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The Windfall Battleships: Agincourt, Canada, Erin, Eagle and the Balkan & Latin American Arms Races

22 Dec 23

256 pages

Robert Muddysley

There cannot be many professors of Egyptology who are also published authors on German warships of the First World War period. Professor Dodson has now added to his previous naval works with this volume on four Royal Navy dreadnoughts. It is not just a history of how four ships laid down as battleships for foreign navies served with the Royal Navy; it covers how they, and other ships came to be ordered in the context of the pre-war arms races which grew out of very bloody wars (and some surprisingly violent mutinies) in South America and the Balkans.

The book covers both the South American and the Greco-Turkic arms race. The largely forgotten (in the west) Balkan wars that immediately preceded the First World War are covered, which led to the parlous state the Turkish navy had been reduced to by the time the world war broke out: although there were indications that it was not in a good state before the Balkan wars, a ship deploying a few years earlier had sailed without the breechblocks for her main armament!

While the Turkish army leaned very much to Germany, the navy was more anglophile, and by 1914, Turkey had ordered from the UK three battleships, two cruisers, four destroyers and two submarines (one battleship, the Sultan Osman 1 had originally been the Brazilian Rio de Janeiro). There have been legends about the funding for the Turkish battleships, but it appears that actually Vickers bought Turkish bonds used to fund the building of one, effectively lending money to itself, in the hope of future orders. As a result of the orders, there were in Turkey builder’s representatives from Vickers and Armstrong’s. The report they sent in November 1914 to the First Sea Lord on the material state of the Turkish navy make interesting reading.

The takeovers of the South American ships were negotiated, whereas the Turkish ships were appropriated. The book gives brief operational histories all of the major ships. Interestingly, Erin did not fire her main armament at Jutland, Agincourt(possibly advantaged by having seven turrets) fired more main armament rounds than any other British ship engaged!

Once hostilities were over, there were negotiations regarding the South American ships, but Turkey having been an opposed belligerent meant that their ships were not returned and were scrapped. The ex-HMS Canada reverted to being Almirante Latorre and was to survive until 1959, indeed a major refit was planned in 1950. She actually served six years in the Royal Navy and 37 in the Chilean navy.

The post war fate of the ex-Almirante Cochrane, the Eagle is fascinating. As the war finished, she was being converted from an incomplete battleship hull to be an aircraft carrier. However, under the terms of the agreement with Chile by which she was taken over, she was to be returned to Chile, as a battleship, if Chile so desired. The description of how supposed savings were ephemeral, and it ended up being cheaper to complete her as a British carrier, have a surprisingly modern resonance. Eagle’s build is not taken in isolation, it is set in the context of the development of aviation in the Royal Navy.

A feature of the book are the illustrations. The photographs are excellent, but the line drawings are extremely good. As Eagle and Canada started out as sister ships, the drawings of the two ships (profile and two plan views) of the two overlaid are fascinating.

The notes and bibliography show this to be an exceptionally well researched book, and the author is scrupulous in his presentation of material, for example he is careful to say that official sources described the nomenclature of Agincourt’sturrets as being numbers one to seven (rather than capital letters, e.g. A, B, P, Q, X and Y on a six-turret ship) and not the days of the week as has been recorded by several authors. The latter nomenclature while used was un-official. Particularly valuable are two appendices which list every warship (not just battleships) building for foreign customers at the outbreak of war, their successive names and fates.

This book is very strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in the navies of WW1.