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Clydebank Battlecruisers: Forgotten Photographs from John Brown’s Shipyard

10 Nov 23

192 pages

David Collins

Readers should be prepared for a volume written in full boatswain, i.e.: lots and lots of pictures! Ian Johnston, who has written similar books (Battleship Builders), has done deep research to inform us of everything we care to know about the legendary Clydeside ship builder, John Brown as that firm built, before and during the First World War, HM Ships Inflexible, Australia, Tiger, Repulse and Hood.

There is a useful introduction that gives information about John Brown and how her history is significant as many more of her original records survived compared with those of other ship builders on the Clyde. Brown’s built one battlecruiser for each of the five main classes, as indicated by the ships noted above.

This is primarily a book of photographs showing all stages of each ship’s construction beginning with laying of the keel to their final floating off the slips. Various annexes give tremendous detail of all aspects of the build from manning levels during construction, to build times, shipyard reports, steaming programmes and even an “Instruction for Riveting”. Of course, not only is John Brown discussed, there is also full information on a number of other equipment suppliers from around the UK, including Armstrong’s and others. Building a battlecruiser monumentally engaged the effort of the UK defence industrial complex. Costings are given in detail by category of equipment: armour plating, armaments etc. One ship came out of the yard at the bargain price (compared to today) of L 878,747, with a two-year construction period.

There is useful context given as well, for example, comparing the relatively relaxed construction period before the war to that after war was declared in 1914. There is an interesting anecdote about Admiral Jacky Fisher, once again First Sea Lord, writing an impatient letter to the chairman of John Brown’s complaining about the slow pace at which a ship was being built. This was early in the war and Brown’s had not yet fully geared up to the requirements of wartime production. The chairman, in his somewhat apologetic reply to Fisher, noted the problems of finding skilled labour (given that many tradesmen had joined the Services) – especially those with heavy metal experience. He also noted the conflict with the priority of building many other ships. This took a couple of years to settle down.

Johnston provides a useful bibliography and a rather thin index. This book will appeal to those interested in the technical aspects of building large warships in the Fisher era, the functioning of commercial shipyards at their prime and who will relish the proliferation of photographs and other detail. A fine book, but not for the faint of heart.