Clydebank Battlecruisers &
A Shipyard at War

Authur: Ian Johnston
Publisher: Seaforth Publishing (UK)
Naval Institute Press (US)
Year: 2011 (Clydebank Battlecruisers),
2014 (A Shipyard at War)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

John Brown's shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland is in a unique position when it comes to modern naval history. It was the first British shipyard to employ an in-house photography department, which it continued to employ even during the Depression. It built many of the most famous British ships of the 20th century, including the Aquitania, Lusitania, Hood, Barham, and the three Cunard Queens. Although the company collapsed in 1971, more than 40,000 of their negatives are currently stored at the National Records of Scotland. These archives have allowed Ian Johnston to publish a pair of fascinating books on the shipyard's early 20th century output, Clydebank Battlecruisers and A Shipyard at War.

Although much has been written and debated about the combat effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the Royal Navy's battlecruisers, Clydebank Battlecruisers focuses on the prehistory of these ships. Depicting the five battlecruisers built by John Brown shipyard (Inflexible, Australia, Tiger, Repulse, and Hood) between 1906 and 1920, the majority of the book consists of rare photographs of the ships scanned directly from the original glass plate negatives, showing their construction, launching, fitting out, and steam trials.

What makes the book invaluable for modelers and fans of early 20th century warships is the extremely high quality of the photographs. Plate glass photography required long exposures, but the results were frequently stunning. While some are a little overexposed or out of focus, the majority of the photos are extremely crisp and fine grained, frequently atmospheric, and often loaded with detail. People used to seeing grainy, blurry photographs of warships of this period will no doubt be taken aback my how GOOD most of the pictures look. One can actually count the number of rivets on Inflexible's stern casting, note the location of each of the butt straps on Repulse's hull, and read the chalk markings on the beams of Hood's main deck.

Clydebank Battlecruisers would make an excellent addition to the library of any serious naval enthusiast. Having spent an awful lot of time poring over the detailed diagrams in the "Anatomy of the Ship" books on the Hood and Dreadnought, it provides an invaluable photographic companion to those works. The accompanying text and photo captions are informative and useful, as are the appendixes. The photographs sometimes run through the binding, although thankfully important details like masts and funnels don't get lost in the gutter.

A Shipyard at War is both a companion and successor to Clydebank Battlecruisers, and although it shares the same format and page count, it's much "busier" historically. Rather than focusing on one particular ship or type of ship, it offers up a tasty smorgasbord of rare photographs sure to please serious maritime history buffs. The majority of the photographs focus on the building and fitting out of the 54 ships (including 37 destroyers, four capital ships, three submarines, and two ocean liners) constructed at the yard between 1914 and 1919. The images are presented chronologically, although the book is more of a "scrapbook" than Clydebank Battlecruisers; that book featured a good deal of text, while A Shipyard at War is mostly photographs bookended by a brief introduction and a timeline of the yard's wartime work.

For the capital ship fans, Tiger, Repulse, and Hood, are all represented by images cut from Clydebank Battlecruisers, while Barham receives a healthy dose of construction and fitting out shots. The famous Cunarder Aquitania occupies almost the entire first quarter, from keel laying to launching and fitting out. The remainder of the yard's wartime work takes up about three-fifths of the book. There are detailed shots of the interior of the submarine E35, photos of ships passing down the Clyde or arriving for refits and machinery installations, and images of Mark IV tank hulls under construction, machinery components prior to installation, and female "dilutees" at work. There is a LOT of good stuff here - trying to describe it all would be hopeless! There's even an adorable shot of a tiny narrow-gauge locomotive blowing it's whistle as it steams past the hull of the Repulse!

As with Clydebank Battlecruisers, many of these photographs are of extremely high quality, and once again, you can see individual rivets in the ships' hulls. Unfortunately, Seaforth still hasn't gotten the hint that it's a bad idea to plop a photograph of a ship across two pages in a way that masts and funnels end up falling into the gutter. The problem isn't quite as epidemic here as it was in British Cruisers of the Victorian Era, but it's present enough to be irritating. Some of the photographs are overexposed or damaged, and many are faded along the edges. As sacrilegious as it might sound, a little bit of subtle photoshopping wouldn't have hurt.

A couple of minor issues aside, these two books are little treasure troves, and invaluable additions to the maritime archaeology of 20th century Britain. You can almost hear the pounding of hammers, the whistling of steam, and the soft whirring of shipyard cranes in many of these shots. With these two books, and The Battleship Builders, all published in the last five years, Ian Johnston is definitely a naval historian to look out for. I couldn't help but notice that the introduction to A Shipyard at War mentions that John Browns' photographers took 1,016 photographs of the Queen Mary between 1929 and 1936. This liner buff would grab a copy of Building the Queen Mary in a heartbeat if anyone publishes it in the near future (hint, hint...).