/ Published October 23, 2018
Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East, 1922–42 by Angus Britts. Naval Institute Press, 2017, 184 pp.
Given how much has been written on both of the world wars, it is rare to identify an entirely new angle and shed light on a subject that has truly never been detailed before. This unique freshness is what makes Angus Britts’ Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East, 1922–1944 such a worthwhile read. Neglected Skies covers a wide period of history, as noted by the title, that takes the British Navy from the heights of its might to the point of near decay when the world needed them most to succeed. Well-researched and clearly written with a passion for both naval and aviation history, Neglected Skies does a service to the ever-growing trove of world war accounts.
In his opening, Britts takes readers into the thick of a murky World War II naval battle in the style of Midway or Coral Reef. In the heat of his description, it becomes clear that the British Navy is disorganized, and while they carry an advantage in numbers, they are clearly unprepared for attack and being outmaneuvered by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The battle that Britts paints is what became known as the Easter Sunday Raid, a part of the larger Indian Ocean Raid that effectively drove the English from Southeast Asia.
The whole of Neglected Skies, after outlining the miserable defeat of the English South Pacific Fleet, is dedicated to telling the story how the most powerful navy in the world arrived at this catastrophic point. As Britts makes clear, the devastating loss that came as a surprise was in reality an inevitability that was years in the making.
The full story of the decline of the British Navy stretches back to the end of the First World War. World War I introduced a fierce new force in war fighting: aircraft. While aircraft lacked overall sophistication during the span of the war itself, the successes of the new German Luftwaffe and the bloody battles of French skies that made the likes of the Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker, it was clear to the Triple Entente and Axis powers alike that aviation would be a critical new forefront in modern conflict. The decision to fully integrate airpower into the British Armed Forces was wrought with frustration and rivalry among the top leaders in the British state. In Britt’s analysis, he spends multiple chapters covering what he dubbed the Policy Era, namely most of the early 1920s and 1930s in Britain. As opposed to other war testimonies that stay within the realm of conflict alone, Britt’s inclusion of the power and funding struggles between the leaders of the British Navy, the leaders of the newly-founded Royal Air Force (RAF), and various figures within the British government added a vital depth to his overall account of the navy’s eventual degradation. As Britts points out, poor spending decisions, including the planning and then scrapping of a new carrier program to replace their already aging fleets, and political power struggles, including the fierce competition over jurisdiction and the division of responsibility regarding military aviation between the RAF and the Royal Navy, were critical in sending the navy to its ultimate point of failure.
In addition to a thorough examination of policy decisions that affected the Royal Navy, Neglected Skies also takes special care to place Britain’s navy in context by outlining the simultaneous growth of the Imperial Japanese Navy. While the Royal Navy was struggling to integrate aviation and win valuable resources on the domestic front, Japan was rapidly developing every branch of its armed forces with a special emphasis on naval power. As an island nation, the importance of the seas was not lost on the new, offensively imperial Japan. Ironically, much of the Japanese naval strength was a direct result of supporting the Triple Entente against German submarine warfare during World War I. The emphasis placed on naval aviation was directly derived from the British as the Japanese looked to British expertise, the most advanced in the world at the time. The previous ties between Britain and Japan in the early interwar years is one of the points that Britts makes with a particular salience, not only to highlight the similarities that gave way to such sharp divergences in doctrine as well as development of each nation’s navy, but also ultimately to illustrate just how shocking the Japanese betrayal was, however inevitable in retrospect.
The Royal British Navy is undeniably the focus of Neglected Skies. However, Britts arrives at perhaps his largest point of the text in the final chapters. While Britain did wake up in time to save its navy and contribute mightily to the Allied victory in the Pacific, the real winner of naval supremacy was, in fact, the US. At the beginning of the Second World War, the US was barely recovered from economic depression and severely lagged behind Britain in both naval development and the recognition of the air as the new domain de jure. After Pearl Harbor, the US changed its tune on production and innovative war and fought at breakneck speed, and was undeniably the only true, carrier-based, blue-water navy in the world when the war finally ended.
In 184 pages, Britts takes readers from the moment that Britain’s grip on the world’s seas began to slip to the point when its failure cost the free world access to almost the whole of East Asia. While history allowed Britain to redeem herself, and Britts is kind enough to let that show, the author ultimately gives history fans and naval enthusiasts alike a reason to ask themselves how one of the most powerful empires in history failed to notice decline happening so quickly, especially in an essential arena that once won them the world.
1st Lt Ashley Marty, USAF
600 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010