This first BookPick for 2021 is an eclectic selection of titles that caught my eye recently. These range from an updated record of all fighting ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th century to the present – to a history of visual communication at sea – to three titles dealing with various aspects of heroism. In these dark days of winter, and with continuing lockdown, I find it’s of some comfort to take refuge in a book, either following up on a specific topic or to learn more of what history can tell us. I hope you find something of interest in this selection and as always I welcome your thoughts.
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Uncommon Valour by Granville Allen Mawer
What is the nature of courage, how and when should it be recognized, and how has our appreciation of it changed? These are among the questions Granville Allen Mawer seeks to answer in this absorbing study of the history of the Victoria Cross, the highest award in the British honours system for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. His is the first analytical account of the institution of the Victoria Cross. It explores in dispassionate detail the thinking behind the creation of the award, the reasons why individual awards were given and how, over the last 160 years, the system has developed and changed. Mawer compares individual actions that led to a Victoria Cross and considers the circumstances in which they took place and the reasons given for making the award. So many factors were involved – the character of the individual concerned, the severity of the danger he faced, the situation of the British forces, whether his conduct was seen and recorded, and the interpretation of the criteria for making an award at the time. A fascinating study of the ethics of rewarding bravery.
What Ship, Where Bound by David Craddock
This book takes its title from the familiar opening exchange of signals between passing ships, and celebrates the long history of visual communications at sea. It traces the visual language of signalling from the earliest naval banners or streamers used by the Byzantines in AD 900 through to morse signalling still used at sea today. Covering a wide spectrum of visual signalling methods from false fire, through shapes, furled sails and coloured flags to experiments in high speed text messaging by signal lamp, the book also examines the complex interrelation between all three methods under battle conditions. A detailed analysis of visual signal exchanges before and during the Battle of Jutland reveals both the success and ultimate limitations of flag signalling at the limits of visibility. Extensively and beautifully illustrated, the book both enlightens and entertains.
Heroes and Villains of the British Empire by Stephen Basdeo
By the Victorian era, Britannia indisputably ruled the waves. Basdeo tells the story of how British Empire builders such as Robert Clive, General Gordon, and Lord Roberts of Kandahar were represented and idealised in popular culture. The men who built the empire were often portrayed as possessing certain unique abilities which enabled them to serve their country in often inhospitable territories, and spread what imperial ideologues saw as the benefits of the British Empire to supposedly uncivilised peoples in far flung corners of the world. These qualities and abilities were athleticism, a sense of fair play, devotion to God, and a fervent sense of duty and loyalty to the nation and the empire. While some may look on them in a different light today, they have a place in our history and should be seen in the context of their times and contributory to our culture today.
Ships of the Royal Navy by J J Colledge, Ben Warlow and Steve Bush
This is the fifth fully revised edition of a book first published in 1970. Each entry gives concise details of dimensions, armament and service dates, and its alphabetical and chronological arrangement makes it easy to track down the right ship (otherwise the Royal Navy’s tradition of re-using the same names can be misleading). This edition contains some 200 new entries and revisions to many older entries. These reflect the demise of many ships post-Cold War as the Royal Navy was shrunk down as part of the peace dividend. The book includes updates to the Royal Australian, Canadian and New Zealand navies which have programmes to introduce new destroyers, Arctic patrol vessels, submarines and support ships. Since the death of Jim Colledge, who was widely respected for his pioneering research on the technical details of warships, his magnum opus has been updated, corrected and expanded with similar enthusiasm and attention to detail by Ben Warlow, a retired naval officer and author of a number of books in the field. A superb reference work, worthy of your library.
Heroes of the RNLI by Martyn R Beardsley
I never fail to be in awe of the achievements of the RNLI, a public-funded and wholly voluntary organisation that has saved some 140,000 lives in the UK. Whenever vessels have foundered off the coasts of Britain, there have always been those willing to give their all to save those in peril but in 1823, Sir William Hillary decided that this admirable but impromptu approach was not enough. He believed that many more lives could be saved by the establishment of a national, organised rescue service. His idea was realised the following year. From the days of oar-powered open boats to modern high speed, hi-tech vessels, rescuers have battled storms and unimaginable conditions, risking – and sometimes forfeiting – their own lives in efforts to save others. The most outstanding of these operations led to the awarding of gold medals for gallantry, the RNLI version of the Victoria Cross. Using information gleaned from archives, contemporary newspaper accounts and genealogical records, this book looks not just at the details of the heroic rescues, but the people behind them.
