Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars 

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

Vincent P. O’Hara is an independent naval historian and the author of thirteen works, including Six Victories: North Africa, Malta, and the Mediterranean Convoy War, November 1941-March 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019) and with Leonard R. Heinz, Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, 1914-18 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017). He holds a history degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Leonard R. Heinz worked for many years as a financial services lawyer while maintaining an active interest in military and naval history. He has written articles and designed wargames on naval topics and earned a history degree from the University of Pennsylvania. 

O’Hara and Heinz have now collaborated in writing Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars, an innovative comparison of the world’s major combatant navies through three significant major conflicts (Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II – the Russo-Japanese War has an occasional appearance) illustrating how nations incorporated – or failed to incorporate — new technologies into their ships, their practices, and their doctrines. The authors examine six core technologies fundamental to twentieth-century naval warfare including new weapons (mines and torpedoes), new tools (radio and radar), and particularly new platforms (submarines and aircraft). They demonstrate how technology influences naval warfare, and vice versa. An “Introduction” and “Chapter 1: Use, Doctrine, and Innovation” provide appropriate context to the six chapters in which they examine the technological advances. The authors’ stated goals for this volume is (pp. 3-4): 1) briefly consider the nature and history of each of the six technologies; 2) consider the state of the technology when it was first used in war and how different navies expected to use it; 3) explore how major navies subsequently improved or modified their use of the technology; 4) examine the development of countermeasures; 5) discuss how navies developed doctrine and incorporated ancillary technologies to improve the core technology’s effectiveness. O’Hara and Heinz do point out that their book is “not intended to be a complete history of naval technology in the period covered” (p. 4).

The initial chapter provides information on the book’s context of use, doctrine, and innovation beginning in 1805, with references to Trafalgar, Jutland, Tsushima, the Falklands, and Persian Gulf. Primary topics include the roles of innovation and doctrine, failures (“the lights that failed), and choices and constraints. Each of the content chapters (2 through 7) is organized in a standardized matter covering nine topics: The Technology Described, Early Use, and Expectations; Discovery (use in initial conflicts); Countermeasures; Revised Expectations; Evolution: World War I; Exploitation: World War II; Case Study; The Technology Postwar and Today; and What This Tells Us (lessons learned). The volume also provides an integrated “Conclusion,” as well as a “Bibliography” with 414 entries, 450 scholarly “Notes,” and a useful 13-page “Index,” augmented by 27 illustrations, 11, figures, and 12 tables. The illustrations are black-and-white images from the Naval Historical and Heritage Command collections; readers may desire more than these images. I next summarize key points from each of the six chapters.

In “Mines: The Neglected Weapon,” the technology is traced from 1776 and the development of the spar torpedo and contact mines into the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 (battles in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan). By World War I, Russia was the leading practitioner of mine warfare, Germany emphasized mine warfare, Britain was “cautious,” and France faltered in development. German versus British conflicts took place in the mouth of the Thames, Heligoland Bight, Zeebrugge, the Dardanelles, and Gulf of Riga. Countermeasures included limpet mines and degaussing, while the Normandy Invasion serves as a case study and illustrates a German failure. Mines had been a core weapon for twelve centuries and a highly effective weapon in the right circumstances.

“Torpedoes: The Long Arc” commences in 1866 and the gradual development of the “automotive torpedo.”  The Russo-Japanese War and War of the Pacific saw innovations in the use of gyroscopes, while longer-range weapons were developed by World War I. Austria, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire quickly adopted the weapon but the United States balked at the cost and, hence, would lag behind in development into World War II. Air-dropped torpedoes were employed by Britain, Japan, the United States, Italy, and Germany; the British were productive at Taranto with these weapons in 1940, and the Japanese were successful with Type 93 devices at Pearl Harbor in 1941. America had initially discounted Japanese technology and had imagined that submarines or unseen ships rather than aircraft-dropped weapons were responsible for early losses at Guadalcanal. The Germans led in the development of homing torpedoes (T4 and T5) but the United States moved forward with acoustic homing torpedoes. The submarines became the best weapons platform for torpedoes; examples from the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971 and the Falkland Islands in 1982 are cited.

