Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-076
10 Sept. 2021
Review by Jonathan Beard, New York City
War at Sea: A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century
By James P. Delgado
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2019. Pp. xxii, 465. ISBN 978–0–19–088801–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, Naval Warfare, Nautical Archaeology Print Version

Men have gone down to the sea in ships for millennia, and for millennia, thousands of those ships have gone down, and now rest at the bottom of the sea. Maritime archeologist James Delgado has dived to many of the wrecks he writes about in his new history of nautical archeology from a military perspective. He begins with the first traces of fighting on water, carries his story up to modern times, and ends with the wrecks of nuclear submarines that are still classified, and hot.


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Chapters 1–2 of War at Sea, "Beginnings" and "Rome and Beyond" move from the simplest vessels used in combat, war canoes, through prehistory and into the era of familiar empires. Delgado cites canoes found in West Africa, Maori New Zealand, the US Pacific Northwest, as well as ancient wrecks from China (a particular strength of the book). Korea and Japan as well feature prominently in later chapters. In chapter 2, the author has far more nautical archeology to work with than in the first chapter, thanks to well documented shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. The chapter ends with another area rich in sources: the Vikings. Delgado is dealing here with some nearly intact vessels on display in European museums.

Chapter 3, "The Age of Gunpowder," begins with China, where gunpowder was first developed. Delgado describes the Sung dynasty navy and the naval exploits of the people who conquered them, the Mongols. In 1274, a Mongol fleet, including many Sung vessels, attacked Japan, which was not a naval power. The Japanese were saved from invasion by a sudden timely storm mythologized as a kami (divine) kazi (wind)—a phrase that would resonate some seven centuries later. Most Western readers, even those familiar with this history, will be pleased by Delgado's discussion of artifacts newly recovered by Japanese archeologists and now on display in museums. They will also appreciate his discussion of a Mongol invasion of Vietnam by sea in 1288. The Vietnamese resisted and won a stunning victory near Haiphong. Delgado inserts himself into the narrative as he drives to the site, noting that the Battle of Bach Dang (1288) was fought where, centuries later, American carrier planes passed over on their way to bomb Haiphong. In Europe, meanwhile, cannons were taking to the water; the author showcases one of the best known wrecks from the early days of large ships armed with cannon. The Mary Rose sank off the Isle of Wight in 1545 and was raised in 1982 to become a museum ship. Several excellent black-and-white photos show artifacts found on the Mary Rose.

Chapter 4, "The Age of Sail," includes material on Asia, but concentrates heavily on Sweden's Vasa (sunk 1628), which has been raised, conserved, and made accessible to visitors. The cold, calm waters of the Baltic Sea preserved its hull, as they did that of the Kronan (1672). Not every sunken warship of the era is accessible: the chapter ends with the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) whose wrecks lie buried in muddy sediments off the Iberian coast.

In chapter 5, "Colonial Conflicts in the Americas," Delgado surveys wrecks extending from the Caribbean to Canada, left by Spanish, French, British, and American sailors. Here as elsewhere in the book, he addresses troublesome issues of the ownerships of shipwrecks. Does the wreck of a Spanish galleon lying off the coast of Florida belong to the government in Madrid? Delgado addresses as well the matter of valuable artifacts—or bullion worth millions—brought up by profiteering salvage companies or sport divers. Do some of the more modern wrecks have status as war graves? The best preserved wrecks of the time are, however, free of controversy. The War of 1812 at sea was dominated by the Royal Navy, but modest vessels that fought on Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes can now be seen in museums.

Chapter 6, "Iron and Steam," highlights the remarkable changes in nautical technology during the US Civil War. The most famous battle of that conflict, between the Monitor and the Merrimack spawned two wrecks. Though the CSS Virginia (née USS Merrimack) was destroyed by its crew in May 1862, its first victim, the sloop USS Cumberland, lies on the bottom of Hampton Roads. Neither the US Navy nor other government agencies paid much attention to the wreck, and Delgado reports that i7 has been looted by divers. On the other hand, the Monitor's massive turret and engine have been raised and are now in a Virginia museum. Another long and expensive salvage operation brought up the CSS Hunley, the world's first successful submarine, from its grave in the harbor in Charleston, SC. In both cases, human remains were recovered; in the case of the Hunley, all eight crewmen were identified and buried in a Charleston cemetery in 2004.