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year
I’m a bit of a bah humbug creature when it comes to the commercialisation of Christmas – but there’s one thing that I fervently believe: a book is a present that, if well chosen for the recipient, will give hours of entertainment and enlightenment – and be a lasting reminder in itself of someone putting thought, not just money, into a Yuletide gift. So do consider adding one or more of these fine books – all with a maritime or military connection – to your gift-buying list. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone in this somewhat eclectic selection.
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Arthur Mack Old Man of the Sea by by Brent Piniuta and John Broomhead
Lifelong Portsmouth resident Arthur Mack was born into a world of poverty and hardship at the time of the Great Depression. By the age of seven he was scavenging the mud of Portsmouth Harbour to help support his family. He became a fisherman and his affinity with the sea, uncanny luck and curiosity resulted in Arthur finding antiquities and artefacts from thousands of years of human activity in coastal Hampshire. He was responsible for the discovery and exploration of the wreck of HMS Invincible, a pivotal influence on 18th-century warship design and a technological bridge between Mary Rose and Victory.
The Greenhill Dictionary of Military Quotations by Peter Tsouras
The author brings 4,000 years of military history to life through the words of more than 800 soldiers, commanders, military theorists and commentators on war. Quotes by diverse personalities – Napoleon, Machiavelli, Ataturk, Rommel, Julius Caesar, Xenophon, T.E. Lawrence, Saladin and many more – these sit side by side to build a comprehensive picture of war across the ages. Easy reference is enabled by more than 480 categories, covering such topics as courage, danger, failure, leadership, tactics, guerrilla warfare and victory. A compilation to dip into time and time again, offering insights into the history of warfare and the lives and deeds of great warriors.
Napoleon in 100 Objects by Gareth Glover
For almost two decades, Napoleon Bonaparte was the most feared, and revered, man in Europe. At the height of his power, the land under his control stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, and encompassed most of Western Europe. The many fascinating objects brought together in this lavishly illustrated book detail not only Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, but also his art of war and the role of the Imperial Guard, which grew from a small personal bodyguard to the size of a small army.
Mastering Navigation at Sea by Paul Boissier
Boissier’s latest book is superbly illustrated, informative – and offers prime snippets of the author’s triumphs and disasters over a lifetime’s navigating. He has a unique perspective having navigated in many parts of the world from high up on the bridge of a warship, close to the water in a cruising yacht and at depth in a nuclear submarine. After his navy career, retiring as a senior admiral, he was Chief Executive of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), often dealing with the consequences of poor navigation. A writer who shares rather than dictates a lesson. Highly recommended.
Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica by James C Hamilton
Two hundred and fifty years ago Captain James Cook, during his extraordinary voyages of navigation and maritime exploration, searched for Antarctica – the Unknown Southern Continent. During parts of his three voyages in the southern Pacific and Southern Oceans, Cook narrowed the options for the location of Antarctica. Over three summers, he completed a circumnavigation of portions of the Southern Continent, encountering impenetrable barriers of ice, suggesting that in fact the continent existed, a frozen land not populated by a living soul. His Antarctic voyages are perhaps the least celebrated of all his remarkable travels: this book goes quite some way to remedying that.
Weather at Sea by Simon Rowell
Written by a round-the-world skipper and weather forecaster, this little book explains the basic physics principles that govern the weather from a practical, on the water, sailor’s point of view. As we can expect from Fernhurst, the author presents in readily understandable graphic form the global, regional and then local weather patterns to explain what is happening on the spot and how situations might change. Numerous illustrations complement the text. An ideal stocking filler for the cruising sailor. A professional weather-forecaster and sailor – you can’t get much better than that!
