BATTLECRUISER REPULSE

Reviewed by: R. G. MELLY

This book (full title: Battle Cruiser Repulse – detailed in the original builders’ plans) is one of a series of books, all of which utilise the extraordinary collection of “as fitted” general arrangements held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  The author is John Roberts, who has written widely, but who is well-known for his books on naval history.

The introductory essay sets out the genesis of the battlecruisers in general and of Repulse in particular.  Admiral Fisher was convinced that there was a requirement for fast, heavily armed cruisers capable of hunting down the enemy and, if necessary, of showing a clean pair of heels.  The concept proved itself at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914, and, on resuming the post of First Sea Lord in October 1914, Fisher wasted no time in resurrecting his battlecruiser programme. This led to the construction of Repulse and her sister ship Renown, the former in the remarkably short period, in time of war, of 19 months (the contract was for 15 months).  Notwithstanding this impressive demonstration of the skills of the shipbuilding industry, the battlecruisers as a whole proved less successful in a general fleet action, with the Invincible, the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary all lost to magazine explosions at the Battle of Jutland.  Indeed, these losses highlighted the weakness of the battlecruiser concept – the lack of armour.  The essay goes on to discuss particulars of the ship’s design, with sections covering the structure, the armament, fire control arrangements, protection (i.e. armour) and the machinery.

The remarkable set of drawings, comprising the greater part of the book, map the ship’s life from her initial build, through the series of modifications undertaken between 1916 and 1930, and then her major modernisation between 1933 and 1936.  Each drawing is complemented by numerous information panels providing remarkably detailed commentary and insight into the ship’s design.  The drawings themselves consist of plans and sections of the ship, with occasional details of particular equipment or fittings.  Despite the book being a handsome size (10 inch x 11.5 inch), some of the busier drawings are too small to decipher, even with a magnifying glass; in part this is due to the images being reduced from the original drawings, some of which were 9 feet long, and I suspect in part due to their age.  This difficulty is largely mitigated, in the later drawings, by spreading the images over more than two pages and by utilising, in one instance a pull-out double spread.  I do feel, however, that the book would have benefited from the inclusion of some photographs, which so often can help with comprehending the true size and appearance of a vessel.

Modifications undertaken between 1916 and 1930 comprised mainly of improvements to the ship’s protective plating, although, despite the lessons of the Battle of Jutland, even this caused much debate. The addition of bulges during a major refit ending in 1921 added some buoyancy, and the ship was subsequently reported still to be capable of a respectable 29.6 knots.  The modernisation undertaken between 1933 and 1936 was primarily intended to improve the ship’s capability against air attack, with the addition of close-range AA guns and spotting/reconnaissance aircraft significantly changing her appearance.

So, what does one make of this book?  It is beautifully produced and certainly delivers what it promises in the title.  Repulse and Renown represented the epitome of battlecruiser design, and this is amply demonstrated in the technically detailed and well-researched, almost forensic, analysis of the ship’s drawings.  Given the proud history of this impressive vessel, it would have been good to learn a little more of her career (there is a two-paragraph career summary, situated midway through the book), but this was not the book’s purpose.  Nevertheless, the book represents a serious addition to the present-day knowledge of this famous warship and is a testament to the warship architects of a past era – and to the proficiency of the author.