Castles Of Steel — Britain, Germany And The Winning Of The Great War At Sea, By Robert K. Massie

(Random House, 2003; 880 pp., $35 — ISBN 0679456716).

In “Castles of Steel,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert K. Massie follows up his previous work, “Dreadnaught,” with perhaps the finest book ever written on the subject of the naval history of the First World War. While “Dreadnaught” provides an understanding of the arms race that led to the buildup of the British and German Navies prior to the Great War, “Castles of Steel” gives the reader a detailed review of both the military and political aspects of World War I at sea. Throughout the war, the two great navies maneuvered to fight on their own terms. Dependent on merchant shipping for food and other critical imports, as well as for the transportation of Commonwealth forces from various nations of the Empire, the numerically superior Royal Navy could accept nothing less than total control of the sea. At the same time, the British imposed a naval blockade of Germany. Led by the likes of Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty, the British aggressively sought to force a showdown with the German High Seas Fleet to eliminate it altogether.

The German Navy, at the insistence of Kaiser Wilhelm, took a much more conservative approach to naval warfare. Outnumbered across the board in all ship types, the Germans sought to whittle down the larger Royal Navy through a series of combats designed to isolate and destroy smaller units of the Grand Fleet. Their plan was to lure the British units, especially their battle cruisers, on chases where they could be ambushed by the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet. It was one such action that led to the Battle of Jutland, the largest single naval battle of the First World War. Particularly interesting are the impacts of (then) advances in science/technology and naval architecture upon both navies. Among the technologies used for the first time in WWI were shipboard radio for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, aircraft and airships for scouting and the direction of naval gunfire, gathering of intelligence through interception of radio messages, and the use of fuel-oil powered ships. The First World War also saw the first use of primitive aircraft carriers and widespread employment of submarines as offensive weapons. As Massie explains, it was the decision of the Germans to undertake unrestricted submarine warfare, the sinking of ships regardless of nationality without warning, that led the United States into the war in 1917.

As a military historian myself, I find the most impressive aspect of Massie’s work to be the sheer quantity and unmatched quality of his research. As a writer, however, I am in awe at his ability to incorporate the information he has painstakingly gathered into a seamless, high-energy page-tuner. Combining biographical sketches of the larger-than-life personalities who shaped the Great War at sea with historical fact and anecdotal recollections has produced one of the most compelling military history books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I recommend reading “Dreadnaught,” however, before reading “Castles of Steel.” To do so is not absolutely necessary, but will provide the reader with a great deal of insight into the formation of the opposing fleets and associated political intrigue.