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Hampshire-based amateur diver John Broomhead for over 20 years and have a huge respect for the work he (and a small group of fellow enthusiasts) undertook in connection with the excavation of the wreck of HMS Invincible, which they did without any government funding. Invincible was originally a 74-gun ship of the line of the French Navy launched in October 1744. Captured on 14 October 1747, she was taken into Royal Navy service as the third rate HMS Invincible. She was wrecked in 1758 after hitting a sandbank. A number of very important contributions to our knowledge of the Wooden World are directly attributable to John and the group. Recently, with a substantial government grant, the work has been taken over by Bournemouth University in their Poole-based facility. Currently, there are two exhibitions of the finds to date – a permanent archive at Chatham Historic Dockyard; the other, a one-year temporary exhibition at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard.
How did it all begin?
In April 1979, local fisherman and friend Arthur Mack, told me that whilst trawling with a fellow fisherman they had caught their nets on a solid sea bed obstruction. This was puzzling because they had trawled the same area for many years and had never snagged anything before. They had used the power of the engines to rip the nets free; when they were hauled back on board there was a large piece of timber tangled up in them. Now most fishermen would have sworn and cursed their ill luck before throwing the timber back over the side but Arthur had a feeling about it and kept it.
But Arthur felt he knew exactly where it was. He was so confident and enthusiastic that I got my diving gear and out we went. Unfortunately, we did not snag Arthur’s trawling gear on the wreck that day.
We intended to go back as soon as possible but we could not find the wreck again mainly due to misty conditions making it impossible to see the land transit marks taken previously. After some discussion, I said that when he snagged it again, he should leave his trawl gear tangled up on the wreck. He should put a buoy on the rope and I would make sure that either Jim or I would come straight out and free his nets. At the same time, we would take better land transit marks in order to locate the wreck more easily at any time in the future.
We came across the remains of a very large coil of rope lying on firm timber decking and lying at an angle of about 40 degrees. Later in the project this rope was removed and identified as tarred hemp cable-laid rope in extremely good condition.
What has been your role over the years?
In your view what have been the most interesting items recovered?
I suppose the most historically important and fascinating to work on, has to be the grand magazine. There were no examples to show how these magazines were made anywhere in the world. Nelson’s Victory at Portsmouth did not have one and the curator and archivist was at a loss to know how to build a replica on board for visitors to see until he was made aware of the one we found. As well, the racking in Victorys fore and aft hanging magazines were modelled on our discovery.
Tell us about Phil Rumsey’s model of ‘Invincible’
Pine from some deck cladding to make the masts
Lignum vitae from one of the gun pulley blocks for the 74 guns
Animal bone from the galley area to make the figure head, the gingerbread around the stern and the stern lanterns
As for the rigging, Phil used his wife Hazel’s hair! The construction materials used make this model unique in ship models the world over. The model is just like Invincible herself when she was launched from Rochefort in 1744, the finest fighting ship afloat at that time. After her capture in 1747 the Admiralty heaped praise on her: ‘A Prodigious fine ship and vastly large’ Admiral Anson
National Museum of the Royal Navy Invincible temporary exhibition
Permanent exhibition of Invincible artefacts (closed for winter)
Old Man of the Sea by Brent Piniuta and John Broomhead
details the story of Arthur and John finding the wreck and excavating the site. The book also explains how Invincible artefacts today play a significant interpretative role aboard HMS Victory. All proceeds of the sale of the book will be split between RN Museum Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Museum and Chatham Historic dockyard for maintenance of the national Invincible archive.
The Thomas Kydd Series is set during the period of the Revolutionary wars (1793-1815) as experienced through the life of former wig-maker turned naval hero Thomas Kydd. My research library contains hundreds of volumes on the Royal Navy and life in Britain during those troubled times. I’ve also gleaned a useful insight into the mind of the foe through various books written from the French perspective. Along with several such books, this selection includes a modern-day sailing adventure, a history of tea, a moving account of children at sea and a comprehensive survey of British naval intelligence in the twentieth century..
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Napoleon’s Paris by David Buttery
While there are numerous biographies and studies of his military and political career, few books have been written about Napoleon’s connections with Paris, the capital of his empire, where many remarkable buildings and monuments date from his time in power. David Buttery’s lavishly illustrated guidebook to Napoleon’s Paris addresses this neglect. Many of the most famous sites in the city were built or enhanced on Napoleon’s instructions or are closely associated with him and with the period of the First French Empire – the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Hotel des Invalides, Musee de l’Armee, Notre Dame Cathedral, Pere Lachaise Cemetery among them.
