British Naval Weapons of World War Two – Volumes I & II

17 Oct 19
Posted by: R. G. Melly

Slightly unusually, this review covers two separate books, albeit covering inputs from the same source.  The title of both books is British Naval Weapons of World War Two – The John Lambert Collection, with the books individually sub-titled Volume I: Destroyer Weapons and Volume II: Escort and Minesweeper Weapons. Both books have been edited by, and are introduced by, Norman Friedman, a prominent American naval analyst. £40John Lambert (1937 – 2016) was a renowned naval illustrator and historian, with a particular interest in naval boats up to destroyer size.  An accomplished draughtsman, over the course of his lifetime he compiled an extensive collection of detailed technical drawings of naval weapon systems. These drawings have now been acquired by Seaforth Publishing who plan a series of books to make this unique technical archive more widely available to modellers, historians and naval enthusiasts.

The introductions at the start of each volume seek to set the subsequent drawings into the context of the strategic position at the time that the equipment was introduced, as well as setting out some of the more tactical considerations.  Each introduction comprises approximately a quarter of the 240 pages of the volume concerned, with the remainder of the book taken up by the remarkably detailed series of black and white drawings.  The introductions are also illustrated with photographs of ships and equipment, the great majority taken from John Lambert’s own collection.

John Lambert’s original drawings were produced on large sheets measuring 32 inches by 24 inches and were relatively cluttered with general arrangements (offering different views of the subject), details of sub-assemblies, equipment lists and explanatory notes.  This gave the publisher a particular problem in reproducing the drawings so that the legends were legible and the individual drawings sufficiently clear.  That this has been admirably achieved is a testament to their ingenuity – and to modern digital technology!  I nevertheless occasionally found myself resorting to the use of a magnifying glass to ascertain some of the extraordinary detail apparent in the drawings.

Volume I is devoted to destroyer weapons.  The introduction outlines the envisaged role of destroyers in the early 20thcentury and how their size and armament subsequently changed in the third and fourth decades with the evolving threat of submarines and aircraft.  The narrative sets the subsequent series of ship and equipment drawings into context and also draws on the lessons learned during World War One and the subsequent efforts to limit the size of fleets through naval arms control treaties.  As ever, the cost of the Fleet was also an issue, and, in the run-up to World War Two, the governments of the day defended their lack of expenditure on ships, citing a Ten-Year Rule: the British Empire would not be involved in a major war within a decade!  By the 1930s, this rule was unravelling, and the Admiralty had identified that Japan represented the single greatest threat, with a consequent requirement to plan accordingly.  As a result, even in those days of constraint and conflicting demands, a flotilla of destroyers was built annually, with each class being an incremental improvement on that of the previous year.

In the latter half of the 1930s, with an impending European war now apparent, this build rate was doubled – a ship-building rate of which we can only imagine today!  The emphasis now was on defence against aircraft, with the introduction of the 4 inch twin high-angle guns, the Oerlikon and the Bofors. The need to keep ships small, initially because of treaties and subsequently because of cost, meant that the main armament size was constrained by the weight of the shell that a man could carry on a rolling platform.  By the end of the war, the earlier requirement for a gun-armed destroyer to shield the battle fleet had changed radically.  The need now was to accommodate new weapons and sensors, additional ammunition (particularly depth charges) and a greater range; accordingly, destroyers at the end of the war had almost double the displacement of their World War One counterparts.  The detailed drawings which follow the introduction are arranged into six categories: ship layouts; guns; automatic weapons; gun fire control; torpedoes; and mine warfare and other weapons.

Volume Two is devoted to escort and minesweeper weapons.  In the introduction, the scale and complexity of the challenges facing the Royal Navy during World War Two are amply illustrated.  Whilst it had always been recognized that there would be a requirement for a large number of hulls for escort, minesweeping and minelaying duties, it was simply not practical, in peacetime, to maintain a fleet in being of the required size.  Instead, steps were taken to ensure that the necessary equipment would be available when the time came to take ships (e.g. trawlers) up from trade.  Nevertheless, a huge ship-building effort was needed, ably assisted by the Americans (in January 1942, the US President approved the “1799 Program”, with the aim of building 1,799 ships for the Royal Navy).  As an indication of the effort, and notwithstanding wartime losses, by March 1945, there were 876 ships designated as primary ASW forces and, in September 1944, a further 1,494 vessels were designated as minesweepers.  The genesis of the River, Flower and Lochclasses is outlined, along with a plethora of less well-known classes of small vessels.  Whilst defence against aircraft was of course necessary, the greater part of the introduction is given over to the consideration of minesweeping and anti-submarine matters, with the evolution of both of these disciplines being mapped from the end of World War One to the end of World War Two.  The detailed drawings in this volume embrace: ship layouts; weapons (guns, small calibre weapons, rockets, depth charge projectors, hedgehog); equipment (signal projectors, searchlights, minesweeping); and a slightly awkward appendix, in view of the volumes’ purpose, containing eight of the weapons fitted on larger ships.

Undoubtedly, the joy of these volumes is the extraordinary array of clearly presented technical drawings, the result of John Lambert’s lifetime of diligent research, skilled draughtsmanship and his abiding interest in small warships. These drawings are complemented by thoughtful and informed introductions by Norman Friedman which are, in themselves, a succinct insight into the pressures and strategic issues which resulted in the wide array of weaponry illustrated and described.  Whilst these two handsome volumes (10 inches by 11½ inches) would fascinate any naval enthusiast with an interest in the World War Two era, they would be almost essential browsing for model makers and, taken together, are both a fitting testimony to John Lambert’s research and also a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the weaponry of that era.