When John Ericsson proposed the concept of his turret ship to the Navy, it was to break the ability of land gun batteries to prevent naval movement. Ericsson proposed the name Monitor in that it may admonish or "monitor" the rebels. During the American Civil War, ironclad vs ironclad bouts were fairly infrequent. The two most notable occasions were the Monitor vs Virginia and the Battle of Mobile Bay with CSS Tennessee vs the world. However, monitors were used frequently to bombard Confederate forts and gun emplacements. Like HMS Dreadnought 44 years later, USS Monitor gave its name to a type of warship. The designation Monitor described a shallow draft, low freeboard, low speed coastal vessel with heavy armor and heavy armament.
The Royal Navy looked at the monitor and built a haphazard assortment of a few vessels but quickly realized that it was no substitute for a sea going warship. As the premier naval force in the world, Britainís first line of defense was not its own coast but the coast of any enemy. The low freeboard and slow monitor could only be used in coastal and comparatively sheltered waters. Quite correctly, the Admiralty saw that this type of vessel could not project force. During the last half of the 19th Century, the monitor type of warship was a poor manís battleship. Any country that wished to challenge the Royal Navy did not build monitors, they built battleships. By the start of the 20th Century, except for the last spasm of monitor construction by the USN with their 1903 Florida, the last of 71 monitors built for the USN, the monitor as a type was totally obsolete. That status changed in 1914.
In October 1914 Admiral Jackie Fisher was back as First Sea Lord. Admiral Fisher found a kindred spirit with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. One of Fisherís pet projects was a Baltic Invasion of Germany with landings 90 miles (150 km) from Berlin. Additionally, both Fisher and Churchill wanted warships that could support the British Army along the North Sea coast. Both operations required a vessel with shallow draft. In November 1914 Charles Schwab, President of the Bethlehem Steel Company of the US was in London to negotiate and sign a contract to build 20 submarines for the Royal Navy. Fisher and Churchill asked Schwab if his company had any other items that may tempt the Royal Navy. As a matter of fact Schwab did have more. Germany was building a battlecruiser for Greece that was to be named the Salamis. However, the armament of four twin 14-Inch/45 turrets had been contracted with Bethlehem Steel. Since the blockade of Germany precluded delivery of the guns to the German shipyard, Schwab did as any good armaments salesman would, sold the arms to the rival, Great Britain. This marked the moment that the 20th century British monitor was conceived.
Designed from the outset to have a shallow draft and operate close inshore with the primary mission of land bombardment, the mission of the monitor of Fisher and Churchill was very much like that conceived 51 years earlier by John Ericsson. Since the armament of a major warship took the longest time to build, the purchase of the four twin 14-Inch turrets, allowed the Admiralty to quickly build the first British monitors. Four monitors initially identified as M.1 through M.4, were laid down between December 1 and December 17, 1914. In February 1915 all four were named to recognize the USA as the source of their armament. M.1 became the Admiral Farragut, with the other three being the General Grant, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. As a neutral the US declined the honor and asked for the names to be changed. Admiral Farragut and Stonewall Jackson were the first of the type to be launched on April 15, 1915, about four months after being laid down. Four weeks later HMS Admiral Farragut was the first to commission. HMS Stonewall Jackson and HMS General Grant were commissioned into His Majestyís Navy within two weeks thereafter. Although launched as the Robert E. Lee, this ship was not commissioned with that name. She reverted to M.3 as three days before commissioning, as the Admiralty ordered a reversion to M.1 through M.4 because of American objections to the American names. On June 19, 1915 with the approval of King George V the four monitors were given names of former British military leaders. M.1, ex-Admiral Farragut, ex-M.1 became HMS Abercrombie. HMS Abercrombie was the first of 40 monitors to be commissioned by the Royal Navy during the First World War. Carrying guns ranging in size from 6-Inch to 18-Inch, they proved their worth as relatively inexpensive vessels for shore bombardment. However, they quickly disappeared from the RN after the war.
