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Battleships were the ultimate icons of British power, massive symbols of imperial sway. They were also the largest and most advanced engineering achievements of the age, home to crews that could be more than 1000 strong, and, occasionally, massive archaeological artefacts. Originally published in 1986 and 1993 respectively, Ray Burt's books on the First World War and inter-war British battlefleet have been out of print for two decades, and consequently hard to find. In the interval the author has updated the text and illustrations, making the new editions a significant improvement. There are more than 50 new photographs, additional line drawings and textual revisions in each book. The new metric format is slightly larger, and the reproduction crisper.

The First World War volume begins with the epochal Dreadnought and Invincible, the all-big-gun, turbine-powered capital ships that defined the last era of big-gun warships. They were created by Admiral Sir John Fisher, as part of a strategic revolution that realigned the Royal Navy to meet the German challenge, and ensure the protection of the empire and the vital trade routes that linked Britain with her Colonies, Dominions and markets. From 1906 to 1914 the development of the British capital ship saw an increase in gun calibre from 12-inch to 13.5-inch and then 15-inch, the move to oil-fired boilers, increased speed for battleships from 21 knots to 24, and for battle cruisers from 26 to 29 knots, along with steadily thicker armour, and improved underwater protection. In the process ships almost doubled in size, and cost. The Queen Elizabeth of 1915 was 10,000 tons larger than the Dreadnought, four knots faster, and far more heavily armed—a ‘Super Dreadnought’.

By 1912 Britain had defeated Germany in a major naval arms race, having built more ships, and built them faster. The decisive year was 1909, when Britain built eight capital ships, using all the resources of the world's greatest shipbuilding industry, the second and third largest armour and armaments companies, and the willingness of the British taxpayer to sustain the legacy of Nelson. To reinforce the last point the fleet carried names made famous at the Armada fight, and at Trafalgar. Three of the first four Dreadnought battleships carried Trafalgar names, the fourth, HMS Superb, honoured a ‘74’ that fought in other battles, and only just missed the greatest battle because of a refit! Every single battleship built while Fisher ran the Admiralty had a named steeped in history, recording great battles, and the great Admirals who commanded. This was a deliberate attempt to reinforce Fisher's overtly deterrent posture. The German High Seas Fleet had to face 300 years of naval glory, and a much bigger fleet.

Consequently, when the First World War broke out in August 1914, there was little prospect of the High Seas Fleet attempting to reach any high seas. By Christmas 1914 the Royal Navy had annihilated the German Navy outside the North Sea, the crushing victory at the Falkland Islands on the 8th of that month reflecting British control of global communications, and the strategic power of the new capital ships. The battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible had been sent from Britain to intercept Admiral von Spee's ships. While von Spee was being crushed the High Seas Fleet waited in harbour. It finally met the British Grand Fleet by accident on 31 May 1916, off the coast of Jutland.

While many have argued that British ships were inferior to their German contemporaries in armour protection and internal subdivision, Burt offers robust defence of well-designed, well-built ships that met the challenge of war. Recent scholarship on the battle of Jutland, magazine protection and questions of gunnery fire control, which has not been accessed for the revised edition, adds significantly to our understanding of the catastrophic loss of three battle cruisers in that engagement. Andrew Gordon's essential book The Rules of the Game of 1997 provides a vital re-assessment of this much-studied action, and the systemic failings that occurred in command, communication and procedure. Critically, several of the lightly armoured battle cruisers had removed part of the anti-flash interlock system that prevented an explosion in the main working chamber of the heavy-gun turret from passing down into the magazine, and stacked bagged cordite charges in unsafe positions in the hoist passage, in an attempt to increase the rate of fire. Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary exploded and sank, killing almost the entire crew in each case. Admiral David Beatty's Battle Cruiser Fleet flagship HMS Lion survived, in large part because the interlock system had been restored. While Jon Sumida and John Brooks have debated the merits of rival fire-control systems, Burt points out that the British system, however imperfect, was far superior to the German. That may explain why the British battleships, unlike the battle cruisers, comprehensively out-shot their opponents. When all is said and done, the Germans ran for home, not the British. The economic blockade remained in place, and Germany lost the war. Along with the three battle cruisers destroyed at Jutland two battleships were lost, HMS Audacious, sunk by mines off the Irish coast in 1914, where she has become a popular dive site, and HMS Vanguard, which blew up at Scapa Flow in 1917, probably as a result of the deterioration of her cordite charges. All five have been dived, the battle-cruiser wrecks providing vital information to locate the action, and correct the locations given on the day, when it had been impossible to see the sun.

