This page was last updated on 7 January 2001.

Sacred Vessels

by Robert O'Connell

When discussing this book with a friend of mine who is something of a naval historian, he related to me an interesting story from his doctoral days. An (unnamed) member of the history faculty, who my friend describes as being more than a little familiar with the subject, suggested (perhaps seriously, perhaps not) that this book was sufficient grounds for Dr. O'Connell's doctorate to be revoked. Personally, I would be against such an extreme measure, as it would set a horrible precedent. Having read the book, though, I understand the sentiment behind the statement, and would at least suggest that the University of Virginia's Department of History re-examine its teaching methods.

This book is one of the best examples I have yet seen as to why simply reading (and citing) a lot of sources, including primary sources, is not sufficient to guarantee good analysis, for Sacred Vessels has a LOT of citations and a LOT of bad analysis. O'Connell's thesis is that, from the age of sail onward, "battleships" have been useless as weapons, for reasons that can be summarized as "battleships are ineffective" (measured largely in terms of vessels sunk, or number of hits per number of shots fired) and "battleships are vulnerable to other weapons" (such as airplanes, submarines, and torpedo boats). Unfortunately, he does not support his thesis; indeed, at the conclusion of the book, I was left wondering whether he had any understanding of the subject at all.

What could possible have led me to such an extreme conclusion? The executive summary is as follows:
  1. O'Connell is sloppy. For example:
    • The astute oberver will note the acute lack of such "other weapons" during the age of sail, and indeed O'Connell does not extend the claim that far back. He does, however, make claims about battleship vulnerability vis-a-vis aircraft that extend back to the days before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.

    • O'Connell uses "dreadnought" as a term to describe both battleships and battlecruisers. He neglects to point out that there were some severe differences in design philosophy between the two (and between the British and German approach to battlecruisers as well). Hence, lumping them together -- and attributing the faults of either one to the "dreadnought" as a whole -- is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.

    • O'Connell discusses the USN's desire for bigger battleships immediately before WW2, and refers to four US battleship classes (North Carolina, South Dakota, Iowa and Montana), with the claim that each class was "progessively larger than the previous one." This ignores that the first two were designed to the same design standard (35,000 tons displacement), differed by only few hundred tons (485 tons [1.3%] standard, 142 tons [0.3%] full load), and indeed the South Dakota was some 50 feet shorter than the preceeding North Carolina (although with a two feet deeper draft and better armor protection). While a simple slip in and of itself, it illustrates O'Connell's lack of rigor in approaching the subject.

    • O'Connell discusses Hector Bywater's The Great Pacific War, a "history" published in 1925 about a hypothetical American-Japanese war in the early 1930s. O'Connell claims Bywater "described a campaign mirroring [War Plan] ORANGE," the US Navy's proposed plan for war with Japan, which at the time was based upon a trans-Pacific lunge by the US battle fleet. Even a cursory reading of Bywater's book will show that this claims is highly dubious, as Bywater specifically and explicitly rejects that strategy and, in its place, describes a methodical island-hopping advance more than a little prescient of the actual US strategy in WW2.

    • O'Connell describes the Battle of Midway as "the first naval battle when the warships involved didn't come within sight or gunshot of one another." [p.317] More competent historians point to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which occurred a month earlier.

  2. O'Connell engages in selective interpretation of quotes; he discounts anything that a source which disagrees with him says, explaining it away as bias, while accepting without question anything said by a source friendly to his agenda. For example, in a section arguing that Naval Academy graduates instinctively wanted bigger ships, O'Connell quotes Captain (later Chief of Naval Operations) Ernest J. King:
    ...the sole disadvantage...resulting from increases of size of a that it costs more; on the other hand, the larger ship is more powerful, has greater resisiting qualities, is faster under all circumstances, and has a greater steaming radius and cruising life. As the greater cost results in better naval return for the money invested...this seeming disadvantage is not one in reality. [p. 82, ellipses in original]
    O'Connell says in the very next line: "Size was a virtue in and of itself -- it connoted strength in a way nothing else could." Excuse me?! Is it my imagination, or didn't King point to several SPECIFIC operational and tactical reasons as to why the size of battleships yielded superior design attributes? Since these points don't support his thesis, O'Connell ignores them.