Buttery’s book is recommended reading for the visitor to Paris who is keen to gain an insight into the influence of Napoleon on the city and the tumultuous period in French history in which he was the dominant figure.
Sailing the Waterways of Russia’s North by Irene Campbell-Grin
A fascinating memoir of the Baltic Millennium Rally in the summer of 2000, a voyage that involved sailing to St Petersburg, inland to Petrozavodsk, on to the White Sea and Barents Sea, and home via North Cape and the west coast of Norway; a circumnavigation of Scandinavia. I know many of these waters well, having sailed in them, albeit in comfort by ferry and liner, during research for my Thomas Kydd novel The Baltic Prize.
Campbell-Grin chronicles the joys and challenges that she and her husband Gordon faced on their boat Fereale (‘love’ in Frisian), in an expedition not many people would have had the courage to undertake as this was at a time when Russia was hostile to the outside world. Her account gives a glimpse into the country’s notorious bureaucracy, but also shows the kindness and generosity of the many Russians they met on their way.
A homage to how boating brings people together and our ongoing love of the sea.
A Dark History of Tea by Seren Charrington-Hollins
Readers of my Kydd tales will know that tea was a very special drink for the Georgians. Today it’s the most popular drink in Britain! This book looks at the history of one of the world’s oldest beverages, tracing its significance on the tables of the high and mighty as well as providing relief for workers who had to contend with the toil of manual labour. The humble herbal infusion has been used in burial rituals, as a dowry payment for aristocrats; it has fuelled wars and spelled fortunes as it built empires and sipped itself into being an integral part of the cultural fabric of British life. The story of tea is a journey from myth, fable and folklore to murky stories of swindling, adulteration, greed, waging of wars, boosting of trade in hard drugs and slavery and the great, albeit dark engines that drove the globalisation of the world economy.
An engaging social history.
British Naval Intelligence Through the Twentieth Century by Andrew Boyd
Having served in the Royal Navy during the period this book covers I found Andrew Boyd’s monumental new history a compelling read. Not far short of 800 pages, the text is supplemented by extensive notes and a useful bibliography.
Boyd provides the first comprehensive account of how intelligence influenced and sustained British naval power from the late nineteenth century, when the Admiralty first created a dedicated intelligence department, through to the end of the Cold War. It brings a critical new dimension to understanding British naval history in this period setting naval intelligence in a wide context and emphasising the many parts of the British state that contributed to naval requirements. It is also a fascinating study of how naval needs and personalities shaped the British intelligence community that exists today as well as the concepts and values that underpin it.
Boyd’s work will appeal to historians of the twentieth century and also to those readers interested in intelligence and its impact on naval policy and operations.
Children at Sea by Vyvyen Brendon
Having written two earlier books on youngsters past and present, former history teacher Vyvyen Brendon turned her attention to Neptune’s Realm.
All the subjects of this, her third book, were born in Georgian or Victorian times when the sea was still the key element of Britain’s national existence. Brendon focusses on eight central characters: a slave captured in Africa, a convict girl transported to Australia, a Barnardo’s lass sent as a migrant to Canada, a foundling brought up in Coram’s Hospital who ran away to sea, and four youths from contrasting backgrounds despatched to serve as midshipmen (one of whom was Sydney Dickens, son of Charles). Their social origins as well as their maritime ventures are revealed through a rich variety of original source material discovered in scattered archives.
A collection of stories that are sometimes inspiring, sometimes heart-rending – but always compelling.
Waterloo Rout & Retreat by Andrew W Field
This, the fourth volume in Andrew Field’s highly-praised study of the Waterloo campaign from the French perspective. (His previous titles were ‘Prelude to Waterloo’; ‘Quatre Bras’ and ‘Grouchy’s Waterloo.’)
