Book Review – The Battleships Trilogy by William Garzke & Robert Dulin

Probably best described as the Holy Trinity of technical literature on World War II battleships in the English language, William Garzke and Robert Dulin’s Battleships trilogy is a seminal work on the technical features of the WWII battleships of the U.S., Allied, and Axis powers. Note that these books only cover battleships that were designed just prior to, built, and commissioned during WWII. This explains why many of the older battleship classes are not covered.

The trilogy consists of the following books:

Volume I: Battleships: United States Battleships in World War II

Classes covered: North Carolina, South Dakota, Iowa, Montana, and Alaska.

The thinnest book of the trilogy and covering the fewest ship classes. Nevertheless, this is a very insightful look, particularly when it comes to the non-Iowa battleships. The chapter on the Iowa-class is very good, but only covers the ships through their service in Korea. Additional information on the USS New Jersey’s Vietnam service and on the recommissioning (and refit) of the ships in the 1980s is contained in an appendix. Owing to the publication date, much of the information on their modernization is not as detailed as in other books and obviously there’s no examination of their Gulf War service.

Volume II: Battleships: Allied Battleships in World War II

Classes covered: Dunkerque, Richelieu, Netherlands Design 1047, King George V, Lion, Vanguard, Sovetskii Soyuz, Soviet battlecruisers.

Most of the text focuses on the French and British battleships. The French vessels are fairly interesting and unique when compared to many of the other vessels.

The chapters on the British battleships are pretty standard, although the HMS Prince of Wales is definitely one of the highlights owing to her fight with the Bismarck and her eventual sinking by Japanese aircraft off Malaya only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Soviet Sovetskii Soyuz designs are interesting if only for the fact that we know very little about them. Reportedly, these were to have been as massive as the Japanese Yamato-class. However, we should also be wary of what information comes out of the Soviet Union.

This book also has probably the most detailed diagrams of the damage the ships sustained in battle.

Volume III: Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II

Classes covered: Yamato, Scharnhorst, Bismarck, German “H”-class, “0”-class battlecruisers, Vittorio Veneto, various Spanish designs.

The thickest of the three books and probably the most interesting given the near mythological status that some of the Axis battleships (e.g. Yamato or Bismarck) have gained over the years. Indeed, it contains one of the most reasoned evaluations of the Yamato and Bismarck classes I’ve read (there’s a bit too much internet fanboy gushing over those ships these days).

The German H-class designs are also interesting simply for the fact that they become more and more ludicrous as they progress (particularly design studies H-42, H-43, and H-44). These would have been monstrous vessels at 90,000 – 100,000+ tons in displacement!

The Italian Vittorio Veneto battleships had a number of unique features and extremely powerful 15″ guns. The Roma had the rather ignominious distinction of being one of the first vessels in history to be sunk by an early guided missile (Fritz X bomb).

This final volume concludes the trilogy off nicely by noting that every ship design is effectively a compromise between various characteristics. Each country designed their ships with different tactical, strategic, economic, industrial, and geographical requirements in mind. There is no perfect battleship.

Overall Evaluation

In comparison to other technical literature out there (such as Norman Friedman’s works which are also very good and highly detailed, but also incredibly dry) Garzke and Dulin have written surprisingly readable books. The information is presented in both a well-written narrative and in tabulated form. Thankfully, you do not need a bachelor’s degree in engineering to understand these books since the authors provide enough explanation for the layperson to comprehend. Even non-scientist idiots like me can understand it, although you may benefit from having a basic understanding of physics and nautical terminology.

Each chapter follows a particular class of ships, discusses their design, operational history, and goes into detail about their various systems (armor, weapons, sensors, propulsion, etc.). The appendices are also substantial and contain lots of interesting information, as well. The books are well illustrated with many photos showing the ships during their service lives. Additionally, illustrators Robert Sumrall, Alan Raven, and Thomas Webb provided clean, crisp, and detailed line drawings of the ships. Many of these are profile drawings on fold-out pages which is even better! (Can’t tell you how hard it is to find good line drawings). In short, the information is well-organized, tabulated, and easy to find.

If I have any criticisms of these books, it’s that the U.S. battleships book could use an update to include the Gulf War service of the Iowa-class. Furthermore, more recent scholarship has come out on some of the Axis battleships, and there’s little information on some of the more obscure classes which is probably not the fault of the authors and owes more to the paucity of information.

In the end, you would be hard-pressed to find more technical detail on some the ships covered in these books. To be sure, there have been other extremely detailed studies on some the ships covered here, but others are more rare. Even at that, these are highly authoritative works since both authors have backgrounds in naval architecture and marine engineering. Dulin is also a retired U.S. naval officer. The expertise of both these men is welcome because so many internet evaluations out there are merely superficial. That is to say, many “internet experts” out there fail to understand that a ship is more than just the size of the guns or the thickness of its armor. In contrast, the authors definitely know what they’re talking about. What’s even better is that the authors give some solid evaluations of these ships rather than simply parroting the already known technical data. Tons of works references these three books and they’re a must for any WWII battleship nerd. The trilogy will set you back around $200.

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