Book Review: Very Special Ships by Arthur Nicholson

Book Review: Very Special Ships by Arthur Nicholson

 

Five Stars out of Five – Buy

 

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Overall

This book is what Siri should show you when you ask it what a ‘Labour of Love’ is. The author has gone not one, but several extra miles in putting it together, and it is a beautifully produced, highly informative, and well-written book on a small but important sub-class of Royal Navy combat vessels in World War 2.

The author, Seaforth as the original publisher, and the Naval Institute Press for this print run should be congratulated for this work. It’s the kind of book I would love to be able to write. It is well-balanced between engaging narrative and technical detail, with numerous pictures and personal stories that add to the understanding of the history of these very special ships.

Mr. Nicholson has gone through a lot of detail to accomplish what is likely to be the first and last history of this class of vessels, since I doubt there is much more to say on them.

 

Considerations

The book covers the detailed service history of all Abdiel-class fast minelayers, including their loss and where applicable peace-time service. Where possible it notes losses suffered by Axis forces on minefields laid by the ships.  

The clear focus of the book is on the history of service of the ships. This is told through a mix of service history from the official records, and very well-placed personnel recollections or letters and personal diaries. It really brings the vessels to life. There is substantial detail, but it never gets too technical, or turns into a dull ‘then she moved here, and then there’ narrative. The writing is engaging, and the book well edited. 

Very helpfully, the book commences with a short history of mine warfare in the Royal Navy, followed by an introduction to the service of the first Abdiels in the First World War, and the considerations that led to the production of this unique, and as I would agree with the author, beautiful class of ships that could outrun any other ship in the Royal Navy, and on occasion did so. This includes a very useful technical discussion of the design decisions that were taken with these ships.

My personal interest is of course the service in the Mediterranean, which is well described, including the circumstances of the loss of HMS Latona on the Tobruk Run, and HMS Abdiel on a magnetic mine in Taranto harbour after the armistice with Italy. 

Welshman

What would have been a familiar picture in Malta 1941/42: ‘HMS Welshman in the Grand Harbour on her way to her berth in French Creek’, 15 June 1942 (IWM A 10420)

 

Room for Improvement

I find it hard if not impossible to think of anything. There is the odd repetition, in particular in relation to the loss of HMS Latona on the Tobruk Run, which the author (fairly or unfairly) lays at the feet of the Australian government, and it is here that there is a clear sense of grievance, but nothing serious.

 

Production

The paper version is coffee-table format, which is great since it allows quite a bit of detail in the pictures to be discerned. It is very well produced, and no doubt will last a long time.

The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented. Photos come from both official and private collections and again I would like to congratulate the author on making the effort to track these down.

There is an extensive colour plate section showing the evolution of the ships’ camouflage over the course of the war, and a detailed plan of HMS Abdiel.

As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.

 

Notes

The review is based on the print version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

 

Featured Image

Latona

HMS Latona and a flotilla of submarines at Sliema Creek, Malta. (Art.IWM ART 3133)

Book Review: “Flying to Victory” by Mike Bechthold

Five Stars out of Five – Buy

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Air Commodore R Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (IWM CM 399)

Overall

In a nutshell, if you are the least bit interested in the development of air support doctrine on the Allied side in WW2, and/or the desert war, you should get this book. This is a rare book in that it comprehensively challenges the established wisdom, and does so without resorting to hyperbole or manufactured conspiracy theories. The author has done his homework, and clearly sets out his case based on his research. Having looked at some of the same material, I cannot but agree with the conclusion, which means that the way in which we consider the development of army/air cooperation progressed in the Empire forces, and by implication the Western Allies as whole, needs to be reconsidered, and a man who should be recognized for having delivered in 1940 army air support of a quality that wasn’t considered possible until then.

Considerations

The book covers the career of Collishaw, with a clear focus on his background as a fighter pilot in the First World War, and how this influenced his approach to operations. It is relatively silent on his personal life, and treats his life after his (likely) forced retirement very briefly. There is an autobiography however which is available to those interested in more of this detail. 

The clear focus of the book is on the leadership of Collishaw during the campaigns in the Western Desert, which it treats with substantial detail, and does very well of putting his actions and performance into aa clear context. The picture that emerges from this is of a man who has almost been written out of history, by the writing of his superior, Air Marshal Tedder, who seems to have had no good word for him. The consequence of this is that the picture of the early air war in the desert is skewed, and the two men normally credited with developing the army/air cooperation system in the desert (Tedder and Coningham) did not do so, but rather built on the system that Collishaw put in place and then demonstrated successfully. I have myself made this mistake in a previous post (at this link), and I am very glad to be corrected in this.

The author has gone through a lot of detail to better lay out and analyze the performance of the RAF in the early campaigns up to and including BATTLEAXE, and shows clearly how the latter differed from the prior operations in that the RAF acceded to the wishes of the Army, with almost disastrous consequences. While I remain to be convinced that a different approach to air support in BATTLEAXE could have delivered a different outcome, a worthwhile case for reconsidering the operation in the light of the failure to apply a tried and tested air support model is being made.

The book is strongest where it takes the after-action communications written by leading participants and subjects them to a comparison with actual performance or earlier statements by the same actors. Almost invariably it shows the politicization of the messaging.

Collishaw, the main subject of the book, emerges as a man who was unduly overlooked for his contribution to the Allied victory, and who used his experiences in the Great War to a very good effect. One wonders how his career would have gone had O’Connor not been captured during Rommel’s first offensive.

Room for Improvement

There are some minor errors which could easily be corrected in a new edition, which would also benefit from reducing repetitions. None of this affects the fundamental thesis of the book though. On the whole, I think a revised edition would substantially benefit from using Axis sources to ascertain the actual impact that RAF operations had, something which is being done in this version through the post-war studies undertaken by the British authorities, which in turn relied on Axis documentation, but which are not as powerful as going straight back to the source.

Another wish of mine would be to compare in detail the arrangements for air support of the army in COMPASS and CRUSADER. While the broad brush comparison is clear, it is in the detail that CRUSADER provided innovation, in particular the system of ‘Tentacles’, which was well ahead of what the Wehrmacht was practicing at the time. It would also be interesting to compare the COMPASS system to the 1940 arrangement for close air support in the Wehrmacht, in particular in regards to reconnaissance assets.

If I had one major criticism, it would be the absence of a more in-depth exploration of why Tedder so disliked Collishaw. There is some speculation, but nothing definitive, and it appears odd that personal dislike could be leading to such harsh consequences.

 

Production

 

The Kindle version is well produced, footnoted throughout, and very readable. Maps were produced by the author, they are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow events. They are also being used well to highlight specific issues, such as the distance of Crete from the North African coast.

 

 

The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented.

 

 

As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.

 

Notes

 

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercialinterest in the book.