This history of all the British warships of this name is a paperback reissue of a work first published in 2008. Ballantyne has already written a similar work on HMS Warspite and has made it his business in both cases to seek out the rapidly dwindling band of people who served in these old battleships, and these veterans have often kindly contributed photographs and sometimes their journals. This material has been supplemented by exhaustive research and reading around the subject and sources and bibliography are fully recorded. On a personal note, one of his contributors was the late Chesty Morris, my boss in HMS Tiger 1959-60. It was only years later, via a reunion, that I learned that he had been onboard as a Midshipman when Rodney was tearing up, eight tons to a broadside, Von Rundstedt’s Normandy tank parks many miles inland, to the point where Von R had to ask Hitler for permission to pull his armour back - request refused, to our (paradoxical) advantage. Tiger’s 6” must have seemed very small beer after that.
Ballantyne is excellent on the chronology and the political and strategic background to the various ships and their activities. The ill-informed and ill-judged nature of some of Churchill’s peremptory interventions is well brought out. There are many silent parallels between the situation between the wars and ours today. The main focus of the book is the Second World War and Rodney’s participation in sinking the Bismarck, the Pedestal convoy to Malta and her supporting all the major Allied landings from North Africa to Normandy, right up to the battle for Caen. These events are well and clearly described with eye-witness reminiscences linked by editorial narrative.
As to the Bismarck chase, although Ballantyne equivocates on this, while it was certainly the Rodney which reduced Bismarck to a blazing wreck, the German was certainly ultimately scuttled in accordance with German naval practice as demonstrated by the Dresden (1915), the sinking of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow, and the Graf Spee in 1940.
Ballantyne has done particularly well to dig out journals and narratives relating to earlier Rodneys but sometimes, because of course these sources are sparse, gives particular adventures befalling individuals too much weight in the context of the life of the ship and the rest of her company. There is also a tendency to judge past events through 21st century bien-pensant liberal eyes, a glaring example of which is his idea that the hanging of Marine McSweeney following Court Martial ashore in some way ‘stained’ the 1833 Rodney’s ‘time in the Mediterranean’ - when for the ship this would have been just a passing incident and a normal part of the necessary disciplinary process. Nelson is on record, when criticised for hanging a man on a Sunday, that he would hang a man on Christmas Day if it were for the good of the Service. Good enough for Nelson, good enough for me. At an other point the sneers at the Executive Officer of the 1884 Rodney doing his plain duty by taking a boat to check his ship’s appearance from outboard (the only way to ensure there are no Irish pendants hanging judas and that halliards are taut, etc.) and there are elsewhere a couple of silly remarks about what he calls ‘bullshine’. The Invergordon mutiny is well treated but Ballantyne fails to make the case for his capricious allegation that the Rodneys were influenced by the then Captain Cunningham’s earlier sharpening up of a slack ship. In quoting the dripping of a junior RM officer Ballantyne fails to realise that the man was employed on exactly the duties for which the Royal Marines were maintained before Commando service became their main role. Furthermore (p.66) ‘fraternisation’ with ratings is exactly what officers should NOT be doing. Here and frequently elsewhere, right down to a litany of errors of terminology, the civilian and landsman in the author demonstrates that he doesn’t quite ‘get’ life on board a British warship, let alone, earlier in the book, life in the old sailing Navy. Compounding this with the odd grammatical error, errors of punctuation, the occasional Americanism and some spelling mistakes (the past participle of ‘reeve’ is ‘rove’, etc.), Ballantyne writes in a flowery journalese not short of the odd spot of waffle and padding. Some sections read as if they were excerpts from a sort of action comic for boys, but are mercifully relieved by verbatim quotes from naval sources. This spoils what could be a very good book, and it is a pity that Pen and Sword did not get the manuscript proof-read before publication by someone with a better grasp of maritime matters and the ethos of the Royal Navy. Sometimes the book is like a good tune played on a piano with several duff keys, and the reader is too often brought up all standing on some solecism.
The extracts from journals and interviews are well selected, however. If the narrative had been culled for superfluity there would have perhaps been more room for a deeper look at the general life of junior ratings on a broadside messdeck (Ballantyne: ‘messroom’) of a battleship at war, a background which is touched on but which really deserved a deeper treatment.
One final gripe: some old shellback’s failing memory has messed up a ditty quoted at the beginning - it should be:
“Roll on the Nelson, the Rodney, Renown -
“This four-funnelled bastard is getting me down!”
- the reference is to the appalling motion of the ex-WW1 US four-stacker destroyers (the RN ‘Captain’ class) which Churchill had to pay for by giving the US base facilities in the Caribbean.
Oh - and Saltash is in Cornwall.
This is a first class story with the potential to be a useful contribution to naval history, but it is compromised by an unfortunate style aggravated by too many errors, so that the general non-naval reader, who may erroneously suppose that the author is an authority, may end up egregiously misinformed. I can therefore only award two anchors.