This work is based exclusively on French eyewitness accounts which give a remarkable inside view of the immediate aftermath of the battle, and carry the story through to the army’s disbandment in late 1815. Many French officers and soldiers wrote more about the retreat than they did about the catastrophe of Waterloo itself. Napoleon’s own flight from Waterloo is an essential part of the narrative, but the main emphasis is on the fate of the beaten French army as it was experienced by eyewitnesses who lived through the last days of the campaign.
Vivid insights into the often-neglected final phase of the rout and retreat of Napoleon’s army.
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year
My next Kydd tale, Balkan Glory is published in just a couple of weeks, in hardback and ebook on October 1. The audiobook will be narrated as usual by the highly talented Christian Rodska. This is the twenty-third book in the series and features the doughty crew of HMS Tyger and her gallant captain Sir Thomas Kydd, along with a number of real-life historical personages such as Klemens von Metternich and Admiral Sidney Smith. Balkan Glory will be available later in the US and other countries around the world.
Here’s a taster of the book :
1811. The Adriatic, the ‘French Lake’, is now the most valuable territory Napoleon Bonaparte possesses. Captain Sir Thomas Kydd finds his glorious return to England cut short when the Admiralty summons him to lead a squadron of frigates into these waters to cause havoc and distress to the enemy.
Kydd is dubbed ‘The Sea Devil’ by Bonaparte who personally appoints one of his favourites, Dubourdieu, along with a fleet that greatly outweighs the British, to rid him of this menace.
At the same time, Nicholas Renzi is sent to Austria on a secret mission to sound out the devious arch-statesman, Count Metternich. His meeting reveals a deadly plan by Bonaparte that threatens the whole balance of power in Europe. The only thing that can stop it is a decisive move at sea and for this he must somehow cross the Alps to the Adriatic to contact Kydd directly.
A climactic sea battle where the stakes could not be higher is inevitable. Kydd faces Dubourdieu with impossible odds stacked against him. Can he shatter Bonaparte’s dreams of breaking out of Europe and marching to the gates of India and Asia?
My main research interest is in the Royal Navy at the time of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) but having served in both the British and Australian Navy I also enjoy reading about other navies, ships and men from other times and different theatres of conflict. This selection includes a memoir from a Russian admiral, a major work on the modern cruiser, and a round-up of just what happened to the enemy fleets after the two World Wars.
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The Russian Baltic Fleet by Admiral S N Timirev
The First World War at sea in northern waters is often portrayed as a purely German and British affair but the Russian Baltic fleet saw frequent and at times desperate action against Germany. Vividly written in Shanghai in 1922, this memoir remained unknown for several decades until its publication (in Russian) in New York in 1961. Translated into English by naval historian Stephen Ellis, it offers unique insights into the characters of key figures Rear Admiral S N Timirev met during his years of service. Timirev was well placed to make observations on the operations of the Baltic Fleet from 1914 up to 1918. He had trained alongside many of the commanding officers and fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and the siege of Port Arthur with them. This edition is complemented by extensive notes and commentary. A spotlight on the Russian mind-set in home waters and engaging account of Russian naval operations in general during these formative years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
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The Modern Cruiser by Robert C Stern
Having undergone a convoluted development, cruisers vary more in their characteristics than any other warship type. I have to confess that in my time I would have liked to serve in a cruiser – halfway between the snug living of a destroyer and the huge complexity of a capital ship. Stern chronicles the fortunes of this ship-type in the twentieth century, beginning with a brief summary of development before the First World War and an account of a few notable cruiser actions during that conflict that helped define what cruisers would look like in the post-war world. The core of the book is devoted to the impact of the naval disarmament treaty process, which concentrated on attempting to define limits to the numbers and size of cruisers that could be built. How the cruisers of the treaty era performed in the Second world War forms the final focus of the book, which concludes with a look at the fate of the cruiser-type since 1945. This single-volume account of the complex development of the cruiser gives me a fine insight into the breed and makes for a comprehensive reference for all students of naval warfare.
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Spoils of War by Aidan Dodson and Serena Cant
This book traces the histories of navies and ships of defeated powers from the months leading up to the relevant armistices or surrenders through to the final execution of the appropriate post-war settlements. It discusses the way in which the victorious powers reached their final demands, how these were implemented, and to what effect. The later histories of ships that saw subsequent service are also described. The authors have drawn on archaeological evidence as well as archival sources, and include numerous photographs, maps and extensive tables of details of individual ships. For those who need to finally know the ultimate fate of the often gallant ships that strove against the Allies in both world wars, this is the book.
