BOOK REVIEW: ‘Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War

Author: John Goodwin

Total Number of Pages: 122

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6

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Until aircraft could be used to damage an enemy’s distant infrastructure, long-range artillery was the only option available for land-based armies to complete that task, This book chronicles the development and uses of such weapons; paying particular attention to the use of  rail-mounted super-heavy artillery in Western Europe during both World Wars.

This volume details the invention of very long-distance, ultra-heavy artillery, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the railway-transportable sub-variant of that type of gun. While British use of railway guns forms the main focus of the book, American, French and German guns and experiences are also related and chronicled. Although they were fixed-position units, the German-built Cross-Channel Bombardment Batteries are also described in a separate chapter, as are the railway guns which operated alongside them.

An Acknowledgements section which appears at the front of this book thanks those who contributed to its creation. This is preceded by a Dedication page, which, curiously, is placed on the reverse side of a page instead of the more-usual page-front. The Dedication, after stating that it was ‘Written as a tribute to happy memories of my railway family in wartime…’ then proceeds to list both military and railway service by the author’s family, and five books evidently written by another family member. The Dedication is not listed on the Contents page. The largest section of the volume consists of 10 Chapters. These cover the invention of very long-distance, ultra-heavy artillery, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the railway-transportable sub-genre of these weapons  Within each Chapter, subsections cover specific topics relevant to that chapter. A Bibliography at the back of the book lists sources used while writing this volume. A three page Index completes the volume. Numerous captioned Photographs, Maps, Technical Diagrams and Plans appear within the book, as do two Tables, three Pen and Ink drawings and a halftone illustration. The cover of an Official Training Manual for Siege Artillery is also reproduced, as is a page illustrating Water Cranes copied from a manufacturer’s catalogue. Although nominally placed at the end of each chapter, the locations of the photographs etc. can vary. There is no reference to these items on either the Contents page or within the Index.

Despite being very informative, this reviewer did not find this volume an enjoyable read.  This was due to a variety of factors, including the previously mentioned Dedication, the use of colloquialisms and a lack of interpretive information on maps.

The use of long sentences and a lack of commas within some sentences was also frustrating, The lack of any reference to the existence of photographs, maps etc. in either the Index or on the Contents page made searching for specific items difficult. The misidentification of several of the steam locomotives within the volume was also disappointing.

This volume may appeal to several potential purchasing groups. These could include Military Historians with an interest in both World Wars I and II or the defences and fortifications used during those conflicts. Students of British Army practices, siege weapons or extra-heavy artillery may also find this book of interest, as could military modellers or war gamers. Railway enthusiasts and modellers with an interest in ‘Things military’ may also find it to be useful for reference purposes.

Because of its specialisation, and despite the previously-mentioned limitations, this book is likely to become a standard work on its subject, On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Railway Guns: British and German Guns at War’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War’.

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War

Author: Norman Friedman

Total Number of Printed Pages: 460

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 9

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Aircraft carriers are essentially sea-going military airfields, tasked with both protecting the naval vessels they are associated with, and, if possible, undertaking offensive actions against an enemy. The task of protection requires the use of fighters; small, highly manoeuvrable (and usually single-seat) aircraft, designed for the specific task of protecting the ships of the fleet to which they are attached, and flown with the intention of destroying any enemy aircraft they encounter . This is their story.

As the subtitle indicates, this well-written and researched volume chronicles the development of naval fighter aircraft ‘…From Biplanes to the Cold War’. It concentrates on the activities of what the author calls the ‘Three major carrier navies’, defining these as being of Great Britain, the United States of America and ‘Pre-1941 and Second World War Imperial Japan’.  When describing these entities, the author provides detailed analysis of their individual naval histories, the technologies, ships and aircraft that were employed and the tactics developed by each navy in response to specific situations. The result is a book which is likely to be become a standard reference work on its subject. Due to the amount of information it contains, this is not however a book which can be read in one sitting, but is rather encyclopaedic in coverage and well-suited to ’dipping into’ in pursuit of specific information.

