Aircraft Carrier Victorious: Detailed in the Original Builders’ Plans. By David Hobbs. Seaforth Publications, Barnsley, 2018.
Reviewed by Gregory P. Gilbert
HMS VICTORIOUS is the new addition to the latest Seaforth series based upon high quality reproductions of the ‘as fitted’ drawings held by the National Maritime Museum Greenwich in London.
Previous works on British aircraft carriers, especially those by Norman Friedman (1988) and previous works by David Hobbs (2009, 2013 & 2015), have dealt with operations and technology but it is hard to visualise the ships themselves. For people like myself, who have some experience in naval technology, it is necessary to see the workings of a ship through images as well as in words. It is true that one image is worth more than a thousand words. The original plans presented in ‘Aircraft Carrier Victorious’ enable one to understand how the ship was constructed, what technologies were used, how various systems were integrated, and even how people lived aboard. By examining these plans we can better understand how HMS VICTORIOUS was initially designed and built to achieve certain operational requirements and how the ship was modernised, upgraded and altered over the years to meet new and emerging requirements.
‘Aircraft Carrier Victorious’ includes sets of the ‘as fitted’ general arrangement plans for the ship’s original construction in 1941 as well as for the ship’s 90 per cent rebuild in 1958. In essence this divides the majority of the book into two parts: the 1941 VICTORIOUS which served during World War II operating British and American piston-engine aircraft, and the 1958 VICTORIOUS which served throughout the 1960s operating jet strike and piston-engine AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft as well as helicopters. Much of the 1941 VICTORIOUS story has been told before although with the detailed drawings now available we find that much information is hidden in the details. For example VICTORIOUS was one of the earliest ‘armoured carriers’ but what does this mean in reality? The relevant drawings (pp. 8-9) reveal that in effect the single hangar was an armoured box extending under the centre of the flight deck. David Hobbs provides explanatory notes on the ship’s design, operating aircraft, its loan to the US Navy (from late May to July 1943 HMS VICTORIOUS operated off the Solomon Islands alongside USS SARATOGA, in distant support of Australian operations in New Guinea), and wartime modifications. Although built to operate 36 aircraft, by the time the ship was flying strike missions against Japan in 1945 VICTORIOUS had an complement of 54 aircraft, possible by parking aircraft permanently on deck in a manner similar to United States Navy practice. The book includes ten pages of deck plans for the 1941 VICTORIOUS as well as 44 pages of enlarged drawings of the profile, sections and decks. Unfortunately enlarged reproductions of the Main Deck, Lower Deck, Platform Deck and Hold have not been included. It is a pity as their absence in order to save eight pages in the final book is really a false economy. Those who served in these lower decks may once again feel let down as they have to resort to strong magnifying glasses when looking at the smaller lower deck plans (pp. 24-27).
Perhaps the second half of ‘Aircraft carrier Victorious’ is the most illuminating. The 1958 VICTORIOUS is shown in fine detail. Examination of the enlarged sections and decks reveals many details which one would rarely if ever see written in narrative form. For example, it is possible to trace the access/escape route for crew members who worked in each of the three boiler rooms. As the author points out, it is also possible to find specific cabins by deck and compartment number – in 1966 then MIDN Hobbs occupied 6S12 (No. 6 Deck, Starboard, Compartment 12). In many ways the personal experience of the author as a young officer in the ship adds significantly to the plans described however it is not possible for more than a few such examples to find a space on the page. Perhaps the best solution would be for the reader to sit down with someone who also served in the ship and to use the book as a vehicle for jogging memories. Personally I think ‘Aircraft Carrier Victorious’ could be used to record many valuable records on naval social history.
The modernisation of VICTORIOUS took eight years (1950-1958) and involved numerous redesigns due to rapid changes in operational requirements. The upper decks of the ship were removed and the mostly lower decks rebuilt. The turbines, propulsion and steering gear were kept although they also required major refurbishment. The boilers were replaced (as an afterthought).By the time it was complete HMS VICTORIOUS was essentially a new ship. She had an angled flight deck, two steam catapults forward, jet blast deflectors, the hangar height was increased to fit larger aircraft, new radars, IFF and sonars as well as extensive command and control arrangements. The ship was designed to operate up to 36 aircraft, depending on type, including use of a deck park. By the early 1960s some of the aircraft operated missiles and even nuclear weapons. The complement had increased to 2400, – the 1941 VICTORIOUS had a complement of 1229 – while the crew accommodation, facilities and services were extensively updated. ‘The fact that the Admiralty was forced into making such an expensive modernisation of an old ship rather than build a new one illustrates the flawed process of warship procurement that has afflicted the RN in the post-war era’ (p. 92).
The 1957 Defence Review in the UK had a disastrous affect upon British naval aviation and the RN’s fleet carriers. All work on new fleet carriers was stopped for some 50 years, indeed until 2008 when the first of two QUEEN ELIZABETH class aircraft carriers was ordered. David Hobbs explains that work on existing carriers continued and HMS VICTORIOUS did indeed complete numerous Additions and Alterations (A&As) during her 1963 and 1966 refits. Now operating the nuclear capable Buccaneer strike aircraft the ship was one of the most advanced aircraft carriers for its size. Although her projected life was far from over, the British Government decided that HMS VICTORIOUS was to be decommissioned and broken up in 1968. The plans and drawings reproduced in ‘Aircraft Carrier Victorious’ are now a lasting remembrance to the story of British fleet carriers and the once proud ship.
‘Aircraft Carrier Victorious’ offers many valuable lessons for those working in naval aviation today. In a small way, it may even help to close the intellectual gap that often exists in visualising how fleet carriers were designed and built to conduct air operations at sea. Once again it is highly recommended for naval professionals and interested naval enthusiasts.