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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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.


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. 


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.


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.


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


The First World War cruiser HMS Latona and a flotilla of submarines at Sliema Creek, Malta during or after the Great War. (Art.IWM ART 3133)