There’s untold numbers of single-volume historical narratives of WWII in its entirety. Like many, I’m frustrated by the lack of good maps in many history books. When I read about these battles in far-off places, many with names that I can hardly pronounce, then having a decent map is helpful to get a sense of both the geography and scale of the events.
Marcus Faulkner’s War at Sea fills an interesting gap in that it’s an atlas that’s focused on the naval element of WWII. (He’s also written The Great War at Sea; a similar naval atlas covering WWI.) Now, most people don’t read atlases from cover to cover like a traditional narrative. However, the book is written in such a way (chronologically) to allow the reader to do just that. Alternatively, they can flip to a particular battle or naval operation of their choice and study it by itself.
The book covers all theaters of the war chronologically from 1939-1945. Each single or two-page spread covers a naval operation showing the movements of the major forces, identifies any losses, and provides a few paragraphs of text explaining the event(s). The maps themselves are colorful and relatively easy to understand, while at the same time providing a good amount of detail. Generally speaking, the book looks at the larger operational perspective and not so much on the tactical or grand strategic level. However, every so often, the book takes a step back to look at the global (naval) picture for a given war year. The narrative itself is decent enough to give the reader a good idea of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the event, but if you’re looking for a detailed analysis, then you should consult other dedicated, text-based references.
What this book does particularly well is give to the reader a sense of the scale of the war. You truly realize that WWII spanned the entire globe and all of the oceans. Not only are the major oceanic campaigns and their battles (Atlantic, Mediterranean, & Pacific) covered, but the Arctic convoys and Indian Ocean operations are also examined. For example, some of the German surface raiders crossed into several oceans, spent over a year at sea, and (nearly) circumnavigated the globe.
Naturally, not every single naval or amphibious operation is covered in specific detail. Some of the charts of ship tracks are more detailed than others, probably owing to the amount of available information. Furthermore, in case you missed the title, this is a “naval” atlas, so the land campaigns (unless they have some immediate relation to the naval operations) are largely omitted. There are other military atlases of land campaigns that can be found.
One strange thing about the books is that different countries have different icons associated with the same type of ship. For example, the U.S., British, German, Italian, Japanese, etc., icons for battleships are different. This may have been done so the reader can recognize the different forces that occasionally operated together, but the problem is that these icons are only found in the main key which is at the beginning of the book. This forces the reader to flip back and forth if they need to differentiate between two distinct ships of the same class but of a different nationality. That being said, this is a relatively minor criticism.
Overall, I’d give the book a solid 4 out of 5. By itself, it’s not a substitute for the traditional historical narratives. However, it’s a good tertiary reference for those who need a sense of the geography and some visuals to go along with their more in-depth research.