Book Review: To Train the Fleet for War by Albert Nofi

Albert Nofi’s book examines the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Problems during the interwar years from 1923-1940. The Fleet Problems were the culmination of the navy’s annual training exercises which saw the U.S. fleet engage in a series of mock battles to test various strategic, operational, and tactical capabilities. These exercises served as a test bed during this time period for the development of naval doctrine and tactics. The major Fleet Problems were numbered from I to XXI with various smaller exercises contained therein, as well. Problem XXII was planned, but was cancelled due to the start of World War II. Each chapter of Nofi’s book details one of the Fleet Problems and gives an overview of the forces involved, the events that unfolded, and what lessons were learned. At the end of the book, Nofi identifies some overall patterns and constant lessons of the Fleet Problems, as well as the potential benefits for similar naval exercises in the future.

In general, the purpose of the Fleet Problems was to train the fleet in large-scale maneuvers, train commanders in decision-making, and to study war plans and doctrine. Of course, the benefit of doing this at sea was to give the Navy as close to a realistic environment, short of actual combat, as was possible. During the Fleet Problems, the Navy experimented with exercises such as battle line engagements, carrier aviation, anti-submarine warfare, convoy protection, underway replenishment methods, amphibious assaults, Joint Army-Navy exercises, fleet cruising formations, and the use of aircraft for scouting and attack.

Usually, the fleet was divided into two (or more) forces with one playing an opposing force, usually Japan, but occasionally Britain or a nondescript Latin American/Asian country. The main forces of the problems usually included the Battle Force and Scouting Force, with various other vessels assigned, as well. “Constructive Forces” were also used, wherein a ship would represent or role-play as a group of similar vessels or stand-in for another type. For example, a destroyer division of four vessels could be designated as a constructive force of, say, twenty destroyers. In other instances, a battleship, with its scouting planes, could be used to represent a carrier, or a cruiser could represent a battlecruiser. In the early days of carrier aviation, the USS Langley and her air group frequently represented much larger carrier forces.

Since these were exercises, umpires were used to determine who damaged who and by how much. Techniques for simulating gunfire included various pyrotechnics and even search lights. Torpedo damage was particularly tricky to judge until the introduction of dummy torpedoes. Obviously, there were many difficulties in accurately assessing the combat, yet surprisingly, cheating was rare. Each Fleet Problem ended in a lengthy (usually multi-day) critique and review by upwards of hundreds of officers who derived conclusions and drew up recommendations for the Navy. As Nofi notes, each of the Fleet Problems generated a massive amount of paperwork before, during, and after the exercise.

In contrast to the stereotype that all of the admirals were hell-bent on reliving the glory days of Trafalgar, Manila, Tsushima, or Jutland with battleships, there were some influential admirals who were very progressive thinkers and could see the future value of naval air power as aviation gradually developed during the interwar decades. In any case, the specifics of the decisive battle doctrine are not covered here and seems to have been more of the purview of strategists and war plan makers. In contrast, the Fleet Problems were more tactical and operational in focus. Interestingly, some Fleet Problems saw aircraft carriers conducting air raids on the Panama Canal or Pearl Harbor in ways that eerily foretold of the Japanese surprise attack on 7 December 1941.

My only major criticism of this book is the lack of detailed maps and charts showing the movements of the forces. Only a handful are in the book and most only give the reader a faint idea of the area of operations. The reader is left to rely on the narrative, and putting together a visual of how these exercises played out can be difficult if the reader is unfamiliar with geography.

That being said, Nofi’s book is a very insightful study on U.S. naval doctrinal development during the two decades between the World Wars. While the battles were only simulated and some of the forces made-up, it’s clear that the Fleet Problems were an excellent test-bed for U.S Navy to experiment with new ideas and equipment. The reader can see that technological developments paralleled tactical developments during this time period, as ships and aviation advanced in maturity. No doubt the experiences were beneficial to the officers and sailors who would go on to fight in World War II.

Overall, a solid 4 out of 5.

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