World War II at Sea

A Global History


Craig L Symonds

Oxford University Press   2018

Hardback   792pp   RRP $55.95


Reviewer: Michael Hili, May 12020


This book on the entire history of maritime World War II presents a very different, yet surprisingly successful approach to tackling such a large subject area.

In the introduction, Symonds strongly iterates the need for this account on maritime World War II to be told in one holistic narrative. The reason being; to accurately and meaningfully reify the full extent of its bearing in history. Therefore, he makes a concerted effort to avoid compartmentalising his book on geographic terms and instead orders it chronologically.

Whilst this style is not conducive to the needs of niche researchers and analysts, it doesn’t seem to be a goal of Symonds when one progresses through the chapters. The book is more-so a collection of short stories; all told in great detail and in colourful language. This writing style makes for a much more engaging and enjoyable experience for the reader as well as arguably being more informative on a humanist level.

All throughout the book, one can see how Symonds has attempted to marry accurate historical accounts with a gripping and detailed story told through the eyes of sailors, generals and their families. The style works well to allay the monotony that some previous works have perhaps exhibited. The stories are usually focused on specific battles and skirmishes that occurred, and almost always focus on one or two real individuals that were present. It is worth noting that during these passages, Symonds works hard to incorporate the perspectives of both sides of the conflict. Many passages on famous battles often fluctuate between ally, German and Japanese recounts.

The book’s humanist focus does not detract from its ability to also explain and provide context to certain battles and timelines. Symonds manages to balance and interweave the personal anecdotes with information regarding when the events occurred, and its bearing on the broader conflict occurring in the region. Overall, his approach is extremely successful in creating a universal and poignant insight into the human experience of naval warfare in WWII.

The way Symonds writes this volume is a great advertisement for other historians attempting to tackle large subject areas. Rather than presenting slabs of information on specific locations or subject matter, Symonds’ chronological narrative ensures that the book can spend less time introducing each theatre/chapter of concern and dive into a compelling recount of events. Similarly, the way he intertwines historical context with realistic anecdotes seems a much more potent way to garner the attention of general readers and introductory-level students.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

World War II at Sea.png