British Town Class Cruisers: Design, Development & Performance; Southampton & Belfast Classes

Reviewed by Charles Bogart. 

The ten ships that formed the Town Class of light cruisers were the epitome of Royal Navy all gun cruiser development. Armed with twelve 6-inch guns mounted in four turrets, they participated in every European Theater naval campaign of World War II and two of the class also saw action during the Korean War. The British warships that carried the Union Jack to the far corners of the world between 1900 and 1960 and traded gunfire with enemy warships of all types were the Royal Navy’s cruisers. The Town Class saw action from 1939 to 1945 in the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean. Four of their number were lost during the course of World War II, two to bombs and two to torpedoes, and the last of the class decommissioned in 1965. One of the ten ships, HMS Belfast, survives as a war memorial in the Thames River near the Tower of London.

In this book, the author has accomplished a magnificent task in detailing the life and times of the Town Class cruisers. The book starts with a discussion of the economic realities facing Great Britain at the end of World War I, the constraints on warship development imposed by the Washington and London Naval treaties, and the Royal Navy’s overwhelming need for cruisers to serve both in trade protection and fleet actions. This section is followed by an examination of the gestation period the Town Class went through as the naval staff tried to cram into a 10,000 ton hull the necessary firepower, protective systems, and machinery needed to defeat underwater, surface, and airborne threats.

Wartime operations would expose some defects in the design of the Town Class and the author devotes a chapter to the actions taken by the Royal Navy to correct these shortcomings, particularly in regard to hull strengthening and splinter protection. All of these ships lost their on-board spotting aircraft between 1941 and 1943. In addition, the war years saw various advances in electronic equipment, radar, and radio that required modifications to the ships for their installation. All of these modifications resulted in an increase in the ship’s complement that caused crowding.    

The book closes with an examination of the service life of each ship. Town Class battle honours include Norway, Malta Convoy, Cape Spartivento, Calabria, Matapan, Crete, Barents Sea, Bismarck, Bay of Biscay, Normandy, and Burma. The weather conditions some of these ships encountered border on the extreme. Diagrams are provided to illustrate the damage each ship suffered during a battle with enemy aircraft, ships, submarines, and mines. Often these illustrations are accompanied by detailed photos of the damage. The text of the book is supported by an excellent selection of black & white and color photos, fact filled tables, detail line drawings of ships showing full views and details of various sections and components, and a series of superb color drawings of the various paint schemes these ships carried. 

The book is a great addition to the literary field covering ships of the Royal Navy. Those interested in warship design and construction will find much to ponder, while those interested in naval operations will find a litany of naval actions and operations to study. This book is a worthy companion to Alan Raven and John Roberts’ book, British Cruisers of World War Two and deserves to be in any maritime library. 

 In 1961, this reviewer’s ship, USS Dennis J Buckley DDR 808, operated with HMS Belfast during Operation Pony Express. Belfast was a beautiful ship when operating at speed. I can still picture her changing station with a flair only a well-handled ship can perform.

British Town Class Cruisers: Design, Development & Performance; Southampton & Belfast Classes, by Conrad Waters. 2019, Seaforth Publishing, Great Britain. 320 pp., $64.95.

Reviewed by Charles Bogart. Charles is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews

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