BOOK REVIEW: ‘Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George’



Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George

Author:  Hilary R Rubinstein

Total Number of Pages: 288

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


The inexplicable sinking of the HMS Royal George and the simultaneous loss (by drowning) of its Commanding Officer (Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt) at Spithead on 29 August 1782 was a national tragedy for the United Kingdom. Despite a subsequent enquiry to determine blame, according to this volume’s dustjacket, this book is ‘…The first comprehensive account of that calamity and is based on new research of a wide variety of contemporary sources…’ It is a reasonable precis of what is to follow.

An Introduction placed after the volume’s Contents page opens the volume. The section simultaneously summarises the life of Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt and publicly acknowledges those who assisted the author in the volumes’ creation. The ten Chapters which form the largest section of the work now follow. Within these, two narrative-streams exist in parallel; that of the life of Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt (Chapters One to Four) and, to a lesser-extent although simultaneously, events relating to the construction, operational service and subsequent loss of HMS Royal George. Unsurprisingly, the two narratives come together in Chapter Five (Into the Vortex), a description of the actual sinking and Kempenfeldt’s death, and remain intertwined to the volume’s final pages. Also unsurprisingly (and as the actual event was [and is] controversial), Chapters Six to Ten concentrate on the causes and effects of the events detailed in Chapter Five. Where necessary, the volume uses End-note citations to provide additional source material. These are Chapter-specific and numerical in sequence; the relevant references appearing in a designated Notes section placed after Chapter Ten (The Fate of Survivors). Due to the numerous Notes appearing within the volume, this specific section is 29 pages in length. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the written material (both manuscript and published) used during the preparation of the volume. The section is followed by the book’s Index: it is its’ final section. The volume contains an eight-page long and all-colour ‘Plates’ (images) section. This contains portraits, plans, maps, landscapes and illustrations relevant to the narrative. These come from a variety of sources and are accompanied by informative captions and appropriate source citations, their existence being dignified by the statement ‘Colour plates section between pages 80 and 81 which appears at the foot of the Contents page. This is however, the volume’s only reference to their existence. Additional monochrome images, engravings, advertisements and plans also appear within the pages of the volume itself.  Although these also come from a variety of sources, a majority carry the credit citation Author despite being very evidently not by her hand, those appearing on pages 200 and 201 being but two examples of this practice. Why this should be the case is unknown. Neither the Contents page nor the Index carried reference to their existence. The volume also contains numerous Quotes. These vary in length with many carrying no authenticating and supporting source citations, with those appearing on pages 126-128 being somewhat-lengthy examples of the practice. The sheer quantity of such quotes and their lack of authenticating citations inevitably raised questions concerning their authority, ‘genuine-ness’, and usefulness as bonafide historical records.  In the absence of the necessary verification, the questions are reasonable ones. The volume contains only one Map (correctly a Chart), this carrying the caption ‘A chart of Spithead and the Solent, dated 1791, clearly showing the position of the wreck of the Royal George’. While adequate for purpose (Although perhaps the location of the hulk could have been made more obvious), an Ordnance Survey Map of at least Southern England and the Isle of Wight would have been useful to put the events and location in context. For those unfamiliar with the area, this would have been of great assistance.

While this volume is very well researched, written and readable, for this reviewer it was ‘Let down by the details’; the small things which when combined have a large effect. While the paucity of support for many of the Quotes and Images has already been alluded-to, it was the lack of entries in the Index that proved most problematical.  The section could best be described as being ‘Patchy’ with random searching finding items mentioned in the text being omitted for unknown reasons.  Examples of this practice included a lack of Index references to Gibraltar (pages 9 and 170), Kempenfeldt Bay (p.235) and Sir Edward Codrington (page 211), while several examples were found where Index entries were incomplete or inaccurate. An example (but one of several), of this latter practice was in relation to an Index entry for Horn, Betty and John. In this instance, and despite being mentioned en volume on pages 103 and 223 (but not on page 123) Horn, Betty and John received an Index entry for pages 103, and 123 (the latter being spurious) while an actual entry on page 223 was omitted completely. As already noted, there were other, similar, examples. Such discoveries did nothing to engender confidence in the accuracy of the narrative.

