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REVIEW The full Nelson

On the Town once more

WITH the sun about to set on the current generation of warships named after cities (HMS Edinburgh ends the Type 42 story when she decommissions in June), prodigious naval historian Neil McCart has focused on the previous bearers of the names. Town-class Cruisers

(Maritime Books, £29 ISBN 978-1-904-45952-1) charts the careers of all ten ships which were the mainstay of global operations in WW2 – and, for the six which survived the conflict, the early years of the new Cold War era. It’s probably fair to say that

IN 2004 John Sugden published the fi rst volume of his life of Nelson subtitled ‘A Dream of Glory’ which covered the great man’s life until 1797 and the loss of his arm at

Santa Cruz, Tenerife. There has been much expectation about its

sequel, which fi nally appeared at the end of last year. One can see why is took so long. Subtitled ‘The Sword of Albion’ it is a magnum opus indeed, running to over 1,000 pages, including notes and index, writes Prof Eric Grove of the University of Salford. Reading Nelson: The Sword of


(Bodley Head, £30 ISBN 978-0-224-06098- 1) takes time but it is well worth the effort. Sugden has trawled through a multitude of sources not only to tell the story of Nelson’s life in unsurpassed detail, but to fi ll in a great deal of background information on the characters who entered the admiral’s life and the world in which he worked.

Fate was kinder to some of these light cruisers – built under the limitations of inter-war treaties which restricted tonnage. History has largely forgotten Southampton, Liverpool, Birmingham, while a cloud hangs over HMS Manchester’s demise (damaged, she was scuttled during Pedestal; her captain was subsequently court-martialled). Sheffield – ‘old Shiny’ – came through WW2 (including the Bismarck chase) mostly unscathed.

as a ‘dogged warrior’ – the Fighting G nickname lived on, long after she went down off Crete.

ship’ – torpedoed returning from Russia with £1.5m gold bullion aboard (payment for Allied aid to the USSR); all but half a dozen bars were recovered in salvage operations 40 years later... by which time the gold was 30 times the original value. Such histories and more are recounted by McCart in a very accessible manner – although some of the Towns are more comprehensively covered: 16 pages for Southampton, for example, more than 50 for Sheffield – in part due to their length of service: Southampton was sunk in 1941, Sheffield was the last of the class to pay off in 1967.

cruisers are, rightly, liberally sprinkled with first-hand accounts, bringing the ships – and their actions – to life. And death as well. Capt Basil Brooke of HMS Southampton paints a horrific picture of his ship’s final moments – the upper deck bulging, wooden planks split with steam and smoke rising, fires raging across the wardroom flat, watertight doors buckling, an entire damage control party wiped out, spilled oil from the galley burning fiercely.

Luftwaffe in January 1941, a fate her sister Gloucester shared four months later off Crete, where the carnage wrought by German air power was equally frightful. Thanks to mostly private

surprised by memorial postcards produced by the firm of A Abrahams of Plymouth. In 2013 these postcards,

Southampton fell victim to the And the stories of all ten Edinburgh was the ‘gold Gloucester earned a reputation

‘Mastering the Machine’, which is an excellent analysis of the challenges and dynamics of running the Mediterranean Fleet in 1803-05. Another particularly interesting chapter


British attempts to use Ali Pasha of Janina, the Albanian warlord, as a strategic asset. Now they have full modern coverage. Sugden makes a convincing case that Nelson and his fl eet played a key role in preventing a French descent on Greece. Sugden paints a fair picture of Nelson’s less-than-happy and controversial role in re- establishing the Neapolitan monarchy in 1799. He is critical of his role in the treatment of Admiral Caracciolo and admits there is a case to answer about Nelson’s eventual acceptance of the armistice with the French and Neapolitan Jacobins, a decision he later reversed under pressure from the King and Queen. His defence of Nelson is a subtle one: Sugden argues that “lazy judgements do violence to what were complex, frustrating and quickly evolving events.” Nelson, he concludes, was acting “honestly” in “impossible circumstances”. He supported the armistice to save the city from further fi ghting, but “the royal response aborted the compromise, and Nelson reneged on the treaty in aid of the smooth restoration of the monarchy that was for him the ultimate as well as by far the most important objective.” It was, of course, in Naples that Nelson met Emma Hamilton. Sugden covers the relationship and the consequent breakdown

covers Nelson’s role in naval diplomacy in the political and strategic kaleidoscope that was the Mediterranean theatre in this period. Nelson’s activities vis-à-vis the Barbary are now almost

forgotten as are A good example of the latter is the chapter

● A pensive Nelson in his cabin on the morning of Trafalgar with his last letter to Emma Hamilton on the desk before him. As painted by Charles Lacy


of Nelson’s marriage in an interesting way. He has less sympathy for Emma than some and tends to quote critical, rather than positive, commentary. Emma was indeed a challenge to the prim and snobbish attitudes of the British establishment of the day, but she had linguistic and artistic talents that Nelson clearly appreciated.