  3. O'Connell engages in selective interpretation of events, and ignores counter-examples. For example, while decrying the vulnerability of the battleship to air attack, he enthusiastically discusses examples were airpower was successful against dreadnoughts, such as Pearl Harbor (where the Japanese surprise attack destroyed obsolete, stationary, undermanned ships on a peacetime holiday footing) or the earlier Mitchell tests (where the USAAF was able to sink a stationary, crewless dreadnought); he neglects to mention the literally dozens of dive bomber and torpedo hits necessary to sink the YAMATO or that air power proved remarkably ineffective at holding off the Japanese naval assault on the Philippines. There is no attempt to systematically analyze these examples; interpretations which support his thesis are presented, interpretations which do not are ignored or asserted to be irrelevant.

  4. O'Connell's conclusions are not unique to battleships. While excoriating battleships as vulnerable to all forms of attack, he neglects to mention that EVERY single surface warship -- including aircraft carriers -- built in the same timeperiod suffer from the same vulnerabilities, and many (due to smaller size and lesser armor) were much more vulnerable. In fact, as noted historian Al Nofi commented to me when discussing this subject, "Even battleships sunk by air power took more damage, ton-per-ton, than any other type of warship. It was not the vulnerability of the battlewagon that made it obsolete, but rather the ability of the much more vulnerable aircraft carrier to deliver death and destruction at much greater distances."

  5. O'Connell doesn't understand that weapons design and development is a process of measure and countermeasure, innovation and perfection. O'Connell is quick to point out instances when gunnery failed at extreme range; he ignores the fact that gunnery and fire control did improve significantly, and as a result what was considered extreme range constantly expanded.

  6. O'Connell's "what-if" scenarios are one-sided. O'Connell is quick to point out the successes of the German U-boat fleet in the two world wars, but ignores the fact that the U-boats had been largely swept from the seas by the end of each conflict. O'Connell's assertion that the Kaiser could have starved Britain by starting unrestricted submarine warfare six months earlier than he did, while probably true, is irrelevant; it is equally valid to say that if Britain and/or the US had spent the time, effort, and resources on ASW that the topic warranted -- instead of handing the Germans the initiative -- the German U-boats wouldn't have been as serious a threat as they were. (Or, as Al Nofi pointed out to me, "The Germans could have started unrestricted submarine warfare earlier in WW I than was the case, but they didn't have that many subs, and it only would have sparked the more rapid development of ASW.")

  7. O'Connell doesn't understand the strategic picture. He contends, for example, that the relative inactivity of the British battlefleet during World War I (as a result of the inactivity of the German High Seas Fleet) was a signal of its strategic irrelevance. This begs the question of what the Germans would have done if the Royal Navy had NOT had a commanding superiority in dreadnoughts. I would suggest that under those conditions the High Seas Fleet would have been very active; with a sufficiently great inferiority, Britain might possibly have lost the war in 1914. O'Connell doesn't seem to understand that the fleet was a counter to a specific threat; that the threat never manifested itself is an indication that the counter worked, not that the threat didn't exist. Based on O'Connell's reasoning, the US should have simply decommissioned its strategic nuclear forces by the mid-1970s; after all, we never used them, so they must have been worthless, right?
I might be expected at this point to suggest that people should spend their money elsewhere. I'm not going to do that, though, for two reasons. First, there was a court case recently where a food critic was successfully sued for lost business because he had the audacity to point out that the food at a restaurant he was reviewing was somewhat lacking. Given the insanity of the American legal system, the last thing in the world I am going to do is recommend against buying anything.

Second, while O'Connell's book exhibits the kind of bad analysis and selective quotation usually associated with undergraduate essays, it does have a few good points. Some of the sociological analysis of the mindset of the average American naval officer is interesting, and as a general history of the development of the battleship, the book is okay if taken with a large block of salt. And, if nothing else, his arguments become more believable as the discussion moved forward in time; eventually, carrier and submarine forces were the death knell to the battleship. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

In general, I would recommend reading this book after reading Wayne Hughes's Fleet Tactics (for an understanding of some of the issues involved) and John Keegan's The Price of Admiralty (for an accessible history of the Battle of Jutland). These two works will help put the discussion in a proper context, and better prepare the reader to judge O'Connell's claims for himself.