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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absorbing story. Naval History with the flavour of a good novel., 20 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Neptune's Inferno: the U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (Hardcover)
Mr Hornfischer's book is a phenominal 500 page tour de force, closely analysing a single campaign- all be it one that encompassed numerous 'incidents' and many battles. He particularly delights in character study and thereby paints vivid word portraits of the American admirals. Some of these men were brilliant, some were rather unpleasant characters and some were both of these things. One inclines to think there were too many of them, similar in rank and with conflicting personalities and egos. One advantage of writing long after the event is that it is not necessary to 'pull punches' when describing the disagreeable side of people like Admirals King and Turner. Some commanders like Nimitz 'the essential man' were peerless strategic thinkers, some, like Halsey, were bold operations men, whilst others, like Ghormley and Fletcher, would be heavily criticised at the time for being either overwhelmed or over cautious. In the event, luck favoured the bold- especially Halsey, who repeatedly authorized risky assaults which ran contrary to established practice and dogma.

It is intriguing to learn that Guadalcanal and its airstrip had not played a really significant role in Japanese strategic thinking, but because the Americans thought that it did they determined to stage a great 'showdown' and defeat the US Navy whilst recapturing it. In 1942 the US Pacific Fleet was not yet the overwhelming force it would become by 1944.

The book illustrates very vividly how determined the American were to hold on to Guadalcanal, even though initial use of their carrier force was timid: Admiral Fletcher had seen the carnage wrought at Midway and the US Navy only had four big carriers in the Pacific. Two of these were soon disabled anyway, but their aircraft stayed on to continue the fight- leading a Marine General to comment that 'what saved Guadalcanal was the loss of so many carriers'. Due to American loss of carriers and Japanese loss of aircrew at the Battle of Santa Cruz we see how attention was refocused on traditional surface ships and especially on the smaller cruisers and destroyers.

Each navy strove to supply and sustain its effort on Guadalcanal and, following the disaster at Savo Island, the USN had to learn the art of nocturnal warfare: it began to do at the the cruiser Battle of Cape Esperance. More important still, In the 'First Battle of Guadalcanal' Admiral Callaghan led his cruiser squadron in a theoretically suicidal attack on battleships. As the author indicates, this battle finally convinced the Japanese that when it came to heroic resolve under fire the Americans would match them blow for blow. Moreover there was a technological gulf, as Admiral Lee demonstrated by using radar control for his big guns in the subsequent battleship action. The description of all these battles is very graphic and detailed.

Early in the narrative the author 'jumps about' somewhat and tends to reprise earlier events if they help to explain later ones: this can be a little confusing, but once you 'get into' the book- which takes about 60 pages, up to the gripping account of Savo Island- it becomes hard to put down. At its best this account has the gripping style of a good novel: it's certainly not a dry history. There are some maps and diagrams but a few more of these would have been helpful.

For enthusiasts of war at sea the aptly titled 'Neptunes inferno' is a 'must read' and has to be the best account available detailing the naval side of Guadalcanal. There are nearly 450 action packed pages here plus no less than 50 pages of sources and bibliography. At less than £20 in 'hardback' form this book is fine value for money.
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