What I’m Reading: Tin Cans and Greyhounds

Frankly, I’m glad that Clint Johnson hopped off the Word Processor and immediately emailed his editor the second his narrative reached V-J Day, because otherwise I would not have had the benefit of this book for my own research. Published last February, this comprehensive and technical history of the destroyer during World War I and II, Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers that Won Two World Wars, covers in exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail the story of this type of ship.

Destroyers were the true jacks of all trades during the World Wars. Originally designed during the 19th century by the British Navy, they evolved over the next several decades in response to changing technology, growing battleship displacements, and the exigencies of war. Airplanes and submarines both spurred additional destroyer development. Even though the United States Navy spent hardly any money during the 20s or early 30s building or developing new destroyers, they were adept and resourceful when repurposing much of the retired WWI destroyer fleet.

Johnson’s narrative from the destroyer’s origins through the late 1930s is a sweeping, fascinating story of the destroyer’s shifting popularity and ever-evolving utility. He does a fantastic job of not only discussing American destroyers, but explaining how their development mirrored that of similar-sized ships in rival navies. We learn, for instance, that while British sailors appreciated the dozens of ships transferred from America’s aging destroyer fleet to the Royal Navy in 1940, they would have preferred sleeping in their customary hammocks as opposed to the Americans’ bunk beds.

Overall, Johnson’s thesis is that destroyers were integral, and perhaps even indispensable, to Allied Naval victories during both World Wars. In particular, the old “battleships versus aircraft carriers” debate that roiled the Navy intelligentsia throughout the 1940s may have missed a key point: that without a healthy number of destroyers to protect and assist the battleships, carriers, and the supply chain, the superiority of one over the other would be entirely moot. This claim is both grandiose and tautological – it is absurd to claim that these destroyers won both World Wars, but it is equally implausible to deny or rather ignore their obvious importance, particularly when so many people across the world could have claimed to have moved the sequence of events a certain way at precisely the right moment. Yet perhaps that kind of rhetorical (if not exactly historical) claim is necessary to highlight the destroyer class’s many important contributions to both war efforts, which this book does in spades. After all, books claiming that “X won World War II” are a cottage industry these days. How else can you get someone to buy one?

While I agree with Johnson’s argument, the second half of his book oscillates between the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, which creates a disjointed narrative. Moreover, his chapter division along these lines – Pacific Theater, 1942; Atlantic Theater, 1942; Pacific Theater, 1943; and so on – seems unnatural and arbitrary. I sympathize with the plight of the narratively-focused historian who has to break down what would otherwise be a very long chapter into shorter yet intelligible units . . . I dealt with this problem myself when organizing my horse stealing book, and it took me a while to figure out an outline that broke apart while also bringing together the story I wanted to tell. But it does not seem like the author (or his editors) put much thought into this. Which is a shame, because I want the story of the destroyer to be an actual story, not a CV of its successes and failures. And that last point hints at my other concern with this book, which is that the World War II chapters fail to bring the author’s many stories and pieces of information together into a cohesive whole. These chapters lack a narrative strand, and instead seem to move from one story to another without so much as a segue.

Organizational concerns aside, this is a very well-researched book, and it is a necessary volume for students of World War II, Naval history, and anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Tom Clancy’s technical novels about various kinds of military weapons (anyone remember Armored Cav?). It also plugs a gaping hole in the hull of naval scholarship by providing a much-needed historical reference and overview of the chronically understudied and widely misunderstood destroyer. I personally found it useful as well, and will likely cite it often.

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