“Radio: The Mixed Blessing” details its invention by Marconi in 1896 and use by the Italian Navy in the following year. The Americans, Germans, and Russians selected Slaby-Arco equipment, the British selected Marconi, Austria-Hungary opted for Siemens-Braun, and others purchased Russo-French equipment. There were many shortcomings in all the early radios. The Russo-Japanese War witnessed the use of radio in the Far East and caused Russian disillusionment with the Slaby-Arco sets. Navies developed long-wave transmission stations and codes and cyphers during World War I. The British cut German undersea cables and attacked radio stations planning to isolate the German East Asiatic Squadron under von Spee in China. The British benefitted at the Battle of Jutland because German radio reports included only position while the British radio system included location, range, and bearing; Russia shared captured German SIGINT codes with the British in 1914. Radio-direction finding was pioneered by the Italians and between the World Wars; the use and development of radio communications “exploded” with better vacuum tubes, traffic analysis, voice telephony, radio-controlled weapons, and HF/DF. German confidence in the use of Enigma and the subsequent communications downfall is well-documented. Radio became a universal core need of all navies and would lead to cellphones, digitization, and enhanced encryption.             

In “Radar: Magic Goes to Sea,” the authors’ comment that radar languished for three decades after German development in 1904 before navies took a serious interest. The discussion focuses on initial German (1933), British (1935), and American (1937) development but mentions “home grown” efforts by Japan (post-1942), Italy (1942), and France (1941) and the two major types of radar: fire control and search radar. The technology remained new and secret but the British benefitted during the Battle of Britain in the ability to quickly scramble fighters, in the Graf Spee chase and sinking, and the sinking of Hipper and Scharnhorst, but not in the loss of Ark Royal. The United States had overestimated radar’s abilities in the Battle of Savo Island (the Japanese sunk four American cruisers near Guadalcanal), but had success at the Battle of Casablanca, and in the Marshall Islands.  Changes in fighter direction capabilities during the battles of the Philippine Sea, Cape Esperance, and Second Battle of Guadalcanal benefitted the Americans. A case study is the invasion of Normandy on D-Day when American command practice and doctrine differed but no German surface vessels were able to penetrate the U.S. destroyer screen; German search radar for aircraft was slow to develop. German countermeasures included jamming with “snow” (also called chaff or window) but the Allies were able to develop highly effective anti-aircraft artillery. The Japanese were also slow in developing search radar prior to the Battle of Midway and ultimately employed “brute force” in the Pacific theater, namely kamikaze aircraft. In the postwar era, radar was used to guide more precise weapons such as anti-ship missiles, including Harpoon and Exocet, as seen in the Arab-Israeli War (1973), and in the Falklands, and Gulf Wars.     

“Submarine: The Mission Matters” commences with brief mentions of blockade running during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and American Civil War (1861-1865), especially the latter, when the Confederate States developed the ram bow and spar torpedo for the CSA Hunley in 1864. During the Crimean War, Russia also utilized similar devices against British blockade. By 1880, there were at least 42 separate designs for submarines, among them the USS Holland in 1887, so that by 1900 six navies had ten vessels in service and eleven under construction. The Russo-Japanese War witnessed the first real combat, while in the First Balkan War (1912) the Greek Delphin just missed sinking an Ottoman cruiser. By 1914 all major and most minor navies had submarines tasked with finding and destroying enemy warships rather than merchant vessels. The authors present data on nations and their submarines as of August 1, 1914: Britain 76, France 50, America 32, Germany 27, Russia 22, Italy 18, Japan 13, and Austria-Hungary 5. The earliest offensive actions involved submarines working with surface warships such as at Heligoland Bight when the German U-21 torpedoed the British cruiser Pathfinder on September 5, 1914; other actions also took place that month, and commercial traffic was initially attacked on October 8, 1914; the sinking of Lusitania on May 7, 1915, is also recounted. While land armies were “stalemated” during World War I, naval actions were not. In addition to Jutland, actions took place in the Baltic and Mediterranean. Countermeasures included the convoy system, Q ships, aircraft, anti-submarine patrols (ASW), echo detectors, ASDIC, and depth charges; Germany also developed sonar.  At the beginning of World War II in 1939, the numbers of modern submarines in national navies had changed: Britain 71, France 80, Soviet Union 212, United States, 111, Germany 57, Italy 115, and Japan 58. Commercial warfare, mine warfare, coastal defenses, and anti-warship patrols, are reviewed and the Washington Conference (1930) and London Naval Conference (1935) are only mentioned. Japan was especially vulnerable because of reliance on tankers for oil and gasoline transport. A case study features U-247 (a Type VIIIC submarine), and discussions of V80 tests boats, Type 93 torpedoes, the speedy U-794 (22 knots submerged), and oceanic boat Type XVIIB, and Type XXI (U-2511). During World War II, statistically, the causes of enemy submarine sinking’s were first by aircraft, followed by warships, mines, and other submarines. The postwar era saw AWS helicopters and nuclear-powered submarines, one of which, the British Conqueror, sank the Argentinian General Belgrano using World War II-era Mark VIII torpedoes during the Falklands War. 

