorted by Danish warships involved themselves in several naval skirmishes with British blockading squadrons in 1798, 1799, and 1800. These skirmishes resulted in the British seizing Danish convoys. The seizures led the Danes toward reviving the old League of Armed Neutrality, which had last formed in 1780 to protect the Baltic Nations’ ships during the American Revolution and to protect merchant vessels from belligerent privateers.

Tsar Paul was happy to help revive the League. He had recently fallen out with the British over the island of Malta. The Swedes and Prussians also joined the League. The formation of the League was a threat to British security. Britain’s fleet protected the island from invasion. Anything that jeopardized her access to Baltic naval stores was a threat. Therefore, a Baltic coalition formed around a hostile Russia could only be interpreted as a threat. His Majesty’s government decided that the best way to disrupt the League was by striking out at the weakest link in the Alliance. Britain demanded Denmark leave the League. When she refused, Britain prepared a fleet to remove Denmark from the League by force. 

The Creation of the League of Armed Neutrality

As Britain’s allies were defeated and dropped out of the conflict, Britain’s struggle for naval supremacy began to yield results. The battles of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Aboukir Bay in 1798 had defeated the Spanish and French navies and left them to regroup and refit. Britain controlled the seas. With naval superiority, Britain could blockade French ports and enforce restrictions on neutral ships. Some ships flew Danish flags as a convenience. The registration and flag were from Denmark, but little else was Danish. In reality, many were former Dutch merchant ships with Dutch cargos and crews.1 This was especially prevalent amongst the “Danish” ships bound to and from the Dutch East Indies. In 1797, 1798, and 1800 British ships sighted Danish Convoys and compelled them to heave-to. However, the Danish escorts refused to allow the British frigates to search the convoy for contraband goods. On July 25, 1800, the British frigates Nemesis, Terpsichore, La Prevoyant, and Arrow – all of 40 guns – and Nile – a small lugger – found the Danish frigate Freya escorting a convoy of six ships. Captain Baker of the Nemesis sent a boat to the convoy to search for contraband, however, the Danish Commander replied, “that if he attempted it he would fire into the boat.” Captain Baker lowered his boat and the Freya opened fire on the boat, missed it, and struck the Nemesis killing one of her crew. With this, the Nemesis gave the Freya a broadside, and “a most spirited action took place, which lasted for about twenty-five minutes, at the end of which time the Danish frigate, being much crippled in her masts, rigging, and hull struck her colours.” The British ships escorted the Freya and her convoy into the Downs to await the adjudication of a prize court. Regulations set down in 1673 stated, “When any ship met withal by the Royal Navy, or other ship commissioned, shall fight or make resistance, the said ships and goods shall be adjudged lawful prizes.” The prize court ruled that, “free ships make free goods,” but only to a certain extent, and that belligerent powers do have the right to “[ascertain] whether the ships are free or not.” Many Englishmen thought that the Danes and the Swedes were aligning themselves with the French by going out of their way to force engagements with the British over the convoy. The British insisted that the privilege “of visiting and searching merchant ships on the high seas, whatever be the cargoes, whatever be the destinations, is an incontestable right of the lawful commissioned cruiser of a belligerent nation.”2 The British had to insist on this steadfastly, otherwise, their entire blockade of France and her satellite republics would have been futile. Food, weapons, and supplies for her army would find their way into French ports in Danish and Swedish bottoms. If the French and Dutch received the naval stores that the British blockade denied them, then the Franco-Dutch fleets could come out and fight the British fleet, possibly defeating them and invading England.             

The British claimed to have the right to search neutral vessels for contraband, while the Danes insisted that neutral ships meant neutral goods. With overpowering maritime supremacy, Britain was in a far better position to dictate policy than Denmark. Despite her small size and stature, Denmark was not without recourse. She made overtures to Russia, Sweden, and Prussia to recreate the old League of Armed Neutrality. Each of these countries had different reasons to revive the League. Sweden and Denmark desired to protect their convoys from British searches and defend their idea of neutral rights, while Tsar Paul of Russia coveted British possession of Malta. Prussia was the most apathetic to joining the League, forced into it by the diplomatic wrangling of Russia and France. Prussia was very reluctant to do anything for the League, since she had little maritime commerce of her own, and felt threatened by borders with both France and Russia. In addition to convoy protection, Sweden coveted Danish Norway. The members of the League agreed to escort convoys with larger combined forces. Instead of a national frigate or two, the Northern League would escort convoys with a combined squadron of several ships of the line, while a fleet of 10 to 15 ships of the line cruised in the North Sea.3

The British viewed this armed League arrayed against them and proceeded to neutralize the Northern League’s threat. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, remembered what had happened when his predecessor, Lord North, failed to neutralize the threat of the League in 1780 – his government had fallen in 1782. The Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Russians managed to form their convoys and protect their freedom to sell naval stores to Holland, France, and Spain. As a result, the British met well equipped Dutch, Spanish, and French fleets across the world, from Jutland to Ceylon. At the Dogger Bank in August, 1781, the British and Dutch fought an indecisive, but bloody battle. The seven Dutch ships remained in line, but the British fleet of seven ships of the line bore down on the Dutch and crossed through their line. However, Admiral Hyde Parker’s fleet failed to break the Dutch line. Admiral Parker could not reform his ships into line and the engagement ended.4 To prevent a repeat of the 1780 League, British national security demanded the dissolution of the 1800 League of Armed Neutrality by whatever means necessary.

