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Customer Review

on 4 March 2014
(publisher’s review copy)

We could have no better guide to this subject than Commander Hobbs, a veteran of over eight hundred carrier landings and retired curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum, who has already published extensively on Fleet Air Arm subjects. He has here brought years of research and study together to provide an entire and encyclopaedic account of the development and history of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, from the earliest seaplane-carrying conversions to the Queen Elizabeth class now in build.

The scope of the work embraces every ship we have ever had that was dedicated to the launch and recovery of aircraft, even CAM ships, plus fascinating details of ships like the Malta class and CVA01 that never did get built (and Habbakuk the impossible floating aviation iceberg), but excluding those cruisers and other ships for which air operations were and are not the ship’s main purpose, even though their aircraft confer a utility far beyond their hull. There is a good account of the wartime Escort Carriers and their short but busy war in support of invasions and seaborne strike and other service from Norway via the Mediterranean to Japan. As the story progresses we are also given details of the contemporary aircraft carriers of our friends, enemies and neighbours, and of carrier aviation in Commonwealth navies, mostly based on our incredibly successful Vickers-designed Light Fleets which were only planned to last three years but one of which is still afloat.

The presentation takes the form of construction and technical details for each class of ship, followed by the individual history of each vessel. The text is copiously illustrated with photographs and arrangement drawings - several in colour - from many sources including the author’s personal collection, which must be extraordinarily extensive, and which otherwise we should never see.

A selection of the aircraft involved are also reviewed including the way specific aircraft development influenced carrier design and vice versa. Comparisons between the F35 (including an explanation of why it has no buddy-refuelling system) and the Rafaele and the Super-Hornet are followed by discussion of our and others’ airborne early warning and antisubmarine provisions. In that context the USN’s experiments with the Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter (DASH) in the sixties might have merited a mention as the dialogue moves on to unmanned aircraft. The US intend to have such a vehicle in service in 2020, the current projected date for our own re-entry to operational fixed-wing carrier aviation, albeit in a way which excludes us pursuing the unmanned aircraft avenue. The abandonment of RAF maritime surveillance can be contrasted with the USN’s existing unmanned advances in this field, already operational.

While people are not the principal focus of the book, we are introduced to several individual innovators as the story of the many Firsts scored by the Royal Navy unfolds, and also some of the brave pilots who moved the game forward. Sadly under the dead hand of the RAF (Hobbs provides several exact examples), as the RN suffered from the cull of all keen air-minded young officers, the baton passed to the United States, although, carrier aviation firmly back in the Navy’s hands, in the 1950s we produced many vital inventions which are key to modern carrier operations in all navies and the Firsts continued right up to the pioneering of vertical envelopment at Suez, taken up by everybody else. It took until the late sixties for the RN’s professional aviators, aafter the attrition of war and post-war redundancy drives, to reach any sort of major level of influence and as will be seen, by then it was too late.

Hobbs comments as well as describes, and can, justifiably as he demonstrates with impeccable logic and clear facts in a catalogue of missed opportunities and want of forward planning, be witheringly scathing of Government and Admiralty as compromise and sub-optimisation were and are forced on ships that could have been so much more capable. Time and again we see carrier procurement falling into the hands of the uninformed, ignorant or plain stupid both in and out of uniform, with what does emerge less than it might have been for the same money, and often cluttered with gunnery and other junk - usually later removed - to the detriment of the ship’s prime purpose and capability, those last never clearly understood. With hindsight, some major modernisations typically eventually cost as much as a new ship and delivered less. Meanwhile, as with battleships in the 1900s, what we could achieve was constrained by unwillingness to increase the size of the docks in the home yards.

The culmination of all this is the Queen Elizabeth class, treated in considerable detail, where we seem to be acquiring roughly the capability of two USS Americas for roughly twice the money per ship, delivered at least eight years late and locked into a Second Division modus operandi. One of Hobbs’ points is the MoD’s failure to appoint a supremo to drive the process (and similarly the previous Invincible-class project) in the way Rufus Mackenzie was appointed to deliver Polaris.

The full story of the political motivation behind deliberate emasculation of the RN’s offensive strike capability via the cancellation of CVA01 in 1966, the choice of Hermes for commando conversion, and the early paying-off of Victorious in 1967, Eagle in 1972 and Ark Royal in 1978 has perhaps yet to be told. That we should spend vast amounts of money without its delivering appropriate results will have suited our enemies very well.

The author points out, by worked example, the weakness of employing embarked aircraft and aircrew that are not worked up for carrier operations or into its ethos. I would add Sharkey Ward’s comments on the Sierra Leone operation to this genre. As to the historical narrative, Hobbs disposes of various myths, for instance demonstrating that it was not Indomitable’s grounding that cost us the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as she would not have arrived East until after their sinking anyway.

What else could have been included? The real costs of re-engining the Whirlwind and the Phantom? The temporary reprieve granted to Centaur? The ‘Warship Eagle’ TV programme? Triumph’s Sea Balliols making the very last RN axial-deck landings? Counsels of perfection.

The text is supported by a comprehensive index and an extensive bibliography (but I was surprised to see none of the Fleet Air Arm related works of John Winton mentioned). The volume measures 11½” x 9¾”. The spellchecking imp has left his calling card in a few places (e.g. sighting for siting on p.256). Altogether this is a superb production; but in many places, read it and weep.
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