Saturday, 19 August 2017

Review - "The Naval War in the Baltic", by Poul Grooss

The Naval War in the Baltic, 1939-1945
Poul Grooss

The naval side of the Second World War in the Baltic is often seen as something of a backwater. This recent book written by Poul Grooss, a retired Danish Navy Captain and lecturer at the Royal Danish Naval Academy, sets the record straight and shows that, whilst it was not the setting for well known “set piece” battles and campaigns as in the Atlantic and Pacific, it was the scene of constant naval action from the start to the finish of WW2 in Europe – indeed the opening shots of the war came from the sea.  A good portion of the opening chapters deal with the historical and political background and developments leading up to the shelling of the Westerplatte by the German pre-dreadnought Schleswig Holstein. This part is, in itself a gold mine of information not readily apparent nor available to the average reader outside Scandinavia, in particular as it deals with the delicate position of Sweden. A neutral country, Sweden walked the tightrope between the Axis and Allies, historically an enemy of Russia and hence covertly (and sometimes overtly) supportive of Germany in the early years of the war, her preferences and support veering towards Britain and the allies as the war progressed.

The bulk of the book details German, Russian and Finnish naval operations during the war, actions characterised by coastal forces, submarines, the siege of Leningrad and mine warfare. The numbers of mines deployed in the narrow seas was staggering – over 68,000 in the Gulf of Finland alone, and many times that in the Baltic as a whole. The naval aspects of the war are inextricably linked with operations on land and so there is a fairly detailed coverage of the land campaigns fought along the shores of the Baltic. The nature of the Russian advance in 1944-45 and the isolation of German forces and civilian centres cities in the Baltic States, East Prussia and Poland also set the scene for the massive refugee evacuations that took place in the latter stages of the war, and saw the greatest maritime tragedies in terms of loss of life in the sinkings of the Wilhelm Gustloff and Cap Arcona, to name but two.

The book closes with the confusion of the German collapse in May 1945, tensions between East and West, the role of Denmark in accepting (grudgingly) the tens of thousands of refugees streaming in to Copenhagen and other ports, and the transition into the Cold War.

I found this book to be a fascinating read. As mentioned earlier it covers subjects not commonly known to the average reader outside the Baltic states (and, I suspect, due to political sensitivities, not many there either). Originally written in Danish the translation is good, although some additional gentle editing would have been useful at times. There are a good selection of illustrations, charts and sidebar entries discussing various aspects of maritime warfare. All in all an excellent read, and a worthy addition to the naval historian’s bookshelf.

The Naval War in the Baltic, 1939-1945
Poul Grooss
Seaforth Publishing, ISBN 978 1 526200001
RRP £30.00

1 comment:

  1. I saw this on the Kindle and was put off by the price tag but I'll have to get it now. I picked up a photo copied booklet on the Finnish navy (in Finnish) a while back, which gave me all sorts of ideas for coastal warfare scenarios. This will fill in the gaps!