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British Coastal Forces: Two World Wars and After

28 Nov 23

399 pages

Chris O’Flaherty

This is a wonderfully detailed book that sets out to be, and achieves, a position as a go-to reference on British Coastal Forces. The level of historical detail captured by Friedman is as broad as it is deep, and will fill many gaps in the small-ship knowledge of even the most seasoned naval historians.

The favour or disdain with which their Lordships have viewed Coastal Forces is eloquently set out as Friedman navigates us through the underlying concepts and evolution of our smallest fighting ships. From early design ideas behind the 1877 steam torpedo boat Lightning, through the evolution of WWI Coastal Motor Boats subsequently used to attack the Bolsheviks, and then the inter-war lull during which senior interest shifted to the battleships needed to contain Germany, the imagined rapidity with which effective coastal forces can be (re-)generated is not historically borne out by the referenced narrative in this book.

An absence of senior interest in a genre of ship drives a lack of resource with which advocates can maintain the associated niche capabilities. Whilst such resource constraints can drive amazing levels of (cost-efficient) innovation, some of which would make Mr Heath-Robinson proud, sustained under-investment in seedcorns makes the re-building of such battle-winning edges especially time consuming, often accentuated by the conflicting requirements of any ongoing war. The prolonged timelines from sketch line drawings to efficient combat-ready craft that led eventually (by 1943) to the Vosper 73-foot designs and also to the latterly ubiquitous Fairmile D (conceived in 1939, first of class in service by Mar 1942, sustained delivery from early 1943) may be seen as good historic justifications for the modern funding of small numbers of vessels to proven and/or developmental designs, with drawings thus ‘on the shelf’, available, and ready for mass production should a national security need arise.

The fighting success of Coastal Forces shines through this work, with 689 WWII Motor Torpedo Boat attacks seeing 1,328 torpedoes fired resulting in 318 certain plus 37 probable hits – a 26.6% hit rate which compares very favourably with the torpedo hit rates of both submarines (20.3%) and aircraft (33.5%). Beyond the hull innovations, machinery refinements, weapons enhancements and building plans that are often the focus of the book, Friedman devotes many pages to the finer warfighting points of Motor Torpedo and Motor Gun Boat development. His vivid descriptions include mechanical torpedo firing sights (which were specially built to be manipulated by cold hands working with no lighting), radar development (from basic hand-trained rangefinders, to the PPI displays with which we are now familiar), and some tactical development such as the ‘divisional’ attack method underpinned by mathematically and empirically proven multi-torpedo ‘spread’ data. The capture of these (and many more) historical nuggets, in a single reference, adds to the evolutionary value of this superb book. Further chapters on Special Attack Boats, ASW/Mine Countermeasures boats, and Motor Launches (including harbour defence Asdic/Sonar fits) all ensure completeness.

As your reviewer I am supposed to give a fully balanced view of the book.  At 400 pages it is very thick, with the 12-inch by 10-inch format (i.e. nearly 2-feet wide when opened) and 2.2 kg weight making it ever so slightly difficult to rest in your lap when curling up for an afternoon read. Notwithstanding, there is just so much great research information repeated into this book (apart from it stating that Dartmouth is in Cornwall!), wonderfully illustrated by historic line drawings and contemporary photographs, that there is no real alternative size.

As a one-stop inculcation into the evolution of British Coastal Forces, this book is now the stand-out volume.