THE MODERN CRUISER: THE EVOLUTION OF THE SHIPS THAT FOUGHT THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Reviewed by: SIMON BELLAMY

At the end of this book, the author tells us that the last ‘gun’ cruiser in the world’s navies was decommissioned as recently as 2017. The Peruvian Almirante Grau, formerly in service with the Royal Netherlands Navy, had been fitted with missiles but retained her full battery of guns to the end of her career. This is one of many facts which readers will learn as they follow the story of this major ship type from its evolution to the present day.

The scene is set with an introduction to the concept of the cruiser, as navies searched for a design which provided the optimum balance between size, speed, range, armament and protection. The influence of technology and industrial change is explained, with advances in steel construction and other developments leading to the introduction of many classes of cruiser in the late 19th century. Their first major test came in the Russo-Japanese War, a conflict which is perhaps little-known beyond the Battle of Tsushima, but which is covered thoroughly here.

Major cruiser actions of the First World War are then assessed in depth, including the defeat of Cradock’s squadron at the Coronel, and of course the story of Jutland. The author skilfully combines technical analysis with tactical narrative, producing a rounded evaluation of cruisers’ roles and their performance, for example in areas such as gunnery and fire control. Although there is much technical detail, including design specifications and damage assessments, the text is always engaging. Pen portraits of important figures, whether admirals commanding at sea or politicians involved in the various inter-war arms limitation treaties, remind us that this is a story about people as well as ships.

The heart of the book is its account of cruisers at war in 1939-1945. As the author says, they were ubiquitous, being the most available large surface ship in many combatant navies. Designed for fleet escort, trade protection and commerce raiding, they were involved in critical actions, three of which are examined in order to illustrate the wider picture.

First is a convoy action, involving the British cruisers Berwick and Bonaventure driving off the German Hipper, with both sides suffering from inaccurate shooting. Next is a complex encounter in the Battle of Savo Island where, perhaps surprisingly, Japanese training in night fighting (without radar) was more than a match for US ships, with the latter struggling to make best use of radar in its early days and in challenging environmental conditions. Finally, in a foretaste of the missile age, there is an account of a guided bomb attack by German aircraft on a US cruiser protecting the Salerno beachhead. Throughout, the focus is not only on what happened but how and why.

In his conclusion, the author observes that the cruiser’s roles of scouting and trade defence seemed anachronistic after the war, but that shore bombardment and fleet protection remained important tasks for them. Although duties such as reconnaissance and trade interdiction are now left to other platforms, such as submarines, post-war classes like the Russian Kirov show that cruisers (or large destroyers) still have a role, for example as part of major task groups.

As one would expect from this publisher, the book is produced to a high standard, with a wide range of excellent photographs, as well as source notes. Although in ‘coffee table’ format, thanks to the author’s lively writing style the work succeeds both as a readable operational history and as a reference for researchers. This is an important contribution to the historiography of the Second World War at sea, deserving a wide readership among historians and general readers.