From the Dardanelles to Oran
Studies of the Royal Navy in War and Peace

by Arthur J. Marder

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Oxford University Press: 1974
301 pages; photographs; 5 fold-out charts

June 2018

War at sea & the interwar years

Arthur J. Marder is the preeminent historian of British sea power of World War I, from lead-up to aftermath: see his magisterial From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919 (five volumes, 1961-1970 & 1978). This book, From the Dardanelles to Oran: Studies of the Royal Navy in War and Peace, 1915-1940 consists of five essays ranging from World War I through the interwar period into the beginning of World War II.

I find these essays fascinating. Marder is an expert on details. He's a penetrating analyst of naval strategy and tactics, and of their intersection and frequent clashes with the political direction of war preparation and actual war as it develops. His exposition of character of the principal people amounts almost to insightful and empathetic mini-biographies. Beyond these, he's an excellent narrator of history, so technical and tactical details reveal their significance, and we can hear and almost watch as naval people make their critical decisions — including the failure to act.

I'll sketch each of the five chapters.

1. The Dardanelles Revisited:
Further Thoughts on the Naval Prelude

32 pages. The naval attempt to force the Dardanelles Strait in March and April 1915, to place an Anglo-French fleet before Constantinople to remove Turkey as an ally of Germany and thus opening the route to Russia, may seem a sideshow compared to the prolonged and disastrous slugging match on the Western Front, or the collapse of Russian power in the East. It is disproportionally important, though. It forced the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, from the British Cabinet, and almost ended his career altogether. Its abandonment led to the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula which was costly of men and which also failed. And a tremendous strategic opportunity was lost.

It needn't have been that way. As Arthur Marder says of the Dardanelles campaign (and I concur):

I consider it the one imaginative strategic idea of the war on the Allied side.

This chapter expresses some "fresh thinking" of Marder's since he completed Volume 2 of the aforementioned history, The War Years: To the Eve of Jutland. Marder discuss aerial spotting; the minefields and minesweepers; attacking the forts; the admirals communications to and from Churchill; and how the Turks, the Germans, the American Ambassador on the spot, as well as British commanders "visualized the scenario". This is necessary a capsule analysis, perhaps better read after Marder's second volume in his World War I history or one of the books entirely devoted to the Dardanelles. However, it certainly stands alone sufficiently to whet one's interest in this important campaign.

2. The Influence of History on Sea Power:
the Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914-1918

30 pages. The theme, of course, mirrors Alfred Thayer Mahan's classic The Influence of Sea Power on History: 1660–1783 (published 1890). British naval planners did much mulling over the events of the Great War. Sometimes these resulted in clear benefits, such as improving inter-Service cooperation. Other results were of doubtful or mixed benefit, such as increasing centralization at the Admiralty. Sadly, there was also dangerous backsliding, for instance on the value of convoys; or failure to imagine forward, for instance on naval aviation or the likely increased danger from improved U-boat technology and tactics.

3. The Royal Navy and the Ethiopian Crisis of 1933-1936

36 pages. What was the role of the Admiralty's sense of Fleet unreadiness in persuading the State Department not to antagonize Italy over Mussolini's projected, and then executed, invasion of Ethiopia? Naval experts were aware that Britain was entering a difficult and perilous era. The Navy was responsible for defending the Home Waters (potential danger from Germany), British possessions in the Far East (potential danger from Japan), and British possessions in the Mediterranean as well as the crucial sea route from Gibraltar past Italy through to Suez. During this period came also Hitler's Remilitarization of the Rhineland on 7 March 1936. As usual, Marder goes way behind the headlines.

4. 'Winston is Back':
Churchill at the Admiralty, 1939-40

67 pages. The reappointment of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty on 3 September 1939 was one of those obviously right decisions, in quality and sentiment, as Britain and its Government entered upon their second war with Germany. Again sea power would be vital to the survival of Britain, and the imaginative, detail-oriented, and indomitable Churchill was acknowledged as one of Britain's greatest assets. (His invitation by the King to head the Government as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, as France was collapsing, was the obviously right sequel.)

Policies discussed include items such as Operation Royal Marine, base defenses and convoys, Baltic strategy for Swedish iron ore and the Norwegian campaign, and to what extent (and to what effect) Churchill "interfered" in naval professional decisions.

In an appendix to this section Marder discusses in detail some of his major disagreements with the Official Historian of the Navy in World War II — against whom he speaks much more sharply than with the counterparts writing official British naval history immediately after the First World War. I must say that in general and specifically for the period analyzed here, I side with Marder, and with Churchill.

5. Oran, 3 July 1940:
Mistaken Judgement, Tragic Misunderstanding, or Cruel Necessity?

109 pages

In dealing with the British attack on a portion of the (now Vichy) French fleet at their Mers-el-Kebir base near Oran in French Algeria, Marder's mastery really shines: all sorts of detail; strategy and tactics; the often colorful individuals involved (Admirals Somerville, Pound, Cunningham, North, Darlan, as well as Churchill); naval professional decisions that drove or muddled events; and political decisions which also drove or muddled events.

Even more than the previous sections, the description and analysis of Operation Catapult reads like a novel. From this section and its sequel, Operation 'Menace': The Dakar Expedition and the Dudley North Affair, the reader gains a detailed and vivid impression of the complexity of British policy, and the great difficulties the Oran and Dakar campaigns posed for the British Navy as well as their once and future allies of the French Navy. The French Navy during the Vichy period was well aware of the ironies of fighting recent allies who might before long be allies again. (I am reminded of Napoleon's coerced German allies before and during Napoleon's invasion of Russia.)

Excellent history, thoroughly enjoyable.


© 2018 Robert Wilfred Franson

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