After Italy entered the war as allies of Germany, Terror again showed the worth of the type by effectively supporting the 8th Army in North Africa. However, because of near misses on more than one occasion, plating and bulkheads on the ship were damaged and weakened. Terror was lost on February 24, 1941 after detonating two acoustic mines and receiving another three near misses from the Luftwaffe. Clearly, the Royal Navy needed some more monitors. The mastermind behind the 40 monitors produced for the Royal Navy during World War One was Winston S. Churchill. When he again became First Lord of the Admiralty on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, only three of those earlier monitors were still on the RN lists. Erebus was scheduled to go to South Africa, Terror was at Singapore and Marshall Soult was a turret drill ship. Churchill foresaw a need for the specialized shore bombardment ships with a new German threat to the Low Countries and France and tried to quickly rehabilitate the existing monitors. Erebus and Terror were capable of being rehabilitated but the Marshall Soult was not. Although it was worth the effort or time to recondition the Marshall Soult, her turret mounting twin 15-inch/45 Mk I guns were still very serviceable. The best solution appeared to be to remove the turret from the old monitor and install it in new construction. After Italy entered the war as allies of Germany, Terror again showed the worth of the type by effectively supporting the 8th Army in North Africa. However, because of near misses on more than one occasion, plating and bulkheads on the ship were damaged and weakened. Terror was lost on February 24, 1941 after detonating two acoustic mines and receiving another three near misses from the Luftwaffe. Clearly, the Royal Navy needed some more monitors.
So was the HMS Roberts born. Roberts and her half sister HMS Abercrombie, were the last two monitors to be constructed for the Royal Navy and represent the only such vessels constructed during World War Two. The hull lines of Erebus were selected as the best place to start for the new monitor design. Originally diesel engines were considered but since the diesels would take longer to produce than steam turbines, the later was the final choice to speed construction. In comparison to the Erebus, the more efficient machinery of the World War Two turbines allowed for shorter machinery spaces and Roberts was 32 feet shorter than Erebus, 354 feet versus 385 feet. Hull armor was designed to resist 6-inch gun and 9-inch howitzer strikes and the enormous bulges of the ship were modified from the design for the King George V class battleships. Each side would be adorned with a 17-foot bulge arranged as a three-layer sandwich. The outer space was an air void. It was anticipated that the outer hull would detonate any torpedo and the air void was designed to dissipate the explosion without transmitting the force to the second layer. The second layer was filled with water. This layer was designed to absorb any splinters and dissipate and evenly distribute any shock that made it to that layer. The third layer was another air void, which in theory, would remove the last of any blast effects without transferring it to the hull sides over the machinery spaces. Further, the ship was better provided with sub-compartments to minimize flooding. Also included in the design four 550-ton/hour water pumps, which served two purposes. They could pump out water from damaged compartments and also redistribute water to induce a list to maximize firing range of the guns.
The main armament of course would be the superb 15-inch/45 Mk I, which despite its quarter of a century age was still one of the best pieces of ordnance every devised. The turret and guns from the Marshall Soult were slated to be removed and remounted on Roberts. However, it was recognized that far more emphasis would have be given to antiaircraft defense. The Erebus and Terror had six single 4-inch mounts and that was too weak for the new design. It was considered to mount two twin 4.5-inch mounts that were being used for the additional air defense for the battleships and fleet carriers but this mount was in too short of supply. Instead it was decided to equip the Roberts with the twin 4-inch HA/LA gun mount used for cruisers secondary armament and main armament for AA sloops. For close in defense the multiple pompom mount was selected but as a stop gap measure UP rocket mounts were to be carried pending the availability of the pompoms. The first plan called for quadruple pompoms and three &-inch rocket UP mounts, providing cruiser level AA defense.
In October 1939 the building of the Lion class battleships were postponed for a year. John Brown shipyard had been scheduled to lay down one of these suspended battleships, the HMS Conqueror of the Lion class, as soon as the HMS Duke of York cleared the builderís slip. With this ship postponed and the Duke of York nearing launch, John Brown was selected as the builder of the new monitor design and was brought into the design process in November 1939. The design was not finalized until February 6, 1940 and Job Number J.1573, later HMS Roberts, became part of the 1940 naval program. John Brown was formally given the contract for construction on March 16, 1940 with trials scheduled for April 1941. Duke of York had been launched in February but it was not until April 30, 1940 that Roberts was laid down on the vacant slip. To facilitate speed of construction details of the build were hashed out at meetings set every two weeks between John Brown and the Admiralty. This promised to be far faster than the normal bureaucratic method of submitting design proposals in advance for approval and then waiting for the glacial pace of the bureaucracy to grant the request before implementing them.
