Diary of a wartime naval constructor

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Diary of a wartime naval constructor. Sir Stanley Goodall. Edited by Ian Buxton. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2022. ISBN 978-1-3990-8270-9

Reviewed by David Hobbs

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Ian Buxton is a naval architect who has already demonstrated his wealth of specialised knowledge in the books he co-authored with Ian Johnstone, The Battleship Builders and Battleship Duke of York.

His own published works cover topics as diverse as big-gun monitors and the industry that scrapped hundreds of British warships in the late 1950s. In this book he has edited the wartime diaries of Sir Stanley Goodall who was Director of Naval Construction, DNC, between 1936 and 1944.  He was also the Assistant Controller Warship Production  until October 1945 and was, thus, certainly the most knowledgeable and probably the most influential figure within the group concerned with British warship construction during the Second World War.  At that time the Admiralty’s naval construction department was also the design authority for the warships built and operated by the Royal Australian and Canadian Navies and, as one would expect, there are references to their requirements.  There are also numerous references to ships that were operated by the RAN and RCN as well as the RN including the light fleet aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates.

The original diaries are held in the British Library and run to about 400,000 words covering the period from 1932 to 1946.  Buxton’s studies took many years and covered them all but the focus of this work is on the wartime years from 1939 to 1945.  He found a significant number of entries to be repetitive or routine and edited the text down to the most interesting and informative , about 30% of the total.  The diary entries were hand-written in two compact five-year diaries with single pages covering the same day for five years in the periods 1937-41 and 1942-46.  Cramped and full of abbreviations they were not easy to decipher but digital photography allowed Buxton to work on his material in forensic detail.  Goodall seems to have used his diary mainly as an aide memoire but he clearly also used it as a place to vent his frustrations, especially with people he believed to be unable to grasp what was needed or how best to achieve it.  The result is a fascinating and informative book that gives a genuine new insight into many of the decisions that led to warships emerging in the form that they did.  It also illustrates the difficulty he encountered in dealing with an industry that was, in some cases, reluctant to modernise, short of labour but faced with some of the most far-reaching changes in warship design and construction in history.

Goodall joined the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, RCNC, in 1901, worked on a number of capital ships designs and was selected to be Assistant naval Attaché in Washington in November 1917 so that he liaise with the US Bureau of Construction.  He revealed plans for the aircraft carriers Hermes, Eagle and Argus to the USN and helped it on the path to developing its own aircraft carrier designs.  After a distinguished career working on battleships and destroyers he became DNC in 1936.

In most cases the entries are short and concise; taken cumulatively they show he was ahead of his time in recognising the value of new construction techniques such as welding and the impact of new technology such as radar on the trades that would be needed to fit out warships after launch.  The first mention of the RAN is on 9 February 1939 when he instructed two of his senior staff to ‘get busy’ on the design of a capital ship for Australia which evidently came to nothing after the outbreak of war.  Typical of the early comments about light fleet carriers, known at first as intermediate aircraft carriers, IAC, is the line in the entry for 31 July 1942 that says ‘screed from Controller re IACs not lasting beyond 1946!  Should be built accordingly.’  The exclamation mark speaks volumes but he discussed the idea with his staff and ‘gave instructions.’  His own view was clarified on 14 August when he went through points of the IAC and ‘rubbed in’ that they were to be built to mercantile standards to save time and cost with a four compartment standard, able to withstand the flooding of four adjacent compartments but lacking warship standards of protection, pumping and flooding.  He clearly knew what he wanted and how to get it but the frequent changes in staff requirements led to undue delays and complication.  The inability of industry to provide items such as radar-controlled fire control systems on time or even to say with any accuracy when they would be delivered  clearly frustrated him and caused chaos in shipyards that were unable to complete ships that they had devoted considerable resources to building.  The lack of manpower to fit-out ships is a constant theme but one that could not have been accurately foreseen in the relatively uncomplicated period before 1939 when relatively few electricians were needed.  The advent of radar, remote power-controlled guns and the rapid advance of communications and command systems changed the situation dramatically by 1943.

It seems incomprehensible today that Goodall had to give up his position as DNC in 1944, despite his masterly understanding of warship construction, at a critical point in a global war because of a Civil Service rule that its members must retire at the age of 60.  He retained his secondary position as assistant controller for warship production, however, and was still able to make critical inputs.  It becomes more apparent in the later years that Goodall was frustrated by the naval staff’s limited comprehension of the impact of new technology on warship construction, especially after Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham became First Sea Lord.  He had opposed the Battle class destroyer design when he was C-in-C Mediterranean, describing them as too large and complicated for destroyer work.  He frequently exasperated Goodall by telling him that he wanted destroyers that were smaller but with more weapons and equipment.  He could not see that these two requirements were mutually exclusive but the expanded requirements eventually led to the post-war Daring class, the largest conventional British destroyers, originally conceived as Batch 3 Battles.  Another recurring theme is the naval staff’s desire to modernise old battleships in case they might be needed in the Pacific.  Goodall regarded them as ‘old junk’ and could not see the point of retaining these manpower-intensive ships when it was clear to him that the fleet needed aircraft carriers.  Cunningham’s still wanted to order new battleships in October 1944 for the post war fleet and gave Vanguard‘s fitting out a higher priority than it deserved.  The last entry directly concerning the RAN describes a team from Cockatoo Island naval dockyard who called on Goodall on 9 March 1945 to discuss details of the Battle class destroyer they were to build.  He arranged for them to visit several UK shipyards where Battles were being built.

The fascinating detail in this book provides us with insight into the thought processes that went into the production of over a thousand major warships and a huge number of landing craft and coastal forces.  The complications caused by disrupting other programmes to produce landing ships and craft for the Pacific in 1945 led to many entries which reveal Goodall’s frustration.  Other books have described numbers and the progress made by individual warship projects.  This book gives us the opinions of the man at the centre of this vast organisation as he jotted them down at the time, noting the things that he thought had gone well and those that he thought had gone badly.  It gives an insider’s perspective on the warship construction process, the part played by industry and the often unrealistic expectations of the naval staff.  Ian Buxton has done an excellent job of editing Goodall’s diaries to make his contemporary thoughts available to a wider audience and they still have relevance today as Australia seeks to sustain an efficient shipbuilding industry that  provides continuity rather than the peaks and troughs of random orders.  It is an excellent book and I thoroughly recommend it.

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