Four separate sections precede the 13 Chapters which comprise the main part of this book. They are titled Abbreviations; A Note on Sources; Acknowledgements and Introduction. The Abbreviations section provides ‘Plain English’ interpretations of the numerous military–type abbreviations appearing within the work, while the Sources section indicates the origins of much of the information it contains. Those who have contributed to the work are thanked within the Acknowledgements section, while a general overview of the place of naval aviation as part of a larger defence system is presented in the Introduction. The volume’s first two Chapters chronicle both the development of the aircraft carrier and carrier-based aircraft, the latter being largely United States focused. The remaining chapters are devoted to the technical evolution of naval aviation. These focus on technical responses to perceived crises, whether political or technological.  Where necessary, sub-sections within each chapter provide additional information on specific topics. An Epilogue discusses the political, military and technological situation as the author perceives they exist in 2016. Within each chapter, sequentially-numbered and chapter-specific citations are provided. These are endnote in format, the relevant information appearing in a Notes section placed after the Epilogue.  A Bibliography follows the Epilogue. An Aircraft Data section following the Bibliography provides technical information relating to many of the aircraft-types appearing within the volume. Curiously and although arranged in column format, the Aircraft Data section uses a modified form of footnotes to provide additional sources. As a result, citations appear at the end of an ‘individual’ section rather than at the foot of the page. An Index completes the volume. The book contains numerous photographs, half-tone illustrations and plans (the two latter termed ‘Diagrams’ in the index) from a variety of sources. Although well-captioned, there is no reference to their existence on the Contents page.

This reviewer could find little to fault with this work. He would however question the placing of the Aircraft Data section behind the Bibliography as in his view, by containing additional information, the former should have been an Appendix rather than ‘merely ‘just another section at the back of the book’. The section deserves better.

In addition, and despite their notation within the Index, the Contents page contains no reference to any of the numerous photographs, half-tone illustrations and plans (aka ‘Diagrams’) appearing within the volume. As many readers will not peruse an Index to find such information, an indication of their existence (preferably an actual list) would have been helpful and avoided unnecessary searching in pursuit of a single item. How important these ‘faults’ may be, will depend on the individual reader.

In the opinion of this reviewer, this volume is likely to have wide appeal and could be of interest to both Naval and Aviation historians and to hobbyists with an interest in ‘matters naval’ in general, naval fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers and aerial combat. Those with a specific interest in United States Navy tactics and aircraft carrier operations are especially fortunate in this regard. In addition, by providing a ‘naval’ perspective on political events, those with an interest in international affairs (such as the ‘Korean War’) could also find it worth perusing.

As previously-noted, this volume bids fair to become an authoritative work on its subject; ‘Naval Fighters’ although it does have its flaws. Despite these, and on a Rating Scale 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 9.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fighters over the Fleet: Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War’.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘ British Armoured Car Operations In World War One’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  British Armoured Car Operations In World War One

Author: Bryan Perrett

Total Number of Pages: 157

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 9

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It easy to focus on the ‘Big Picture’ and ignore the small things; those details which, contribute-to and ultimately comprise the larger image. World War I is no exception, there being a tendency to focus on events in Europe to the exclusion of the smaller alarums and excursions which played a part in the larger conflict. This book, in the course of the narrative about its specific subject, deals with the ‘smaller things’, and does it well.

This is a well-written and very readable volume. It details the origins, development and operations of armoured cars used by British forces during World War I. A detailed background gives insight into the origins of the armoured-car genre. The majority of British armoured car operations during World War I occurred in obscure locations far removed from Europe and the Western Front.  As a result, the reader is taken into Russia, the Balkans, Iran, the Levant and Africa; into small places and small wars. The relevant details are well-narrated. This reviewer found the chapters relating to the Russian / Balkan experiences of the British armoured car units particularly interesting, but was left with the impression that many of the non-British participants viewed the World War as being totally irrelevant to their own particular machinations. By their free-roaming, almost piratical nature, armoured cars attracted some interesting ‘personalities’. When these individuals make their appearance within the volume, they are treated with sympathy, although their foibles are not overlooked. The volume contains a selection of contemporary and informative photographs.  Disappointingly, one of these (No.15) although notated as being ‘A rare coloured photograph…’, appears only in a monochrome format.

The book consists of 11 Chapters. Maps are provided. Photographic captions are placed alongside their respective images and also appear in a separate List of Plates section in the front of the volume.  A Foreword relates the volume to a previously-published work by the author.  A Bibliography and Index are provided. No Source Notes are provided for the various quotations appearing within the work.

