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23 people found this helpful
on July 9, 2002
I think a fair summary of Gardiner's book would be: It's ALL there - but some of it takes a little finding. Rather like the odd upperworks of a rasée 74, its shape betrays a process of conversion. According to the foreword, it was originally intended as the sequel to his 1995 book on heavy frigates, and to carry the story well beyond 1815. For various reasons it ended up dealing with all frigates, and restricted to the Napoleonic period. Gardiner says he used the enforced delay in publication to do more research: I would humbly submit that he could have made his readers' lives easier by using some of the time to review the flow of his book. I confess to having been myself a little daunted at first sight.
As examples: the very first chapter heading, "The Return to Moderate Dimensions" only makes sense if one is familiar, from Gardiner's earlier book or other sources, of the Royal Navy's flirtation with large frigates in the 1790s, and the chapter charges straight into the subject without a word of recapitulation. The internal structuring of the book is also a little odd. The whole first section of the book is titled 'Design History', but what it really covers is the procurement history of the Royal Navy's frigates. The real history of design evolution is covered in the second chapter - confusingly, also titled 'Design' - of the second section of the book. The first chapter of the second section covers construction techniques; since these are the means by which design is translated into tangible form, the design chapter might have been better placed first.
All this, however, is mere quibbling, for, again like the rasée 74, the end product packs a huge punch, whatever its shape. It is magnificently comprehensive, scholarly in the very best sense of the word (everything backed up by chapter and verse, evidence carefully sifted, no concealed suppositions), and well (often wittily) written. Every individual chapter is excellently done, and one has only to dive in, in order to find a wealth of information logically ordered and intelligently discussed.
Section 1 (what I would term the procurement history) has comprehensive tabulations and illustrations of every class of frigate built for the Navy, or taken in as prizes, while the text gives an excellent analysis of the conflicting factors - strategic requirements, cost, foibles of First Lords of the Admiralty - which governed the number and type of frigates constructed. This interesting stuff, though some readers might find it a trifle dry - speaking strictly for me, there is a limit to the number of sheer plans I can digest.
The book really takes off and flies in the second section. The chapters here cover construction, design, wartime modifications, armament, sailing performance, and the use of the frigates in action. All are packed with goodies. The overall picture is of a strong impetus towards innovation - in construction methods, gun design, water stowage, boats, hen-coops ... the list is almost endless, and Gardiner discusses them all, with excellent illustrations, nearly all contemporary. He describes entertainingly the technical debates, which ran fast and furious on many of these issues, with professional reputations rapidly made and as rapidly broken, and lawsuits flying like grapeshot between rival inventors. The Admiralty (which was directly responsible and politically accountable for meeting strategic needs) generally favoured innovation, and was open to suggestions both from serving officers and outsiders, while its supporting technical Boards (the Navy Board which designed and built the ships, and the Ordnance Board which armed them) tended to be more conservative. Neither side was was right all the time.
It all comes together in the last chapter, which not merely describes, but analyses, all the multifarious tasks the frigates had to perform. Strategic and tactical reconnaissance (well illustrated by the examples of the Trafalgar and Nile campaigns), the increasing involvement of frigates in fleet and squadron actions (facilitated by their rapid rise in size relative to the 74s), blockade, coastal and amphibious operations, sea control, dogsbody work like hauling live cattle to provision the fleet - it is a wonderful corrective to the works, both fact and fiction, which see the solo cruise and single-ship combat as the essence of a frigate's work. The independent cruise is not neglected, with examples from famous exponents including Pellew and Cochrane, but again these are properly put in context: it was not by random search, but by expert analysis of wind systems and sailing times, that the successful cruising captains found their targets. It is only a shame that space has limited this chapter to one or two examples of each type of frigate work. The subject really demands a book-length treatment done with the thoroughness that Gardiner can give it. I sincerely hope he gets round to writing it one day.