Sacred Vesselsby Robert O'Connell
When discussing this book with a friend of mine who is something of a naval historian, he related to me an interesting story from his doctoral days. An (unnamed) member of the history faculty, who my friend describes as being more than a little familiar with the subject, suggested (perhaps seriously, perhaps not) that this book was sufficient grounds for Dr. O'Connell's doctorate to be revoked. Personally, I would be against such an extreme measure, as it would set a horrible precedent. Having read the book, though, I understand the sentiment behind the statement, and would at least suggest that the University of Virginia's Department of History re-examine its teaching methods.
This book is one of the best examples I have yet seen as to why simply reading (and citing) a lot of sources, including primary sources, is not sufficient to guarantee good analysis, for Sacred Vessels has a LOT of citations and a LOT of bad analysis. O'Connell's thesis is that, from the age of sail onward, "battleships" have been useless as weapons, for reasons that can be summarized as "battleships are ineffective" (measured largely in terms of vessels sunk, or number of hits per number of shots fired) and "battleships are vulnerable to other weapons" (such as airplanes, submarines, and torpedo boats). Unfortunately, he does not support his thesis; indeed, at the conclusion of the book, I was left wondering whether he had any understanding of the subject at all.
What could possible have led me to such an extreme conclusion? The executive summary is as follows:
- O'Connell is sloppy. For example:
- The astute oberver will note the acute lack of
such "other weapons" during the age of sail, and
indeed O'Connell does not extend the claim that far
back. He does, however, make claims about battleship
vulnerability vis-a-vis aircraft that extend back to
the days before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.
- O'Connell uses "dreadnought" as a term to
describe both battleships and battlecruisers. He
neglects to point out that there were some severe
differences in design philosophy between the two (and
between the British and German approach to
battlecruisers as well). Hence, lumping them together
-- and attributing the faults of either one to the
"dreadnought" as a whole -- is ignorant at best and
disingenuous at worst.
- O'Connell discusses the USN's desire for bigger
battleships immediately before WW2, and refers to
four US battleship classes (North Carolina,
South Dakota, Iowa and
Montana), with the claim that each class was
"progessively larger than the previous one." This
ignores that the first two were designed to the same
design standard (35,000 tons displacement), differed
by only few hundred tons (485 tons [1.3%] standard,
142 tons [0.3%] full load), and indeed the South
Dakota was some 50 feet shorter than
the preceeding North Carolina (although with
a two feet deeper draft and better armor protection).
While a simple slip in and of itself, it illustrates
O'Connell's lack of rigor in approaching the subject.
- O'Connell discusses Hector Bywater's The
Great Pacific War, a "history" published in
1925 about a hypothetical American-Japanese war in
the early 1930s. O'Connell claims Bywater "described
a campaign mirroring [War Plan] ORANGE," the US
Navy's proposed plan for war with Japan, which at the
time was based upon a trans-Pacific lunge by the US
battle fleet. Even a cursory reading of Bywater's
book will show that this claims is highly dubious, as
Bywater specifically and explicitly rejects that
strategy and, in its place, describes a methodical
island-hopping advance more than a little prescient
of the actual US strategy in WW2.
- O'Connell describes the Battle of Midway as "the first naval battle when the warships involved didn't come within sight or gunshot of one another." [p.317] More competent historians point to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which occurred a month earlier.
- The astute oberver will note the acute lack of such "other weapons" during the age of sail, and indeed O'Connell does not extend the claim that far back. He does, however, make claims about battleship vulnerability vis-a-vis aircraft that extend back to the days before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.
- O'Connell engages in selective interpretation of
quotes; he discounts anything that a source which
disagrees with him says, explaining it away as bias,
while accepting without question anything said by a
source friendly to his agenda. For example, in a section
arguing that Naval Academy graduates instinctively wanted
bigger ships, O'Connell quotes Captain (later Chief of
Naval Operations) Ernest J. King:
...the sole disadvantage...resulting from increases of size of a battleship...is that it costs more; on the other hand, the larger ship is more powerful, has greater resisiting qualities, is faster under all circumstances, and has a greater steaming radius and cruising life. As the greater cost results in better naval return for the money invested...this seeming disadvantage is not one in reality. [p. 82, ellipses in original]O'Connell says in the very next line: "Size was a virtue in and of itself -- it connoted strength in a way nothing else could." Excuse me?! Is it my imagination, or didn't King point to several SPECIFIC operational and tactical reasons as to why the size of battleships yielded superior design attributes? Since these points don't support his thesis, O'Connell ignores them.