This book is likely to appeal to a variety of readers. These could include military historians and those with a particular interest in land-based warfare and military vehicles. Military modellers specialising in World War I would probably find the photographs of use. It may also appeal to those who simply like an enjoyable read about an unusual subject.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent: I would give it a 9.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘ British Armoured Car Operations In World War One’

Book Review: ‘Launch Pad UK: Britain And The Cuban Missile Crisis’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  Launch Pad UK: Britain And The Cuban Missile Crisis

Author: Jim Wilson OBE

Total Number of Pages: 200

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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‘When ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise’, is a well-known and oft-repeated phrase that indicates that there are times when a lack of knowledge can be advantageous. It is also an effective summation of the events described within this volume, with the subtext that ‘Those with the political power’ are not necessarily those who are in in control.

On the weekend of 27/28 October 1962, in what became known as ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis’, the United States of America, NATO and Great Britain faced off against their mutual enemy the Soviet Union. The ‘Cold War’ was at its height and this event was the closest that the protagonists ever came to direct, nuclear weapon-using. confrontation; an event which would probably have seen the extinction of mankind. Incredibly, the political leaders of one of the protagonist countries (Great Britain) knew almost nothing about what was occurring.  How this came-about is the focus of this volume. It details and describes the political events surrounding the event, revealing both the Russian and Western Allies actions which ultimately led to the confrontation.   While this in itself is of interest, the revelation that the British participation in the conflict was ultimately in the hands of a single member of the Royal Air Force is more so. Most astonishing of all is evidence that contemporary British politicians were largely unaware of the seriousness of events occurring around them, and acted accordingly.  ‘When ignorance is bliss’, indeed!  There are two stories within this volume; while usually running in parallel, they sometimes intersect. One story is of British, American and Russian political activity at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The other is of the use by the Royal Air Force (RAF) of the nuclear-equipped (and American-built) ‘Thor’ Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM), a weapon loaned to Britain by the United States of America at a time when Great Britain had no viable nuclear weapons of its own.  As they were (at least nominally) the owner/operators of the missile, the RAF’s story is the larger of the two, and is enhanced by personal reminiscences which give insights into the realities of  life and thoughts at a time of international uncertainty. Details of the interaction between the RAF and the United States Air Force are also given, and make for interesting reading. The technical development of both ‘Thor’ and the long-range, nuclear-armed missile, is also covered in depth.

The largest section of this volume consists of 16 Chapters. They are preceded by an Acknowledgements section which thanks those who contributed to the finished work. Two Appendices are included. One provides technical details of the missile itself, the other a list of the RAF units which operated it. Included in this section are details of Unit Numbers, Base (Station) locations, deployment periods and Commanding Officers. A Bibliography details reference sources, while an Index completes the volume. Sixteen pages of captioned photographs appear in the centre of the work; these are from a variety of sources.

Although this book is both well written and illustrated, no mention of its photographs appears within the Contents section. The Contents sections also contains no reference to the existence of a map (Thor and Jupiter Sites in Europe and their effective range) on page 32 or of technical diagrams on pages 36 and 37. The absence of these details was a disappointment.

In this Reviewer’s opinion, this volume is likely to be of greatest use to historians specialising in the geo-political events of the ‘Cold-War’ era (of which the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ was the apex), although more generalist historians may also find it of use.  It could well become a valued resource.  Aside from historians (and due to the breadth of its subject), this work may well be of interest to other groups. These could include those interested in both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force and the equipment and history of those organisations. Readers interested in military aviation, ‘rocketry’ space exploration and Twentieth Century technology may also find it informative.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it an 8. It should have been higher.

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nzcrownmines is available for book reviews: Contact nzcrownmines @gmail.com

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Book Review: ‘Launch Pad UK: Britain And The Cuban Missile Crisis’

Book Review: ‘Battleships of the World: Struggle for Naval Supremacy 1820-1945’

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Reviewer:  nzrownmines

Title: Battleships of the World: Struggle for Naval Supremacy 1820-1945

Author: John Fidler

Total Number of Printed Pages:  145

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7

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Although the large and heavily armed naval vessel known as a Battleship is now only seen in museums, and then only rarely, there was a time when they were symbol of national pride and a yard-stick by-which international importance was measured.  This volume tells their story.