In the final chapter, “Aircraft: Vision and Competition,” the authors contend that aircraft is the most transformative technology considered in their book because it elevated naval warfare into a third dimension. The technologies began with eighteen century hot air balloon, the Zeppelin (1900), and launching aircraft from naval vessels (the cruiser USS Birmingham). Radios were added to aircraft in 1910 and machine guns in 1915. France was the preeminent pre-war innovator in aviation and airships; airplanes and flying boats were also quickly designed. Aircraft initially had six general missions: scouting and patrol, gunnery spotting, attacking ships / shipping, striking land targets, anti-submarine warfare, and air defense.  Aircraft infrastructure needs included fuel, ordnance, hangars, and newly created instruments, while there were no real defensive countermeasures against aircraft. By 1918, the major powers had built more than 9,000 naval aircraft. However, there was a great deal of innovation between the two major wars which included: fuel, bombs, guns, engines, and special training for aviators. Notably, British aircraft carrier development was rated as “outstanding” and had also amalgamated army and navy air services; however, by 1939, the British carriers were small and accommodated Swordfish as the primary naval aircraft. Both the Italian and French navies received little support for naval aviation. Although the Versailles Treaty banned Germany from creating an airforce including float planes, they did anyway by 1935, but both Germany and Italy lacked aircraft carriers during World War II. The United States and Japan built carriers beginning in 1922, but generally followed different paths to World War II, with the latter having experience gained in the Russo-Japanese War and Sino-Japanese War. The discussion of World War II focuses on the successes and failures of aircraft reconnaissance and naval shipping; the former including the Battle of the River Platte, Taranto, Pearl Harbor, and the sinking of Tirpitz. A  table on aircraft carrier losses by the major powers lists: Japan 6, Britain 7, and the United States 4 (not counting kamikaze damage/losses). The postwar period included steam catapult aircraft launching on carriers and mentions of conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf plus the “deadly threat” of unmanned drones.        

In their “Conclusion” the authors point out that the six different technologies had mixed military and scientific antecedents, hence, varied roots and evolution in different ways. Time and financial resources were critical ingredients in the genesis of technologies, which were mostly national secrets. One major exception was the Allied cooperation on the development of radar, while the competition for resources between air forces and navies played a significant role in both German and Japanese naval technological developments. Other summaries conclude that combat is the “acid test” for new technologies and the authors note important countermeasures such as the development of German guided weapons, how Enigma was compromised, and needs and uses such as radar in offense versus defense, as well as how aircraft limited the effectiveness of submarines. The book focuses on technological successes and the authors state four broad principles: 1) expectations do not determine best use; 2) users have valuable input; 3) needs influence use; and 4) new technologist bring new vulnerabilities. New technologies also affect tactics and new uses provoke countermeasures.

In our current era of artificial intelligence/machine learning, unmanned vehicles, and drones these histories of past significant technologies present lessons to be learned. This thoughtfully innovative, well-written and well-researched synthesis of key technologies – tools, weapons, and platforms – is fact-filled and a wonderful primer useful for understanding the history of the individual technologies and their interrelationships with others, even beyond the six detailed in this unusual and welcome book for navy bookshelves.       


Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.  is U.S. Naval Institute Golden Life Member.

Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars. By Vincent P. O’Hara and Leonard R. Heinz (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022).

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