Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera


McLean, Douglas M. (Ed.) Fighting at Sea: Naval Battles from the Age of Sail and Steam. Quebec: Robin Brass Studio, 2008. 337 p. ISBN# 9781896941561. Hardcover. $34.95.

Fighting at Sea is a soft cover collaborative effort by one American, two British and three Canadian naval historians.  Each author selected one small naval battle or engagement which is covered in 50-60 pages.   The choice of engagements seems a bit arbitrary,  starting with the amphibious operation that lead to the capture of Quebec during the Seven Years War, two frigate actions during the War of 1812, a WWII destroyer night engagements in the channel  and finishing with two U-boat actions.   A prelude (written by the editor) precedes the Quebec section describing the Seven Years War. A second ‘Interlude’ sets the scene for the War of 1812 battles and three more Interludes precede each of the final three sections.  The Interlude sections are only a few pages and do not attempt to set the scene or fill in the historical timeline of naval development, rather they focus the reader on what to look for in the following section.  The reader is clearly expected to have some background in seamanship, naval history and tactics.     

The book contains almost 100 maps, charts, illustrations and diagrams.   The maps, or more properly charts, are I believe were produced by cartographer Christopher Johnson based on archival material.  They are well done and the WWII material is uniformly excellent.    There is a complete index, and notes contain bibliographical references by page. Unfortunately there is no separate bibliography or list of maps and illustrations.

Canadian military historian Donald Graves opens with an account of the 1759 Siege of Quebec focused on the contribution of the Royal Navy, as would be expected in a book titled Fighting at Sea.  Although primarily known for his 1812 histories, Mr. Graves is no stranger to the campaign as he edited the new edition of C.P. Stacey’s Quebec, 1759 published in 2002.  Besides the Royal Navy itself, the author takes special care to see that the contribution and leadership of RADM Saunders is recognized. 

By 18th Century standards, the expedition was a huge logistic undertaking and was to culminate in one of the most hazardous of military operations, an amphibious landing.  The professionalism of the RN allows the fleet to pass up the St Lawrence river— ‘Quebec’s most effective rampart’ –unscathed.  Montcalm’s advisors had assured him that sections of the river would be an insurmountable obstacle.  General Wolfe, on his first independent command, comes across as insecure and ever ready to criticize the Navy.  Saunders does not reply in kind but patiently supports Wolfe and stymies every French attempt to interfere. Given Wolfe’s increasingly fractious relationship with his brigadiers, he calls them ‘cowards’ and ‘villains’, I suspect Saunders had a role in stabilizing the young general.  Finally, luck, ever fickle, plays a hand when the British landing craft are initially mistaken for a French inshore resupply effort.  Once the British army is ashore the half hour battle on the Plains of Abraham is almost anti-climatic, with British victory all but assured.

The narrative moves ahead 50 years to the War of 1812 with American William S Dudley, former Director of Naval History, describing Old Ironsides’ last action vs.  HMS Cyane and HMS Levant and British historian Andrew Lambert chronicling the loss of the USS President under Stephan Decatur.  Both these actions occurred early in 1815 after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.  Both of these accounts continue the themes of luck, leadership and professional competence.  Neither sheds any additional light on some of the factual uncertainties associated with the engagements.

Dudley gives a concise naval history of the War of 1812 focused on Old Ironsides.  The actual engagement is covered in great detail drawn from contemporary accounts.  It unfortunately includes quite a bit of naval terminology that the casual reader will find opaque.  For example, “Falcon (captain of the Cyane) ordered a reeving of fresh braces…”  Nevertheless it is engaging reading especially the account of Constitution’s escape with one of her prizes from three pursuing British frigates.  Leadership and professional competence are examined and not found wanting but luck plays the most significant role.  Fog and the signaling error that sends all three frigates in pursuit of the prize Levant rather than the Constitution ensures her escape.

