Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Robert K. Massie
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In a work of extraordinary narrative power, filled with brilliant personalities and vivid scenes of dramatic action, Robert K. Massie, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and Dreadnought, elevates to its proper historical importance the role of sea power in the winning of the Great War.
The predominant image of this first world war is of mud and trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, poison gas, and slaughter. A generation of European manhood was massacred, and a wound was inflicted on European civilization that required the remainder of the twentieth century to heal.
But with all its sacrifice, trench warfare did not win the war for one side or lose it for the other. Over the course of four years, the lines on the Western Front moved scarcely at all; attempts to break through led only to the lengthening of the already unbearably long casualty lists.
For the true story of military upheaval, we must look to the sea. On the eve of the war in August 1914, Great Britain and Germany possessed the two greatest navies the world had ever seen. When war came, these two fleets of dreadnoughts—gigantic floating castles of steel able to hurl massive shells at an enemy miles away—were ready to test their terrible power against each other.
Their struggles took place in the North Sea and the Pacific, at the Falkland Islands and the Dardanelles. They reached their climax when Germany, suffocated by an implacable naval blockade, decided to strike against the British ring of steel. The result was Jutland, a titanic clash of fifty-eight dreadnoughts, each the home of a thousand men.
When the German High Seas Fleet retreated, the kaiser unleashed unrestricted U-boat warfare, which, in its indiscriminate violence, brought a reluctant America into the war. In this way, the German effort to “seize the trident” by defeating the British navy led to the fall of the German empire.
Ultimately, the distinguishing feature of Castles of Steel is the author himself. The knowledge, understanding, and literary power Massie brings to this story are unparalleled. His portrayals of Winston Churchill, the British admirals Fisher, Jellicoe, and Beatty, and the Germans Scheer, Hipper, and Tirpitz are stunning in their veracity and artistry.
Castles of Steel is about war at sea, leadership and command, courage, genius, and folly. All these elements are given magnificent scope by Robert K. Massie’s special and widely hailed literary mastery.
From the Hardcover edition.
supplies and coal. On the thirty-first, the admiral himself was at sea in Scharnhorst fifty miles off Valparaíso when he learned from Göttingen that Glasgow had slipped into Coronel. As the British ship could not remain in port for more than twenty-four hours without violating Chilean neutrality, Spee decided to trap and destroy this relatively small enemy. If Glasgow used all of her twenty-four hours, she would sail by the end of the afternoon on November 1; accordingly, Spee planned to arrive
Now, a little after eleven o’clock, with the opposing battle cruiser squadrons only a hundred miles apart and steaming directly toward each other, the weather suddenly changed. As late as 11:05 a.m., when the crew of Southampton was sent below to dinner, they left the deck in brilliant sunshine. Fifteen minutes later, called back to action stations, they found themselves coming up into rain and high wind. The wind blowing from the northwest was pushing the early-morning storm—the same storm that
turret was out of action, although she continued to fire briskly from her other guns. At 10:35 a.m., two shells pierced her armored deck amidships and penetrated down through two decks to explode in an ammunition room. The inferno spread to her two port-side 8.2-inch-gun wing turrets. Both were destroyed and every man inside was killed. The concussion also damaged her engines and jammed her steering gear. Blücher’s speed dropped to 17 knots and she began to fall out of the German line and sheer
splinters and the boarders into floundering, drowning men. Still, the ships gave out before the men. Hawke, one of the eight old cruisers, was sunk by a German torpedo on October 14. By the end of that month, Theseus reported bilgewater leaking into her feed tanks, Endymion declared urgent need for engine repairs, and Crescent, the flagship, developed a leaky condenser. At first, patchwork sufficed. Then, November 11 brought down on the squadron a full gale with monster waves. Edgar, with engine
finished clearing for war. Wooden fittings and anything else likely to burn were wrenched away and taken ashore or dumped over the side. Soon, the shores of the Flow were strewn with mahogany and teak fittings while boats piled high with chests of drawers, chairs, and an occasional wardroom piano made their way to the pier. Surplus ships’ boats were sent ashore and hauled up on the beaches while elegant steam pinnaces, gleaming with brass brightly polished for the naval review only the previous