Churchill’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1939 - 1945
By Brian Lavery published by Conway, ISBN 1844860353, hardback, £40.00, 2006.
To review a heavyweight book such as this within the space of a page or two cannot include a full account of the strengths of this volume. Nevertheless, the thematic arrangement of the volume gives the reader manageable chunks of history to absorb - a task easily achieved thanks to a style of writing that is both clear and factual. More importantly this is an interesting read with chapters on the Royal Navy in peace and war, the structure of naval power, enemies and allies, the ships, naval society and culture, officers and ratings, the battle fleet, naval aviation, the submarine service, escorts, the coastal navies, and amphibious warfare. The scope of the volume is therefore very wide and within the chapters are divisions offering a closer examination of subjects such as politics, communications, intelligence, the merchant navy, armament, sensors, medicine, law, discipline, customs, traditions, the Royal Marines, naval bases, mine warfare, harbour defence and combined operational techniques. Hand in hand with the text is an equal amount of imagery of photographs, posters, maps, works of art, diagrams, sketches, plans, cartoons, manuals, badges and graphs, providing what will be a popular volume. Also included are useful appendices on ship classes, main aircraft types, members of the Board of Admiralty, a list of commanders-in-chief, and the daily pay of selective substantive rates during 1941. Equally useful are the references cited in the text, a full bibliography and a detailed index. All of this is presented in full-colour throughout in Conway's large reference format.
The text of this volume allows the reader to follow the cycle of war and the human involvement, and although it cannot cover everything, there is material on the majority of subjects to make it appealing to a large customer base. To pick out the best is subjective, but I was personally particularly interested to see some of the less glorious imagery. The photos of seamen on a crowded mess deck on the destroyer escort Garth writing letters home in 1944, also men rigging their hammocks in the naval barracks at Portsmouth and another of submariners using the Davis escape apparatus in the tank at Gosport, shows the other side of war, one of training, routine and coping with long absences from home away from family and safety.
The publisher’s blurb states "Churchill’s Navy is an essential reference and a ‘must have’ for anyone who wants to cut through the myth and propaganda to understand the reality of life in the Royal Navy during those crucial years". Although it is difficult to disagree with this statement, by trying to cover so many subjects and including the wealth of imagery, this has meant that the author has weighted towards the image rather than the text because the amount of room for the text is always limited. Having said this, the book is both scholarly and readable, along with a selection of illustrations that complements the text, anyone with an interest in the subjects covered in this book, or the period generally should consider adding this to their bookcase. It is yet another fine addition to Conway’s armoury of naval and maritime literature, reflecting the author’s vast experience. Until recently, he served as Curator of Naval History at The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and is a renowned expert on the sailing navy.
SWMHS members can order Churchill's Navy at a discount by quoting the reference given in the printed copy of SW Soundings 68.
Reviewed by Adrian Webb
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