Ned Willmott obituary

Other lives: Historian who brought sharp critical thinking to historiography

Ned Willmott, who has died aged 74, was a highly regarded historian, noted for his rigour in the analysis of naval warfare in the 20th century.

Starting out as a general historian with Warships (1975) and Sea Warfare (1981), Ned then published, in 1982, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942, a portrayal of political, economic, military and naval activity in the Pacific. Henceforth Japanese seapower became his preoccupation.

The sequel, The Barrier and the Javelin (1983), concentrated on five months from February to June 1942 which saw the balance of power between the Japanese and the Americans shift decisively in the Americans’ favour.

In subsequent books Ned examined the origins and development of Japanese militancy from the 1920s, explaining why war against the west became inevitable, and in The Battle of Leyte Gulf (2005) he explained, using sources hitherto unavailable to western historians, the reason for the tenacity of the enemy: the Japanese viewed the battle as “a fitting place to die” if victory were unobtainable.

In his large scale studies, such as The Great Crusade (1989), Ned shook up received wisdom by, for example, exploding the popular notion of incomparable German military excellence.

Ned was born in Bristol, the son of Olive (nee Reed) and Donald Willmott. He was awarded a BA in history and politics in 1967 from Liverpool University and a PhD from the University of London in 1991. His doctoral thesis was turned into a book, Grave of a Dozen Schemes: British Naval Planning and the War Against Japan, 1943-1945, which, in Professor Andrew Lambert’s opinion, exemplified Ned’s approach as an historian: a ready eye for ineptitude among planners.

In 1969 Ned joined the staff at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he and I were colleagues for many years. From the late 1980s he took up visiting lecturing posts in the US: at Temple University, Philadelphia; Memphis State University in Tennessee; Norwich University, Vermont, and the National War College in Washington.

Ned was admired in Japan. In 2012 at the National Institute for Defense Studies he gave the appreciatively received keynote address with his The Influence and Meaning of the Pacific War in Global History.

Ned married in 1978 but the marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his stepdaughter, Gaynor.

Patrick Birks

The GuardianTramp

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