Chapter 7, "The Race to Global War," concerns the second half of the nineteenth century, a period of rapid technological change, but no major conflicts. Iron gave way to steel, the torpedo was developed into a potent weapon, and gunnery improved with the invention of nitrocellulose propellants, or "smokeless powder." Though Delgado covers wrecks from around the world in this period, he concentrates on Cuba. First the famous USS Maine sank under mysterious circumstances (15 Feb. 1898), helping to ignite the Spanish-American War. It was salvaged after the war, only to be towed out of Havana's harbor and scuttled. The Spanish fleet's wrecks are off Santiago, at the other end of the island.

Delgado deals with the Great War in a brisk thirty-one pages. Chapter 8, "World War I," is bookended by two of the best known examples of marine archeology, the wrecks from the Battle of Jutland and the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow. He relies here on the work of Innes McCartney, the preeminent military nautical archeologist[1] of the seas around the British Isles. His years of work on the many wrecks at Jutland center on two issues: how examination of the wrecks can rewrite the history of the battle, and how illegal salvage operations are destroying them. The salvors are typically interested in the non-ferrous metals—copper and bronze—found in warships, but steel armor from ships built before 1944 is free of radioactive elements created by atomic bombs and thus useful for shielding sensitive instruments. Hence the premium placed on warships raised from the depths of Scapa Flow. But Delgado also ventures far from the North Sea in a fine discussion of Gallipoli and its wrecks, drawing on the work of Turkish archeologist Selçuk Kolay. The war also saw fighting off the southern tip of South America, and War at Sea has a nice section on the fate of SMS Dresden, a German cruiser whose wreck Delgado himself has investigated. The damage to the wreck proves that—contrary to the official British histories—the Dresden was sunk in Chilean waters while flying a flag of truce.

Chapter 9, "World War II," presents a new challenge for historians of naval archaeology. As Delgado notes, 1454 warships were lost during the conflict, and their wrecks litter the oceans' floors the around the globe. He begins somewhat unexpectedly by asserting that the battleships built by most naval powers in the 1930s were a poor investment. Be that as it may, he visits the wrecks of many of them, from the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor to the Bismarck in the Atlantic and the IJN Kirishima off Guadalcanal. He makes good use of Robert Ballard's great work[2] on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, lost at Midway; he also describes the wreck of the HMS Ark Royal in the Mediterranean. The chapter ends with a discussion of the illegal salvage operations on the many ships sunk off Malaysia and Indonesia, in relatively shallow water. The chapter, unfortunately, is marred by several striking, errors. For example, he writes about the sinking of the German "pocket battleship" Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay early in the war:

Part of a new German naval strategy that emphasized a fast, movable force that could strike an enemy's commerce and outrun heavy battleships, Graf Spee was known as a panzerschiff, or "panther ship." (344)

The term panzerschiff means "armored ship." Later, describing an expedition to the Solomons by American and Australian divers, he writes:

They also visited US oiler Kanawa; the bow of the US battleship Minneapolis, blown off by a torpedo (the battleship survived); the US attack transports Calhoun and John Penn; the Japanese transports Asumassan Maru, Sasako Maru, and Ruaniu; the Japanese submarine I-123; the New Zealand corvette Moa; the US tug Seminole. (373)

The Minneapolis, Delgado surely knows, was a heavy cruiser—every twentieth-century American battleship was named for a state. The Japanese freighter was the Azumasan Maru. And "Ruaniu" was a village on the coast of Guadalcanal, not a ship of any sort.

The book's tenth and final chapter concerns the Cold War period. Delgado begins with a dive he took off the coast of Albania. The city of Sarandë is on the eastern shore of the Corfu Channel, near the Greek island of Corfu. The communist dictator Enver Hoxha was eager to assert Albania's territorial sovereignty, while the British navy was equally bent on ensuring its freedom of passage through these narrow waters. The Royal Navy ended up losing several sailors and the bow of a destroyer, which Delgado locates in Albanian territorial waters, contrary to previous accounts. The rest of the chapter is almost entirely radioactive, featuring an excellent discussion of the wrecks left by the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll—again his own work. Then we are in deeper water, with photos from the sea bottom of both American and Soviet nuclear submarines.

War at Sea is an excellent overview of military nautical archeology around the globe, enhanced by decent maps, a glossary, a comprehensive bibliography, and photos and drawings, including sixteen color plates. It will interest naval and nautical historians, and likely sport divers as well.

[1] See his Scapa 1919: The Archaeology of a Scuttled Fleet (Oxford: Osprey, 2019) and Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (Oxford: Osprey, 2021).

[2] I.e., The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal: Exploring the Ghost Fleet of the South Pacific (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010).

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