Sunday 29 November 2015

Book Review: The Last Big Gun

Front cover (Author's image)

Regular readers of this blog might remember that in the October 2015 edition of this blog, we broke new ground by printing some book reviews of some new additions to my library. I'm pleased to say that following a positive response that was reflected in comments received via social media and in the readership figures for the blog, I have decided to include a few more reviews in the coming weeks and months as and when new books are received.

The latest new title to arrive on my doormat is another from one of the foremost naval historians of our times, Brian Lavery, entitled The Last Big Gun: At War & At Sea with HMS Belfast and is a 352 page, full narrative 'biography' of the ship, the first such account to be written.

Since 1971, HMS Belfast has been an integral part of the London tourist scene and in the 44 years that she has been berthed in the Upper Pool of London, she has become a familiar sight to Londoners and visitors alike; in fact the imposing and purposeful looking cruiser has served in her current role for longer than she saw active service with the Royal Navy.

In this well written and lavishly illustrated book, Brian Lavery tells the story of the Royal Navy's last surviving 'big gun' cruiser from the inception of her design and building at Belfast's famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard, via her near demise just months after commissioning following massive damage caused by a German magnetic mine, her subsequent repairs that amounted to a major reconstruction at Devonport Dockyard, service on the Arctic Convoys and her part in the Battle of North Cape, in which the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst was sunk. The author then goes on to describe HMS Belfast's role at Normandy in 1944, followed by her service with the British Pacific Fleet in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese surrender.

The cruiser's post war service, which was largely in the Far East, is also well covered. These duties varied from traditional peace time 'showing the flag' duties to further active service during the so-called 'Yangtse Incident' of 1949 and during the Korean War from 1950-52, where she provided invaluable gunfire support to Allied forces. HMS Belfast's second major reconstruction from 1955-59 is also covered as are her final years of service, once again mainly as part of the Far East Fleet before her relegation to the Reserve Fleet in 1964 and what looked the inevitable ignominy of the breaker's yard, a fate shared by so many of the Royal Navy's wartime fleet.

Brian Lavery covers the rescue of the wartime cruiser in some detail and explains that whilst the British have a fine maritime tradition and an enviable array of preserved ships from the age of sail and the early days of steam, such as HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose, Cutty Sark and the Great Britain, our record of preserving great warships from the more modern era, especially in comparison with the United States, is less than enviable. The saving of HMS Belfast from what looked her certain end in the scrapyard began to at least partially reverse this 'sea blindness' when it came to preserving our historic warships and we do at least now have the destroyer HMS Cavalier and submarine HMS Alliance to swell the ranks a little, although in this reviewer's opinion, it is nothing short of a national scandal that we failed to preserve for future generations at least one of our fleet of battleships at the end of the Second World War.

Of course, the history of any ship would not be complete without the stories of the crew members and this book is as much of a social history of the Royal Navy during the years of HMS Belfast's existence as that of a history of the ship herself as these two facets are intertwined very skillfully by the author. Fortunately though, the personal accounts never become the centre of attention and Brian Lavery has achieved a nice balance between these accounts and the hard facts behind the ship's various activities both in war and peacetime.

Brian Lavery has produced a very readable biography of HMS Belfast, that should appeal to both the serious naval historian and those with a more general interest in the Royal Navy and it's history alike. The book costs a very reasonable £25.00, is published by The Pool of London Press and I highly recommend it to you.

The Last Big Gun: At War & At Sea with HMS Belfast -  Brian Lavery - The Pool of London Press Ltd, 2015. ISBN 9781910860014

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