were of great assistance in his wider work in the Mediterranean, forming a triangle that greatly enhanced the effectiveness of his command. Lady Nelson was the main victim of these developments and Sugden’s sympathy for the poor woman is infectious. I shall try not to refer to her as ‘Tom Tit’ in future. What emerges from this book is the central

importance of the Mediterranean to both Nelson and British strategy in this period. Indeed Trafalgar itself was fought to prevent the Combined Fleet entering the Mediterranean and restoring the naval balance there in Napoleon’s favour.

threat had passed when Trafalgar was fought and that the French invasion plans were always less than practical. He cannot resist, however, contradicting himself and saying that somehow Trafalgar did indeed save Britain from invasion.

Sugden clearly recognises that the invasion Sugden makes clear how both Hamiltons Old legends die hard.

It is clear that Nelson thought that an annihilating victory at sea would give Napoleon cause to accept defeat. This totally misreads Bonaparte’s strategic vision, which had little place for naval forces. Despite Trafalgar,


and her allies lost the War of the Third Coalition.

As Corbett

perceptively put it in his analysis of the Trafalgar campaign, “the sea had done all the sea could do”, but Napoleon was still master of Europe.

William Pitt died in a depression. Sugden does not relate this to negative events in Europe, but he does point out that the Prime

Minister’s death diminished Emma’s chances of being treated properly by the state. In his excellent concluding chapter Sugden admits that the “immediate strategic infl uence of Trafalgar was limited.” It did, however, allow Sicily to be held effectively as a British protectorate and a key base and source of supplies for the continued British presence in the region. This should not be underestimated. It was also a refuge for the Neapolitan monarchy and there is something tidy about Nelson’s fi nal victory securing the land where he had been granted his Dukedom of Bronte. For a time, Nelson pined for this duchy he had never seen, but Sugden points out that by the time he died Nelson had settled for a future with Emma and daughter Horatia at “paradise Merton” – a future he was sadly never to see. There are one or two other places where I differ with the author. His account of Nelson’s death is somewhat romanticised. In an era of inaccurate muskets, I am not sure the word ‘sniper’ is correct for the man who discharged the fatal ball. The shot may well have been discharged in

the general direction of the

offi cers in sight, but its landing place was a matter of chance. Few people survived the upper deck of Victory unscathed. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that

overall this book is a magnifi cent achievement. Sugden himself says that no work can be ‘defi nitive’ as new research takes place all the time even in well-ploughed territory. It will, however, probably remain by far the most comprehensive account of Nelson’s life. Some of the author’s choice of modern

words grates a little, but the book is generally very well and accessibly written. Indeed it is so interesting that it’s hard to put down – despite its weight! The price is also most reasonable for a volume that is substantial in every way. It should be in every Nelson and Naval historical library.

More than an MOD warrior

BACK in 2000 naval historian and retired admiral Richard Hill published a biography of one of the figures who shaped the Cold War RN, Admiral of the Fleet ‘Terry’ Lewin.

winning Lewin of Greenwich was planned – but the publishers were taken over and that was that. Twelve years later Lord

A paperback of the award-

Lewin’s son Tim arranged for a new print run – but in ebook format (Kindle, Kobo and ePub) for just £4.99 from the usual online retailers/bookstores. Among the naval leaders of his generation, Terry Lewin is probably overshadowed, certainly in the public’s eye, by the late Sir Henry Leach – the admiral who famously urged Mrs Thatcher that Britain could and should re-take the Falklands in 1982. Lewin, by contrast, is seen as more of a ‘Whitehall warrior’ (one title of this biography considered, and rejected) – he filled seven posts at the Admiralty and, later, the MOD. Which rather ignores his ability

● HMS Colossus leads Neptune, St Vincent and other dreadnoughts past Inchcolm Island towards Scapa Flow in 1918 Enduring appeal of the castles of steel

