Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death at Sea -- book review

Death at Sea is  a privately published "novelistic history" of the saga of the German East Asiatic Naval Squadron of World War I -- the ships of the famous Graf Maximilian von Spee. Written by Eric Dorn Brose, a professor of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia, it's an odd book in many ways, but, I think, of unusual interest to wargamers and students of "what-if" history in general.

With the centennial of the First World War approaching rapidly, I think there will be heightened interest in the topic. Most of the interesting naval action happened early in the war, especially in the summer and winter of 1914 and 1915. Perhaps the most dramatic saga was that of Von Spee's squadron, which resulted ion two bloody naval battles that resulted in several ships being lost with all hands.

Professional and academic historians generally have a strong aversion to "what-ifs" and speculative history. They often note, correctly, that once you go down the rabbit hole of speculation there's little to guide you in the maze. The worst sorts of speculative history will set out to "prove" some wild-ass pet theory about what could have happened or should have happened. A year or so ago I reviewed Tom Carhart's Lost Triumph: :Lee's Rea;l Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed which argued, unpersuasively in my view, that Lee's real plan at Gettysburg on the third day was to coordinate Pickett's Charge with an attack on the rear of the federal army by JEB Stuart's cavalry corps.  Incredibly Carhart argues that the plan would have worked had it not been for Custer and some other federal cavalry commanders who foiled the plan. As I pointed out, a look at a wargame map shows that Carhart's theory runs aground on the realities of time, space and forces present. He got carried away, which is easy to do when you are an author and have complete control over the narrative. Wargamers, on the other hand, know that the opponent has  a vote and  neat plans are unlikely to survive contact with the enemy.

Yet speculative history is the life-blood of wargaming, and all wargames are, to a certain degree, speculative histories. Death at Sea is unusual because Brose freely engages in speculation about how things may have turned out if certain key decisions had been made differently. As it turns out the Spee saga is rich in those kinds of decision points. Standard histories of the events in question tend to emphasize the foregone nature of the two major battles.  At Coronel an outclassed British squadron had no chance against Spee's powerful ships and was quickly dispatched. And a month later Spee's squadron was equally outclassed by  a powerful British battlecruiser force that leisurely annihilated the Germans.

Brose raises interesting questions about both battles, and explains how they might not have been as lopsided as they appeared, particularly if the losing commanders had made better decisions. Both Spee and the British commander at Coronel, Rear Adm. Sir Christopher Cradock, perished in battle and were martyred heroes to their respective publics, so there was long a reluctance to second-guess their performance. Likewise, the British victor at the Falklands, Adm. Frederick Sturdee and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made questionable decisions that could easily have led to disaster. Yet things turned out OK and the rush of later events swept away most questions.

Brose also points out any number of alternative engagements that might also have occurred had deployments been just a little different.

Brose's approach to thew whole story is an unconventional one, especially for an academic historian, which probably explains why this is self-published. It bears the hallmarks of something written for the pleasure of writing it, not to burnish some academic reputation. It is, however, a serious work, for all that, and Brose explains his souring quite clearly and lays out the rationale for his fictionalizing.  Some degree of fictionalizing is almost inevitable in  a work about this battle because so many of the key witnesses died. As I alluded to above, three of the armored cruisers involved were lost with all hands and a fourth was sunk with barely a hundred survivors. Several of the light cruisers were also sunk with very heavy loss of life. Most of the senior officers of the two defeated squadrons were among those lost, so we cannot know what they thought or why they made their decisions.

He calls it a "novelized history" because it's a sort of hybrid work. It's not a full scale novelization in the mode of Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. I'm not sure Brose has the proper touch to pull off something quite like that. His fictional story line vignettes seem a bit contrived and conventional to me. He is more successful at fleshing out actual events with conversations that at least advance the narrative efficiently. I think readers expecting something as literary as The Killer Angels will be disappointed. Brose is still at heart a historian , not a novelist. On the other hand, the book is much more free-wheeling a read than most histories, especially histories that deal in depth with technical and tactical topics like naval warfare at the ship-to-ship level. While I think some readers, therefore, will find it neither fish nor fowl and be turned off, I think the book makes an excellent resource for the wargamer and the counterfactualist.

For example, Brose spends a considerable amount of time discussing the choices available to Cradock at Coronel, suggesting that the British admiral was far more aggressive than wise and made a challenging tactical situation far worse by accepting battle immediately and letting himself be outmaneuvered on top of it. In particular Brose suggests that Cradock ought to have considered avoiding a decisive commitment as evening fell on Nov. 1, 1914, and try to lead Spee's squadron south until Cradcok could rendezvous with the battleship Canopus. Brose rightly points out that Canopus was hardly the "citadel" that Churchill imagined. And indeed,  the "battleship" was hardly better armored than the armored cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth that Cradock already had. But it did have four 12-inch guns, which would have tripled the long-range firepower of Cradock's force. And Canopus' later marksmanship at the Falklands strongly suggests that it would have been a more dangerous opponent than the reservist-manned Good Hope and Monmouth, which barely managed to hit Spee's fleet at all. And this was the key point, of course, because any damage to Spee's cruisers was a critical danger to their survival. They were thousands of miles from any shipyards for repair or replenishment of ammunition. With three capital ships to shoot at, the two German cruisers would have necessarily used up more of their ammunition even in victory, and they were just one lucky hit away from disaster at all times. It's probable that Spee would still have defeated Cradock's squadron -- I've seen it happen when wargamed out -- but he may have had one or more ships crippled in the bargain.

Cradock's main reason for leaving the Canopus behind was that its slow speed meant that Spee could merely run away, and this was a valid concern. Yet Brose makes the case that Spee would have attacked in any case, whether or not Canopus was in the line.

Later I'll look at Brose's take on the Battle of the Falklands, where he also makes a case for a closer-run affair than commonly believed.

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