Diplomatic Efforts

Denmark did not desire to go to war. On the contrary, the Danish Foreign Minister, Count Bernstorff, desired nothing more than to remain neutral in a world caught in the flames of world war. Count Bernstorff hoped the recreation of the League would “not be productive of any more serious consequences [than] those which had followed the convention of 1780.” However, Lord Drummond, the former British Minister to Denmark, reminded Bernstorff, “the circumstances of the times rendered the present alliance of the Northern Powers infinitely more hostile to England than that which had taken place.” Britain’s failure to neutralize the previous League had led to disastrous results in the Atlantic. Britain lost naval supremacy and suffered defeats at sea, one of which led to the Franco-American victory at Yorktown. Britain had to contend with Spanish, French, Dutch, and, to a lesser extent, American warships in a global war. These nations harassed the British while they were busy guarding the English Channel from invasion fleets, protecting the naval stores convoys from the Baltic Fleet, and fighting a major land war in North America.5 

Not all British politicians were for directly attacking the Armed Neutrality, despite the fact that it was perhaps the best and only option available to prevent them from entering Napoleon’s camp. Mr. Charles Grey, MP, feared that war with Russia would,

“Give to France, as allies, the fleets of our new enemies. From Archangel to the Tagus, and from the Tagus to the Gulf of Venice, there will not be a single friendly port out of our own possessions where a British fleet can take shelter…. Will it then be possible for our navy, with all its skill, to stretch along such an extent of coast?”6

The prevention of French control from Archangel to Venice was precisely the reason why Britain had to act against the Armed Neutrality. “Free ships with free goods would accomplish nothing except enabling the French economy through neutral shipping. In hindsight, it is easier to say this than it would have been to act upon such notions in 1801. Nevertheless, the only way to disarm the Northern League was by force of arms. Most reports of the day said that it would require only twenty British sail of the line to blockade the Baltic Sea. By blocking the passage out of the sound, the League would be forced to come to terms with Britain, for lack of any way to trade with the world. Alternatively, a bold admiral could destroy the Danish, Swedish, and then Russian fleets piecemeal, as was the original plan of Lord St. Vincent and Lord Nelson. Tsar Paul resented the British occupation of Malta. Tsar Paul’s Francophile tendencies combined with Malta’s strategic location meant that they were reluctant to surrender the island to Russia. Especially since it would give Russia a warm water port in the center of the Mediterranean at the very moment Russia negotiated with the French.

The British Attack

The British decided the easiest way to destroy the Northern League was to remove the weakest link. Denmark was that link. Denmark was fearful for her dominions: the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, as well as Norway. Sweden schemed constantly to seize Norway, while Prussia or France could easily snap up Schleswig and Holstein, or the whole of the Jutland Peninsula. Count Bernstorff was in a difficult position. He had to decide which threat was more dangerous: the Russian threat, which could result in the loss of Schleswig, Holstein, and Norway, along with the cities of Lübeck, Altona, and Hamburg or the British threat, a threat which was not yet ready, and could possibly be avoided through diplomacy. Count Bernstorff decided that the British were the lesser threat. Count Bernstorff demonstrated Denmark’s fealty and loyalty to the Coalition with a hard line stance against the British. Count Bernstorff did not believe that Britain would fight a friendly power, and Denmark had historically been a friendly power. As a small maritime power, and gatekeepers of the Baltic, the Danish have always been very cordial with the English. Bernstorff was gambling that this international amity would prevent an English assault. The Danish government also believed their own propaganda that the batteries at Kronborg Castle could prevent any ship from entering into the sound.

The government of Denmark headed by young Crown Prince Frederick put a great emphasis on the national prestige of Denmark. Crown Prince Frederick’s government failed to negotiate even after it was evident that the British were serious and a British fleet anchored at the entrance to the sound. Apart from pride, the Danes were sick of British infringements on their neutrality and the inspection of their merchant ships by British men of war. Five years of inspections and seizures had embarrassed the nation and lowered her prestige. Crown Prince Frederick and Count Bernstorff remained unconvinced by British negotiators, and handled a mission by the British Finance Minister, Vansittart, incredibly poorly by returning the note he had brought from England, because it was written in English and not in French.7 

With the British fleet anchored nearby, Danish leaders still considered Russia as a greater threat than the British because of Prime Minister William Pitt’s resignation. However, Pitt’s resignation was due solely to domestic considerations and not foreign policy. Pitt had resigned because the King refused to grant Irish Catholics emancipation and allow them to hold government offices. Many foreign officials misinterpreted this domestic issue as a collapse of the British war party, and that the British people, weary of war, were going to make a peace with France. This was not the case. Pitt’s supporters formed a new British government and intended to carry the war to its rightful end: the destruction of the French republic, and the removal of Bonaparte.8 While diplomatic efforts stalled, the British fleet prepared to neutralize Denmark, by diplomacy if possible, and force if necessary.

While diplomacy withered, both sides looked to their arms. Admiral Hyde Parker, the hero of Dogger Bank, commanded the expedition. His deputy was Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte. Admiral Parker was expected to be the calm, diplomatic officer in the hopes that the Danes would seek a diplomatic solution. In case that failed, Admiral Nelson was the energetic, dashing admiral expected to chastise the Danes into submission. The Danish defenses were commanded in person by the Crown Prince, and at sea by Commodore Olfert Fischer and Captain Steen Bille. The British fleet composed 19 ships of the line, including two 98 gun second raters along with seven frigates and 23 smaller vessels. The Danes opposed this force with about 30 ships of various sizes moored in line to protect the city of Copenhagen, supported by the Trekroner Fort.9 Before the battle, Diplomat Johan Georg Rist regarded the defense of the sound as another Thermopylae saying, “viel Ehre, mit wenig Hoffnung” or “much honour with little hope.”10 As a member of the Danish Government, his opinion demonstrated how greatly the British had underestimated the Danes, who would rather fight a losing war than turn their backs on their allies.

Copenhagen lies on the island of Zealand, and partially on the tiny island of Amager. Copenhagen Roads, the easiest and most obvious route for an attack, is to the northeast of the entrance to the harbor. To the east of the island, about 2,500 yards from the island of Amager, and about 2,000 yards from the Trekroner Fort, lies the Middle Ground, a large shoal that splits Holland Deep from the King’s Deep and the entrance to the port of Copenhagen.