- O'Connell engages in selective interpretation of
events, and ignores counter-examples. For example, while
decrying the vulnerability of the battleship to air
attack, he enthusiastically discusses examples were
airpower was successful against dreadnoughts, such as
Pearl Harbor (where the Japanese surprise attack
destroyed obsolete, stationary, undermanned ships on a
peacetime holiday footing) or the earlier Mitchell tests
(where the USAAF was able to sink a stationary, crewless
dreadnought); he neglects to mention the literally dozens
of dive bomber and torpedo hits necessary to sink the
YAMATO or that air power proved remarkably ineffective at
holding off the Japanese naval assault on the
Philippines. There is no attempt to systematically
analyze these examples; interpretations which support his
thesis are presented, interpretations which do not are
ignored or asserted to be irrelevant.
- O'Connell's conclusions are not unique to
battleships. While excoriating battleships as vulnerable
to all forms of attack, he neglects to mention that EVERY
single surface warship -- including aircraft carriers --
built in the same timeperiod suffer from the same
vulnerabilities, and many (due to smaller size and lesser
armor) were much more vulnerable. In fact, as noted
historian Al Nofi commented to me when discussing this
subject, "Even battleships sunk by air power took more
damage, ton-per-ton, than any other type of warship. It
was not the vulnerability of the battlewagon that made it
obsolete, but rather the ability of the much more
vulnerable aircraft carrier to deliver death and
destruction at much greater distances."
- O'Connell doesn't understand that weapons design and
development is a process of measure and countermeasure,
innovation and perfection. O'Connell is quick to point
out instances when gunnery failed at extreme range; he
ignores the fact that gunnery and fire control did
improve significantly, and as a result what was
considered extreme range constantly expanded.
- O'Connell's "what-if" scenarios are one-sided.
O'Connell is quick to point out the successes of the
German U-boat fleet in the two world wars, but ignores
the fact that the U-boats had been largely swept from the
seas by the end of each conflict. O'Connell's assertion
that the Kaiser could have starved Britain by starting
unrestricted submarine warfare six months earlier than he
did, while probably true, is irrelevant; it is equally
valid to say that if Britain and/or the US had spent the
time, effort, and resources on ASW that the topic
warranted -- instead of handing the Germans the
initiative -- the German U-boats wouldn't have been as
serious a threat as they were. (Or, as Al Nofi pointed
out to me, "The Germans could have started unrestricted
submarine warfare earlier in WW I than was the case, but
they didn't have that many subs, and it only would have
sparked the more rapid development of ASW.")
- O'Connell doesn't understand the strategic picture. He contends, for example, that the relative inactivity of the British battlefleet during World War I (as a result of the inactivity of the German High Seas Fleet) was a signal of its strategic irrelevance. This begs the question of what the Germans would have done if the Royal Navy had NOT had a commanding superiority in dreadnoughts. I would suggest that under those conditions the High Seas Fleet would have been very active; with a sufficiently great inferiority, Britain might possibly have lost the war in 1914. O'Connell doesn't seem to understand that the fleet was a counter to a specific threat; that the threat never manifested itself is an indication that the counter worked, not that the threat didn't exist. Based on O'Connell's reasoning, the US should have simply decommissioned its strategic nuclear forces by the mid-1970s; after all, we never used them, so they must have been worthless, right?
Second, while O'Connell's book exhibits the kind of bad analysis and selective quotation usually associated with undergraduate essays, it does have a few good points. Some of the sociological analysis of the mindset of the average American naval officer is interesting, and as a general history of the development of the battleship, the book is okay if taken with a large block of salt. And, if nothing else, his arguments become more believable as the discussion moved forward in time; eventually, carrier and submarine forces were the death knell to the battleship. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.
In general, I would recommend reading this book after reading Wayne Hughes's Fleet Tactics (for an understanding of some of the issues involved) and John Keegan's The Price of Admiralty (for an accessible history of the Battle of Jutland). These two works will help put the discussion in a proper context, and better prepare the reader to judge O'Connell's claims for himself.