Sailors on the Rocks - Famous Royal Navy Shipwrecks, Peter C. Smith

Sailors on the Rocks - Famous Royal Navy Shipwrecks, Peter C. Smith

Over the course of its history the Royal Navy has lost many warships to accidents at sea, sadly sometimes with very heavy loss of life. This interesting book examines a selection of those accidents, starting with the loss of HMS Coronation in 1691 and ending with the grounding (but thankfully not loss) of HMS Nottingham off the Australian coast in 2002. In most cases we get a history of the ship involved, a look at its activities in the months or sometimes years before the wreck, the events leading up to the disaster, any rescue attempts, and the aftermath of the loss. In most cases there is also an examination of the reasons behind the wreck, testing the formal Naval verdict against the surviving evidence.

Some of these incidents linger in the mind – in particular the loss of the Winchester in 1695, part of a fleet that suffered serious losses from disease. The increasingly desperate reports from the ships involved, as the losses from disease mounted, allow us to trace the slow collapse of morale and the ability of the crew to handle their ship, before finally running onto a coral reef off the American coast with only 10 healthy men and 100 sick left from her crew of 300.

This book does suffer from an exaggerated example of one of the more irritating tendencies in military history – the desire of the author to pontificate on modern politics. This is normally limited to the odd snide aside, but here we get entire footnotes dedicated to this. Amongst the author's targets are just about every British government (mainly for not giving in to every single military demand for extra funding), historians who disagree with the author's view of events, and any inaccurate website (and in one case an oral history site, where the point is to record what people believed to be the case, not to produce an accurate historical record). This is an infuriating habit, and merely served to distract the reader from the main topic. Just to give one example, the Telegraph is criticised for reporting that a naval source had said that Commander Farrington, commander of HMS Nottingham when she ran onto a rock in 2002, would not be punished. Although there was the inevitable court martial that accompanied the grounding of a ship, the Commander only received a 'reprimand', and became Second Sea Lord Chief Programmer at Portsmouth only two months after the court martial, rather proving the anonymous naval source's claim.

This aside, the main text is excellent, and the accounts of each of these wrecks are interesting and  well researched. One comes away with a real idea of the many dangers faced by sailors over the centuries, and the valiant efforts of Royal Navy sailors to survive those perils.

1 - Wrecked off Rame
2 - Destroyed by Plague - The Winchester, 24 September 1695
3 - The Great Storm - The Mary, Mortar, Northumberland, Restoration & Stirling Castle
4 - A Navigational Inexactitude
5 - A Melancholy Echo
6 - Unlucky Horseshoe
7 - The Birkenhead Drill
8 - Violating Tapu
9 - Ashore on Lundy
10 - 'An Unreliable Fix'
11 - Sole Survivor
12 - The Wrecking of the Raleigh
13 - Short-cut to Nowhere
14 - On No Account Leave the Ship!
15 - Who has the Helm?

Author: Peter C. Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2015

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