WE USE the word ‘magnifi cent’ in our review column sparingly – the Navy News team isn’t prone to hyperbole. But there is no more apt adjective for Ray Burt’s British Battleships

archives, the volume is excellently illustrated. But today’s readers might be

featuring a portrait of a ship on a black background, bordered by rolls of honour, appear slightly mawkish – something you might expect in the Edwardian era (there was a raft of such material when the Titanic went down), but possibly not in the early ’40s. This is a fine and worthy anthology of the Town class. For completeness’ sake, a list of sources/bibliography and references would have been handy – the same goes for an index – but there is a useful appendix detailing each ship and the alterations they went through during their careers.

of World War One (Seaforth, £45 ISBN 978-1-84832-147- 2).

First published in the mid-1980s (as an oversize volume extending to more than 300 pages), Mr Burt has revised and enhanced his seminal book a generation later. What stands out, above all, in this second edition are the

improved production values in publishing in the intervening quarter of a century. Burt’s original tome featured more than 300 B&W images; in the revised edition, that figure over 500.

has swelled to On glossy paper, they have reproduced beautifully. As

have the numerous plans and diagrams of the ships drawn by the author (who’s an accomplished draughtsman) and colour profiles of the ill-starred Audacious, Repulse and Lion. The author evidently has a treasure trove of a photographic library

– and not just the usual Wright & Logan-esque images of battleships entering or departing harbour. There are many fitting-out photographs of these great vessels being completed – a window not just on the RN of the day, but also great shipbuilders such as John Brown on the Clyde. Burt charts the design and career of all 20 classes of battleship and

battle-cruiser, from the progenitor Dreadnought through to Furious, Courageous and Glorious (the latter two were completed and converted post-war into carriers, Furious was a bastard child – half battle-cruiser, half carrier initially, until her big guns were removed).

In an age where you can count the number of British capital ships on one hand, this volume is a reminder of the sheer number of dreadnoughts once possessed. The Iron Dukes, Warspites, Lions and Tigers are well known. But HMS Monarch? Erin? Hercules? The first King George V? This really is a reminder of the Grand Fleet at its grandest. Thanks to Beatty’s pithy remark at Jutland and Jellicoe’s failure to annihilate the High Seas Fleet, the capital ships of the day have suffered a bit of a bad press over the past century – certainly compared with their German counterparts. Such criticisms, says Burt, are generally unfair. German battle-cruisers were better armoured; but as a rule they were outgunned by their RN equivalents, which were also better seakeepers. As for battleships, they were pretty evenly matched. Indeed, the author argues that the big ships of the Grand Fleet were, generally speaking, a match for any of their

contemporaries: their guns were excellent, their machinery reliable, they were fast and possessed “unmatched seagoing qualities”. This rose-tinted view of the Hun at the expense of the Grand Fleet is nothing new. Back in 1921, one American naval commander protested at the praise lavished on the ‘Made in Germany label’. “We Anglo-Saxons are too prone to think the other fellow’s goods are

superior to our own.” If you like your castles of steel – and let’s face it, destroyers, cruisers,

carriers and the like can’t hold a candle to the imposing beauty of these leviathans – then this book is a ‘must’. The £45 price tag might be off-putting, but shop around and you should be able to shave one third off.

Corunna, served as XO of the Royal Yacht and, in the mid-60s, was CO of HMS Hermes during the withdrawal from east of Suez. He proved to be a popular captain of the carrier – she enjoyed the sobriquet ‘Happy Hermes’, he showed an interest in the welfare of his men and their families more akin to the present-day than the ’60s and was equally modern when it came to the rum ration (it was dished out at the day’s end, once flying was over, and sailors could have a beer instead if they so wished). As for Lewin’s wartime service, he came through two of the worst convoys of the war (PQ16 to Russia, Pedestal to Malta). The latter played heavily on his mind during the Falklands conflict 40 years later. As Chief of Defence Staff, the admiral reminded the War Cabinet that two in every three merchant ships on Pedestal had been lost. As an authorised biography this is a book largely favourable to its subject. It’s also not been revised to make use of official documents released since 2000 – ie anything after 1970. But it remains an excellent insight into the man and the Royal Navy in the post-Imperial/ Cold War era.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” Ref: NN

He commanded the destroyer

as a naval leader, his wartime service, and his immense personal warmth.

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