Book Review: A History of Naval Tactical Thought by Giuseppe Fioravanzo

Note: I’m trying a different format for book reviews.

Topic & Content

A textbook discussing the application and changes to naval tactics throughout history from classical times to the Cold War (post-WWII). The book moves chronologically and topically. It’s divided into five parts:

  1. Strategy and Tactics (a very broad overview of the development of naval strategy and tactics throughout history).
  2. The Age of Oared Ships
  3. The Age of Sail
  4. The Age of the Screw Propeller
  5. The Age of Naval Aviation

Furthermore, each part (except part 1) is divided up into three chapters covering ship characteristics, tactics, and illustrative battles that are relevant to the time period. It should be noted that Fioravanzo doesn’t cover every major naval battle in history, and those that he does cover are only examined from the basis of tactics and decision-making. For example, entire books have been written on the Battle of Trafalgar, but Fioravanzo only devotes six pages to it. This isn’t a bad thing, but Fioravanzo advises the reader to seek more specialized sources if they want more information on specific engagements.

It’s also worth noting that the timeline of this book ends in the midst of the Cold War. The final chapter has Fioravanzo giving some predictions on the future of naval warfare as he saw it at the time. Some of his predictions have come true, but others are so broad that they could easily be applied to virtually any situation. Regardless, it’s clear that his thinking in the final chapter is rooted in a Cold War, NATO vs. Soviet Navy, nuclear exchange. As such, the values of his predictions will vary depending on the reader.

Thesis

It is challenging to pinpoint the thesis of this book, but the best I could find is located in the preface. Fioravanzo writes that the book is an examination of the historical development of naval tactics and ideas so that the reader can develop a better foundation for the further study of tactical naval engagements.

Author’s Background

Admiral Giuseppe Fioravanzo was an officer in the Italian Navy during both World Wars. During the interwar years, he published articles extensively in the Rivista Marittima (Maritime Magazine). Promoted to Counter-Admiral just as Italy entered WWII, Fioravanzo mostly worked in staff assignments overseeing naval operations for the first twenty months of the war.

In addition, he worked on various special projects and advocated heavily for better coordination between the Italian Navy and Air Force. Fioravanzo would hold several division commands at sea, but his career effectively stalled when his cruiser division returned to La Spezia without shelling Palermo which had been captured by the Allies in March of 1943. Fioravanzo feared that he was approaching a superior American cruiser force and turned around. Turns out, he was right.

Following WWII, he continued to serve in the newly formed Italian Navy and finished his career as the Director of the Office of Italian Naval History. He retired in 1959.

An innovative and forward-thinking theorist, Fioravanzo was also a strong advocate for naval air power (like Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, anyone?) Many of his opinions and predictions on naval aviation were accurate, but history shows that his advice, while listened to in some aspects, was ultimately heeded too little and too late to have a major effect on Italy’s naval performance in WWII.

This is the first of Fioravanzo’s works I’ve read. One interesting thing I kept thinking about was that I was reading a treatise on naval tactics written by an officer on the Axis side. (Although I’ve also read several translated works from Imperial Japanese naval officers). I’m not trying to disparage his work because much of what he writes about is accurate, however, I can’t help but wonder if being on the losing side affected his outlook, especially when the book moves from the age of sail into the modern era. That being said, Fioravanzo does seem to write as objectively as possible, and when compared to the writings of other naval officers, such as those of the Imperial Japanese Navy, I saw a lot less dogmatic political trumpeting from him. At the very least, he frequently references other works on naval theory, either from his own writings or those of others.

Critical Observations

In my opinion, the best way to approach this book would be as an earlier companion work to Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics. In fact, they seem to complement each other very well, and it’s obvious that Hughes used Fioravanzo’s work as a reference. The difference is that Fioravanzo goes into the tactical aspects of naval warfare with greater specificity, whereas Hughes focuses more on doctrinal and operational concepts. This is to say that, in each section on tactics, Fioravanzo examines specific tactical formations and how they would be best employed in various situations. He then goes on to discuss historical battles where said tactics were utilized and provides the reader with an evaluation of their effectiveness. Put another way, if you picked up Fleet Tactics by Wayne Hughes and expected a textbook on specific naval tactics used throughout history, then you probably found yourself disappointed that Hughes focused on broader concepts in a more narrative format. In contrast, Fioravanzo’s A History of Naval Tactical Thought is the book you’re looking for.

One criticism I have of the book may have to do with the fact that it was translated from Italian. The descriptions of the naval tactics themselves and how the ships are moving around in a geometric space relevant to each other can be a bit difficult to comprehend. The illustrations are decent enough, but the language used in describing them is occasionally cumbersome. Most of the tactical discussion centers around examining tactics from a geometric standpoint, so a basic understanding of geometry is helpful. The reader definitely needs a basic grounding in nautical jargon, and I found myself rereading parts multiple times trying to figure out how the descriptions were depicted in the drawings provided. I get the feeling that some clarity may have been lost in translation.

Regarding the use of references, Fioravanzo specifically notes that he included no bibliography and instead relied on his long career to inform his writings. I suppose that makes sense, however, he does provide quotes and in-text citations to other works. Most of the material he references are from journals and papers from the Italian defense and academic establishment. I’m not sure how many of those writings have been translated into English, but it would be interesting to read some of them. The lack of a bibliography is a little disconcerting, but at least Fioravanzo references other authors and sources in the text itself.

One annoying thing is that throughout the text Fioravanzo frequently refers back to his previous work with sentences such as, “back in (insert year) I wrote an article that accurately predicted the evolution of naval warfare which was seen in (insert WWII battle).” It comes off as rather snobbish and it does seem like he’s tooting his own horn. At the very least, the correlations he draws between his earlier predictions and the subsequent events seem fairly sound, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he had a crystal ball. In any case, the shameless self-aggrandizement gets tiresome after a while.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

As a whole, the book does what it purports. While it didn’t drastically change my overall understanding of naval tactics, it did provide some detailed analysis on the use of specific tactics that other books failed to provide. It’s a decent examination of specific naval tactics and formations throughout history and how they were used in battle throughout the ages. The changes to naval tactics over the centuries are apparent, and the book has a very clear organization. The writing (or translation) is occasionally cumbersome and the author can come off as a bit arrogant, but as a whole, the book reinforces its thesis of providing readers with foundational information on specific naval tactics that they can use to better understand historical naval engagements.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s