BOOK REVIEW – The Last Big Gun: At War and at Sea with HMS Belfast

Brian Lavery, The Last Big Gun: At War and at Sea with HMS Belfast. Oxford: Pool of London Press, 2015. 352 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History

Readers of this forum familiar with London doubtless will have at some point visited the cruiser HMS Belfast which forms a key adjunct to the Imperial War Museum’s record of twentieth century conflict. The Last Big Gun offers the backstory to a portion of that memorial. In the process what is related is not so much the account of a single ship as the fortunes of the navy that it served from eve of global war to decommissioning and final preservation during an era of uncertain peace. Lavery is to be congratulated on suffusing several strands of history be it naval, social, or imperial in a coherent narrative. Using a combination of official records, personal reminiscences, and secondary literature, a unique biography emerges of the light cruiser and those who served in her. Remaining true to technical and operational details, Lavery never fails to inform while at the same moment maintaining the reader’s interest.

As history, the story is strongest at the beginning and through the period of the Second World War owing to the wealth of official officer records now accessible and the availability of Admiralty operational records. First commissioned in the waning days of peace under Captain George Scott, Belfast’s part during that war nearly ended so soon as it began: in November 1939 it triggered a magnetic mine whilst steaming in home waters. If casualties were in the circumstances light, the damage proved crippling and would take the cruiser out of service for three years. Exactly why repairs took so long is never adequately addressed by the author in a work that remains rich in so many other details.

Still, the Belfast survived to fight another day. If the cruiser’s general lines remained as before much had changed in the intervening period for this was the moment when electronic warfare came to the fore and most visibly appreciated in the array of radar antennas featuring topside. Gone too were its complement of Walrus embarked aircraft and eventually their catapult. With hangars converted into spaces supporting crew amenities, life, if better, remained difficult in the wartime navy. Belfast rejoined the Home Fleet upon recommissioning in November 1942 and for a cruiser that invariably meant supporting the convoy runs to Russia and back. Even if the enemy did not appear, conditions in Arctic waters were extreme with ship and ship’s company taxed as in no other combat environ with ice and cold making even the simplest tasks daunting.

Of course, one enemy to be reckoned with was the Scharnhorst, the German battle cruiser, which earlier had outsmarted the Royal Navy in its dash through the English Channel. Though doctrine might avow getting Allied convoys through remained the primary object, officers were expected to use their initiative and seek out and destroy the enemy. Vice Admiral Robert Burnett, the Tenth Cruiser Squadron commander and wearing his flag in the Belfast, played a full role in the action that followed. This culminated on Boxing Day 1943 in the last gun action between the Royal Navy and an enemy capital ship. That well-deserved British victory owed much to the ongoing revolution in sensors, superior numbers and heavier firepower, but it also was built on the skill of all concerned be it engineer, seaman, or flag officer in ships such as the Belfast.

Henceforward, the cruiser would see other actions notably off Normandy and in Korea where her 6-inch and 4-inch guns supported operations ashore, but naval warfare was moving in other directions thanks to the submarine and the aircraft carrier. The Belfast arrived in the Pacific in 1945 just as that war was ending. Missing the climatic actions of that spring and summer, the end of Belfast’s war in a sense matched the disappointment of its beginning. The cruiser stayed on, though, as part a reduced British Pacific Fleet alternating between occupation duties in Japanese waters and showing the flag in China and elsewhere. Wartime alterations that saw further additions in AA armament were removed and the crew reduced in numbers. When the Cold War turned hot in Korea, Belfast was however quickly on scene and registering fires on advancing North Korean troops and their lines of communication. Yet, the cruiser was in a poor state and required a refit. Sent home, Belfast missed the desperate actions that followed and the highly successful Inchon landings. The adage ‘always a bridesmaid and never a bride’ is a hard conclusion to avoid save the Belfast survived where others increasingly were going to the breaker’s yard as the Royal Navy rebalanced and reduced itself in equal measure.

Here, fortune intervened and a move to rescue a portion of Britain’s naval heritage representing the hour of its greatest crisis found members of the Imperial War Museum at Portsmouth in 1967. Hoping to secure a turret from the cruiser Gambia, they opted to save the Belfast instead. Posterity is the better for that, but preservation has not been without controversy. Necessarily in casting the Belfast in the livery of its most decisive period, a number of anachronisms dating from its last commission are retained. These though are the vehicles for telling the entire Belfast story throughout its several periods of service.

This reviewer entertains no reservations in recommending The Last Big Gun, though taking exception to portions of the author’s telling of the broader naval story. Lavery offers more than the story of a single ship though, he has managed to capture the evolving story of the Royal Navy with insights offered on its customs, ethos, and manning practices along the way. Handsomely illustrated with maps, photographs and cutaway line drawings, general reader, academic, and professional alike interested in the Royal Navy of the mid-twentieth century will find much of interest in the accounting presented. By all means a visit to the Belfast is endorsed, but failing that The Last Big Gun offers a ready and valued substitute.

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