Battleships of the World (1820-1945) by John Fidler

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  • 140 pages is not a lot for an account of the development of the battleship, particularly as about half the content is illustrations – but these are not to be grudged, as they are excellently selected and informative. Indeed they are the redeeming feature of this short work, bringing to us many images which would otherwise continue to lurk unseen in the copious archives of the NMM.

    Otherwise the result is a catalogue of this type of vessel, worked up from secondary sources, pointing up the competition between nations particularly in the two decades prior to the First World War. Each entry for a ship or class is fleshed out with functional and historical detail. Tonnage and armament are fully chronicled but there cannot be more than a nod at many other factors affecting comparative effectiveness. For more information, but far less easy and more costly to obtain, there is Jane's Fighting Ships from 1898 to today, or Brassey's Naval Annual from 1886 to 1949 (neither is cited). 'Battleships of the World' is not a book for the specialist and perhaps might be regarded as an entry-level reference for the newcomer to naval history; such a reader would be helped by some of those technicalities that are mentioned, such as the difference between a barbette and a turret, let alone a hooded barbette, (see: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/turrets.htm ).

    A reader wanting to penetrate further into a particular topic would benefit from a pointer to further study, for instance, regarding inter-war disarmament, Roskill's 'Naval Policy Between the Wars' vol.1 (volume 2 covers Fidler's next chapter on the thirties and rearmament, neither is cited in the bibliography). Where the book steps away from the mere listing of ships and discusses their employment, there is, unavoidably, compression, and the resulting précis sometimes gives a misleading impression (e.g. regarding the blockade of Germany on p.71 and the loss of the Bulwark on p.74). On p.89 'Eagle' should read 'Canada', and on p.128 'Formidable' should be 'Indomitable', and it is wrong to imply that Indomitable running aground affected the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as it has been established that Indomitable would not have been in theatre in time anyway.

    Post-WW2 Fidler catalogues the demise of his subject including notes on what was cancelled, or planned but never built; the detail on these behemoths is fascinating.

    Nevertheless it is clear that lengthy research, even from secondary sources, was needed to complete such a compilation and to set the result in its strategic and political framework of alliances and enmities. The result is still a useful reference, even if it is unclear in what niche sits the target readership.

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