The ‘naval study series’ invites naval and maritime researchers to reflect on the books that have shaped them as a historian and thinker. This includes the way they gain insight and perspectives on the past, and how they understand naval war, warfare and strategy. Limiting them to 1250 words and five entries the series sets a rigorously reflective yet beneficial challenge for author and reader.
It was impossible not to approach this challenge without some trepidation, in part because sharing the books that influenced me is a little too much like bearing my soul, and in part because distilling over thirty years of reading naval history down to five titles is spectacularly daunting. Book lists, as a previous contributor has said, are intensely personal, and the risk is that we fall into the politician’s Desert Island Discs trap, picking those we would like others to think have influenced us, rather than those which actually have. For my part, I think that if you’re not prepared to be honest you shouldn’t take part, so here are my choices, for better or for worse!
- 1985 Dan van der Vat, The Last Corsair: The Story of the Emden. My family continued the tradition of Christmas stockings well into adulthood, and they always contained books; my father would make a last minute excursion to ‘the cheap book shop’ and pick out several titles for everyone (including himself). One year The Last Corsair was in my stocking and I could not put it down. I am sure there are many better, more rigorously researched naval history titles, but Dan van der Vat taught me that reading history books could be as exciting and enjoyable as reading fiction, and for that I will always be grateful. The Last Corsair was responsible for a lifelong fascination for the subject, and encouraged me to write my own account of the Emden and Imperial Germany’s other surface raiders many years later.
- 1996 Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. I cannot remember when I first read The Rules of the Game, it was I think soon after publication, but I do know that although I found it enthralling and immersive, my own lack of background knowledge limited my ability to learn from it. I was simply not widely read enough to understand some of the wider implications. Ten years on, older, wiser and three book cases later, I re-read Gordon’s classic whilst preparing for an exhibition to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland and was utterly convinced by his arguments. Although I am very aware that The Rules of the Game can be hugely polarising for historians, personally I found Gordon’s arguments compelling, and they have done much to shape my own views on Jutland over the intervening ten years.
- 2006 Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Jutland 1916: Death in the Grey Wastes. I thought long and hard about including a second Jutland title, mostly out of concern that readers would believe me a ‘one-trick pony’ or unable to look back beyond last year’s centenary! However, the lessons I learned from this book are really far broader than the battle itself. Steel and Hart are both old friends and colleagues from Imperial War Museum days, and with Death in the Grey Wastes they taught me the power of eyewitness testimony, particularly for historians working in museums or with broadcasters, rather than in academia. The pitfalls inherent in oral history are well known, but in my opinion the veteran interviewee is no more vulnerable to the influence of his own prejudices, convictions and failing memory than the memoir-writing general and politician (or indeed the historian) and in my field there is no more powerful way to convey the extraordinary nature of events than by drawing in the stories of ordinary people who found themselves taking part. The Battle of Jutland was a tragedy on an epic scale, and it was Steel and Hart who helped me see that.
- 2004 Richard Woodman, The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943. Singling out one of Richard Woodman’ excellent books is hard, and I hope I can be forgiven for giving an honorary mention to his Arctic Convoys and Malta Convoys in the same passage, but The Real Cruel Sea was the work which gave me an entirely different perspective on a subject I thought I understood quite comprehensively. Like many naval historians, I had previously tended to think of the ‘Merchant Navy’ as a homogenous body much like the Royal Navy, but since reading The Real Cruel Sea I have been unable to refer to the ‘Merchant Navy’ without qualifying it or (as here) firmly setting it in scare quotes! Richard Woodman showed me just how diverse were the merchant sailors, the ships in which they served and the companies who employed them, and how very different their experience of the Battle of the Atlantic was to that of their RN comrades-in-arms. The Real Cruel Sea was the inspiration for my own foray into the merchant sailors’ war, Coastal Convoys 1939-1945. I later learned Richard had intended to incorporate this sub-campaign as well, but his editors forbade him! He was kind enough to write my foreword, and I will forever be grateful for his advice and encouragement as I embarked on what was my first book.
- 2010 Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire. As historians and writers, sometimes we come across a book which stops us in our tracks, grips us from start to finish, and ultimately makes us aspire to be better writers as a consequence of having read it. Although not a work of purely ‘naval’ history, A World on Fire was this kind of historical epiphany for me. I learned far too much from it too summarise in a single paragraph, but I can highlight just a couple of things. Firstly, Amanda Foreman provided me with an elegant object lesson in a very simple but surprisingly hard to achieve rule for excellent historical writing, and the absolute key to continuing to grow and develop interest in our field and bring it to new audiences: good history books effortlessly combine rigorous, authoritative research and spellbinding storytelling. Secondly, she taught me the importance of context, of seeing the bigger picture. I had always been interested in the naval dimension of the American Civil War, but I had (to my shame) never really considered it as a truly global story. A World on Fire showed me how this great conflict touched my country and the rest of the world in ways I had never imagined.
Nick Hewitt studied history at Lancaster University and War Studies at King’s College, University of London, where he specialised in naval history. He joined the Imperial War Museum in 1995 and between 2003 and 2007 was permanent historian on board HMS Belfast. In 2010, he left to become Head of Collections at Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower in Priddys Hard, Gosport. In the summer of 2013, Explosion became a branch of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and Nick joined the NMRN, where he is now Head of Heritage Development.
Nick is a regular contributor to television and radio, notably as a presenter for the BBC’s Coast and most recently as part of the presenting team for the BBC’s Jutland 1916: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day. His most recent book, Firing on Fortress Europe: HMS Belfast and D-Day, was published by the Imperial War Museum in 2016. His previous books include Coastal Convoys 1939-1945: The Indestructible Highway, and The Kaiser’s Pirates: Hunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers 1914-15, both published by Pen and Sword.
View expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
The naval study series is based on inspiration from the ‘War Book Series’ by the Modern War Institute, at the United States Military Academy commonly known as ‘West Point’.