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Book Reviews

Sea Logistics: Keeping The Navy Ready Aye Ready

by Mark B. Watson
St. Catharines, ON: Vanwell, 2004. 276 pages

Reviewed by Commander Kenneth Hansen

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Book cover Jon Sumida wrote: “If logistics has been the step-child of military history, then surely naval logistics is an orphan.” The majority of the limited literature on naval logistics is American in origin and deals with the Second World War in the Pacific Ocean. Up until now, no part of the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) logistical ‘coming of age’ story has been told. This oversight is completely consistent with the lack of investigation that naval logistics has received elsewhere. The few works that do treat logistics, such as John Lynn’s Feeding Mars and Julian Thompson’s Lifeblood of War, are ‘land-centric’ and do not address the logistical requirements of naval warfare.

Mark Watson’s Sea Logistics sets out boldly to “explore the impact of support structures, ashore and afloat, on the Navy’s ability to sustain it operations at sea...[telling] the story of how the Accountant Branch and its successor organizations evolved over the past ninety years.” The enormous scope of this book is treated in less than 300 pages, resulting in the pace of the narrative being exceedingly brisk. Watson employs a straightforward chronological approach to his subject, dividing the text into 12 chapters of unequal length. True to his stated purpose, Watson does not focus on the combat performance of the Canadian navy. The longest chapter, amounting to 45 pages, deals with post-war reorganization and is nearly twice as long as the treatment of the Second World War. The result is an institutional history that covers the basics of Canadian naval logistics organization, but does not connect logistical theory with Canadian naval strategy, operational concepts, or tactical events. Therein lies the major weakness of this book.

Watson’s strict focus on the institutional evolution of the Canadian navy’s logistical branch is out of context with his expansive treatment of naval logistical theory set out in the introduction. Quoting extensively from history, the “Importance of Logistics” (the first subtitle in the introduction) is driven home compellingly. The direct and important relationship between combat effectiveness and logistical sustainment is established clearly in the reader’s mind before the first chapter opens. The main body of Sea Logistics does not make the connection between theory and practice earlier laid out so eloquently. Unfortunately, many other weaknesses in the organization and layout of the text detract further from the book’s overall effectiveness.

Vanwell has set the text of Sea Logistics in a finely lined typeset. This was a very poor choice, as the text tends to fade visually, making whole pages of uninterrupted text extremely difficult to read. The near illegibility of the page is especially noticeable where bold text sub-headings draw the reader’s eye away from the narrative. However, the weakness of the print layout is sharply contrasted by the lavish use of photographs, figures, and tables. In addition, Watson illuminates his descriptions of events by inserting numerous first person vignettes and biographical sketches on key people and institutions. These anecdotal stories, particularly those entitled “On the Lighter Side” are very engaging. The text of the vignettes is in italics with considerably more inter-line spacing. This makes them much easier to read, and, again, seduces the eye away from the main text. While Watson’s use of vignettes does add significant colour and detail to his work, it also acts as a distraction. These structural flaws, which are only partly the fault of the author, break up the continuity of the main work, which is already hurried and somewhat superficial. The result is that this book is extremely difficult to read, lacking a consistent flow to its narrative. The skimpy two-page index also makes the book very difficult to use as a reference.

Watson’s inability to connect his subject with the theory of logistics results in a distinct lack of critical analysis. As a commissioned work by his branch, this could be expected. However, the minutia of shipboard organization, pay scales, branch training plans, and lists of miscellaneous foodstuffs issued during recent deployments dominate the text. The inability of the RCN to forecast logistical demand and ensure adequate sustainment during war and peace is left unexplained. The fuel crisis experienced by the Canadian navy during 1942-1943 in both Halifax and St. John’s is not mentioned. In fact, the fundamental issue of fuel is not addressed in any timeframe. Neither is the infamous ‘Equipment Crisis’ experienced by convoy escorts during the Battle of the Atlantic covered. In one brief passage, the author admits frankly: “Effective logistics planning was simply not present [up to the Korean War].” Watson glosses over Canadian logistical lack of preparedness, the navy’s ad hoc approach to problem-solving, and the Herculean compensatory efforts that have been commonplace reactions to the unexpected. Only the dark humour of some of Watson’s vignettes gives the reader glimpses intothe confusion and ineptness of the Canadian naval staff planning before the 1960s.

The major point of logistical departure for the RCN was the planning that led to the introduction of the replenishment ship HMCS Provider. Watson recognized the importance of this period to his thesis: “1949 [and the creation of NATO] was a turning point in Canadian naval logistics, as it was the first time that logistical planning was viewed from a strategic standpoint.” Although the author had access to original documents, the detailed analytical work of the naval staff, prompted by the demands of strategic anti-submarine warfare off Canada’s east coast, merits only a few lines at the end of the chapter on Korea. Initiated by the hypercritical United States Navy authored “Peel Report” of 1949, which compared the RCN’s post-war supply system to the civilian-controlled RN system in use before the First World War, this period of fundamental change deserved much closer examination. From this revolution in Canadian logistics planning and reorganization came Provider. Most regrettably, Watson perpetuates the myth that the multi-cargo replenishment ship is a Canadian innovation. Thomas Wildenberg’s seminal work Gray Steel and Black Oil (Naval Institute Press, 1996), which is conspicuously absent from the bibliography, makes it clear that this honour goes to the German Kreigsmarine and the Dithmarschen-class of fleet supply ships, from which the USN developed the current concept of multi-cargo underway replenishment ships (AORs). Canada’s adoption of the AOR concept was a bold initiative, but was not a groundbreaking innovation.

Mark Watson’s inaugural title is a new and worthwhile entry into a vast and unexplored field of Canadian naval history. However, it falls far short of living up to its stated purpose. Potential readers would be well advised to ignore the introduction and treat this work strictly as an institutional history. When read from this perspective, Sea Logistics represents the first tentative exploration of Canadian naval logistics history. Its arrival is noteworthy, as are its limitations.

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Commander Kenneth Hansen is the Director of the Maritime Studies Program at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.