Saturday, February 08, 2014

Admirals - Andrew Lambert

So I read The Desert Generals last month (only a month ago?) I mentioned to my dad that Churchill comes off as an interfering buffoon, and I asked if FDR had meddled constantly, since Churchill had that in common with Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. Being who he is, my dad can't resist dropping a bunch of tangentially related books on my lap, like this one.

Admirals does not address my question (I think my dad said that FDR mostly let his military do their thing, within the constraints of stuff like the European Theater taking precedence. Honestly, once he gets going, it's hard to pick out the strictly relevant points from amongst all the interesting, but unrelated bits).

Admirals is all about British admirals who helped make and sustain Britain as a world power. Nine admirals get a chapter to themselves, starting with Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, and ending with Andrew Cunningham. Samuel Hood and John Jervis share a chapter. He details their lives, as much as is known for the earlier ones, their time in the service, successes, failures, faults and strengths, and the ways they shaped the Royal Navy. This means, especially with later admirals, that he deals as much with their work in the Admiralty or as First Sea Lord in defining the course of the Navy, as he does with their time at sea. Which is not what I was expecting, but Lambert does very well at showing the importance of their work there. Hornby's interest in adjusting to the improvements in ship technology with the rise of steam engines may help to explain John Fisher's success focusing largely on technical aspects such as gunnery, while never commanding a fleet (or even a ship) in an actual battle. The struggle between an admirals need to control and direct, with the necessity of encouraging initiative in their subordinates, and the increasing reach of politicians in their sphere of influence.

There are some curiosities. For one, Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar and such, does not get a chapter. However, he is mentioned almost constantly, by Lambert and people he quotes when they refer to those who came later. Even earlier admirals have some of their successes compared to Nelson, and one gets the impression Hood and Jervis are there largely to detail how each helped shape the admiral Nelson became (as he apparently combined the best qualities of both, without either's weaknesses). It's a bit like writing a book now about players who shaped the NBA, but not devoting a chapter to Michael Jordan. Surely a guy who was so great every admiral since is compared to him would be relevant. Best I can figure, Lambert's already written a book about him, so he decided to highlight lesser known figures. Which is fine, though I would have appreciated a little more on him, since I'm not a naval historian, but kind of odd when he ends the book by stating none of them were on Nelson's level across the board.

Ultimately, that's just a curious decision, but not one that cripples the book. There are certain biases Lambert demonstrates that hamper it, especially in the later chapters. His disdain for the army is not surprising, given he's a naval historian, but at times he takes it a bit far. While discussing Cunningham's time in the Mediterranean in World War 2, he says Auchinleck and Tenner, 'complained when he went to sea with the fleet, seemingly unaware admirals had always been in the thick of the fighting, not taking decisions in air-conditioned offices.' Well snap, take that land and air! Except, I know from The Desert Generals that when Auchinleck took command from Ritchie, he led from a decidedly not air-conditioned tent/bunker near the front lines*. Perhaps they complained because it was supposed to be a joint command, and it was hard to get ahold of him to plan while he was out at sea. To Cunningham's credit, he was willing to be landlocked as he was given greater command responsibilities later on. I've no beef with him, just Lambert. Yes, Barnett has me biased in favor of Auchinleck, but that section comes off as Lambert ignoring facts to make a pithy comment that elevates his guy while denigrating others.

More troubling, though, was his tendency to excuse serious character flaws in the admirals. It was one thing when he acknowledged but mostly ignored James II, Duke of York's failures as a monarch, because I thought he made a decent case that James' flaws did not harm him when in command of a fleet as they did as king. That's fine, we're judging these guys as admirals. I wouldn't dock Jordan's career as a player because he was a lousy GM for the Washington Wizards. But with Fisher, he ignores the fact that Fisher didn't really encourage initiative in his subordinates, preferring to keep his cards close to the vest and handle things himself. Which is a fault he criticized Hood for just a few chapters earlier. With David Beatty, he acknowledges that Beatty screwed up at Jutland because he was a slapdash fuck-up, more interested in splashy moves that made headlines than in paying attention to the details that would make those splashy moves succeed**. Beatty later tries to cast the blame on Charles Beresford, and Lambert handwaves it. A couple of quotes:

'While this was unfair, revealing the darker side to Beatty's character, rewriting history was also necessary to sustain his reputation as a successful naval commander.'


'If he abused his position to protect his reputation, he did so with good reason: he did not take the issue as seriously as his critics suggested.'

On that latter quote, let me note that "not taking it seriously" involved the suppression of reports that painted his actions at Jutland in an unflattering light, and demanding that the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty place a disclaimer in Sir Julian Corbett's official history. So, you know, he tried to character assassinate a fellow admiral and rewrite history, but it was all just a lark, really!

The thing is, Lambert makes little secret of the fact he doesn't consider Beresford worthy of the titles he had conveyed upon him. Which apparently means it's OK for Beatty to talk as much shit as he likes, because Beatty's one of the special ones, and if the truth was recorded, Beatty would have lost influence at the Admiralty, and that would have been bad for the Royal Navy in the interwar period, and so the lies, duplicity, and bullshit are acceptable. Ends justify means.

An interesting book, but Lambert's views are too jaundiced on some of his subjects. The chapters on Geoffrey Hornby and William Parker were excellent, though.

* One of the things Barnett mentioned was that Auchinleck hurt his image because unlike Monty, he wouldn't roll out the red carpet of refreshment and lodging for Churchill and the press. The ate what he ate, and that was roughly what his men ate. Take it or leave it, and a lot of them didn't like it. Just in case you thought all those sportswriters - Peter King - who bitched about being paid to cover a Super Bowl that might be in cold weather were some recent occurrence.

** In an earlier run-in between his battlecruisers and the Germans, the Germans scored 22 hits to the British's 6. Beatty's response was not to make improvements to the British guns' rangefinding equipment, to but to remove safety equipment that would allow his guns to fire faster, but also make them more likely to catch fire and explode. He opted for spray n' pray, which if you've ever seen an '80s action movie, you know how that works.

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