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Monitors of the Royal Navy: How the Fleet brought the Great Guns to Bear by Jim Crossley

Monitor warships were strange platforms. They traced their descent to ‘Bomb Ketches’ of the 17th Century, which were little more than Mortars carried to sea, with unusually high angles of firing trajectory that could lob something unpleasant over the walls of a besieged port, rather than trying to blast a way through them.

Squat, and arguably not the prettiest ships ever laid down, Monitors nevertheless had several redeeming features: constructed in large part from recycled parts of other warships, they were generally cheap to construct. Shallow in draft (typically no more than 10 feet), they also could go where Dreadnoughts could not, and deploy massive firepower from the largest guns ever floated by the Royal Navy (up to 18”).

Constructing a stable platform for a gun platform weighing 700 tonnes necessitated constructing warships of nearly 100 feet beam that in early models struggled to make 6 knots and challenged the most able of navigators in anything other than the most benign conditions. Never more than really coastal and brown water platforms Monitors allowed the war to be taken to the enemy at a time when naval strategy in home waters was largely based on détente. With low freeboard and shallow draft, and generally underpowered, early Monitors were habitually awash and had the tendency to ‘Crab’ sideways. This resulted in them largely having to be tugged to where they were needed.

Nevertheless, Monitors found a role in offering true strike capability early during WW1. The SMS Konisberg, a Commerce Raider of 3400 tonnes, had plagued the Royal Navy in the early stages of WW1, before being tracked down and forced to take refuge in the Rufugi river, in what is now Tanzania. Blockaded into an enormous Mangrove swamp where British cruisers could no go, Konigsberg could not be allowed to escape, but was nevertheless tying down assets in the blockade. The obvious solution was to send for Monitors and hence HMSs SEVERN and MERSEY were dispatched, tugged all the way to East Africa. Warped into position fore and aft, it was possible to construct stable platforms capable of indirect fire taskings. Due to the aforementioned low freeboard and minimal superstructure, Monitors were actually very difficult to hit and damage. An RNAS spotter plane was used to call the fire mission, and before long the Konigsberg in was in flames and ultimately scuttled. Importantly, valuable lessons were learned about fire control targeting, and working with aircraft.

Once proof of concept had been established, Monitor production increased, again using guns salvaged from other platforms. The 15 ‘M’ Class monitors served well in the Gallipoli and Bulgarian theatres (and later Russia), where the ability to draw almost up to the beach could provide effective counter-battery fire where other naval assets were just about useless due to the lower trajectory of fire and greater draft. Being cheap, and with basic facilities Monitors were almost considered to be disposable assets.

The concept worked. Moored off the Belgian coast Monitors fought duels with coastal batteries, and attempted a reduction of the Zeebrugge submarine capability, with the advantage of being able to move down threat when straddled.

Monitor use extended well into WW2. Before being sunk in 1943, HMS TERROR was able to harass retreating Italian Forces in North Africa and EREBUS, ABERCROMBIE and ROBERTS took part on Operation HUSKY. Monitors also formed part of the Gun Lines for the Normandy landings and Walcheren actions. Indeed Field Marshal von Runstedt cited accurate Naval Gunfire Support as one of the key reasons for the success of the Allied campaign in Europe.

This is an enjoyable book and is well written. It gives the reader an illuminating insight into how the monitor concept worked. It possibly needs updating, referring as it does to HMS M33 being ‘as of 2011 under renovation in the Historic Dockyard’, and possibly should be updated to include more about the Historic Dockyard’s latest addition. The tone is light and sits nicely mid arc between the general interest reader and the total spotter.

4 Stars out of 5