A Biographical Dictionary of the 20th Century RN by Alastair Wilson (vol.1)

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  • The book opens with the social-historical background which includes a lucid and valuable explanation on how entry, promotion, half-pay and retirement of Naval Officers worked, and changed over time, during the period; albeit there is later some repetition as the text develops. The author has looked over his shoulder at non-naval people researching their families and carefully caters for that readership as well as naval historians. Assistance is particularly given regarding dates, for instance where an Officer travelled by sea to an overseas appointment. A useful decode of abbreviations is included.

    Space probably prevented the inclusion of some perhaps unimportant exceptions, for instance there were indeed naval recipients of the GC, such as Ouvry and (the first posthumous award) Ryan’s GCs for mine disposal. The Navy in particular has nine and sixty ways of reciting tribal lays and a totally exhaustive treatment would have been impossible.

    There are comprehensive and informative notes on sources including their coverage and reliability including Navy List notation conventions, which have changed over time, for instance Gunnery Officers were marked G† on completion of Long Course with officers completing the Advanced Gunnery Course marked G*, but these were knocked back later in a fit of egalitarianism. As an aside for those in the area there is a useful run of Navy Lists in Portsmouth central public library (take id).

    The publishers have cunningly put the 1479 pages of detailed biographical information on 355 individuals on a CD containing a 7.6 megabyte PDF, with an index of live links so that one clicks on one’s chosen admiral in the index and up he comes - career, decorations and appointments in tabulated form - with a brief note against each appointment giving the ship’s employment during the subject’s service in her - and much else besides; several entries have extensive and often wryly amusing notes appended. Those still alive while Wilson was doing his research were invited to check what was recorded. The PDF can be searched dynamically for a ship’s name or other keyword - most useful. The amount of detailed work needed to produce just one entry must have been considerable; to complete a study of hundreds is an extraordinary effort.

    There is of course some not unwelcome extension beyond the century in the chronicles of service, from Admiral Sir Day Hort Bosanquet who joined by nomination in 1857 to Admiral Lord West, promoted to full admiral 29.11.2000 and still serving as First Sea Lord in 2005.

    This is not the sort of work one would read straight off as one would a novel, but it is an absolutely key resource for anyone researching the RN at a Command level in the twentieth century; in this way the author has done a considerable service to posterity. It will also provide interest, and perhaps amusement, to those who served with those included, perhaps when both were junior officers together and knew them personally. It is an important work of naval history in its own right and certainly merits a BZ from me.

    This volume, covering admirals of the fleet and full admirals, is the first of a projected six to cover - perhaps not completely in the case of junior officers! - the Officer corps of the Royal Navy during the twentieth century. The next volumes relating to vice admirals and rear admirals are eagerly awaited.

    Four anchors

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