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
After sending in the manuscript for Balkan Glory to my editor – and before diving into the research and planning for the next Kydd title I decided to catch up on some of the books in my ‘to read’ pile. I’ve chosen six of these (two of which are reprints that I revisited having come across them some time ago) that I particularly commend. They cover a wide range of topics: from amazing revelations about espionage to an engrossing history of the Tower of London to a fascinating reconstruction of the most powerful warship of her day. I hope there’s something here to whet your reading appetite.
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A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis
The Tower of London is an iconic building having imprisoned no less than 8000 unfortunate souls since it was built in the reign of William the Conqueror. Inspired by new research, Davis offers a fascinating account of the plotters, rebels, pretenders, murderers, escapees and others who found themselves incarcerated within its walls. But, as Davis also points out, the Tower has played host to diverse royal functions and served as an observatory, menagerie, place of capital punishment and a museum. To this day the Crown Jewels can be viewed there. And according to legend, should the famous ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. A compelling history of one of London’s most famous landmarks.
Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster by Brian Lett
An extraordinary account of a force of licensed-to-kill secret agents, commanded by a war-time secret service chief code name ‘M’, with whom Ian Fleming worked, and upon whom his James Bond stories were based. Operation POSTMASTER was a daring operation played out at the height of the Second World War. A Q ship sailed to West Africa and successfully cut out three enemy ships from a neutral Spanish port on the volcanic island of Fernando Po. Ian Fleming was deeply involved in this operation, and went on to prepare the cover story, in which the British Government lied in order to conceal responsibility for the raid.
The Titanic and the City of Widows it Left Behind by Julie Cook
When Titanic foundered in April 1912, the world’s focus was on the tragedy of those who lost their lives. Julie Cook’s great grandfather was a crew member who perished in the disaster, leaving a wife Emily and five children. This book focuses on Emily and the widows like her, many of whom lived in Southampton, who had to fight for survival through great hardship, whilst still grieving for the men they loved who’d died in the ship. Using original archive sources and with accounts from descendants of crew who also lost their lives, the author asks how did these women survive through abject poverty and grief – and why have their voices been silent for so long? A moving read.
Sovereign of the Seas by John McKay
Sovereign of the Seas was the most spectacular, extravagant and controversial warship of the early seventeenth century. The ultimate royal prestige project, whose armament was increased by the King’s decree to the unheard-of figure of 100 guns, the ship cost the equivalent of ten more conventional warships. A significant proportion of this was spent on her gilded decoration, which gave the ship a unique combination of firepower and visual impact that led the Dutch to dub her ‘the Golden Devil’. John McKay reconstructs the design and appearance of the ship with an amazing degree of detail. The results are presented as a folio of superbly draughted plans, isometric drawings and coloured renderings, covering every aspect of the design from the hull form to the minutiae of sails and rigging. A fitting tribute to an iconic ship.
The Secret Capture by Stephen Roskill
For fifteen years after the end of the war all official Admiralty records showed the German submarine U-110 as sunk on 9 May 1941 by convoy escorts. As this book was the first to reveal, this was a deliberate deception, as the U-boat was actually captured and its contents – including an undamaged Enigma machine and its code books – taken before being sunk a day later. As the official historian of the naval war, Roskill followed the party line when writing his authorised account, but provoked by exaggerated claims concerning a US Navy capture of a U-boat in 1944, Roskill decided to set the record straight. At the time of the book’s first publication, the operation was still secret, so Roskill had to be discreet about the exact details of what was taken from the submarine while insisting on its crucial value to the war effort. A new introduction by Barry Gough puts the capture into context, making clear its vital importance in the history of allied codebreaking in World War Two.