Depiction of the layout of the Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson suggested to Admiral Parker that Nelson take 12 of the ships of the line, four frigates, and several smaller vessels down the Holland Deep, around the Middle Ground, and up the King’s Deep to attack Commodore Fischer’s anchored ships. Parker agreed, and Nelson immediately set to work preparing the way. Nelson had the channel sounded and buoyed. He called his captains onboard to explain his plan of attack.11

On April 1, 1801, Nelson’s squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down their marked channel towards the Danish defense line. As the British approached, the Danes were unsure what to expect. Were the British really going to attack? Would they shell the city with bomb vessels and fire ships? Would they engage the anchored Danish fleet? As night approached, the British fleet was forced to anchor instead of proceeding down the unknown channel in the dark. The British fleet was just 3,000 yards away from the Danish fleet. Crown Prince Frederick gave the order for mortars in the Stricker Battery on Amager Island to open fire on the British fleet. Three shells were fired from the battery into the middle of the British fleet. However, from shore it appeared that the range was too great and the battery ceased fire.12 

The British fleet outnumbered the Danish fleet 262 guns to 150 guns. Nelson’s plan was for his ships to approach the enemy ships, bombard them into submission, and then reduce the Trekronner Fort. Nelson’s advantage in guns was matched by the maneuverability of his fleet fighting against a moored fleet, unable to maneuver. Yet, there were two factors that could make or break Nelson’s plan: wind and water depth. For success, Nelson needed the wind out of the south and water depth sufficient for his fleet to approach the Danish fleet. Throughout the night of April 1st, the wind veered into the south, promising victory on the 2nd. The British fleet could only sound the waters outside of Danish cannon shot. This left plenty of space for ships to run aground. The British Baltic Sea pilots that the fleet had brought with them refused to risk their necks or the ships on the uncharted waters. Instead, Sailing Master Alexander Briarly, of Audacious, volunteered to take responsibility and lead the fleet towards the Danes. Master Briarly had done the same at the battle of the Nile.13 Several British ships of the line ran aground on the Middle Ground Shoal. Nine of the 12 ships of the line were available to Nelson, but the fleet’s pilots refused to come within 300 yards of the Danish line for fear of the Refshale Shoal which was thought to be near the Danish fleet. Instead, the British would fight from 600 yards.

View of Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle with the Danes before Copenhagen. April 2, 1801. (William Elmes prints from Royal Museums Greenwich)

The battle began at 1000. The Danish fleet composed of man-of-war’s men, merchant sailors, and citizens of Copenhagen fought tenaciously. From his vantage point, Admiral Parker could see three of the ships, Agamemnon, Bellona, and Russell, not participating in the battle as all had run aground in the Hollander Deep. Admiral Parker saw that the Danish fleet had not been overwhelmed and at 1315, Admiral Parker signaled for the action to be discontinued. Upon being told this, Nelson asked if his signal to “engage the enemy more closely” was still flying. He then ordered that signal to remain flying. Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said, “you know Foley, I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Nelson’s captains saw both Admiral Parker’s signal and Nelson’s signal, and kept up the fight trusting Nelson.14 

Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye. April 1801.  

At 1345, Nelson left the quarterdeck to write a note. Nelson sent a flag of truce on shore with a note, “to the brothers of Englishmen, the Danes,” so that the wounded Danes could be evacuated and the captured ships could be taken into possession, as well as to spare further loss of life. Nelson also threatened to burn Danish vessels with their crews if they did not stop firing. Whether this was a ruse de guerre or belief in his victory, Nelson’s note had the desired effect. By 1400, there was only sporadic firing from the Danish fleet and the bulk of the ships had surrendered. Despite having beaten the Danish fleet into submission, the British fleet was still exposed to the fire of the Stricker Battery and the Trekronner Fort, as well as the dangerous shoals.15

The Danes and Nelson sat down to negotiate an armistice. Because Denmark could not leave the Armed Neutrality, she would halt all military preparations for fourteen weeks and the British would not come within cannon shot of Copenhagen’s fortifications.

Aftermath of the Battle           

News that Tsar Paul had been murdered, and that the new Tsar Alexander favored the British and disliked the French, meant that the Armed Neutrality ceased to exist. The neutralization of Denmark, combined with lack of Russian hostility to the British meant there was little to organize over. Tsar Alexander had renounced all claims to Malta and was ending the embargo against British ships. The Swedish fleet never left Karlskrona; it would certainly have met with defeat at the hands of the British fleet commanded by Lord Nelson. In Egypt, General Abercrombie had decisively defeated the French army, although he paid for his victory with his life. His army had ended French occupation of Egypt. Britain thought it was in a position to make peace with France on equitable terms and not from a position of weakness. However, that peace proved to be elusive; the people of Europe had to wait another 13 years after the Peace of Amiens for lasting peace to come. In 1800, the British took the lesson of 1780 to mind and met the Armed Neutrality head on. Through luck, skill, and the determination of the British Sailor, she defeated it.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Endnotes

[1] Feldbaek, pg 14.

[2] Tracy, pp 92-96.

[3] Feldbaek, pp 34-35.

[4] Harding, pg 247.

[5] Pope, pg 99.

[6] Ibid, pg 113.

[7] Feldbaek, pp 202-210.

[8] Pope, pg 135.

[9] Anderson, pg 304.

[10] Feldbaek, pg 151.

[11] Pope, 311.

[12] Feldbaek, pg 126.

[13] Feldbaek, pg 134.

[14] Feldbaek, pp 192-193.

[15] Feldbaek, pp 194-195.

Bibliography

Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Baltic. London: Francis Edwards, First Pritning 1910, Second Printing 1969.

Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Forces in History. New York: St Martins Press, 1998.

Feldbaek, Ole. Denmark and the Armed Neutrality 1800-1801: Small Power Policy in a World War. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1980.

Harding, Richard. Sea Power and Naval Warfare: 1650-1830. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Press, 1976.

Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organisation 1793-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Pope, Dudley. The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Tracy, Nicholas. The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War 1799-1804, Volume II. London: Chatham, 1998.

Featured Image: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801. The extremely young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men on his floating naval battery. (Painting by Christian Mølsted 1901. Willemoesgaardens Mindestuer, Assens)

Hunters and Killers

Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Hunters and Killers: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2015/2016, $44.95.

