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No such "phony war" at sea

The Gathering Storm: The Naval War September 1939 to April 1940 - Geirr H. Haarr

In the aftermath of the declaration of war in September 1939, the first seven months of the conflict seemed anticlimactic. While the major powers of Europe were now officially at war, there were no major clashes between Germany, France, and Britain. As anticipation gave way to boredom, some people began calling it a "phony war," with the civilians at home and the soldiers clustered at the front waiting for waiting for the fighting to begin.


For the navies, however, the "phony war" was a myth. From the start of the conflict warships were sent out to assert control over the oceans and disrupt enemy commerce. Though this fighting took place throughout much of the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere, during these months the fighting was concentrated in the waters between Britain and Germany. It is this part of the war that forms the subject of Geirr Haarr's book. In considerable detail he describes the campaigns waged by Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine as they sent out their ships and planes to interdict merchant ships, sow mines, and challenge the presence of their foes. What emerges from these chapters is of two sides learning how to engage their respective enemies, often with new or improved technologies that changed the nature of naval warfare from what their forces had experienced just two decades previously. Yet in many ways the two sides continued to fight with the old assumptions, with the Kriegsmarine's leader, Erich Raeder, pining for a surface fleet he would never possess, and the Royal Navy asserting a wasteful offensive approach towards engaging the resurgent threat of the U-boats.


Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book in this respect is now these months served to foreshadow the rest of the naval war that was to follow. Yet this point is one of many that Haarr leaves unmade. While the book is full of details (though not all of it accurate), it is sorely lacking in analysis that would connect all of this information into conclusions about the the relative performance of the two sides, or how these events shaped broader developments both then and later. For those seeking operational details about this part of the war the book is a treasure, but the absence of this sort of broader examination prevents Haarr's book from becoming a truly definitive study of its subject.