Before the Battlecruiser by Aidan Dodson

Before the Battlecruiser by Aidan Dodson

The first 150 pages are devoted to the genesis and evolution of the Armoured Cruiser, a catch-all term for a class of warship that was not quite a battleship - but often ended up acting in its stead or as an adjunct to a battlefleet, often force majeure - and more than a 'protected' cruiser. The primary gun armament stabilised at 9.2" or 8" with excursions from 7.5" to 12" as the intended primary role oscillated between commerce raiding, commerce protection, scouting, blockade, area guardship, and flagship and colonial protector in the far-flung, this last affected by the rise of Japan as a naval power. Broadly a cruiser had to out-gun lesser fry and outrun more puissant vessels. The requirement for bunkerage to deliver range impacted both armament and armour.

As the author explains, the available data is often contradictory and he has tried to steer the best path between conflicting information. Various canards from other publications are exposed and corrected in the course of the narrative. The whole is lavishly illustrated with photographs, mostly from the author's own extraordinarily comprehensive collection.

This is an evolutionary story with rapid technical advance in guns, explosives, propulsion and armour from the demise of wood and sails to 'modern' results in the twentieth century. One consequence was rapid obsolescence and relatively short operational lives, and sometimes 'classes' where no two sisters were alike. Political and economic factors, such as keeping up with the Joneses, affected design, sometimes expensively procuring uselessness by nibbling at the specification or by delays in building. Some ships drew more than anticipated, their armour partially underwater and that part of it therefore useless and concomitantly the secondary armament unusable in a seaway. In WW1 anti-aircraft armament and director firing required appropriate refitting. Post-war survivors found a niche as training ships. The narrative continues to survivors in WW2, and the US creations Alaska and Guam, and beyond to the Argentinian Pueyrredon which served to 1955 and the Greek Averoff which is now a museum ship, the last survivor.

Intercut in this part are beautifully reproduced builders' original coloured internal arrangement drawings of eleven British armoured cruisers with completions from 1877 to 1908.

The fate of each ship (and often that of her company) is described, with an excellent resumé of the Russo-Japanese war and 24 pages devoted to the First World War (and its precursors the Greco-Turkish and Balkan Wars), particularly with respect to the armoured cruisers of the participants.

The second part consists of 112 pages devoted to a sort of super-Janes depiction of the ships of their fourteen principal owners, elegantly and very clearly done. Another seven navies are mentioned in the first section, often buying from the major powers and surely giving themselves a management headache by using a variety of vendors - French designs being markedly different from everyone else's.

My sole criticism is that much of the material in the Notes would have been far better placed in the main narrative. Keeping two markers going is not easy in a book 11" x 8 3/4 ". Dodson deserves credit for an extraordinary feat of research, evidenced by the comprehensive and informative bibliography, the whole presented with great lucidity and elegance.

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