By Joe Petrucelli

In their two-volume work, Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written the first comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. As the authors note in their preface, there are histories of ASW campaigns as well as  both adversary and U.S. submarine operations, but no one has examined the discipline of ASW from its humble beginnings. Polmar and Whitman do just that in these two volumes, starting with the rudimentary ASW operations of the American revolution through the massive campaigns of the First and Second World War and finishing with the nuclear revolution and post-Cold War implications. Through their analysis, one can discern four factors that make ASW campaigns effective throughout history: numbers, technology, intelligence coordination, and organizational integration and concepts.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Polmar and Whitman’s analysis is that in ASW, numbers matter. While acknowledged as important, most navies do not appear to consider ASW as one of their most important capabilities and invest in it accordingly. Thus, during the interwar period, Polar and Whitman observe that the U.S. and Royal Navies drastically cut their ASW platforms both in absolute and relative terms, preferring to expend limited resources on larger, more prominent line combatants. Unfortunately, all the successful ASW campaigns they examined required presence over a large open-ocean area and a small number of highly capable combatants were not necessarily helpful, leaving the Allies to suffer severe losses until embarking on emergency building programs. To emphasize this point, in 1940 none other than Winston Churchill observed that large surface combatants (even if equipped with ASW weapons and sensors) were not effective escorts because they were valuable enough to become targets themselves. The most effective force structure during the ASW campaigns they examined consisted of long-range patrol aircraft and a large number of small, relatively expendable escorts.

The history of ASW is one of technological innovation by both submarines themselves and ASW forces. Polmar and Whitman do an excellent job explaining these complex technical developments in ASW (i.e. sound wave attenuation, convergence zones, etc) and translating them into layman-ese. However, it is important to note that they do not present technology as the solution for ASW dominance, but rather as a never-ending balance between offensive and defensive technologies. As ASW forces developed new technical capabilities such as depth charges, radar, and sonar, submarines countered with technologies such as snorkels, longer-range torpedoes and air-independent and nuclear propulsion. In the end, technology provided necessary tactical capabilities for an effective ASW campaign, but by itself was not sufficient to practice effective ASW.

Additionally, the authors explores the role of intelligence and cryptology in ASW, a vital factor in historical ASW campaigns. Allied cryptology efforts, known as ULTRA during WWII, were vital to cueing ASW forces and helping convoys avoid known U-boat patrol areas, while HF/DF capabilities deployed on escort ships gave ASW forces more tactical-level cueing. Polmar and Whitman describe a similar cueing role for U.S. undersea surveillance assets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not just intelligence and cryptology capabilities by themselves that gave ASW forces an advantage, but the fusion of intelligence capabilities into operational forces. By devising employment schemes to utilize intelligence and cryptology windfalls in the short time window that they were relevant, the Allies gained critical advantages in the ASW fight.

Underlying all of these factors and capabilities is the awareness that ASW is a team sport. Integrating ASW platforms from multiple services, intelligence/cryptology sources, and new technical capabilities into an effective campaign required new organizations and employment concepts. The most well known ASW concept, one that was initially resisted during both World Wars, was the convoy system. While convoys probably had the biggest impact in reducing the effectiveness of enemy submarines, German submarines were able to at least partially adapt to it with their own “wolfpack” concept.  Other operational concepts that proved crucial to effective ASW included the development of hunter-killer groups (including escort carriers) to reinforce the convoys and the creation of dedicated ASW organizations (such as the WWII U.S. Tenth Fleet).

USS Providence (SSN-719) snorkeling at her berth in Groton, CT before having honors rendered by the Sloop Providence. (Source)

Although these volumes are a history of ASW and do not explicitly present policy recommendations, there are some lessons from Polmar and Whitman’s work that seem increasingly relevant today. First, reliance on a breakthrough technology to turn the oceans “transparent” is a risky proposition, as the Royal Navy discovered during World War II when their planned reliance on ASDIC (or active SONAR) for ASW proved not nearly as effective as hoped. Additionally, numbers matter, and effective ASW requires a force structure we lack today – namely small surface combatants and escorts (admittedly the LCS is small, but in this reviewer’s opinion it lacks range, combat capability, and is not designed as an escort). Lastly, ASW requires organizational integration in a way that has not been stressed in recent years. While the U.S. Navy (and close allies) have maintained ASW organizations and periodically exercised those capabilities since the end of the Cold War, convoys were last utilized during Operation EARNEST WILL in the Persian Gulf while the last ASW convoys appear to have been during World War II. It is not clear if we have truly exercised convoy tactics (much less having the merchant shipping in the current era to string together a convoy system) or have war-gamed a theater level war against dozens of commerce raiding submarines.

Overall, Polmar and Whitman’s two volumes are an amazingly comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. This reviewer’s only complaint is that the analysis largely ends with the end of the Cold War. While the intensity of ASW operations declined at this time and more recent issues are admittedly difficult to research due to classification issues, there are a number of public ASW incidents that would have been worthy of including, from the 2007 incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced inside a U.S. carrier battle group to the 2009 deployment of a Russian Akula SSN in the Western Atlantic. These recent incidents, as well as changes in technology and command structures, would better complete their description of ASW. Despite that one critique, this is a very readable and informative set of books and one that should be required reading for every naval officer serving with surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and undersea surveillance organizations.

Joe Petrucelli is a former submarine officer and current Naval Reserve officer. He is a PhD student at George Mason University and a Student Fellow at the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or his employer.

Featured Image: An allied ship is seen sinking through the periscope of a German U-Boat in WWII. 

History’s Data for Tomorrow’s Navy

By Frank A. Blazich, Jr.

In an era where the Navy is facing contested seas from challenges posed by China and Russia, history can unlock potential advantages with which to meet current and future threats. Gathering and preserving its operational records, in essence data, is critical. Unfortunately, in terms of such historical records, the Navy is in the Digital Dark Age. It retains only limited data and is losing access to its recent history – knowledge purchased at considerable cost. The Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage their data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages. This cultural transformation of collecting and preserving historical data within the Navy will be a long process, but leveraging its history to meet current and future problems will aid in maintaining global maritime superiority.

