During the period 1914-1965 the Royal Navy had constructed some forty-odd specialized, limited-role vessels termed "monitors". Since this type of vessel was so limited in scope, as soon as wartime need for them was over they usually were scrapped. This fact of short life and few numbers has resulted in a lack of satisfactory documentation in the literature on this type of vessel.
It was to correct this literary oversight that Dr. Ian Buxton wrote his book Big Gun Monitors. Dr. Buxton wished to compile a comprehensive account of the design, construction, and operational histories of this most singular type of vessel; in this he has succeeded admirably. His book should appeal not only to the professional with its detailed account of the evolution of design, but also to the general military history buff with its intriguing accounts of the operational histories.
The British monitor came into being due to a WWI need for a potent bombardment vessel that could be used in shallow water close inshore. Precious capital ships were inappropriate for the task; such a vessel had to have capital ship armament but shallow draft and expendability. Thus, the monitor concept was formulated: maximum armament on a minimum hull, strong torpedo and mine protection, good gunfire protection, fair seakeeping, and modest speed and endurance. Due to the pressures of war and the expendable nature of these vessels, they were to be designed and built with extreme rapidity, utilizing the simplest type of construction.
Considering the urgency and the design limitations, it should not be surprising that the history of these vessels provides many interesting examples of what can go awry in ship design projects evolving under such conditions. Monitors seldom achieved their design weight and stability; displacement was generally much more than intended, with subsequent deleterious effect on draft and performance. While draft itself never proved to be a serious limitation, with only one ship of this type running aground, speed on the earlier examples tended to be abysmal; headway often could not be maintained against even moderate wind or current. Stability tended to be good to exceptional on the larger torpedo-bulged monitors, but some of the smaller non-bulged ones were atrocious. Roll in one case was as much as 50 degrees; a salvo fired athwart-ship could roll the deck edge under water. All manner of design deficiencies could be found in some specimens, from structural weaknesses to recurrent propulsion fires, etc.
However, as the monitor evolved, its worst deficiencies were corrected. The mobility, accuracy, and sustained rate of fire that monitors were to develop made them invaluable in support of shore assaults. Compared to cruisers and battleships, when utilized for the same purpose, monitors were to prove themselves much more cost-effective. It was the general march of technology, and perhaps in particular the advent of truly awesome air bombardment capability, that was to render these vessels ultimately obsolete, but in their time they were quite relevant. We shall not see their like again, but we may read and wonder about them, thanks to Ian Buxton's remarkable book.