CARRIERS AT WAR 1939-1945 – Review by Mark Barnes


By Adrian Stewart
Published by Pen & Sword Maritime
ISBN: 978 1 78159 156 7

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

I was in New York recently and made a beeline for the USS Intrepid. You don’t see an aircraft carrier every day and having the chance to visit a World War II and Vietnam War veteran which had played a role in the space race is just too good to be true. The old ship is a sight to see; her flight deck is covered in jets and in a hangar you will find the space shuttle Enterprise. It is an amazing place and a testament to the vision of the people who secured her preservation. The pleasure of walking her decks tempered the disappointment of not seeing HMS Illustrious some weeks earlier on what was probably her last visit to London. Even at the finish I’d hoped to snap her sailing out of the Thames estuary, but on the appointed day she sailed in the afternoon and I was engaged elsewhere. It was, suffice to say, a huge disappointment.

Aircraft carriers – flat tops – are our modern day capital ships and even as they strode into the ascendant during the Second World War they had begun to create something of a mystique about themselves which remains unbroken; think of the Yorktown or Ark Royal – these names conjure up wonders. You have to add some balance to this and think of the magnificent power of the Japanese fleet in all its modernity. Warships of course, are as living things and continue to be so long after they are gone. There is something about the newsreel and the photographs. They have this impact, this allure – I can’t quite explain it. If you don’t feel it, move on. If you do then you know exactly what I mean. I come from a family with a naval tradition, but my experience is confined to voyages on car ferries. Maybe it’s a latent islander thing that some people think rests in all Brits. I don’t know, but I love ships and warships especially.

The great fleet carriers, like battleships are massive affairs – towns afloat, so to speak – and they instil huge pride and even now when so many are gone, there is not a little awe.  In this excellent book Adrian Stewart gives us a robust and fair to say affectionate account of the major carrier operations across the six years of the war.  I love the way the author compares the growing might of the United States with the incredible purposefulness of Japan, at least in the early days; and the wholly different approach of the Royal Navy – always struggling to keep pace. Their ships lacked capacity for aircraft and the planes themselves were always a bit ropey – save for the wonderful Swordfish; but the Brits had their armoured decks which would come in handy when they met the Kamikaze.

The escort carriers are not ignored and this is probably where the book wins because these smaller ships did so much and are often eclipsed by the superstars. Mr Stewart sets things right. I think the thing he does best is show in most strident terms how the capital ship class era turns as flat tops deliver fatal blows to the old battlewagons that had reigned supreme in decades before. It is, of course, in the Pacific that this was all writ large. Jutland may have been where the battleships and battlecruisers had their greatest encounter but in the seas around the Philippines the greatest sea battle of all took place and there will be nothing like it again.

The book is as detailed as it is straightforward and even handed. It moves easily across the seas and oceans betwixt navies and campaigns. The ultimate result is a thoroughly useful and entertaining history which is much more than a digest. You will put this one down and want to learn more. I like this in a book, so I have no hesitation in recommending this one to the house.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.