On 25 May 2006, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) formally established Riverine Group 1 and Riverine Squadron 1 to safeguard the inland waterways of Iraq. These lethal, agile forces executed over 2,000 missions and trained their Iraqi River Police successors to carry on after the withdrawal of major American forces. The experiences of the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Group (TF-115), River Patrol Force (TF-116), and Mobile Riverine Force (TF-116) which operated in the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s, facilitated the establishment of these forces. The records collected, organized, and preserved by Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and command-published histories of the brown- and green-water force enabled NECC to expedite the efficient launch of a riverine force for the 21st-century Navy.1

Boats from the Navy’s Riverine Squadron 2, Detachment 3, prepare to insert members onto the shore of Lake Qadisiyah near Haditha dam, Iraq, 29 December 2007. From the lessons of the Vietnam War, the Navy was able to stand up its contemporary riverine forces. Source: (U.S. Navy photo)

History is one of the fundamental sinews of the American military establishment. Training is informed by “lessons learned” from prior experiences—historical data by another name—and every organization has senior members who contribute decades of institutional memory to solve contemporary problems. Synthesized into history monographs, these publications equip warfighters with insight and perspective to better guide their actions and decisions. Avid history reader and retired Marine General James Mattis acknowledges, “I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.”2 History’s importance to the present Navy is also reflected in Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John M. Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, which states “we must first understand our history – how we got to where we are.”3 The CNO’s recently released professional reading program buttresses his statement with a rich and varied roadmap of texts which have influenced his leadership development.4

Today, the Navy finds itself returning to an era of contested seas with contemporary challenges posed by China and Russia. Throughout the Cold War, the Navy possessed a large body of veteran Sailors holding vast reserves of institutional memory, often stretching back to World War II, in all aspects of naval operations. Deployments from Korea to Vietnam and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean honed the Navy’s capabilities. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union provided the Navy with a period of uncontested naval supremacy, but also led to force reductions and a gradual loss of institutional experience with missions like hunter-killer groups, offensive mining, and large surface action groups. A dwindling number of active duty Sailors have operational Cold War experience, and they mostly occupy senior leadership positions.

The records needed to fill that gap must be preserved. Through the Vietnam War, the Navy’s historical data principally took the form of written correspondence in varied formats. The advent of digital computing has vastly transformed record generation and retention, both of which pose notable challenges to records management.5 In a period of important fiscal and strategic decisions, the Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages.

Gathering the Data

Several efforts currently exist to capture the Navy’s data. The lifecycle of records is governed by the Department of the Navy Records Management Program, which establishes all policies and procedures for records management. Under the Director of Navy Staff is NHHC, whose mission is to “collect, preserve, protect, present, and make relevant the artifacts, art, and documents that best capture the Navy’s history and heritage.”6 Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment (NR NCDD) 206, established following Operation Desert Storm, assists NHHC personnel by providing uniformed teams for deployment to fleet units and other Navy commands to document and preserve the history of current naval operations during crisis response, wartime, and declared national emergencies. They are actively engaged in supporting NHHC’s mission objectives.7 Lastly, an essential tool for collecting the Navy’s historical data is Office of Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Instruction 5750.12K governing the production of the annual Command Operations Report (COR).

First published on 8 November 1966, OPNAVINST 5750.12 governs creation of the COR, intended to ensure historical records are available for future analysis.8 As stated in the current version, the COR “is the only overall record of a command’s operations and achievements that is permanently retained” and provides “the raw material upon which future analysis of naval operations or individual unit operations will be based.”9 The document primarily consists of a chronology, narrative, and supporting documentation. As OPNAVINST 5750.12 evolved, emphasis shifted from gathering information on specific subjects relevant to warfighters and combat operations to becoming a tool to gather specific types of documents.10

Unfortunately, compliance is erratic and the instruction’s importance was ignored (or unknown) by commands. From 1966 to the present, the submission rate of CORs for units and commands has never reached 100 percent; for CY15 the submission rate stood at 63.5 percent. Submitted CORs are often unevenly written and composed. The causes for these shortfalls vary and are undefined. The culprits are likely operational tempo, personnel shortfalls, and/or concerns about information security. Perhaps commanders opted to err on the side of caution and avoid objectively documenting an unsuccessful operation, intra-service conflict, or inadequate leadership. Without foreseeing the potential impact and importance a COR may have on tomorrow’s Navy, responsibility for the report is often assigned as an additional duty for a junior officer juggling a myriad of responsibilities.

These data gaps have an adverse impact on present and future actions at both the individual and institutional level. For veterans, a gap in COR submissions may result in the denial of a benefits claim with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, or in regard to awards or decorations with the Board for Correction of Naval Records.11 For OPNAV, Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet, or numbered fleets, lost CORs diminish the raw data needed for quality analysis, leaving analysts to generate products which may fail to accurately account for critical variables. What is lost is critical contextual information, retention of which is invaluable. “Solid historical record-keeping and analysis would help enlarge decision makers’ perspectives on current issues,” writes historian and retired Navy Captain David Rosenberg.12 Without rigorous records, historians such as Rosenberg cannot write books and articles to help leaders like Secretary Mattis and warfighters sufficiently learn about previous military endeavors. Consequently, past mistakes will inevitably be repeated with potentially adverse outcomes.

Current COR generation is arguably more difficult than ever. The information revolution has led to the proliferation of raw data without the benefit of summation or prior analysis. PowerPoint slide decks, rather than correspondence or memoranda, are all that an author or veteran might possess on a given topic. Rather than gathering critical teletypewriter message traffic from an operation, the author of a COR might need to collect email correspondence from multiple personnel throughout a unit bearing an array of security classifications. Gathering information from digital discussion boards, section newsletters, and untold quantities of data could be a full-time job.

