BOOK REVIEW: ‘River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia

Author: Roger Branfill-Cook

No. of Pages: 336

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent):

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In the Introduction to this volume, the author defines a ‘Gunboat’ as being ‘…The smallest type of warship able to project naval power, whether used to protect harbours and coastline…for patrol and policing duties or simply as a ‘presence’ in far-flung parts of the world’. The definition is an accurate one and an effective summary of what is to be found within this volume; small shallow-draft warships of many shapes and sizes, doing both mundane and at times astonishing, things. The author also notes that ‘This is the first work to cover the subject as fully as possible at the time of writing’.

Within the volume, an Introduction placed after the Contents page, after explaining the origins of the author’s interest in these vessels, defines the volume’s scope, while also explaining the absence of maps within it and acknowledging the problems associated with some of the sources used during its creation. A section titled Notes of the Plans and Specifications follows. The title is self-explanatory, and refers to the numerous plans within the book and the definitions used throughout it. An Acknowledgements section follows. Within it, those individuals and organisations which contributed to the volume are thanked. The main part of the volume follows. This is arranged alphabetically, and consists of 76 named ‘Sections’ (somewhat analogous to ‘Chapters’) of varying size, each devoted to lake and river gunboat operations by a nation-state, the term ‘Nation-state’ being used in this instance to include small self-governing countries / territories which, for a variety of reasons, were subsumed into a larger entities after a brief period of independence. Acre (the volume’s first entry) is one of these, existing between 1899 and 1903, in which year it became part of Brazil. There are several similar examples. Within each ‘Section / Chapter’, a brief history at the start provides a broad historical background before subsections within the ‘Chapter’ detail the activities of the various gunboats that that state operated. Where specific military activities require it, additional historical information is given at the start of individual subsections; that titled Lake Nyassa (within the larger ‘Chapter’ titled Great Britain), being but one such example. The vessels themselves are treated in two ways; either as an entire class, or, where applicable, as individual named entities. The military activities of each vessel or class is described in detail with a technical specification (Launched, Dimensions, Power / Speed, Guns / Armour and Fate) appearing at the end of each vessel-specific section. For a variety of reasons it was not possible to provide images of every class or individual vessel described within this volume. Despite that, the author has managed to illustrate the majority of entries with at least one image, some sourced, some not. Although largely photographic in nature, plans, etchings and half-tone drawings have also been used where photographs have not been available. Several ‘Chapters’ contain plans of the weapons carried by specific vessels. The Details of the 90mm De Bange System gun on page 123 is an example of this. A Bibliography follows the ‘Chapters’ section. This lists the written and electronic media used during the writing of the volume. It is in turn followed by two Appendices.  The first (Appendix 1: River and lake Gunboats in Popular Culture) explores how these craft have been portrayed in film, the print media and on stamps. The title of Appendix 2 (River Gunboat Camouflage) is self-explanatory. Unlike the rest of the volume, all images within the Appendices are in colour. An eight-page Index completes the volume. The volume contains no Maps, the author stating (in the Introduction) that ‘…I have preferred to give the space [that Maps would have occupied] over to descriptions of all the…gunboats I have found rather than dedicate many dozens of pages to maps which are freely accessible elsewhere’. Whether such a lack is important would be for the individual reader to decide.

The lack of Maps notwithstanding, this reviewer found this volume to be a most interesting, well-researched and readable volume, its encyclopaedic nature making it ideal for ‘dipping into’ should information about a specific vessel or class of vessel be sought. It was not however faultless, with the Index in particular proving problematical. The Index is ‘vessel-specific’ in its focus, to the extent that, with rare exceptions, the majority of entries are of the individual names / classes of vessels which appear within the volume. There are no references to either geographical locations or the military operations which appear within the book, the previously-mentioned Lake Nyassa being but one example of such a situation. As if this in itself was not enough, within the Index the standard entry consists of a vessel name followed by a country, but without an individual entry for the latter or the military operations within which it participated. The Index entry for Rangiriri proves the point. The entry appears as Rangiriri. GREAT BRITAIN,179,180. In this instance the Index contains no individual ‘Country’ entry for GREAT BRITAIN, potentially making searching difficult if the vessel name was not known. For this reviewer it would have been preferable to include BOTH vessel and ‘Country’ names as separate entities, the latter acting as an ‘umbrella’ under-which which the former could be located. While that is problematic in itself, in Rangiriri’s case there is also no Index-entry for NEW ZEALAND, the country where-in that vessel served exclusively. Without being able to quickly search for it under its country of origin (Great Britain) or its service use (New Zealand) a reader seeking information relating to  Rangiriri (for example) may be unable to do so; the arrangement of the Index simply does not permit it. Unfortunately, the volume contains numerous similar examples, and for a section intended to enable quick location of relevant information, the lack described-above certainly makes searching more difficult. It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a major failing. Whether these details are important will, of course, depend on the individual reader.