“Taking the President”, British historian Lambert’s contribution, recaps the War of 1812 from the British viewpoint and spends quite a bit of time on a character study of Stephan Decatur.  He also describes HMS Endymion, a ship specifically designed and outfitted to be able to fight the new US large frigates on near equal terms.  For those not familiar with the battle, the USS President was blockaded in New York for an extended period by a strong British squadron.  On 14 Jan 1815, ‘a dark and stormy night’, Decatur elects to try to run the British blockade.  Unfortunately the President runs aground on Sandy Hook.  Decatur manages to free the damaged ship and continues out into the Atlantic.  At first light he finds the delay to have been costly, USS President has run into the blockading British squadron.   The Endymion, the fastest frigate in the Royal Navy, is one of them.  The account of the ensuing battle between well-matched ships and able commanders is first rate.  Even the naval terminology ‘the Endymion was lighter in scantling and frame’ does not detract overmuch. The battle over, Lambert goes on to describe what he calls the ‘Battle after the Battle’ Decatur’s public relations efforts after the  loss of his ship.      

The last three sections jumps ahead to 1943 and 1944 in WWII, from the age of sail to the age of steam.  They introduce electronics as a major player in naval warfare.

Editor McLean, a Canadian, offers up Gruppe Leuthen’s attacks on convoys ON202 and ONS18.   This autumn 1943 battle has been called the last success for the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.   It is covered in some detail in Donald Graves’s book on the Royal Canadian Navy In Peril on the Sea.    Germany assembled a wolf pack of some 20 U Boats upgraded with anti aircraft armament, radar detection equipment and the new anti escort homing torpedo.  Their intended target was westbound convoy ON202.  Why Germany would attack a westbound and presumably empty convoy is not clear.  As luck would have it there was a second westbound convoy in the area plus a roaming Canadian Escort Group EG9.  The ensuing battle involves the two convoys, some 17 U-boats and 16 escorts over a period of four days.  The author does a good job of describing the action, post battle analysis by both the German and Allied navies and offers up his own analysis, all in 50 pages.   Students of the Battle of the Atlantic should find this section well worth while if they do not have access to the In Peril on the Sea.  

In contrast to the 1943 U-Boat battle, “On Britain’s Doorstep the hunt for U247” by British historian Malcolm Llewellyn-Jones, shows just how one-sided the U-boat war was by July 1944.   The author recounts the hunt over a period of 5 weeks for a single German U-boat in the coastal waters off of Great Britain.  The hunt involved several dozen aircraft, 3 escort groups and a light carrier before Canadian escort group 9 finally located and destroyed the U247.  The narrative is quite detailed and gives an appreciation of the difficulties of shallow water ASW.  In particular, it demonstrates the use of the echo sounder to localize a contact.  Now the casual reader will not realize the the echo sounder is not the asdic, or what we call SONAR.   Rather it is the fathometer, normally used to give the water depth but useful for finding U-boats hiding by sitting on the bottom.  The ship has to drive directly over the contact.  The author was able to find and reproduce in the article the actual echo sounder traces produced by HMCS St. John. All in all, an excellent account, with the author able to hold the reader’s attention throughout. 

“1944:  Destroyer Night Fighting and the Battle of Ile de Batz” by Canadian author Michael Whitby examines the largest Allied-German Naval action in the channel where four British, two Polish  and two Canadian destroyers faced off against four German destroyers three days after D Day.   The first two thirds of the section recap German – British light ship actions from 1940 to 1944 describing the evolving tactics and the introduction of radar.  Of particular interest is the October 1943 channel battle where, in spite of radar the British were sharply defeated with the loss of the cruiser Charybdis.  It seems the British were relearning the lessons of the US Navy at Savo Island and Tassafaronga in 1942.  The final third, which describes the battle off of Isle De Batz, describes the fury and confusion of a close range night action and along is worth the price of the book.

With half the authors being Canadian, the book itself, not unexpectedly, has a Canadian slant.  All three of the WWII sections emphasize the contribution of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).  In September 1939, the RCN had only six destroyers and a handful of smaller vessels in commission.  The Canadian Navy expanded dramatically during World War II.  By the end of the war, the RCN was the third-largest navy (in numbers of ships) in the world, after the United States Navy and Royal Navy.  As noted, the authors expect the reader to have some appreciation of the sea, warships and naval tactics to get the full value of their research.  Given that, it’s a pleasure to read and deserves a place on any naval buffs bookshelf.   

Reviewed by Commander Kevin Kelley, U.S. Navy (retired).

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