Although let down by the ‘technicalities’ notated above, this is a well-written and informative volume which is begs fair to become a Standard Work of Reference on its subject. It is likely to have wide appeal to Historians of several persuasions (Naval, Military, Social), and to members of the public with an interest in ‘England’s Wooden Walls’ and the Royal Navy of the ‘Nelson Era’. Modellers with an interest in the Men o’ War of Britain’s ‘Sailing Navy’ may also find the volume’s plans of interest.

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

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland’


Reviewer: Michael  Keith

Title:  The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland

Author: Sheila Bransfield MA

Total Number of Pages: 318

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


While the names of the so-called ‘Great’ Explorers (De Gamma, Columbus, Cook etc.) are well-known, there were others, equally courageous and intrepid, who are, for unknown reasons, lost to history. Edward Bransfield is one of these, and this work is an effort by a distant relative to set the record straight and to bring his hitherto-unknown name back into the spotlight; to gain the recognition that she believes he deserves.

Within the volume a page titled List of Plates follows the Contents pages. The title is self-explanatory, with the section listing the captions and sources of the 16 images which appear within a dedicated images section in the centre of the volume. It should be noted that one image contains no source details. A Foreword (by HRH The Princess Royal) follows, and is in turn followed by a six page Acknowledgements section. Within this the author thanks the various individuals and organisations who have assisted in the creation of the volume. The section is followed by another titled Why Me? This is autobiographical in nature and provides background to the author’s interest in both the volume’s subject specifically and Antarctica and Antarctic exploration in general. The 21 Chapters which form the main part of the volume now appear. Within these the life of Edward Bransfield is narrated in copious and well-researched detail, with the reader being acquainted with innumerable details relating to not only Bransfield’s life, but the social conditions (both naval and shore-based) of Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. An Epilogue follows Chapter 21 (Merchant Commander and Beyond 1821-1852). Titled The Memory of Edward Bransfield Lives On it lists the various ways in which the name of Edward Bransfield has continued to be memorialised. These range from the naming of locations, geological formations and ships of various sizes, to articles, publications and productions in a variety of media. The author’s experiences and contributions to these activities is prominent! Where necessary, the volume uses Endnote citations to provide additional information and reference sources. These are numeric in format, and sequential and Chapter-specific. The relevant citations appear within a dedicated Notes section placed after the Epilogue. A Bibliography follows the Notes section, and lists the various print and electronic sources used within the work. It is in turn followed by an Index (the volume’s final section). As previously-noted, the volume contains a 16-image photographic section. This is placed in the centre of the book.

The images within the section are monochrome in format and in addition to diagrams, art-work and museum-related images, carry photographs taken by the author in the course of her quest to rehabilitate her ancestor.  Curiously, and despite the focal point of the volume being the fact that Edward Branson was the first individual to ‘Chart’ the Antarctic Mainland, the volume contains no Maps. It is an unusual and unexpected ommission, and to a degree serves to negate the point of the exercise. No Glossary is provided; What (for example) is a ‘Press Gang’? In the absence of an explanation, the average reader cannot be expected to know. This was but one of several such ommissions. An author’s familiarity with terminology does not guarantee that others will have the same degree of knowledge.

In addition to the above, for this reviewer, the volume’s Index proved problematic. It could be best-described as being ‘Patchy’ in its application. It is largely ‘name-focussed’ (and even then limited to only a relatively few individuals) to the exclusion of other items (especially those of a geographical nature) within the narrative. To use but one example (page 260), no Index entries were found for Rio de Janeiro, Valparaiso, Port of London Authority, or Sir Charles Price. As similar ommissions were also found on other pages, how widespread the  problem is can only be guessed at. There is no way to know.

There is however another aspect to this volume which should be noted; the subjectivity of its author and what could be described as a ‘tainting’ of the narrative. This reviewer has found that where an author writes about a relative (no matter how distant), there is inevitably an element of ‘Golly-gosh, Gee-whizz’ (aka, ‘My relative can do no wrong’) in what results and that subjectivity rules. Unfortunately, this volume follows this pattern, and although the subject (Edward Bransfield) is not apparently a direct relation, the author’s position is best summarised in her own words when she states ‘I had no idea…just how extraordinary and spectacular his contribution [to Antarctic Exploration] really was or that I would become obsessed with a fascination for his life and times’. This ‘obsession’ permeates the volume and as already noted, for this reviewer has resulted in a very evident lack of objectivity, best evidenced by the inclusion of Explained within the title’s subheading; justification of another’s actions is never wise, especially when they bear the same surname.

