Reviewed by Ed Calouro
John Roberts, a leading expert on British capital ships and warships of World War II, is the author of a technical history of the battle cruiser HMS Repulse. The title of his latest book is Battlecruiser Repulse: Detailed in the Original Builders’ Plans. It is not the typical warship biography – normally a narrative of a ship’s conception, building, operational history, and possible demise; rather, it is a description of Repulse’s anatomy.
Exquisitely detailed blueprints of British warships were produced and retained by the builders when a warship was completed. They came to be known by the term “as-fitted” profiles. In the case of major warships, these drawings were often more than twelve feet long. The “as-fitted” plans for Repulse were nine feet long. (p. 16) Very particular, often multi-colored, specific, and annotated drawings were made of these ships and the contents of their various compartments. They were intended as reference points for the Admiralty and dockyards so as to ensure the warships were completed and later modified as specifically intended. While the British may not have taken the steps one might have wished to preserve some of their World War II capital ships, these “as-fitted” plans are a marvelous collection. They are housed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, which was associated with this publication.
The all-big-gun armored cruiser was the brainchild of Admiral Sir John Fisher. During his initial term as First Sea Lord (1904 to 1910), he was primarily responsible for the conception of the dreadnought (all-big-gun main armament) battleship. As if this revolution in warship design were not enough, at about the same time, Fisher developed the idea for an all-big-gun armored cruiser as well. With an emphasis on speed versus armor (and even some sacrifice to the main armament in the case of HMS Renown and Repulse, which carried six 15-inch/42 caliber guns), this design was heavily criticized. After all, three British battle cruisers were lost at the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916). Just the same, such well-known warships as HMS Repulse and HMS Hood followed Fisher’s design. In 1911 these armored cruisers were officially re-designated battle cruisers.
This 160-page book is divided into three basic parts. The first seventeen pages are in the section labeled “Origins.” It contains a narrative and sketch descriptions of HMS Repulse’s conception and characteristics, such as design history, armament, protection, machinery, etc. There is a list of particulars on page 15.
On pages 83 and 86, there is a short “Career Summary” which briefly notes Repulse’s operational history. Repulse took part in the Norwegian Campaign (April-June 1940). In company with the Prince of Wales, Repulse departed for the East Indies as one of the major units of the Eastern Fleet. Their mission was to deter offensive actions by the Japanese. Unfortunately, on 10 December 1941, Repulse was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Using her greater speed, Repulse outlasted her more modern counterpart until a torpedo jammed her rudder. Battleship losses at Pearl Harbor and the sinking of these two British capital ships three days later are generally cited as the end of the dominant era of the battleship.
The bulk of this book is devoted to enlarged profiles and sections of Repulse from three periods: as-fitted in 1916, with her 1916-1930 modifications, and profiles and sections after the warship’s modernization from 1933-1936. The last page contains a bibliography, acknowledgements, and a list of plans.
Starting on page 18, there are cutouts of those as-fitted plans. Each page shows a section of the blueprint with extensive captions. These captions are detailed descriptions of what is pictured on the pages. It is similar to taking a tour of a warship guided by a seasoned officer who has spent a good deal of time on board and is very familiar with the layout and equipment on the battle cruiser. Pages 72-74 display the profile as-fitted in 1916, with a detailed description below the three-page image of Repulse. There is a four-page foldout on pages 75-78. This is termed the “Gatefold Plans.” It is basically the 1936 Profile as-fitted blueprint for the entire ship from stem to stern, top of the superstructure to the keel.
It is clear from the opening pages that the author is a master of his craft. John Roberts is the author of British Battlecruisers (2016) and British Warships of the Second World War (2017). With over thirty years service in the Royal Navy and ten years with the Ministry of Defense, the author is eminently qualified to write this technical history of a major capital ship. Roberts has also penned several articles for naval magazines and journals. The author’s expertise is manifested when he points out on several pages of this book that the as-fitted profiles contain some errors. He knows enough about British warships, and battle cruisers in particular, to note when parts of the plans are not correct.
As indicated, most of this book is devoted to profiles of specific parts of Repulse, for instance, “Section at Station 253, Port side, looking Aft” and “Stations 54 to 43.” In each instance, the author provides detailed descriptions of what the reader is looking at. There are two lists of abbreviations on pages 16 and 17 which are utilized in these descriptions. On page 95, for example, there is a depiction of No. 6 cabin with the cabin furniture shown and labeled. It offers a glimpse of what an officer’s stateroom must have been like on this warship.
This book will appeal to a specialized, limited, and targeted readership. While it is illuminating to learn the layout of an early twentieth century warship, along with the machinery, equipment, armament, and stores which were utilized by over 900 sailors and officers, it is somewhat tedious to review approximately 140 pages of profiles and their accompanying descriptions. Despite this book focusing on the profiles and plans, some pictures of HMS Repulse would have been helpful to broaden readers’ perspectives. Just the same, those readers who wish to learn more about the layout of a major unit of the Royal Navy will benefit from reading this book.
Ed Calouro is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in the History Department at Rhode Island College.
Battlecruiser Repulse: Detailed in the Original Builders’ Plans (John Roberts, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2019)