The Power and the Glory – Royal Navy Fleet reviews

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The Power and the Glory – Royal Navy Fleet reviews from earliest times to 2005.          By Steve R Dunn. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2021.I SBN 978-1-5267-6902-2

Reviewed by David Hobbs

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Fleet reviews are not something that I had thought of studying as a subject in their own right and so I looked forward to reading this book with some enthusiasm.  The author will be known to some ANI members from previous books including Battle in the Baltic which was also published by Seaforth.In a note at the end of the text he explains that the idea of writing about reviews evolved from a conversation with the publisher and took him into areas of naval history that he had not previously explored.

The book is divided logically into four sections entitled Beginnings; Victorian and Edwardian Pomp; Georgian Apotheosis and Decline and, lastly, The Ebb Tide.  There are a number of ways that Dunn could have tackled his subject matter and, to start on a positive note, he traces reviews from 1346 when King Edward III gathered 750 ships to carry his army to France for the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Crecy.  However, the review itself isn’t described until chapter 3 on page 24 and this made me wonder if the book is more of a short history of the Royal Navy than a description of reviews.  The first chapter describes Britain’s need for a navy and the second defines what is meant by a Royal Review.  The latter choice of chapter title rather contradicts the book’s title; is this book about Fleet Reviews or Royal Fleet Reviews?  The former would be more comprehensive since it could, for instance, also include the review in Sasebo on Coronation Day in 1953 in which Commonwealth warships dressed overall and carried out a fly-past to mark the event.  This confusion about whether the sovereign had to be present to include a review in the text recurs throughout the book.  I was disappointed that the fly-pasts at Reviews, whilst mentioned briefly, were not described in greater detail; they were fascinating, well-organised achievements that formed an integral part of the relevant reviews.

Another thing that I found irksome was the author’s frequent use of uncommon words rather than simple ones that are in everyday use.  Did you know, for instance, that King George III was uxorious?  Apparently this means that he was excessively fond of his wife.  There were at least seventeen occasions when I had to reach for my Concise Oxford Dictionary and even then there were some that I could not find.  Dunn describes his book as a ‘threnody for a lost navy, a lost empire and a lost country’.  Threnody means a lament and this leads me to another negative point.  We all get the point that the Royal Navy has declined in the last few decades to the point where it is numerically a mere shadow of its former size.  The author is right to explain the fact but he does so at great length in the latter part of the book and this attitude colours everything he describes.  He is particularly dismissive of the 1993 Review which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, levelling scorn at the ‘range of tawdry knick-knacks for sale’. I would be surprised if traders did not sell souvenirs at the earlier Reviews and all of them must have been accurate reflections of society in their time.  If the first part of the book is a short history of the Royal Navy with brief descriptions of early reviews set into it, the latter part really is a continuous lament for the declining navy and this detracts from the author’s descriptions of the last Reviews in which many had tried so hard to achieve something memorable with what was available.

There are errors of both fact and omission.  Iron Duke is described on page 207 as a disarmed gunnery training ship.  Logically this would have limited her usefulness as a gunnery training ship and Jane’s Fighting Ships confirms that she did in fact retain six 13.5 inch and twelve 6 inch guns.  Far more serious, and in my opinion fatal, was the omission of HMAS Sydney from the list of aircraft carriers present at the 1953 Coronation Review for some reason.  HMCS Magnificent, anchored next to her, does get mentioned.  To make matters worse, Appendix 6 lists foreign warships present in 1953 but I was unable to find a list anywhere of the many Commonwealth ships present.  Once you begin to find shortcomings, others suggest themselves.  There is a chart showing the lines of ships at the July 1914 Review inside the front and back covers.  It would have been instructive to see similar charts of every other review included as double-page spreads. Surely at least those from the Victorian era still exist.  Otherwise the book is reasonably well illustrated from a variety of sources.

Overall, this book is best described as an introduction to an interesting subject but one which falls some way short of being definitive.  The acid test, of course, is whether I will be adding this book to my library.  No, I will not.  I have copies of the 1953 and 1993 Review programmes and, with interest stimulated, I shall see if I can track down other Review programmes from internet booksellers.  They will be less of a threnody and will have charts showing the lines of ships.

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