The Battleship (and its associate, the Battlecruiser) was the end-result of an evolutionary process by which sail-powered warships had become progressively larger and larger. This occurred over several centuries, with such vessels reaching their zenith in the mighty ‘Ships of the Line’ which were built in the early years of the Nineteenth Century.  Sail-power might have ‘peaked’ with such vessels, but the advent of  metal hulls and reliable mechanical propulsion, ensured that naval development did not, and over time, the ‘big-gun’ naval vessels became ever larger.   This work chronicles this growth and is well-written and easy to read. Logically, it commences with the introduction of steam-power into naval vessels and concludes with the advent of the aircraft carrier – the battleship’s nemesis and, ultimately, its replacement. Between these two events, the development of metal hulls, mechanical propulsion machinery, guns of increasing size and political machinations are covered in impartial detail.  Unsurprisingly, and as it was the largest user of the type, there is a preponderance of information about the battleships and battlecruisers used by the Royal Navy. The end of World War II was also the end of the battleship as a viable military unit, and although the work nominally ends in 1945, a final chapter provides a postscript beyond that date. It outlines the fates of those vessels which managed to survive that conflict, and provides details those that ultimately made it into preservation.

The volume consists of 13 Chapters, with these being prefaced by an Introduction which gives a two-page precis of both the Royal Navy’s large warship history and of the battleship type in general. A Bibliography lists additional titles which a reader might find of interest, while an Index provides details of Admirals, ships, and events. The work is profusely illustrated, with images appearing on most pages, where they frequently illustrate the text on the same page. However, with few exceptions, the images are not sourced. There is also no reference to their existence on the Contents page, although the inside page of the volume’s dust-jacket does state that it is ‘Illustrated with over 100 images and an eight page colour section…’

The dust-jacket reference to ‘…An eight page colour section…’ concerns a group of images which can only be described as being ‘Magnificent’ and which depict various battleships of the Royal Navy in all their Imperial splendour. Those appearing opposite page 56 are especially impressive.  However, with no prior indication of their existence, this reviewer literally found them ‘by accident’, a situation which he finds unacceptable in a volume purporting to be a serious and authoritative history of its subject.

The matter of the un-notated images notwithstanding, this volume is likely to appeal to a variety of readers. These could include those with a specific interest in ‘Battlewagons’ and very large heavily-armed warships, naval history; the various navies which used such vessels, and general military history. Warship modellers may also find the photographs a useful resource.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it a 7.

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Book Review: ‘Battleships of the World: Struggle for Naval Supremacy 1820-1945’

Book Review: ‘Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War

Author: Roland, Lyell, Munro

Total Number of Pages: 276

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 9

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In war, necessity is frequently the mother of invention, a fact attested-to by this volume. It records the origins of that arm of aviation now commonly-known as ‘Battlefield support’ and the author’s role in applying the concept while in Europe during World War II.

At its most basic, this volume is a family’s homage to a now-deceased soldier (the author having died in 2002). However, it is much more than that.  The introduction to the narrative notes that the author ‘…First wrote about his experiences… partly for his children and partly … to make sure that what he and his comrades… achieved would not be forgotten’. As such it is both autobiographical, and a reminiscence, the manuscript being finally published through the joint efforts of the author’s children, a nephew and an unnamed editor. As the work covers a largely unknown area of military endeavour, historians have cause to be thankful for their efforts. There is however even more, as the work is also a history of the development of the Air Observation Post concept of artillery support for the British Army. In that context, it details the evolutionary steps which ultimately led to the establishment of the Army Air Corps as a separate and stand-alone part of the British Defence Forces.

The main part of this book consists of nine Chapters, together with four Appendices. Maps, a Bibliography and an Index are also provided.  An introduction and Forward to the Original Manuscript give background and provide detail of the some-what convoluted path that the volume followed to its eventual publication. Where relevant to the narrative, parts of romantic correspondence between the author, and the lady whom he subsequently married appears within the volume. The work is well-illustrated, and includes two of the author’s ‘in-field’ sketches. Numerous photographs are provided, although these are small in size. Several of the photographs are noted as being from the Imperial War Museum, but the majority appear to have been from the authors own collection, although this cannot be stated with certainty.  No mention of either photographs or sketches appears on the Contents page. Where necessary, Source Notes appear within each chapter. These are of the Endnote variety, are numbered sequentially, with the appropriate reference appearing at the end of each chapter. Curiously, asterisks are used on several pages to provide additional detail; this information appearing as footnotes on the relevant page.

The author has an understated sense of humour and tells his tale well, with the various sketches and images contributing to the over-all enjoyment. The insertion of additional detail by the volume’s editor provides background information, and adds to the reader’s understanding.

This reviewer enjoyed reading this work, and believes that it is likely to appeal to a variety of interests. These could include military historians; and those with a specific interest in British Army history. Aviation enthusiasts are also likely to find the information it contains of interest, while ‘generalist’ students of World War II, and especially the D-Day landings and the Invasion of Europe will probably find it informative. Military and aviation modellers may also find it useful.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 9.