It is rare for this reviewer to describe a volume as being a ‘Labour of love’, yet that is what this volume is, the author having put an incredible amount of effort into writing what should deservedly become a Standard Reference Work on its subject. Despite the previously motioned ‘difficulty’ with the Index, this book is likely to be of interest to Naval Historians, ‘Generalist’ Military Historians with an interest in ‘Small Wars’ and readers with an interest in both naval and general military operations around the world. Warship modellers with an interest in these vessels may also find the volume’s plans and photographs useful. Film and literature buffs seeking further information about gun boat-related movies and books they may have seen or read, may also find useful information within this volume.

On a Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): I have given this volume an 8½.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War

Author: Steve R. Dunn

Total Number of Printed Pages: 304

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

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In A Note on the Structure and Intent of this Book, the author states that ‘First and foremost it is the intention …to tell a story; a true story of sacrifice and quotidian bravery. The method is to use individual incidents which build to a whole hopefully greater than the sum of the parts…It is not a day-to-day history but a story compounded of many parts. Neither is it a biography, although [Admiral, Sir] Lewis Bayly…provides a linking theme and his character and role are important to the telling of the narrative’. It is an accurate summation.

Within the volume, a List of Plates placed after the two-page Contents section contains the captions and sources of the images placed within a dedicated Images section placed at the book’s centre. An untitled page containing three Quotes relative to the narrative then appears. It is followed by the previously-mentioned A Note on the Structure and Intent of this Book section. The volume’s Preface then summarises the volume. A Prologue follows. Within it a fictional (although probably fact-based) narrative is used to set the scene for what is to come. The main part of the volume follows. It consists of 25 Chapters, divided into three sections (defined as Parts). These cover three specific time periods and periods of action (1914-April 1917; 1917-1918; 1919-2017). Within each Part individual Chapters cover specific time periods, and, where relevant, subheadings are used to provide additional information relevant to the larger narrative. Six Appendices have been placed behind Chapter 25 (Envoi), and these are in turn followed by a section titled Author’s Note; effectively the book’s Acknowledgments section. Within each Chapter, additional information is provided through the use of Endnotes. Numbered numerically and chapter-specific; their citations being placed in a designated Notes section placed after the Author’s Note. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the sources used in the book’s preparation. It is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section. As previously-noted, end-note-type Citations provide additional information within each Chapter, However, where ‘additional’ additional information is required, the author uses Asterisks (sometimes one, frequently two, occasionally three) to provide this, these additional entries being placed at the bottom of the page as quasi-footnotes. As previously-noted the volume contains a multi-page Images section placed between pages 128 and 129. The images are monochrome and contain a mix of, ships (both Naval and Merchant Marine), personnel, structures, documents and events relevant to the narrative.  The volume contains a single map (titled Queenstown and the Western Approaches) although its existence is not noted on either the Contents page or within the Index.

Although it is undoubtedly well-written and researched, for this reviewer, the volume was badly let down by its Index. Random searching during the review process found numerous instances where items noted in the text did not appear in the Index. These omissions seemed especially prevalent with geographical locations; Fort Westmoreland (Page 22) and Bantry Bay (Page 238), being but two examples where this occurs. Curiously, Whiddy Island, while appearing in the same sentence as Bantry Bay, merits an Index entry; the former does not. The reasons for this are not known. In light of the above, the authority of the Index must inevitably suffer. Unsourced quotes appear through-out the volume (that of Sir Halford John Mackinder on page 15 being one such example). Regrettably, the absence of supporting citations severely reduces their research value. Despite the use of numerous military acronyms and terms within the volume, there is no explanatory Glossary; What (for example) is ‘Tinned dope’ (page 156)? A layman-reader cannot be expected to know. Although discussed in a Chapter of their own (No. 20 War from the Air), the volume contains no images of the relevant aircraft.

