|From the Dardanelles to Oran|
Marder, Arthur. From the Dardanelles to Oran. Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2015.
Arthur Marder undoubtedly ranks among the twentieth-century’s foremost naval historians. He is best known for his numerous works on sea power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – and particularly for his massive, multivolume history of the Royal Navy in the First World War. Marder wrote and published that work, titled From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, in the 1960s. By the end of that decade he was understandably exhausted and unwilling, at least for the time being, to undertake another major project. Instead, encouraged by his publisher, he collected for publication a number of articles, chapters and conference papers that had never before been anthologized together. These, along with a single chapter written especially for this work, dealing with the British attack on French naval forces in Oran in July 1940, form the contents of From the Dardanelles to Oran (1974). As a collection of articles that had originally appeared in other contexts, this work necessarily lacks somewhat in thematic coherence. There are nevertheless several threads that tie all (or most) of the different chapters together. In the first place, of course, each chapter deals with an aspect of the history of the Royal Navy that Marder had not covered in detail, or at least in precisely the same way, in his previously published works. Most of the work is in fact devoted to naval affairs in the interwar period and in the first stages of the Second World War; Marder’s interest here lies particularly on the side of naval policy and strategy and less within the realm of tactics. Additionally, Winston Churchill’s career appears as a major focus in two (arguably three) of the book’s five chapters. Marder’s treatment of Churchill is particularly generous, as he seeks to vindicate not only Churchill’s controversial conception of a purely naval attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915, but also his second stint as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939-1940. Each of the essays in this volume has considerable merit and, despite the fact that over forty years have elapsed since the work’s original publication, From the Dardanelles to Oran contains much that will interest students of modern naval history.
The subject of the volume’s first chapter is particularly relevant during the centenary of the First World War. In this, Marder presents a compelling defense of the Royal Navy’s attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles in March and April 1915 without the assistance of land forces. Among the points that Marder raises in support of his argument is Admiral Carden’s unimaginative use of the contingent of the seaplanes under his command. Drawing on his extensive personal correspondence with (and the unpublished memoirs of) Group-Captain H. A. Williamson – who served on the Ark Royal during the opening phase of the Dardanelles operation – Marder suggests that indirect artillery fire from the Queen Elizabeth, with support from aerial spotters, may have been sufficient to disable the major forts guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles. As it happened, aerial observation was attempted only half-heartedly. It was abandoned entirely after only minor setbacks, as the naval leadership (in Marder’s view) had little patience for the technological challenges inherent in early aviation. The Admiralty’s relentless emphasis on preparation for massive fleet-to-fleet engagements furthermore left the navy’s officer corps with relatively little training in shore bombardment. Marder argues that even this missed opportunity was not fatal to the purely naval effort to force the Dardanelles. Had the naval force at the Dardanelles been led “by a Nelson – or even by a Keyes!” (26), the fleet might have stormed its way through the Turkish defenses in early April while taking manageable casualties. The Turkish defenders, and their German allies, were by then running out of ammunition and increasingly willing to consider retreat. The British, however, cowed by the fleet’s losses on March 18, abandoned the purely naval scheme in favor of a major landing on the Gallipoli peninsula – with ultimately disastrous results. Churchill’s hope that the Ottoman Empire could be knocked out the war by naval power alone, in Marder’s view, was not entirely unfounded.
The second and third chapters both deal with the Royal Navy during the interwar period. In the second, Marder describes that navy’s ineffective and ultimately largely unsuccessful attempt to learn from its experiences in the First World War. Despite a promising start – the Admiralty formed committees to study the lessons of the war beginning in 1919 – a combination of fiscal constraint and a pervasive attitude of complacency ensured that the navy failed to take account of some of the most important developments in naval warfare that emerged during the First World War. The Royal Navy’s failure to learn from the success of the convoy system during the last years of the war was particularly unfortunate, as these lessons had to be relearned in far from ideal conditions in 1939-1943. In the third chapter, Marder describes Britain’s abortive military response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936. Here, again, there was plenty of blame to go around – yet the politicians, in this case, must bear the largest share of responsibility for Britain’s failure to deter Italian aggression. In Marder’s view, there was little that the Royal Navy itself could do, on very short notice, to make itself capable of facing the threat of war simultaneously in the Mediterranean, the Pacific and the North Sea. The Admiralty’s cautiousness was furthermore justified by the severe consequences that even relatively minor losses would have for Britain’s worldwide naval position.
The final two chapters form something resembling a coherent whole, as they cover a nearly-contiguous period in naval history from September 1939 to July 1940. The first of these represents a reappraisal of Churchill’s activities as First Lord of the Admiralty at the outset of the Second World War. Marder defends Churchill from critiques who have alleged that he had, once again, overstepped his bounds as a cabinet minister and meddled directly in naval operations. While Churchill – unlike more conventional ministers – could not resist proposing bold and impractical new technologies and operational schemes (FDR famously commented that Churchill “has a hundred ideas a day, of which four are good ideas”), he nevertheless refrained for the most part from outright interference in the affairs of professional military officers. In this sense, Churchill’s leadership style as First Lord of the Admiralty contrasts considerably with his later activities as Prime Minister. Operation Catapult, the Royal Navy’s preemptive attack on the French in July 1940, which was launched at the instance of the newly installed Prime Minister, constitutes the subject of the book’s final – and largest, weighing in at over a hundred pages – chapter. This is a detailed account of the high-level policy and strategic decisions that led to that incident, as well the particulars of the incident itself. The operation appears to have been justified, although its results were tragic. While, as Marder suggests, the German military had neither the will nor the means to seize and man the sizeable naval force left in the hands of the Vichy French, it was nevertheless reasonable – given the information available at the time – for the operation to go ahead.
Marder’s writing style is very clear, if sometimes dry. His analysis is buttressed by long (perhaps too long) block quotations from primary sources. For the most part, he allows the historical facts, as he presents them, to speak for themselves. Marder’s philosophy, as Barry Gough notes in his introduction – the newly-added introduction is the sole major difference between the new Seaforth edition and the original published in 1974 – was to “[use] details and particulars to sustain a powerful narrative.” While Marder’s arguments are backed for the most part through references to archival sources, some of his more dramatic claims are based on private correspondence, and even personal conversations, between Marder and various high ranking members of the British military. This aspect of Marder’s work is naturally somewhat frustrating for historians, who like, whenever possible, to be able to see the documents for themselves. Many of these letters, at least, should now be publicly accessible in the collection of Marder’s personal papers at the University of California, Irvine. Marder’s choice of sources aside, this work stands as a valuable companion to Marder’s larger body of work on British naval history. As with the rest of Marder’s work, From the Dardanelles to Oran will likely continue to influence and inform numerous new readers for some time to come.
Review by Mason Watson