I looked forward to this (and the 1st volume), having liked Empires in the Balance. It was a severe disappointment.
1. The general scheme of the book is a series of chapters looking at one aspect of seapower, supplemented by a large number of charts. Apparently the latter are intended to back up the text. However, despite the author's explicit intention to "explain, rather than describe", they really don't fulfill this role. Mostly, they are -- admittedly interesting -- data, related (sort of) to the matter at hand. But their use is odd. For instance, Wilmott points out that the US construction, in one year, was greater than the entire IJN on Dec 7, 1941. Besides the fact that the point he is making is universally known, it is also, strictly speaking, flawed in presentation. He uses, to illustrate the US superiority, a table of merchant construction. That he is speaking of warships is explicit in the text, and an extremely careless mistake.
This is not a lone error; there are many. Just 2, on specific, one general:
-The Lion class (follow-on the the KGV) was a battleship, not a battlecruiser, as is twice stated.
-There is no attempt, at all, to deal with the problem of variation within classes. That is, all "Fleet Carriers", or "Light Cruisers" are treated as one, with no attempt to clarify. This makes the tables rather less valuable than they might be. With large enough categories, this doesn't matter much, but within small ones (especially BBs & CVs), this can matter a lot.
2. More generally, the "explaining" is of a limited sort. In most cases, Wilmott chooses to present on item of news as if it were illuminating of the whole issue. Occasionally he'll say there were other factors, but never that I recall, does he balance them. Instead, an item in the tables is pointed out, and declared to be A BIG DEAL. No doubt, in most cases, it is important; no one would deny the USN's submarine campaign mattered. What isn't shown is how it differs from other guerre-de-course campaigns, to all of which the author denies a decisive role. Now, this would have been interesting, but such an analysis is MIA.
In fact, he seems to be looking, at all times, for a single cause for everything he treats. The appropriateness of this Philosopher's Stone approach seems an odd throwback at this date; indeed, it is almost a characature of Whig History, as seen my its opponents. Coming on top of reading N A M Rodger, it is bizzare.
3. This book proclaims itself as a look at ignored parts of history; what the criterion for "ignored" is unclear. Perhaps Hollywood portrayals would be the best bet. Examples of what have been ignored are:
-The US submarine campaign against Japanese shipping in WWII.
-The inadequacy of the IJN's preparation for, & response to this.
-The fact that USN production dwarfed that of Japan (and everyone else, for that matter).
-That the Pearl Harbor attack sealed Japan's defeat.
and many more such.
Now, perhaps I'm odd here, but every item on the above list is, far from ignored, cliched. Not to say they are false; rather that they are about as common wisdom as anything can be, in the field.
Yes, a few minor points may have a little value, as in his discussion, for several pages, of Halsey's reaction to the "The World Wonders" message. I don't recall all the details. But then, I, like everyone else interested in WWII at sea, am well aware of "Bull's Run" at Leyte. Willmott treats it as though it were esoteric knowledge. It isn't. And further, there is, literally, no analysis of WHY Halsey acted as he did. (I suspect, but do not know, that Wilmott thinks such explanations are whitewashes.)
4. The books do discuss at some length, the inadequacies of the allied -- especially British -- fleets upon entering the war. He explicitly states, at least twice, that RN officers were fools. However, in his presentation of the evidence, there are several suppressed points.
(a) While the RN may not have paid enough attention to ASW, in the 20's & 30's, they unquestionably paid more than any other major fleet. A comparison with other navies does show a great deal of attention to the issue.
(b) While he does mention the problems raised by the unexpected conquests of France & Norway, he simply leaves it at that, not even going so far as to dismiss them. This amounts to ignoring the reasons why the Flowers were intended for short range escort duty, & why new frigate designs (Rivers) had to be prepared.
(c) It further ignores the fact that the RN's prewar orders did in fact show the need for more escorts (56 corvettes + 20 escort destroyers), again, to a degree which not other fleet showed.
The point is not that the RN went into the war inadequately prepared. In many ways, they did. The point is that none of this is discussed in a manner to increase the reader's understanding of why. There is never an attempt to balance one point against another, and rarely even an attempt to show why he holds to his interpretations.
Further omissions include the fact that there seems no awareness that a number of books -- notably, Friedman's -- which predated this volume, and which question the standard view of German gunnnery. Wilmott takes the conventional view here, but without bothering to make a case for it. Again, it's not that he's wrong, it's that he doesn't seem willing to consider counter arguments.
5. All the above combine to make me conclude that the trouble is that Wilmott may believe in the superiority of explanation over description, but it makes me wonder where he thinks that superiority lies, or indeed, what he thinks the difference is. Whatever else these books do, (volumes I & II) it is not explanation.
6. The book is annoyingly poorly and ungrammatically written. I am not speaking here of ordinary flaws, or "gotcha" mistakes. What happens, page after page, is that a sentence brings one to a halt, & one must reread it to figure out what he means to say. It's a matter of "The USN did WHAT? Oh, now he means the IJN." Or of seeking the verb and object, when all he presented was a sentence fragment. I do not object to such writing when it doesn't get in the way of understanding, but here, it does.
7. Finally, a point which is not really the author's fault, & is not unique to these books (although worse here than usual): The index borders on useless. I do not know why publishers have decided that the indices to historical books are usefull, if all they give is a name or topic, followed by a series of page numbers. Anyone who looks at older histories, say, Marders, will find each major entry broken down further, enabling the reader to find what he's looking for. Not now. The only breakdown is something like: IJN: (30-50 different page #s), subhead-WWII: (another 30-50). That's a big help. It's easier to use the chapter headings, & skim each which seems relevant.
This is compounded, in these volumes by 2 factors. (a) The division between text and table entries is not clearly split in the index, and (2) it's not very accurate. E.g., although Cunningham IS mentioned in the text, he is nowhere in the index. There are several other such cases.
I had really looked forward to these books, hoping they'd live up to billing. They didn't.