That detail and those previously noted notwithstanding, this is a well-written, highly detailed and quite readable volume. As it is unlikely that other works on Edward Bransfield will be written, it will inevitably become the ‘Standard Reference Work’ on its subject. As such it may find an audience amongst Historians of various persuasions, while readers with an interest in the Nineteenth Century Royal Navy, Military History and especially Antarctic Exploration may well find it of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956’


Reviewer: Michael Keith Rimmer

Title: Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956

Authors: Bill Clements

Total Number of Printed Pages: 274

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


When writing within this volume’s Preface, and seeking to explain the raison d’être for what follows, the author notes that ‘The aim of this book has been to record the history and importance of a large number of British colonial fortifications’ with the intention being ‘…to bring to the reader’s attention this somewhat neglected area of historical research’. In this endeavour he has been largely successful.

Within the volume, a Preface placed immediately after the Contents page provides background to why it was written, while simultaneously acknowledging those individuals and organisations that assisted in its creation. It is followed by a 23-page Introduction. While this section summarises what appears within the nine Chapters which form the main part of the book, it also explores contemporary (Nineteenth Century) technical developments in the areas of warships, guns, fortifications and naval mining. The section also investigates the prevailing administrative structures associated with the defence of the military facilities described within the volume, although notably it gives no indication as to why the specific dates (1756-1956) appearing within the title were chosen. The main part of the book now appears. As previously-noted, this comprises nine Chapters, with each of these being focussed on a specific island within the (then) British Empire. Curiously (and for unexplained reasons), this list is not arranged alphabetically, with (for example) Antigua (Chapter 4) following St Helena (Chapter 3) instead in of the usual alphabetical order of ‘A’ preceding ‘S’. In a similar manner Singapore (Chapter 8) precedes Hong Kong (Chapter 9). It is an unusual arrangement which does not engender confidence in what is to follow. Within the individual Chapter, a standardised format is followed. This comprises a general history of the island followed in turn by a history and description of its defences and their history. Subsections within each Chapter provide more detailed information about a specific aspect of the larger narrative, their presence being indicated through the use of subheadings.  Where appropriate within the Chapter, Photos, Maps, Plans and Diagrams are used compliment the narrative. These are accompanied by informative captions and source-indicating citations. The existence of the Photographs, Maps etc. is not mentioned in either the volume’s Index or on its Contents page. Where necessary, End-note-type Citations are used within the Chapters to provide additional information. These are numeric in sequence and Chapter-specific, with the necessary entries being placed in a designated Notes section located towards the rear of the book.  Many of these citations are Quote-related, indicating the sources of the latter, yet it was noticeable that not all Quotes are referenced, with that appearing on page 221 being but one example of the latter. An Appendix (Artillery, Guns and Mortars) follows Chapter 9 (Hong Kong). It uses a Table format to describe the various artillery pieces mentioned within the volume, and is followed by the previously-mentioned Notes section. A Glossary follows. As the volume uses a variety of technical and military terms, acronyms and abbreviations to describe its subject, such a section is essential and informative. The Glossary is in turn followed by a Bibliography. Within this, the relevant titles have been grouped under the individual islands as they appear within the book; a helpful move. The Bibliography is followed by the volume’s Index; it’s last section.

While this volume is both informative and well-written, this reviewer found the Index to be problematical. Random searching revealed surprising ommissions, with the non-appearance of Index entries for entries for Shoeburyness (page 15) and Winnipeg Grenadiers, Stanley Mound, Chung Hum Kok and Tai Tam (all on page 245) being but five examples of what was found. There were others…! What else may be omitted cannot, of course, be known, and leads to doubts about the authority of the section, and ipso facto, the larger volume. In addition (and when selecting this volume for review), this reviewer was interested in learning why the specific date of 1956 appeared within its title. However (and as previously-noted), he searched its Introduction in vain for this information, and only when reading page 213 accidentally learnt that ‘On 31 December 1956 coast artillery in Britain and overseas ceased to exist’. That despite its prominence in the title, it took 213 pages to discover such a detail was surprising and when combined with the ‘difficulties’ with the Index did little to engender confidence in the volume’s veracity.