Balloons and Airships by Anthony Burton
As it’s on my Bucket List – a flight in a hot air balloon – this book was an appealing read. Burton tells the dramatic and fascinating story of flight in lighter-than-air machines. For centuries man had dreamed of flying, but all attempts failed, until in 1782 the Montgolfier brothers constructed the world’s first hot air balloon. The following year saw the first ascent with aeronauts – not human beings but a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. But soon men and women took to the air and became ever more adventurous. With the arrival of the internal combustion engine the balloon was transformed into the airship. The most famous developer of airships was of course Graf von Zeppelin and his airships were used in both peacetime and at war. There were epic adventures including flights over the poles and for a time, commercial airships flourished – then came the disaster of the Hindenburg.
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
I’m focusing on the Royal Navy with this latest selection of BookPicks. As many of you know I had the honour of serving in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy and my time at sea was one of the highlights of my life. I now write about the Royal Navy in the Great Age of Fighting Sail and vicariously live the adventure of those far-off days through my hero Thomas Kydd. From the sinking of Royal George to the fight against African pirates to an overview of the Navy in the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century to the great love of Admiral Nelson’s life – I hope this eclectic selection whets your appetite for more….
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Catastrophe at Spithead by Hilary Rubinstein
In one of the most sensational and perplexing incidents in naval history, Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, a veteran naval officer, drowned along with more than 800 crew and many civilian visitors, male and female, on a calm summer’s morning and in a familiar anchorage. This riveting new work examines that tragedy – the sudden capsizing at Spithead on 29 August 1782 of the mighty flagship HMS Royal George. An extraordinary tale from the heyday of Britain’s naval power.
The Life and Letters of Emma Hamilton by Hugh Tours
Emma, Lady Hamilton, rose from humble beginnings to become a media celebrity, and her relationship with Nelson, and her renowned beauty, made her the most instantly-recognisable woman of her era. She married Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples in 1791. And it was in Naples that she met Admiral Nelson – and the great love affair began. Tours, through her letters, provides fascinating insights into her life. This is history as moving as a tragic novel; most poignant of all being the return, after Trafalgar, of Emma’s last letter to Nelson, unopened.
The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age by Mark Jessop
As the nineteenth century began the newly-forged United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland commenced life at war with France and her allies and remained so until 1815. After 1812 she had to shoulder the extra burden of a war against the United States of America. With conflict on multiple fronts, hardships continued to be inflicted at home. Trade was precarious. People were weary of hostilities and the threat of invasion still ran high. But the Royal Navy was Britain’s sure shield and after the victory of Trafalgar in 1805 she dominated the seas. Her warships spread out all over the world were the nation’s first line of defence. The Royal Navy is Britain’s oldest continual military force and rightly deserves the respect that is accorded as The Senior Service.
Pirate Killers by Graham A. Thomas
From the Barbary Coast of North Africa pirates had preyed on shipping in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic for centuries and they terrorized the populations even of the coastal towns. To them, piracy was a way of life, and the great sea-powers of the day could do little about it. Then, 150 years ago, in one of the most remarkable and neglected anti-piracy operations in maritime history, the Royal Navy confronted them, defeated them and made the seas safe for trade. Based on original sources held at the National Archives, this a fascinating view into the way the Royal Navy responded to the menace of piracy in the nineteenth century.
Still looking for bookish inspiration?
I’ll be offering a Special Collector’s Set of my next book, Balkan Glory. This will comprise a signed, numbered and embossed UK First Edition and a signed cover postcard. The Set is strictly limited to 500. To add your name to the list email email@example.com with your full details, including postal address. The Set, inclusive of p&p, is £29.99 for delivery to addresses within the UK and Europe; £39.99 for delivery to addresses in the rest of the world.
If you pre-pay, you’ll go into the hat for a full refund of your purchase price! This offer is valid until March 15. The book is published on October 1 and we’ll get the Collectors Sets out shortly before that date.
Don’t delay to avoid disappointment!
To whet your appetite:
1811. The Adriatic, the ‘French Lake’, is now the most valuable sea territory Napoleon Bonaparte possesses. Captain Sir Thomas Kydd finds his glorious return to England is cut short when the Admiralty summons him to lead a squadron of frigates into these waters to cause havoc and distress to the enemy.
Kydd is dubbed ‘The Sea Devil’ by Bonaparte who personally appoints one of his sea heroes, Dubourdieu, along with a fleet that greatly outweighs the British, to rid him of this menace.