Furthermore, the follow-on process of creating a coherent narrative from the raw data is a laborious process for a professional historian, much less for a Sailor fulfilling an additional duty and unfamiliar with the task. During World War II, the usual authors of aviation command histories were squadron intelligence officers. They understood how the information collected could be used for everything from operations to force development to technical improvements. Coupled with a familiarity of preparing narrative analyses and summary papers, the resulting command histories proved cogent and comprehensive. By comparing old and contemporary CORs, it is obvious that commanders must assign the COR responsibility to qualified individuals with the appropriate education, experience, and skills.

Increasing the operational tempo of naval forces naturally increases the generation of data. However, with limited time and personnel to gather and generate the data, it must come as no surprise that records about the Navy’s involvement in Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have been irretrievably lost, to incalculable impact. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data belongs to the respective combatant commands and is currently inaccessible to Navy analysts and research specialists.

The Past is Prologue

No individual or organization is infallible—errors can be extremely costly, and for military organizations they lead to the loss of blood and treasure. The operational records generated in peace and wartime provide raw materials for historical analysis, which distill lessons learned and generate studies to educate uniformed personnel. Mistakes always happen, but historical analysis can prevent the repetition of old errors. Incomplete data yielding subpar analysis will affect the resultant knowledge products and undermine history’s influence on future decisions. For example, in 1906, Lieutenant Commander William S. Sims incorporated battle observations and gunnery data to challenge the conclusions of Captain Alfred T. Mahan regarding gunnery at the Battle of Tsushima and advocated convincingly for a future fleet design dominated by all-big-gun battleships, thereby ushering the Navy into the “Dreadnought era.”13 If the operational records of current efforts are being lost, are we not again jeopardizing future fleet designs?

Analysis of combat operations has proven instrumental in improving the warfighting abilities of the respective services. Combat provides the only hard evidence on the effectiveness of military doctrine and the integration of platforms and weapons. For example, the Battle of Tarawa (20-23 November 1943) tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. As historian Joseph Alexander details in his book Utmost Savagery, success in the amphibious invasion remained an “issue in doubt” for the Marines for the first thirty hours. The documentation and analysis of the battle prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to increase the amount of pre-invasion bombardment and to refine key aspects of their amphibious doctrine, among other changes. With evidence-turned-knowledge gleaned from Tarawa, the Navy and Marine Corps continued unabated in rolling back the Imperial Japanese Empire, assault by bloody assault.14

The Battle of Tarawa tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. The bloody fight and post-battle analysis enabled the Navy and Marine Corps to refine doctrine for successive amphibious operations in the Pacific War. (National Archives)

Similarly, the Vietnam War demonstrated how technology does not always triumph in an asymmetric clash of arms. In the skies over North Vietnam, American aircraft armed with sophisticated air-to-air missiles met cannon-firing MiG fighters. Neither the Air Force nor Navy enjoyed a high kill ratio, which at best favored them two-to-one until the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder in November 1968. Disturbed by the combat results, CNO Admiral Tom Moorer tasked Captain Frank Ault to examine the Navy’s entire acquisition and employment process for air-to-air missile systems. After examining reams of available historical data, Ault’s May 1968 report recommended establishing a school to teach pilots the advanced fighter tactics of a seemingly bygone age of machine gun dogfights. This recommendation gave birth to the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine better known as TOPGUN. Using a curriculum developed by studying operational records, TOPGUN’s first graduates entered air combat over North Vietnam after the resumption of bombing in April 1972. When American air operations ceased in January 1973, the Navy enjoyed a kill ratio of six to one, due in large part to TOPGUN training in dogfighting and fighter tactics.15

Silhouettes of enemy MiGs downed in the Vietnam War by graduates of the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine—TOPGUN—serve as a reminder of the value of historical data towards offering solutions to operational problems. (U.S. Navy photo)

Carrier aviation’s successes in OEF and OIF came in part due to the lessons gleaned from Operation Desert Storm (ODS). With carrier doctrine designed for blue water sea control against the Soviet Navy, the force was not tailored for sustained combat projection onto land. In the waters of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea in 1990-1991, however, six carrier battle groups found themselves operating in a coalition environment. Despite the lofty hopes envisioned with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, naval aviation found itself unprepared for joint and coalition interoperability. From the lessons of ODS, the Navy modified its F-14s to carry the Air Force’s LANTIRN targeting system, began purchasing precision-guided munitions, and modified the carrier air wing composition to better support operations on land per joint recommendations. From Operation Allied Force in 1999 to the launch of OEF and OIF in 2001 and 2003, respectively, naval aviation flew substantial numbers of deep-strike missions, fully integrated into joint and combined air operations.16

An F-14D Tomcat from VF-213, 18 September 2005, equipped with an AAQ-14 LANTIRN pod on its starboard inboard pylon, a modernization grounded in lessons from Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Navy photo)

The History You Save Will Be Your Own

In terms of historical records, today’s Navy is in the Digital Dark Age, a situation drastically accelerated within the past twenty years by the immense generation of digital-only records. It retains only limited data and the service is actively losing access to its recent history, knowledge purchased at considerable cost. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data is unobtainable from the combatant commands. Although COR submissions in the first year of each conflict were higher than in peacetime, they thereafter fell below a fifty percent submission rate. In some cases, there are no records of warships assigned to carrier strike groups for multiple years. While some data was captured, such as electromagnetic spectrum or targeting track information, the records involving “who, what, where, when, why, and how” are lacking. NR NCDD 206, together with NHHC staff, conducts oral histories with Sailors to collect data that researchers can use to capture information not included with CORs. Oral histories, however, supplement but do not completely substitute for textual records.