The ‘difficulties’ mentioned above notwithstanding, this volume is well-researched, well written and very readable and begs fair to become a ‘Standard Reference Work’ on its subject. Historians with an interest in the British Empire, British Empire defence and World Wars I and II may find it of interest, while military enthusiasts and hobbyists with an interest in both unusual fortifications and military operations of the Sixteenth – Twentieth Centuries may find it worthy of their attention.

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




BOOK REVIEW: ‘Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’


Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945

Author: Kevin Brown

Total Number of Printed Pages: 276

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


In public perception, the sailors of the Royal Navy are fit, healthy and suntanned and ready at a moment’s notice to die ‘for King / Queen and Country’. But is this a true picture, and when it mattered most (During World War II), how closely did the perception equate with reality? This volume was written in an attempt to find out.

Within the book, a section titled: List of Illustrations follows the Contents page. Its function is self-evident from its title. A poem titled To Absent Friends follows; it humourously (but respectfully) summarises a sailor’s perspective on life. The poem is followed by the volume’s Preface, within which the author backgrounds to the reason for its creation. The twelve Chapters which form the main part of the book now appear. Within these the author explores all aspects of the health of sailors serving within the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine during WWII, presenting the narrative from the perspective of the Medical Professionals involved.  The scope is wide and comprehensive and is concerned with all aspects of a sailor’s life.  Within the Royal Navy that life is multi-facetted and as a result (and in addition to the expected ‘surface’ operations), the subject material includes both submarines and the Fleet Air Arm (The Royal Navy’s air-defence section). Each Chapter is concerned with a particular aspect of a sailor’s health as it applied to the Royal Navy, from ‘recruitment’ (Chapter 1 Our men, Finding the Fittest) to submerged life (Chapter 7 The Waves Above), to the temptations facing a sailor ashore (Chapter 10 Neither Wives nor Sweethearts). Where appropriate, the actions of individual medical officers appear as representative of the specific narrative being discussed, while the German response to a situation is at times also noted. Invariably, the latter offers a complete contrast to British practice. Chapter 12 (Went the day Well) summarises what has gone before, and is followed by five Appendices.  These are statistical and of Table format, with the subject material ranging from Naval Recruitment and Rejection,  1939-1945 (Appendix 1) to Royal Navy Sickness and Death Rates (Appendix 5). Where appropriate within each Chapter, additional information is provided through the medium of Endnotes. These are numeric in form, Chapter-specific and sequential. The associated citations appear in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Appendices. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the written material used in the volume’s creation. Electronic sources are not listed. The Bibliography is followed by its Index, the book’s last section. Twelve pages of images accompany the narrative and appear in a dedicated section placed within the centre of the book. The captions are informative and reproduced within the previously-mentioned List of Illustrations section. Curiously, although the majority of the images carry authenticating citations, two do not.   The reason for the ommission is not known. The volume contains numerous Quotes, many of which carry authenticating citations. Equally however, other unreferenced Quotes were also noted (That on page 208 being but one example, although ironically, that specific Quote appears under a previous Quote which has had a citation [No.51] allocated to it). The reason for the discrepancy is unknown, but the lack of supporting citations raises questions about the authenticity of the statements. The volume contains no Maps or Glossary of Naval Terms / Terminology. What (For example) is Tropical Rig (page 25) or HMHS (Page 220)? In the absence of a Glossary, a reader without naval knowledge can but speculate.

This volume is informative, well-written and very entertaining. However, for this reviewer (and in addition to the previously-noted difficulties outlined above), its Index proved problematical. Random checking of the Index during the review process found several omitted entries. These included such examples as Bryan Matthews (Page 111), Medical Research Council (page 134) and Gonorrhoea (page 195). Other examples were also noted.  In addition, an Index search for WRNS indicated that references to that organisation appeared on pages 9-10 and 14 18, but omitted an entry appearing on page 186.  Why this should have occurred is unknown. Since by implication there is a problem in this area (although its size

As previously-noted, this is an informative, well-written and very entertaining book and the ‘Difficulties’ previously-outlined notwithstanding, is likely to have wide appeal. Medical Professionals with an interest in ‘Things Naval’ may find it worthy of their attention as might (Because it refers to a specific social group and their actions under stress and pressure), Sociologists and Phycologists. Military Historians with an interest in nautical matters and World War II as it affected the Royal Navy could also find it informative. Readers with an interest in the more unusual (and forgotten) aspects of naval warfare may also find it of interest.

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



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’