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To Own the Sea at Night
Nighttime is the right time for a naval battle; at least during the 20th century. Eighty percent of the surface actions were fought at night then. Before that, during the age of fighting sail, only ten percent of battles occurred at night.
“Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night: 1904-1944,” edited by Vincent P. O’Hara and Trent Hone, explores the reason for that change. It looks at nighttime naval actions fought over a 40-year period.
It contains seven essays by eight noted naval historians. Each examines the naval night-fighting doctrine of different navies in different conflicts: The Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and World War II. These examine the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Russo-Japanese War and between 1922 and 1942, The German Kaiserliche Marine during World War I, the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 and in 1943-44, and the United States Navy from 1942 through 1944.
The Japanese were the first to focus on night actions, using night attacks in the Russo-Japanese War. They were less effective than they believed. Readers leave that chapter thinking the successes Japan had were largely due to Russian errors. Similarly, Imperial Germany trained hard for night torpedo attacks, but used flawed doctrine, rendering them ineffective.
These essays show Japan, the United States, and especially Britain, developed effective night-fighting doctrine. Japan and Britain learned from night-battle miscarriages in prior wars – the Russo-Japanese for Japan and World War I for Britain – which were applied in the early phases of World War II. Italy, by contrast, entered World War II unprepared for nighttime actions, and paid heavily.
The United States Navy mastered nighttime combat during World War II. Along with the Royal Navy, they relied on technology to leap ahead of their foes. Radar and especially the Combat Information Center (developed independently and concurrently by both) stripped away cover of darkness and made both navies deadly at night. Japan, which previously owned the nighttime seas, was eclipsed and never realized why.
Each chapter offers different lessons and insights. Some universal lessons appear in all chapters. Battle at night is hard. Control is difficult. Results are universally overestimated. Situational awareness is the key to success. The side that maintains it best is the side that usually wins.
For those interested in naval history, “Fighting in the Dark” is a gem. It is readable, giving readers insight and understanding of the issues involved in night actions.
“Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night: 1904-1944,” edited by Vincent P. O’Hara and Trent Hone, Naval Inst Press, 2023, 305 pages, $39.95 (Hardcover), $28.99 (Ebook)
This review was written by Mark Lardas, who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.Published in History
Another fine review, Seawriter.
Good review Seawriter.
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. Navy learned some painful lessons at first; especially at the Battle of Savo Island.
They talk about that in the chapter on Japan in WWII. The difference was the US learned. Japan did not.