What exactly is being lost? Why does this matter if weapon- and platform-related data is available? The intangibles of decision-making and the organizational culture are captured in data generated through emails, memoranda, and operational reports. For example, as the Navy evolves its doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to maximize the potential of the distributed lethality concept, issues of decentralized command and control must be addressed.17 The ability to draw upon historical data to inform TTPs, training systems, and cycles is paramount to prepare commanding officers and crews for potential challenges over the horizon and to close learning gaps. As retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman notes, the World War II submarine community drew extensively upon the after-action and lessons learned reports to improve TTPs and promulgate best practices to educate the entire force.18

Navy culture successfully adapted to close learning gaps in World War II, and it can adapt to escape the Digital Dark Age. In the 1920s and 1930s, budgetary and treaty restrictions limited fleet design but the Navy experimented, evaluated, and used its data to improve its platforms and TTPs. One notable example was the evolution of how ships processed information at sea, culminating in 1944 with the Combat Information Center, an integrated human-machine system which Captain Timothy Wolters documents in his book, Information at Sea, as an innovative example of decades of research and development informed by history.19

Action corner of the Combat Information Center (CIC) aboard light aircraft carrier Independence (CVL-22) in 1944. An innovation spurred by war and grounded in decades of improvements to communication at sea, the CIC provided an integrated human-machine system to process vast arrays of data in a real-time operational environment. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Preserving critical historical data is the collective and legal responsibility of every Sailor and Department of Navy employee. Digitization poses challenges that cannot be met by only a small group of historians and archivists, a form of “distributed history.” If distributed lethality enables every ship to be a lion, digitization and computer-based tools enable every Sailor to take ownership of their unit’s accomplishments and play an active role in the generation of the COR. Command leadership must advocate for the COR rather than considering creation as merely an exercise in annual compliance. Responsibility and management of the annual COR must be a team effort. Include chief petty officers and junior enlisted and empower them to take an active role in collecting data and drafting the chronology and narrative. Not only must the COR be an objective, factual account but an inclusive report with contributions by officer and enlisted communities to ensure preservation of a thorough record of all actions, accomplishments, and key decisions.

Furthermore, data is generated continuously. A quality COR is rarely written following a frantic flurry of electronic messages requesting people forward files to the designated COR author. Assembling a dedicated COR team of officers and enlisted personnel to gather and organize records throughout the year will prove more beneficial. This team in turn can provide a valuable resource for an entire crew and commander, either to provide information for public relations, morale purposes, award nomination packets, or operational analysis.

Classified material poses an immediate concern when proposing this distributed history approach for COR generation. Such digital records, located on a variety of computer networks, rightfully pose challenges regarding operational security, either via aggregation or unauthorized access. Such concerns should not, however, jeopardize the overall effort. Generating classified CORs is encouraged and detailed in OPNAVINST 5750.12K; as thorough a narrative as possible is essential. Archivists at NHHC, trained to process and appropriately file classified material, can provide guidance to ensure the security and integrity of the data. When concerns over security result in a banal, unclassified COR, data about that unit’s activities is forever unavailable to the Navy for use in addressing future innovations, conflicts, or organizational changes, and the report’s utility to OPNAV, researchers, and veterans becomes essentially nil. With budgetary difficulties affecting the Navy, data—classified or not—serve as an intellectual, institutional investment for the future. In explaining to the Congress and the American people how and why the Navy is responsibly executing its budget for the national interest, availability and utilization of the data is paramount for the task.20

Conclusion

Transforming the Navy’s culture of collecting and preserving its historical data will be a long process. Digitization and the increasing volume of records will continue to pose challenges. These challenges, however, cannot be ignored any longer and require a unified front to ensure records are preserved and available for use. The Navy is not alone; its sister services experience similar problems in collecting data and using it to benefit current operations.21 In an era where reaction and decision times are rapidly diminished through advances in machine-to-machine and human-machine interactions, today’s data may help equip the warfighter with future kinetic or non-kinetic effects. As fleet design and tactics evolve to face new threats, the Navy can ill afford to ignore its past investments of blood and tax dollars. It must leverage its historical data to find solutions to current and future problems to ensure continued maritime superiority.

Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr. is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. After receiving his doctorate in modern American history from The Ohio State University, he worked as a historian for Naval History and Heritage Command. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, he served as historian for Task Force Netted Navy.

Endnotes

1. Robert Benbow, Fred Ensminger, Peter Swartz, Scott Savitz, and Dan Stimpson, Renewal of Navy’s Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities (Alexandria, VA: CNA, March 2006), 104-21; Dave Nagle, “Riverine Force Marks One-Year Anniversary,” Navy Expeditionary Combat Command Public Affairs, 7 June 2007, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=29926; Matthew M. Burke, “Riverine Success in Iraq Shows Need for Naval Quick-Reaction Force,” Stars and Stripes, 29 October 2012, http://www.stripes.com/news/riverine-success-in-iraq-shows-need-for-naval-quick-reaction-force-1.195109.

2. Geoffrey Ingersoll, “’Too Busy to Read’ Is a Must-Read,” Business Insider, 9 May 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/viral-james-mattis-email-reading-marines-2013-5.

3. Admiral John M. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, January 2016), 1, 7.

4. Chief of Naval Operations, “Navy Professional Reading Program” http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/CNO-ReadingProgram/index.html (accessed 18 April 2017).

5. David Talbot, “The Fading Memory of the State: The National Archives Struggle to Save Endangered Electronic Records,” MIT Technology Review, 1 July 2005, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/404359/the-fading-memory-of-the-state/.

6. “Who We Are,” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/about-us/organization/who-we-are.html.

7. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 1001.26C, “Management of Navy Reserve Component Support to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations,” 7 February 2011, https://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/01000%20Military%20Personnel%20Support/01-01%20General%20Military%20Personnel%20Records/1001.26C.pdf.

8. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12, “Command Histories,” 8 November 1966, Post-1946 Command File, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.

9. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12K, “Annual Command Operations Report,” 21 May 2012, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/about-us/instructions-and-forms/command-operation-report/pdf/OPNAVINST%205750.12K%20-%20Signed%2021%20May%202012.pdf.

10. Based on a review of OPNAVINST 5750.12 through OPNAVINST 5750.12K, in the holdings of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.

11. Eric Lockwood, “Make History: Submit your Command Operations Report,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 10 February 2016, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=93031.

12. David Alan Rosenberg, “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy,” in Mahan is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, eds. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 174.

13. William Sims, “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement, and Gun-Power” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 32, no. 4 (December 1906): 1337-66.

14. Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), xvi-xvii, 232-37.

15. Marshall L. Michell III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 185-88, 277-78; John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 219-21, 248.

