SUBSIM Book Review: Ships for All Nations

Ships for All Nations
Authur: Ian Johnston
Publisher: Seaforth Publishing (UK)
Naval Institute Press (US)
Year: 2015
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter, SUBSIM

Once again, I’m a victim of bad timing. Immediately after writing my review of Ian Johnston’s Clydebank Battlecruisers and A Shipyard at War, I learned that his 2000 work Ships for A Nation was being revised and republished. Considering my fascination with early 20th century shipbuilding, and the quality of Mr. Johnston’s other works, I was thrilled.

This revised edition forms part of a trilogy of books on the former Clydebank shipyard of John Brown & Co. Taking advantage of the massive number of original photographs and internal documents preserved by the Scottish National Archives, this book presents an in-depth history of the yard’s life. From the formation of J&G Thomson in 1847, to the opening of the Clydebank yard in 1871, acquisition by John Brown & Co in 1899, the triumphs of the 20th century, to the yard’s demise in 1972, this book is epic in scope. John Brown doesn’t even come into the picture until about 100 pages in, giving plenty of time to present a vivid picture of 19th century British shipbuilding. Although it focuses on a single shipyard, it essentially depicts the rise and fall of British heavy industry through the lens of Clydebank.

Although some have bemoaned the relative lack of ocean liner coverage, I think this book does a good job providing all of the yard’s most famous ships a fairly equitable amount of space. The first three Cunard Queens receive a healthy number of pages, as do the Lusitania, Aquitania, and many of the more famous warships built there. Along with liners and battlecruisers, we also get plenty of material on the yard’s more mundane output, including paddle steamers, cargo ships, destroyers, oil tankers, and yachts. The financial, managerial, and manpower issues which plagued the yard even in the best of times are also front and center, along with the yard’s machinery output, and the impact of local and national politics. This book isn’t just about big ships and big machines; rather, it puts Clydebank in the context of a complex and constantly involving political, industrial, and economic situation.

The photographs and illustrations, once again, are a highlight. Like Johnston’s other works, many of the photographs are scanned directly from the original glass plate negatives, and are so sharp you can count the rivets on ships’ hulls. I’ve always loved images of shipyards “in action,” and some of the shots here are so vivid you can almost hear the pounding of riveting guns. There’s also a large number of period engravings, paintings, maps, and diagrams, along with photographs of key personalities. Ian Johnston has provided a number of crisp layout plans, showing the yard’s evolution through the years. Some of these plans depict concepts put forth in the 50s and 60s to triple the size of the yard, transforming it into a production center for supertakners.

There’s also nine very useful appendixes. These include biographies of yard managers, a list of every ship built at the yard with basic specifications, a list of the emergency repairs and conversions carried out during WWII, scale profile views of famous Clydebank ships, and profit and loss statistics.

Although it’s exceptionally ambitious and wonderfully illustrated, Ships for All Nations isn’t perfect. The writing is rather dry and gets bogged down by minute financial and managerial asides, although it’s probably my fault for understanding ships better than I do money. The editing could have used a bit of polishing; many direct quotations aren’t properly indented, making it difficult to tell exactly where they begin and end. Ship’s names are frequently not italicized (a pet peeve of mine.) Most of the photographs are excellently reproduced, but some of them appear to have gone through a de-graining process which has left them soft and muddy looking.

Although you need to have a serious interest in bulkheads, steam turbines, and floppy-hated foremen to really appreciate it, this is yet another excellent book by Ian Johnston. I’m sure serious maritime buffs will love it, flaws and all. If Mr. Johnston is reading this, I’m still game for a photographic scrapbook focusing on the construction of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

Full review on SUBSIM.

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