16 Apr 20
Posted by: Andrew Lambert, King's College London

The ten Town class cruisers built just before the Second World War were the largest six-inch gun armed cruisers built for the Royal Navy in that period and took a prominent part in the conflict: four ships were lost to enemy action. This book traces their design, construction, service highlights, action damage, repairs and modifications through to the transfer of HMS Belfast from the Royal Navy to museum ship status in 1971. Designed for an oceanic role in defence of trade, the Towns combined long endurance, embarked aircraft and a powerful armament to deal with hostile raiders. The first pair were to have been named Minotaur and Polyphemus, which had far more battle history than any of the cities that were honoured. The change was politically motivated. The decision to rake the funnels, originally vertical, was prompted by concern to keep the bridge and fire control clear of funnel smoke, produced a uniquely handsome profile, spoilt by a revised design used for Belfast and Edinburgh.

The Towns were developed from the preceding Amphion class, adopting triple turrets, for a twelve-gun broadside, and improved aviation facilities. Their dimensions were restricted by the Admiralty’s anxiety to maintain the largest number of cruisers on the inadequate total tonnage allowed by the inter-war arms limitation treaties. The first eight ships were kept to around 9,000 tons, only Belfast and Edinburgh used the full 10,000 tons. This put them at a disadvantage to contemporary American and Japanese ships, which used all of, and in the latter case more than, the full allowance.

The Towns were excellent all-rounders, fast enough to run down destroyers in a seaway, capable of prodigious rates of fire, able to survive heavy damage, and absorb upgrades. Sheffield had a particularly busy and distinguished war, racking up twelve Battle Honours. Several others earned five. Two Towns were lost to Luftwaffe bombs: Southampton, abandoned to uncontrollable fires, while Gloucester capsized, after running-out of anti-aircraft ammunition. Manchester was torpedoed during Operation PEDESTAL and abandoned in controversial circumstances, while Edinburgh, hit by two U-boat torpedoes while escorting an Arctic Convoy, was stopped by a third, having sunk a German destroyer. Even then the ship had to be scuttled by a fourth, British, torpedo. Several of the class survived torpedo hits, Liverpool twice, while Belfast missed the first half of the war after setting off a magnetic mine. These ships saw more action and survived more damage than any comparable class in any navy, and by 1945 had been heavily modified, with radar, fire control and close-range anti-aircraft weapons upgraded, aircraft removed, hangers repurposed as accommodation and cinema. Apart from Belfast the surviving ships sacrificed a 6-inch triple turret to retain stability. These ships served for a decade or more after the war, notably off Korea: four were given upgraded command and control systems, but the cruiser function slipped away. Cold War asymmetric threats were answered by a Light Fleet Carrier, or a frigate, given the cruiser’s heavy manpower demands. Belfast paid off in 1963, only 24 years old, but prematurely aged by war service, and technologically obsolete.

In keeping with the well-established Seaforth model for major texts, this large book is packed with superb illustrations, both original plans and drawings, photographs and diagrams, all linked into a detailed text based on extensive research in primary sources, including Admiralty correspondence, the Ship’s Covers series held by the National Maritime Museum and official American images from the many wartime visits these ships paid to American dockyards for action damage, repairs and refits. The ultimate history of an important class that saw action from Norway to the Eastern Seas, helped sink two German battleships, commanded the world ocean and supported D-Day is also the best preparation for a visit to HMS Belfast.