Once peace broke out battleship construction was suspended, three battleships being built for Turkey and Chile were taken over for the Royal Navy, and the five novel capital ships were built. After the Falkland Islands victory, Fisher re-ordered two battleships as the battle cruisers Renown and Repulse, modernized versions of the Invincible, mounting six 15-inch guns at 32 knots with no more armour than the inadequate level accorded to the Invincible in 1905. Joining the Grand Fleet after Jutland they were viewed with some concern, but their speed and firepower made them very useful. The even more astonishing light battle cruisers Courageous, Glorious and Furious were built to fight in shallow water, the Baltic approaches, and took Fisher's obsession with speed and heavy guns to the extreme. HMS Furious mounted two 18-inch guns, weighing 150 tons apiece, and ranging out to 30,000 yards, the largest naval artillery ever fitted to a British warship. She was converted into an aircraft carrier in 1917 and launched the first successful carrier air strike against a land target, Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, in 1918. In November 1918 the Grand Fleet took the surrender of the High Seas Fleet at sea, and sent it to endure the pleasures of Scapa Flow in winter. Fisher's fleet had triumphed. It was the biggest, and the best dreadnought fleet of the age, a combination of numbers, speed, firepower and habitability that reflected the excellence of British design, the resources of a huge shipbuilding and armaments industry, and the commitment of the British taxpayer to maintain command of the sea. Twenty years later things were very different.

In setting the scene for the post-war volume, Burt assesses the Washington Treaty process of 1921–22, using a letter the Chief Constructor, Sir Eustace Tennyson-D'Eyncourt, sent to Prime Minister David Lloyd George to highlight his argument that the Treaty and the following naval armaments limitations treaties severely weakened the Royal Navy and with that the entire structure of the British empire, the floating world of trade, capital flows and resource exchanges, that alone sustained Britain as a world power. He predicted the impact of any construction holiday on the defence industrial base, and the uniquely vulnerable position that Britain occupied. It is doubtful the Prime Minister bothered to read the letter. Necessary or not, the 1922 process saw the British battlefleet shrink from more than 60 units to a mere 15 between 1919 and 1931. With the exception of the new Nelson and Rodney, built under the Treaty terms, these ships were of pre-Jutland design, with limited protection against very long-range shell fire, or high-level bombing. They had little provision for anti-aircraft defence and by 1939 were approaching 25 years afloat, the effective service life they had been designed for.

After a useful chapter examining the lessons of the First World War, which highlighted the weaknesses of existing designs, and the difficulty of upgrading them to face new threats, Burt examines the ships that remained in service in the 1920s, the King George V and Iron Duke class battleships, and the battle cruiser Tiger. These were all scrapped or disarmed in the 1930s, and unlike the case of Japan, none were restored to front-line service. That said, the older ships saw considerable service, in the Russian Civil War, in the Chanak crisis with Turkey and maintaining the British presence in the Mediterranean. They were refitted and modified in the 1920s, while Centurion became a radio-controlled gunnery target, and the famous Iron Duke a gunnery training ship—she spent the next war as a stationary headquarters at Scapa Flow, and survived German bombs. Centurion ended her days as part of the D-Day breakwater. The remaining classes survived and served again. Some were completely rebuilt, stripped back to bare hulls, given new machinery, improved horizontal protection and vastly improved anti-aircraft firepower. Warspite, Valiant, Queen Elizabeth and the battle cruiser Renown provided the fleet with effective modern capital ships while new ships were being built. The most radical transformations of the inter-war era were the reconstructions of the light battle cruisers Courageous, Glorious and Furious as aircraft carriers, covered by Burt in a 50-page section that highlights the value of integrating text, plans and photographs. These strikingly ugly ships make a curious contrast with the elegant symmetry of their big-gun-armed contemporaries. The role of the carrier was to find and fix the enemy fleet, using torpedo bombers, to set up a final battleship action which the British expected to win. This combination accounted for the Bismarck in 1941, and dealt with the Italian fleet as well.