16. Benjamin S. Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power at the Dawn of a New Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), 1-8, 100-01; Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1998), 369-75, 384-85.

17. Kit de Angelis and Jason Garfield, “Give Commanders the Authority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 10 (October 2016): 18-21.

18. Frank G. Hoffman, “How We Bridge a Wartime ‘Learning Gap,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 5 (May 2016): 22-29.

19. Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 4-5, 204-21.

20. Prior to World War I, the Navy recognized the need to secure public support for its expansion plans. See George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 35-48, 54-63.

21. Francis J. H. Park, “A Time for Digital Trumpets: Emerging Changes in Military Historical Tradecraft,” Army History 20-16-2, no. 99 (Spring 2016): 29-36.

Featured Image: Sunrise aboard Battleship Missouri Memorial at Ford Island onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak)

The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis & R. Manning Ancell

By Christopher Nelson

The Leader’s Bookshelf  by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell. U.S. Naval Institute Press. 288pp. $29.95.

The Leader’s Bookshelf by ADM James S. Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell/US Naval Institute Press

“Reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human — human meaning at one with humanity — and possibly less savage.”

– JAMES SALTER

“After owning books, almost the next best thing is talking about them.”

– CHARLES NODIER

Some years ago I met Admiral Jim Stavridis. The conversation, while short, turned to books. If I recall, it was in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime around 2010 or 2011. Because he was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the U.S. European Commander (EUCOM), he had to divide his time between two locations: his NATO headquarters located near Mons, Belgium and his EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. At the time, I worked in the intelligence directorate at EUCOM when we heard he was coming by to meet the staff. 

It was a gray, overcast afternoon when he arrived. He promptly made his way down a long line of officers and enlisted, each of them posed to shake his hand and say a few words. I had only a few seconds to make a connectionto say something interesting or ask him a question. But this I knew: I loved books; he loved books; and while standing there, I thought of something he wrote that might prove that I, like him, believed that books are essential to our profession, if not our lives.

Months prior, he had written one of his regular blog posts. In it, he said that his wife noticed that his love of books and his growing library had evolved into a “gentle madness.” That phrasea “gentle madness”refers to a wonderful book by author Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes’ bookA Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books  is a long, discursive work: one part discussion of historic book culture in America and Britain, the other full of profiles of quirky and dedicated book lovers and collectors. 

When the admiral finally reached me, I mentioned the blog post and the book. His eyes lit up and he said something about few people knowing the reference. He then told me he owned 4,000 books. Surprised, I said something about wanting a library that large. He then simply said, “You’ll get there.” The conviction in his voice floored me. I believed him. And he was right. I’m getting there (the featured image of this post is a picture of my library; today I have around 2,000 titles, give or take).

Fast forward a few years and, no surprise, the admiral’s library has grown. Stavridis, in the introduction to the entertaining The Leader’s Bookshelf, says that he has in his “house today… more than four thousand books.” His wife, Laura, “has spent far too much of her life packing and unpacking them in postings all around the world.”

Adm. James Stavridis, center, browses through the Naval War College’s bookstore, October 2012. (U.S. Naval War College)

Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have written a book that is somewhat similar to Richard Puryear’s fine booknow unfortunately out of printAmerican Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Command. Puryear interviewed 150 four star admirals on a variety of topics. One of those topics was the importance of reading. And like Puryear, Stavridis and Ancell take a similar path. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, they interviewed 200 four-star generals and flag officers, and from those discussions, they determined the 50 books that “stood out most…with top military readers.”

Using no particular scientific method, they rank ordered the books in descending order by the number of mentions. Thus, the first book on the list, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), was mentioned most often. While the last on the list, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman, was mentioned least frequently.

For each title, there is a short essay by a senior officer as to why they choose the book, followed by a quote from the book, a biography of the author, then a summary of the book by either Stavridis or Ancell, concluding with a few sentences about why the book is important for leaders today.  

For folks that regularly follow the reading lists that are published by the Chief of Naval Operations or the other services, there are, unfortunately, few surprises. The regularly cited titles appear: Anton Myer’s Once an Eagle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’s On War, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, E.B. Potter’s Nimitz, and the always popular Steven Pressfield with his Gates of Fire. They all made the cut.

While there is nothing wrong with the oldies but goodies, it was refreshing to see some unusualor rather, some outliersfind a place in the top 50. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes a showing as does Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It. In fact, General Stan McChrystal is the senior officer that recommended Twain’s satirical novel about a man from the 19th century, Hank Morgan, traveling back in time to King Arthur’s court.

The Leader’s Bookshelf, I confess, would be ho-hum if not for the additional essays that Stavridis and Ancell add to the book. It is these essays on publishing, reading lists, and building a personal library, that raise this book from mediocrity to must have. And here, Robert Ancell pulls his weight, adding a nice cherry on top with an interview with General Mattis. 

Mattis beats Stavridis in the book department. With some 7,000 titles on his shelves, he probably is the best read military leaderretired or activeout there. In the interview, Mattis mentions books that apply to each level of war. Of note, he recommends Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All. A book about a British raid that shattered the Nazi’s dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, France during World War II, preventing the Germans from using the docks for large battleships for the duration of the war. The raid resulted in no less than five Victoria Crosses. I had never heard of the book nor the raid. It is these little-known reading recommendations that make books like this exciting. You simply do not know what you might find.

Ironically, the only criticismor rather, observationI have about the book is that senior officers still do not carve out enough time to read. And this in a book in which one of the early essays is about “Making Time for Reading.”  

In one essay, a senior officer admits that while working in the Joint Staff that he only read one book in a year. One book! While another, in her recommendation, wrote only two sentences to praise the workand even then those two sentences were footnoted. Sigh.  

Nonetheless, The Leader’s Bookshelf will appeal to all types: The newbie looking for a good book to read and the bibliomaniac who may have read all 49 on the list and owns each first edition, but unaware, or didn’t realize there was just one more interesting title out there.  

But alas, there always is.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views here are his own.

Featured Image: A picture of the author’s personal library. Courtesy of Christopher Nelson.