16 inches is not enough: A review of Dreadnought by Richard Hough.
Dreadnought by Richard Hough, Michael-Joseph 1965 (268 pages).
They day of the battleship was over by 1940 at the latest, though they did valuable work right through WWII. The Dreadnought was launched in 1906. In those few years — historically, very few indeed — vast quantities of steel and oil and coal and human misery were expended on The Battleship, a symbol of sovereignty and national pride, and for some time seemingly a measure of nations and empires. They became a sort of international pissing competition. Whose gun was biggest? Who had the most, the fastest, the longest, the strongest?
In truth they achieved little, especially in WWI. Economically they were money-pits and helped sink the British Empire as much as save it. They strike me as a symbol of everything that is stupid about war — the wasted resources, ingenuity, and lives, the misplaced effort. How many people could be lifted out of poverty for the price of a battleship?
And yet for all that they remain magnificent creations; fast, powerful (thrusting?), impressive.
The attractions of the technology of war is an interesting topic to me. As a kid I glued together Spitfires and read about the Nazis sweeping across Europe, about the Manhattan project and the bouncing bomb. Books like The Dam Busters and Night Fighter might keep track of the men lost and comrades who suffered death and disfigurement, but despite themselves they give off a glimmer of glamour. The lone genius in his laboratory developing the weapon that will save us from Hitler, the brave pilot battling a dozen Fokkers (or a dozen Camels — stories come from all sides) over the Western Front. The fascination is undeniable. Yet all that bravery and technical brilliance is for what? So old men could refuse to apologise to each other, or take what was not theirs? (Or what their grandfathers had possessed for a few years decades earlier, and which they therefore saw as ‘theirs’?) (Yes, I am using male pronouns; that was the world of which I am speaking.)
My reading has largely moved from the machines to the history. Dreadnought covers the technology,the politics and the tactics of the 20th century battleship. It is authoritative, slightly astringent (pleasingly so), well-illustrated (though I believe there may be a paperback version, which of course would be less so) and essentially, given that apart from brief flurries (Vietnam, Lebanese Civil War, Gulf War) the battleship story was over when it came out, definitive. Hough’s writing is very easy yo read — this is the third book of his I have read after The Fleet that Had to Die and The Hunting of Force Z — and I can recommend it as a quick read for anyone who’s curious about the big boats with big guns, or who has heard of the Yamato or the Bismarck or the Missouri and would like to see them in context, rather than as modern myths.