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):


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.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia’

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


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: ‘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


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