One significant problem developed on how to get the Roberts to her turret or get the turret to the Roberts. There were three possible ways to skin that cat. One was to tow the Roberts to the Marshall Soult at Portsmouth. This would take too much time. Another course of action would have the Marshall Soult taken to Scotland but this would end her mission as training/base ship. The third course of action was chosen. This was to remove the turret in Portsmouth and transport it to John Brown by barge. Since the turret components were too heavy to transport overland, a risk of loss had to be incurred in transport by barge. There was another constriction in that there were only two barges with enough capacity to move the turret components and both of these were already involved in moving 14-inch gun turrets for the newly launched Duke of York. This bottleneck was enough to throw the building time table out of kilter. It was anticipated to launch the Roberts on February 1, 1941 and from that day to the 19th prepare the ship to receive the turret and turntable. At this point the barge with the turret components would arrive and a crane would transfer these parts to the quay next to Roberts for immediate installation. Well, Murphyís Law jumped to interfere with this best laid plan.
The 2,800-ton Goodwood arrived at Portsmouth on January 30, 1941 to load the turret and turntable from Marshall Soult. As constructed the turret of Marshall Soult had armor plates joined together with locking keys. It was intended to separate the plates and stow them in the forward hold of Goodwood while the single piece turntable would occupy the aft hold. However, no one had anticipated that in the quarter of century since the armor plates of the turret had first been locked together that they would become fused together and incapable of separation. Because of this unforeseen development the turret was stored at the bottom of the aft hold with the turntable placed above it, leaving the forward hold vacant and seriously unbalancing the ship for the long trip to Scotland. The Goodwood left Portsmouth on March 6 so loaded but encountered heavy weather in the English Channel. The rolling dislodged the turntable, which damaged not only the turntable but also seriously damaged the Goodwood. The crew of the Goodwood, fearing that the ship was in immediate danger of sinking because of the damage, abandoned the ship and their cargo. With lighter weather the next morning the crew was surprised to see the Goodwood still floating. They reboarded the ship and went into Devonport. The turntable was removed, Goodwood repaired and the ship went of to the Clyde with the still undamaged parts. The turntable was not ready to resume its journey until May 9, so the mounting of the turret was already delayed by three months. Another wildcard came in conjunction with a German air raid on May 7. A mine intended for the water actually landed on the quay next to Roberts and exploded. The monitorís boats, searchlights and HA directors received significant damage. However, this delay did allow substituting eight 20mm Oerlikon AA guns for two of the worthless UP mounts. Finally on October 6, 1941 HMS Roberts was commissioned into the Royal Navy.
Of course by this date, the need for shore bombardment against a German onslaught of the Low Countries and France had passed, as they were overrun in 1940 during the monitorís construction. However, those 15-inch guns could certainly be used to support the 8th Army in North Africa. HMS Roberts, along with the Erebus, were dispatched to Egypt, via the Cape of Good Hope, on December 1, 1941. She did not arrive at the Suez Canal until February 26, 1942 and initially served as an AA ship at the southern canal entrance due to the heavy Luftwaffe attacks on the canal. Roberts stayed south of the Suez Canal until August 17, 1942 when she was dispatched to Durban South Africa for a stay in the dry dock there. On September 20, she resumed her clockwise trip around Africa and arrived at Gibraltar on November 2, 1942. Her mission was support the Operation Torch landings scheduled for the next week. Roberts was slated for inshore support of the forces landing near Algiers. Since there was little opposition on the ground, she did not have a chance to use her 15-inch guns. Instead she was deployed as early warning of impending German air attacks. On November 9 Roberts used her 4-inch guns to defend against an attack on shipping by Ju-88s. On November 10 Roberts moved east to support landings at Bougie on November 11, which again were unopposed. That afternoon the Junker Ju-88s again made their appearance and Roberts claimed knocking down one of the bombers. At dusk another attack came in and three Ju-88s made dive bombing attacks on Roberts. On bomb landed 30 feet to port but the other two struck the monitor.
