The following review (below the fold) was written by Paul Stillwell, who served in the crew of the USS New Jersey in 1969. He is the author of several books about battleships. This text is reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2016 U.S. Naval Institute.
In the event of a survey course called Battleship 101, Robert Farley’s work would serve as a suitable textbook. The Battleship Book is a wide-ranging primer on the subject of battleships, battle cruisers, near-battleships, and quasi-battleships.
The book comprises encyclopedia-style entries on 62 different warships; separate chapters on Jutland, naval treaties, and Pearl Harbor; and a number of sidebars. The time period moves from the keel-laying for HMS Victoria to the current Russian battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great). Ships from a variety of nations are represented. Profiles of ships from countries no generally known for fielding battleships- such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil- are particularly helpful, as they are not usually covered in books on the subject.
Each brief profile stands on its own. The selection can be compared to a sampling from an hors d’oeuvres table- tasty, but not quite filling. Taken as a whole and read in sequence, the chapters lead the reader on a chronological march through advancing technology and the various political factors (including battleship envy) that led to the building of ships in various time periods. The drawback to this approach is that quite a few of the ships intersected with each other, which produces a lot of repetition, especially because so many capital ships were involved in the 1916 Battle of Jutland. Another quibble is that the illustrations vary greatly in quality.
For the reader who long ago mastered Battleship 101, the hors d’oeuvres selections still contain plenty of enjoyable morsels, including the author’s observations at the ends of the chapters. In many cases, the facts imparted in this volume can be the answers to trivia questions. For example, we learn that Henry Allingham, who served in a naval trawler at the Battle of Jutland, died in 2009 at the age of 113- the last survivor of that conflict. (In keeping with the pattern of repetition, Allinghams’ accomplishment is mentioned twice.)
Other trivia: The French ship Jean Bart, launched in 1940, was party to a duel with the USS Massachusetts (BB-59) at Casablanca in 1942. However, she did not go into full service until 1952, as the last battleship of any nation to be completed. The USS Wisconsin (BB-64) was the last battleship of any nation to fire her guns in anger, doing so during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The biggest battleship ever, the Japanese Yamato, displaced 72,000 tons and was armed with 18.1-inch guns. She played little part in World War II and met her death on a suicide mission in April 1945. The author speculates that she could have been a valuable asset in the Japanese campaign against Guadalcanal in late 1942.
In November 1918, two Italian commandos attached a time bomb to the hull of the Viribus Unitis. She had been completed in 1912 as the first Austrian dreadnought and was later turned over to Croatia, a predecessor of the evolving nation of Yugoslavia. The Italians were captured and warned the ship’s commanding officer, Admiral Janko Vukovich, about the bomb and recommended evacuating the crew. The captain released the Italians and ordered the evacuation, but the bomb did not explode when predicted. The admiral and a number of crew members returned aboard and were killed when the delayed explosion occurred.
Great Britain’s last battleship, HMS Vanguard, was completed in 1946 with essentially obsolete 15-inch turrets left over from World War I, and not used subsequently because of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Indeed, mention of that treaty keeps popping up throughout the book because of its widespread impact- the scrapping of many existing ships and the non-completion of others whose construction was in progress. The U.S. Navy was a beneficiary of the treaty in that two hulls designed as battle cruisers would up as the aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). The two ships were important in developing carrier doctrine prior to World War II and training many of the aviators who served in that war.
As many battleships histories report, HMS Dreadnought, completed in 1906, was the first to sport an armament of all big guns in her main battery instead of a mixture of sizes. Less well known is her antisubmarine-warfare role. In 1915 she rammed and sank the German submarine U-29.
The battleships and their kin were versatile in their time, culminating in the shore bombardment role for U.S. ships in the final decades of the dreadnought’s era. That era is now over. Farley’s book makes it worth studying through his rearview mirror.