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Customer Review

on 7 December 2013
(publisher's review copy)

My previous understanding of this topic comes from a fifty-year old edition of Cdr Randolph Pears' `British Battleships 1892-1957' (Putnam), in which the pre-dreadnought period only receives four dozen pages and so is necessarily much briefer, if more conversational. The overall master work is `British Battleships' by Oscar Parkes of which a first edition will set you back £250 (although, for both, later reprints are available at more modest cost) and again Parkes covers a longer timeframe (from 1860 to 1950).

Pen and Sword /Maritime Press are now offering a new edition of R A Burt's classic work first published in 1988. I say `edition' rather than `reprint' as, according to other reviewers who already own its predecessor, there is additional material (and particularly additional photographs) compared to the original, which was itself a master work. At £45 r.r.p. it may seem expensive but is not so compared to what 1988 versions have been fetching, and is cheap indeed for such a lavishly-illustrated and encyclopaedic treatment of this specialist topic.

The introduction actually starts the story in 1869 with the inception of what was, in 1871, to become HMS Devastation, and then takes us, year by year, to HMS Agamemnon completed in 1907 - by which time Fisher's Dreadnought had made our entire battle fleet, and everybody else's, obsolete. The main part of the book deals, categorically and in intimate detail, with the thirteen classes of true `pre-Dreadnoughts' ordered under the annual estimates from 1889 to 1904/5.

In 1897, for her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria reviewed twenty five miles of ships, not one of which had had to be withdrawn from overseas to make up this spectacle. At this time, of the 58 battleships owned by the major Powers, 24 were British. But to maintain this total naval supremacy over everyone else on the planet required a rolling building programme.

Throughout the Admiralty was looking over its shoulder at what was building elsewhere, initially in France and Italy but later in Russia and Japan (easier to discover because their ships were being built in Britain) and then the nascent navies of Germany and the United States.

The designers were on a treadmill of innovation and rapid advances in technology. An early problem was whether to get rid of the sailing rig which inhibited the adoption of rotating gun mountings. This involved arguments about tactics and whether line-of-battle was superseded and whether ramming and a capability for all-round fire were more important. Water-tube boilers, wireless (and alternative aerial fits from gaffs to the eventual triatic stay), wire-wound guns (113 miles of wire per barrel), rangefinders, internal electrical communications, Harvey and Krupp (!) armour, stockless anchors, all came in during the period. At the same time legacies lingered on like the ram and torpedo tubes.

Each design (and sometimes many were proffered before the final one was chosen) was a matter of compromise regarding cost, tonnage, dimensions (our ships had to fit existing docks) building costs, dimensions, performance, armour, armament (and its availability), freeboard (crucial in respect of the operability of the guns), watertight subdivision and so forth. The period covers the move from open barbette to rotating turret and hence how the restriction of end-on loading was tackled. Sometimes the compromise, particularly on cost, resulted in a `Second Class' battleship, thought useful as a support for cruiser squadrons until, all too soon, increases in cruiser speed made this a nonsense and left us with ships `too weak to fight and too slow to run away'. At one point the Admiralty had two rather under-armoured battleships (Swiftsure and Triumph) building for Chile dumped on it, which cut out funding for more useful vessels.

Statistics (where these could be recovered a century later) of all these plus machinery, complement, boats carried (an extraordinary and heterogeneous mixture of types), are presented in exhaustive detail.

The chapter on each class closes with a history of each ship, which include a rich litany of collisions and groundings, and where a ship was lost rather than eventually scrapped an account of the circumstances. Of course not all the events of all commissions can be included; for instance HMS Mars' serious accident in April 1902 when one of her forward 12-inch guns was fired before the breech was closed, killing two officers and nine ratings, injuring seven, and wrecking the forward turret, or the Lord Nelsons being so much more manoeuvrable than previous pre-Dreadnoughts (in spite of having, like most of them, in-turning screws) that one of them is reported (by Pears) to have entered harbour stern first. Obsolete they might be, but those pre-Dreadnoughts which had survived the scrapyard were by no means useless in the First World War, doing yeoman service in bombardment at the Dardenelles and performing many other duties elsewhere until for several, either their big guns were needed for monitors or their crews were needed for other duties and the ships continued in service as depot or accommodation ships. Centurion survived a career as a target ship to serve with wooden guns as a decoy in the Mediterranean and eventually died a blockship off Normandy.

The book is researched, compiled and written from the construction and engineering points of view. Not much is said about habitability, particularly on warm foreign stations, although it can be seen that the admiral was always provided with his private sternwalk (indeed the Light Fleet aircraft carrier HMS Triumph still had one in 1955). For this and the life of Jolly Jack during the period John Wells (`The Royal Navy: An Illustrated Social History 1870-1982') and John Winton (`Hurrah for the Life of a Sailor') should be your guide.

The volume measures 10" by 11 5/8". The reproduction process is not entirely glitch-free, e.g. `understanding' for `understating' p.65, `Bayley' p.203, `Dewer' p.350, and photographs flipped left for right at pages 277, 300 & 305; and it's Harvey armour, not Hervey. These are petty cavils; the overall production standards of the book are exemplary, not least for the lavish illustration, including many beautiful double-page photographs, and exquisite line drawings (by Burt himself).

I commend this work to every serious student of the Victorian and Edwardian Royal Navy.
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