The Gathering Storm: The Naval War in Northern Europe September 1939 – April 1940 (RCAF Journal - FALL 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 4)

The Gathering Storm: The Naval War in Northern Europe September 1939 – April 1940

By Geirr H. Haarr

Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute Press, 2013
550 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59114-331-4

Review by Major Chris Buckham, CD, MA

The period covering the early years of the Second World War (1939–1940) is often referred to in the West as “The Phony War.” This is mainly because, from traditional history’s perspective, very little occurred in the war during this time; however, this completely ignores the one element where much was indeed happening during this period: the sea. Haarr’s book focuses exclusively on this aspect of the war and sheds a great deal of light upon it in terms of capability, technological advancement, doctrine as well as command and control. 

The narrative commences with a review of the interwar period for the German and British navies, highlighting those areas of development and focus for the governments and senior staff. What is really significant here are the decisions made regarding those aspects of capability and doctrine that were not emphasized and the implications that this had for the upcoming conflict. The British, facing economic realities, could not maintain their historical degree of naval superiority and fell back on treaties as a means of offsetting the incredible cost of naval construction. They also, however, maintained a significant degree of bias towards a more traditional doctrine of battleships and surface warfare, despite the technological advances in subsurface capability. Thus, emphasis was not placed on the doctrinal development of antisubmarine capability in terms of seamanship and ship design. Additionally, little thought or attention was given over to interservice cooperation (specifically between the air and naval arms).

For the Germans, naval development was undertaken concurrent with development and expansion in the other arms. This posed a significant challenge, as the competition for resources, control and money was extremely aggressive. Additionally, given the design and build time for ships, there was not always enough of an opportunity for test and evaluation of design concepts, resulting in flaws in ship construction that hampered overall performance. An excellent example of this was the standard-issue torpedo, which had a flaw in its pressure trigger that resulted in significant operational failures. The rebuilding of the Navy did, however, provide the Germans with a doctrinal clean slate from which they were able to develop interoperability between naval and air assets, surface/subsurface platforms, minelaying and surface-raider policies. It is the position of Haarr that while the Germans were a smaller force at the beginning of the war in terms of straight numbers, they were better positioned in terms of overall doctrine and capability.

Haarr writes extensively on the international situation in the North between the British, Soviets, Germans and the Scandinavian countries. This is a fascinating dance to follow, as the British were keen to both disrupt the German flow of iron ore from Sweden and to assist the Finns in their war with the Soviets. Germany had no interest in the North beyond ensuring the neutrality of the Scandinavian states and protecting its access to their resources. Ironically, it was, to a great extent, the activities of the British and her Allies that resulted in the German invasion. It is evident from the sources quoted in the book that it was only a matter of time before either the British or Germans occupied Norway, and it was only a few days that separated their planned invasions.

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Haarr refers to this period (1939–1940) as the “Naval Battle of Britain,” and he provides a compelling argument to support this assertion. He centres his discussion on Germany’s need to push the Royal Navy from the North Sea to protect supply lines and undertake operations on the high seas (i.e., disrupting convoys supplying Britain and France). Given the flexibility of its doctrine and the modernity of its fleet, the Germans were initially very successful at knocking the Royal Navy onto its heels (at one point forcing its relocation into bases on the Irish Sea). Haarr proves conclusively that the German Navy had a very good opportunity to defeat the Royal Navy; however, shortfalls in technology (i.e., torpedo) and a failure to appreciate the capability and potential of such advances as minelaying submarines and magnetic-mine technology resulted in these opportunities being squandered. The author also asserts that another central theme was a failure of the German Kriegsmarine to prioritize the expansion of the U-boat fleet until it was too late and the British had developed adequate responses to its threat.

Haarr is an excellent author, tying very convoluted storylines into a lucid and engaging narrative. A particular strength of this book is the style with which Haarr layers high politics, competing operational demands and the drama of the life of the individual sailor (regardless of nationality). He provides copious footnotes and a very extensive bibliography of primary and secondary source material. Provided also are a series of appendices outlining details of losses and successes of all major combatants throughout this period. As both a source and a highly enjoyable read, this book is strongly recommended.


Major Chris Buckham is an air logistics officer presently employed in A5 Plans, 1 Canadian Air Division. He maintains a professional reading blog at www.themilitaryreviewer.blogspot.com.

 

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