04 Jun 21

Destroyer Cossack is the latest in a series of books produced by Seaforth Publishing, a company specialising in reference books and narrative histories about ships and the sea.  Each one of the books in the series draws heavily on the ‘as fitted’ drawings prepared by the shipbuilders, now forming part of the collection maintained at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The books have a variety of authors, but this is the second by the renowned technical author, John Roberts; his first book in the series, Battlecruiser Repulse, was reviewed in the February 2020 edition of The Naval Review. In the case of this book, good use is also made of some of the documents held in the National Archives at Kew.

The introduction to the book outlines the genesis of the class.  The development by Japan of large and well-armed destroyers, along with the constraints imposed by the 1930 London Naval Treaty on cruiser tonnage, required a response.  The resulting 16 ships of the Tribal class were therefore something of a departure from earlier practice.  These were the first British destroyers to be fitted with twin mountings (4.7in QF Mark XII) and were primarily configured for surface action.  However, it quicky became apparent that they were seriously lacking in anti-aircraft defences (the main armament could not be elevated above 40%), and the initially planned fifth turret, situated amidships, was sacrificed in favour of light antiaircraft weapons.  Of the 16 ships acquired by the Royal Navy, 11 were lost to enemy action during the course of the war and one in an accidental collision.

HMS Cossack, because of her involvement in the Altmark incident, was perhaps the most famous of the ships of the class and is the principal focus of attention of the book. The action, in February 1940, in which she was instrumental in freeing 299 British prisoners held onboard a German tanker in Norwegian waters, was a much-needed fillip to the Nation’s morale during the period of the phoney war.  However, her war was short and, notwithstanding an alarming propensity to collide with other ships, she was sunk in October 1941 by a single torpedo, fired by U563, whilst escorting a homeward bound convoy from Gibraltar.

Another reason for the book’s concentration on a single ship is that few records of the modifications made to the class exist (the Ship’s Books were weeded by an over-enthusiastic Civil Service).  It is known that No 3 mounting (in the “X” position) was replaced with a twin 4in Mk XIX mounting in an effort to improve defence against air attack, but most of the other modifications made have been deduced from contemporary records and photographs.

The main part of the book (80% of it) comprises the remarkable assemblage of ship’s drawings, most of them in colour.  These, in turn, are extensively annotated with detailed explanatory sections which draw the reader’s attention to specific points of interest. The drawings are grouped in chapters covering: fittings; decks; armament; machinery; profiles and sections; communications; enlarged deck views; and ‘later developments’.  Whilst the book is generously sized (29.5cms by 25cms), the nature and content of the drawings inevitably means that the detail can be hard to discern, and I made extensive use of a magnifying glass in order better to appreciate the impressive draughtsmanship. To provide a fuller picture of the development of this class, or where the information presented is clearer (for instance in the depiction of HMS Mohawk’s machinery spaces), some reference is made to the drawings of other ships of the class.

This book is a serious piece of research which will stand the test of time.  It will be of particular interest to historians who wish better to understand the development of destroyers over the war years, as well as to anyone connected with this famous ship.