At the same time Persephone, Lady Kydd insists on accompanying her husband to Sicily and finds herself caught up in complex palace intrigues that threatens Britain’s slender position there.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Renzi is sent to Austria on a secret mission to plumb the mind of the devious arch-statesman, Count Metternich. Will the Austrians secretly stay staunch against the French? He discovers the truth and with it a deadly plan by Bonaparte that threatens the whole balance of power in Europe.
The only thing that can stop it is a decisive move at sea and for this he must somehow cross the Alps to the Adriatic to contact Kydd directly.
All things converge in a final climactic sea battle of the classic Nelson kind where the stakes could not be higher. Against impossible odds Kydd faces Dubourdieu and decisively shatters Bonaparte’s dreams of breaking out of Europe and marching to the gates of India and Asia.
I’m a bit of a gruff creature when it comes to the commercialisation of Christmas – but there’s one thing that I fervently believe: a book is a present that, if well chosen for the recipient, will give hours of pleasure and be a lasting reminder in itself of someone putting thought, not just money, into a Yuletide gift. So do consider adding one or more from this selection to your gift-buying list. From the origins of Christmas to Scotland’s shipbuilding heritage; the heroism of Danish war-time resistance to Britain’s unsolved murders – and a photographic chronicle of the history of US submarines, hopefully there’s something for everyone in this somewhat eclectic selection.
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Hitler’s Savage Canary by David Lampe
Hats off to Frontline Books for reprinting this little-known story of the Danes under German occupation during the Second World War. The Danish Resistance, the Modstandsbev?gelsen, was not a meek canary, but a dangerous and courageous bird of prey that refused to be caged. The scale of the resistance is without equal: twenty-six million issues of illegal newspapers had been published by 1945; radio guides for Allied aircraft had been set up on the coasts; boat services ran between Sweden, Denmark and Britain; a news bureau provided a stream of inside information to the Allies; German ships were unable to move out of the ports; and enemy troops were frustrated by the sabotage of railways and air bases. A thrilling story of heroism and daring.
United States Navy Submarines 1900-2019 by Michael Green
Submariners are a special breed. This little tome presents a series of fascinating photographs from wartime archives as it chronicles the submarine’s development from the Holland VI, taken into service in 1900, to the nuclear-powered vessels of today. As well as the weaponry and physical construction of the various classes of submarine, the images document the challenges of life on board, especially in the early days. One Second World War class however boasted the luxury of a washing machine, unheard of in any other navy at the time!
Dickens and Christmas by Lucinda Hawksley
The great great great grand-daughter of the famous writer describes what it would have been like to celebrate Christmas in 1812, the year in which Dickens was born. She takes the reader on a journey through the Christmases Dickens enjoyed as a child and a young adult, through to the ways in which he and his family celebrated the festive season at the height of his fame. Dickens and Christmas is an engaging exploration of the 19th-century phenomenon that became the Christmas we know and love today and of the writer who changed, forever, the ways in which it is celebrated.
Britain’s Unsolved Murders by Kevin Turton
Britain has its fair share of unsolved murders, crimes that have both fascinated and horrified in equal measure. Spanning the 100 years between 1857-1957, this book re-examines thirteen of these murder cases. Each chapter provides an account of the circumstances surrounding the killing, of the people caught up in the subsequent investigation and the impact it had on their lives. It also explores the question of guilt and to whom it should, or should not, be attached. For each of these murders no-one was ever proven to have committed the killing despite, in some cases, accusing fingers being pointed, arrests being made and show trials taking place. One for any crime fan you know!
Leith-Built Ships by R O Neish
I launched my naval career as a seagoing shipwright, so my interest in historical accounts of shipbuilding is not surprising. Scotland has a long proud history of this activity, most recently centred on the west, the Clyde in particular, but many people are unaware of the part played by the shipbuilders of Leith, in the east of Scotland. Leith had begun building ships some 400 years before the great shipyards of the Clyde and these vessels reached all corners of the globe. With a pedigree of shipbuilding second to none going back over 660 years of recorded history, the ships built at Leith deserve their place in history and this book, the first of a trilogy begins the story.