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Book Review: ‘Above the Battle: An Air Observation Post Pilot At War’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Monitors of the Royal Navy: How The Fleet Brought the Great Guns to Bear’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: Monitors of the Royal Navy: How The Fleet Brought the Great Guns to Bear

Author: Jim Crossley

Total No. of Printed Pages: 232

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent) 5

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Within naval circles, Monitors were a small and odd group of ships that carried very large-calibre guns and were used for the bombardment of land-based targets.   They were of an unusual design, at variance with well-established naval practice, and with idiosyncrasies that did not endear them to those used to more conventional vessels.  The type was however extremely effective in its role and contributed significantly to Allied successes during both World Wars.  Due to advances in technology, the monitor-type warship is now obsolete.

The author of this volume is an enthusiast on his subject and has written a highly detailed account of the type’s activities with the Royal Navy. While so-doing he describes the origins of the ‘Monitor’ type vessel, events relating to its development and construction, and Monitor service with the Royal Navy during the World Wars. Their post WWI activities in support of ‘White’ Russian forces makes especially interesting reading. Because of such detail and information, this work is likely to be of value to students of the Royal Navy, sea-going artillery, general military history and European inter-war politics. Twelve maps are included. These depict the areas where the Royal Navy’s monitor-type ships served.

Despite being well-researched and informative, the volume is not without its faults.  For clarity these will be dealt with under individual headings:

Photographs: Although it contains 10 photographs (located in the centre of the work), there is no ‘Photographic’ section listed in the Table of Contents.  To this reviewer, this omission limits the work’s usefulness, and reduces the authority of the Table of Contents. As the latter can influence a purchase decision, not listing this section could result in lost sales. The photographs themselves are sourced from the Imperial War Museum, and although this source is acknowledged, the location where the acknowledgement appears is remote from the images, rather than underneath them in conformance with contemporary practice

Drawings / Figures: A section designated Line Drawings appears within the Table of Contents. This contains 10 ‘Drawings’, seven of which depict the various classes of vessels appearing within the volume.  These are excellent and detailed. However, the names of vessels within each class are not listed below these drawings, somewhat negating their usefulness, As a result, the reader is required to continually move between image and text when attempting to determine which class or vessel is being referred-to.

Three other ‘Drawings’ are also included.   These depict respectively a hull cross-section, a proposed modification to be used for landing troops onto a beach and a system for finding targets at night.  The images within the Line Drawings section are numbered 1-10 with no differentiation between ships and ‘technical’. Regrettably two of the drawings (9, 10) are in reverse order and image No.2 is variously a ‘Drawing’ (p.24) and a ‘Figure’ (p.9).

Glossary: The volume contains no Glossary, the writer evidently believing that purchasers of this work would be familiar with nautical and naval terminology. For those who are not (this reviewer included), the presence of a Glossary, with simple explanations of the terminology used, would have been appreciated, and could possibly have widened the potential audience.

Sources /Bibliography: Although containing an Index, and an Acknowledgements section, the volume contains neither bibliography nor sources. and indeed states that ‘There are many other useful source books… on the First World War and… on the Second World War’. To this reviewer this is sloppy and reduces the volume’s value and usefulness still further.

Appendix: The volume contains a single Appendix. This is in a very small font, making reading difficult. In addition, several of the section’s columns are located close-to or actually on the centre binding. For some readers, accessing this information could require the breaking of the binding itself; an undesirable outcome for a recently-purchased volume.

Proof-Reading / Editing: Regrettably, the work abounds with extremely long sentences, into which the author sometimes introduces additional information or concepts. The reading of these becomes both tedious and an act of endurance, a fact not helped by spelling inconsistencies.  For this reviewer, better proof-reading and editing would have considerably improved his reading experience.

In precis, this work is admirably researched and records the activities of a little known (and now extinct) type of naval vessel. As already noted, it is likely to be of value to those interested in the Royal Navy, sea-going artillery, general military history and European politics between the two World Wars. Unfortunately it is badly let down by the faults previously described, especially in regard to the photographs. In this reviewer’s opinion, had more care and attention to detail been exercised, this volume could have been so much better. In its current form, it is, at best, mediocre.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I give it a 5.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Monitors of the Royal Navy: How The Fleet Brought the Great Guns to Bear’