As previously-noted this book is well-written and researched, and may well become a standard reference work on its subject. The ‘difficulties’ noted-above notwithstanding, it is likely to be of considerable use to military historians. American and British naval historians with a specific interest in activities off the Irish coast during World War I will probably find it especially informative. Layman readers interested in submarines (specifically U-boats), warships or British, American and German naval operations during World War I may also find this volume worthy of their attention. Irish Historians, and readers seeking a different perspective on ‘The Troubles’, may also find it enlightening. The photographs of ships within the Images section may also be of use to warship modellers.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘World Naval Review 2018’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: World Naval Review 2018

Editor: Conrad Waters

No. of Pages: 192

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 7

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To look forwards it is sometimes necessary to look back and although its’ title suggests this volume is a review of ‘things naval’ for 2018, in fact it isn’t. Rather, by virtue of being written and published in 2017, it is a ‘forecast’ of what the editor and his associates believe will be likely to happen militarily on the world’s oceans during 2018. It is simultaneously both a review and a preview.

The volume has no Chapters per se’ but consists of four Sections which function in a similar manner. Each section deals with a specific subject (for example World Fleet Reviews; Section 2; Technological Reviews; Section 4), and within each Section subsections provide more detail about a specific part of the aforementioned section. In many instances these subsections contain even smaller sections which fulfil the same function and provide even greater detail; the subsection Singapore, which forms part of the Regional Review – Asia and the Pacific (Section 2.2) of Section 2 World Fleet Reviews, being a case in point.  Within each larger Section (Chapter) the subsections follow a Section-specific numbering sequence. In Section 4 (For example), the sequence is 4.1; 4.2; 4.3 etc.  Where additional information is necessary, notes are provided at the end of the individual Sections (Chapters). These are keyed to sequentially-occurring and chapter-specific numbers within the text. The previously-mentioned subsections have been contributed by a variety of authors (Eight in total), these individuals being evidently experts in their fields. The Editor has contributed an Introduction along with various articles throughout the volume. A single-page Contributors section placed after Sub-section 4.4 is the volume’s final section. Numerous photos from a variety of sources appear throughout the book, together with tables, graphs, half-tone and line drawings. No mention of their existence appears on the Contents page. Surprisingly (for a volume which presents itself as being ‘authoritative’ on its subject), there is no Index, a detail which makes searching for a specific item difficult, there being no guarantee that what is being searched-for will even be located.  Such an omission is surprising and must inevitably reduce this book’s value and usefulness. Numerous acronyms are scattered throughout the volume, yet no central Glossary is provided to enable quick reference to their meanings should the need arise. Despite publication-sources being referred-to within each Section-end Notes section, there is also no stand-alone Bibliography. No Maps are provided.

While the lack of a Glossary, Maps and evidence of Photographs etc. is a cause for concern, for this reviewer, the complete lack of an Index in an otherwise authoritative and well-written volume is a major failure. The purpose of an Index is to be able to locate specific information quickly and easily, the corollary being that its absence must make information-location both slow and difficult. As already noted, searching through this volume confirms the corollary’s premise! Where quick reference could be crucial, to have to fruitlessly search through innumerable pages could, at minimum, be farcical…

The provision of an Index in future editions of this title is strongly recommended.

The Index and other limitations notwithstanding, this volume provides a comprehensive coverage of the contemporary international naval scene. On that basis it is likely to find a home on many military bookshelves, while readers with ties to the defence industry could also find it useful. Naval and aviation modellers interested in ‘modern’ naval equipment   may also find that this volume of use, while civilian readers with a more general interest in naval and military matters, international relations, or ships in general, may also find it worthy of their attention. .

In precis, this is an excellent, comprehensive and well-written book. For this reviewer however, it was let down by the small but important details, especially in respect of the Index.

On a rating scale of 1-10 where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I would give this volume a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘World Naval Review 2018’