Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
Leadership Literature: C.S. Forester's classic 11 book series about the adventures and naval career of Horatio Hornblower

Following a demanding shore duty assignment on the White House National Security Council staff, I eagerly looked forward to carving out time during my prospective Executive Officer/Commanding Officer (XO/CO) pipeline to refocus on personal and professional development in preparation for Command. I read, and in some cases re-read, several books during my 11-month pipeline and into my tour as USS Mason’s (DDG 87) Executive Officer. My literary journey included “classics” of command like Adm. Stavridis’ Destroyer Captain and Command at Sea and Professor Hughes’ Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. I also selected a few books from then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Greenert’s professional reading list such as Longitude and Six Frigates. Additionally, I re-read Machiavelli’s The Prince and, as a former Naval Academy rower, thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Brown’s Boys in the Boat. All were noteworthy reads, professionally developing, and well worth the time. However, the most enjoyable read for me was C.S. Forester’s classic 11 book series about the adventures and naval career of the “Indomitable” Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.

Although considered a classic of naval fiction, I find many surface warriors have yet to make the time to immerse themselves in the terrific adventures, trials, and development of this hero from Midshipman to Captain and beyond. Professional selections on our personal reading lists tend to be overwhelmingly non-fiction, but we should not overlook the value of fiction in our development as warfighters.


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Throughout the series, Hornblower commands many missions and ships, from coastal raiding parties in small boats to magnificent ships of the line, and eventually a Royal Navy Fleet. Over the course of his adventures around the globe, we see many timeless naval challenges overcome by the same attributes we value in today’s naval warriors – strong professional knowledge, personal accountability, the initiative required for mission accomplishment, and balancing risk and reward. That being said, regardless of adventure, one trait was consistently demonstrated by Hornblower, from his early days as a Midshipman until his days as an Admiral in the West Indies– toughness.

When I talk about toughness to the Destroyermen of Mason, I define it as “fighting through adversity and winning.” Throughout his career, Hornblower constantly faces adversity, but presses on with an unyielding commitment to duty, and more often than not, wins. From his earliest days as a Midshipman, he struggles with miserable seasickness and maniacal leaders; yet he presses on to prove himself. During an early deck watch, he comes to realize that “life in the navy, although it seemed to move from one crisis to another, was really one continuous crisis, that even while dealing with one emergency, it was necessary to be making plans to deal with the next.” I think we’ve all faced this reality at some point in our careers, but through perseverance and professional growth we’ve fought back to a place where we’re managing our problems and not letting our problems manage us.

Our hero in the series spends time captive in Spain and as a prisoner in France. Both times he manages through his boldness and cunningness to escape and return to the fight. As well, when the odds are against him at sea, he constantly rallies the troops to action and takes the fight to the enemy. Just as we seize opportunity in today’s fleet, Hornblower built crew toughness through skills-based training during the many boring months at sea, which proved decisive the moment combat began. “This was the moment when a thousand drills bore fruit, when men carried out in darkness and turmoil the duties that had been ingrained in them in easier conditions,” Hornblower reflected when commanding of the sloop HMS Hotspur.

I personally saw this first hand during the Red Sea missile attacks last year when serving as Mason’s XO. Our crew had learned that combat success comes from putting the work in every day to learn and hone our craft. Confidence was built through a solid level of knowledge and skills-based training. And with confidence comes toughness.

Beyond Hornblower’s constant example of toughness, part of the value in reading the books is understanding through reflection of how trials faced earlier in a Naval career may provide greater insight into the challenges presented to us as seniors.

Without doubt, Forester’s classic series is an easy and enjoyable read, and provides a model of toughness for today’s Sailors. So, if you’re looking to add some fiction to your professional reading list, I highly recommend starting with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, where C.S. Forester’s series launches. Surface Warfare Magazine

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