The remaining unmodernized ships of the battlefleet were refitted and given limited upgrades—but by 1939 they were showing their age. They gave good service between 1939 and 1943, but none remained in service when the war ended, apart from Royal Sovereign, which had been lent to the Soviet Union as Archangelsk. During the war Royal Oak, Barham, Hood and Repulse were lost, and in the latter two cases the method of attack was one that they had not been rebuilt to face. Burt's incisive discussion of the loss of HMS Hood ends with a chilling indictment of political failure by the then Director of Naval Construction, Sir Stanley Goodall. In his professional opinion successive British Governments had been bluffing the world with ‘out-of-date’ capital ships, rather than paying the price for modern, effective units. The ‘Mighty Hood’ icon of the Empire was a case in point. Her reconstruction had been delayed too long. Once war broke out there was never going to be enough time to update the 45,000-ton flagship for modern conditions. Hit by 15 shells at very long range her World War I protection proved inadequate. That may be the overriding impression of this visually striking volume, while the image of British sea power was as potent as ever, the substance was slipping, both against other navies with newer ships such as Bismarck, built in violation of the Washington Treaty conditions, and the increasing menace of land-based aircraft.

The new King George V class ordered in 1936 and 1937 proved to be tough, durable vessels, hampered by their 14-inch main armament and strict adherence to the 35,000-ton Washington Treaty limits. They held the line against the German battleships; Duke of York sank the Scharnhorst in the Royal Navy's last battleship action. After that the surviving units escorted aircraft carriers and bombarded beaches. The Prince of Wales, an unfortunate ship, named for ex-King Edward VIII it should be noted, was sunk by a brilliantly executed air attack off Singapore in December 1941, but King George V ended the war bombarding Tokyo. Burt's assessment that they were the best balanced of the 35,000-ton-treaty battleships is well meant, but the failure of the British Government to anticipate the collapse of the Washington system, and the subsequent escalation that allowed the Americans to move back to a 16-inch armament is suggestive.

Although not one of these iconic statements of British identity has survived intact—in contrast to the United States where nine have been preserved—many British battleships survive as wrecks. Some, like Hood, Repulse and Prince of Wales have been inspected and recorded, the first by the same ultra-deep-diving technology that was used to film the Titanic. These massive ships retain much of the fascination that surrounded them in their prime, and few will read these books without rekindling some of that visceral impact.

The information they contain has been drawn from primary sources, notably the Admiralty files at the National Archives, Ship's Covers at the National Maritime Museum and the papers of Vickers at Cambridge University Library, along with older printed texts accessible in the 1980s. It would have been useful for other researchers if references had been provided for quoted archival materials and texts. Both books are especially useful in following changes in appearance, the constant technical modifications that occurred on these mighty vessels, the full-colour camouflage sections are an obvious feature, but the systematic attention to detail is their key to the success of the enterprise. It would be a surprise if there were any top-quality photographs of British dreadnoughts that were not in these books! In sum these texts are essential for anyone attempting to understand, identify or locate British capital ships between 1906 and 1945, to understand their design, service history, refits, modifications and other career developments. The new edition makes this great body of work accessible, and improves on the original editions in scale and presentation. They are a direct replacement for the ‘Dreadnought’ section of Oscar Parkes’ famous British Battleships: From Warrior to Vanguard of 1957, a pioneer naval technical history that Burt celebrates in his Preface. While those who have the original editions of Burt's books may not need to replace them, anyone else interested in these great ships, as artefacts, emblems, machines and communities will find a space for them alongside the other core text in the field, Alan Raven and John Robert's superb design history British Battleships of World War Two of 1976.