One of the 1100 pond bombs hit the port bulge next to the funnel, flooded two compartments and started a fire on main deck. The other bomb hit aft of the funnel and exploded on the armored deck. This wrecked upper compartments and started more fires. However, the worst damage was in the destruction of the ventilator fans for the engine rooms. Without ventilation the engine rooms had to be abandoned because of high temperature but not before one crewman died of heat exhaustion. Other physical damage was a collapsed funnel, contamination of feed water lines, destruction of piping and electrical lines and the loss of turbo-generators. The attack cost 17 killed and 35 wounded. Another air attack of Roberts came on November 16 when two torpedo bombers made runs on the monitor. Both torpedoes missed and hit the quay in the harbor. Roberts left Bougie with improvised ventilator fans on December 1, for first Algiers and then Gibraltar, before arriving at Liverpool on January 6, 1943. Repairs took until May to complete. In June both Roberts and Abercrombie worked upon bombardment practice in preparation with the next scheduled major operation, the invasion of Sicily.
All three surviving monitors, Terror was lost in February 1941, were picked as the sole heavy gun support for Operation Husky, as the invasion of Sicily was named. On June 18 both Roberts and Abercrombie left from the Clyde estuary. However, in steaming south Roberts stripped one of her turbine blades, limiting her to one turbine. Gibraltar had no spares, so she continued on to Algiers, which she reached on July 2. Robertsí mission was to support the British landings at Cape Passero on the southeast tip of the island on July 10, 1943. During the landings only one shore battery opened fire upon the British and Canadian landings. A battery of five 5.9-inch (148mm) guns near Pachino opened fire and Roberts fired 14 rounds of her 15-inch shells for the first time in anger. Roberts fired from 9,000 yards and battery was silenced. Several fire missions were ordered but quickly cancelled as the areas to be targeted were quickly captured. In late afternoon Roberts received her next fire mission. Fourteen more rounds of 15-inch shells went downrange, this time to suppress a mortar battery. The Italian mortar crews surrendered but claimed it was unfair to fire 15-inch shells at them when they only had small mortars. On July 11 Roberts fired thirty 15-inch shells at 18,000 yards at an Italian troop concentration near Rosolini. Again the troops surrendered after receiving Robertsí special attention. On the 13th Roberts steamed north up the coast to provide AA defense to another landing beach south of Syracuse. Roberts was subject to several air attacks but was not hit. On July 15 Roberts conducted her most ambitious fire mission to date. Ninety rounds were fired at facilities and positions in the town of Catania.
On July 18th Roberts and Erebus, along with two Dutch gunboats, were made the "Inshore Squadron". Roberts was ordered to indict the withdrawal of German forces towards Messina by bombarding the coastal road at Taormina. On August 4 Roberts attacked the highway, which was above a railway tunnel, on a cliff face at this point. Roberts closed from 19,000 to 16,000 yards and expended 32 shells. Debris littered the roadway but later Germans claimed it did not hinder the evacuation to Messina. On August 16 Roberts conducted her last fire support mission in Operation Husky. At Cape Scaletta 10 miles south of Messina two L.S.I.s carried commandos whose mission was to blow up some bridges. Across the strait a battery on the mainland opened fire on Roberts, so the monitor increased range. The ship did not have a good field of observation of the commando landing beaches and ceased fire after expending only four rounds. Ten more rounds were fired an hour later with RAF Spitfire pilots acting as spotters. On August 21 HMS Roberts departed from Sicily to steam to Malta in preparation for her next mission.
This mission came on August 30 and was Operation Baytown. This operation leap frogged the British 8th Army across the narrow Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland of Calabria in the tow of the Italian boot. Roberts received no calls for fire as the landings were almost unopposed. Roberts left for Bizerta on September 4 to prepare to support the landings at Salerno. Roberts, along with Abercrombie, left Malta on September 7 with Roberts tasked to support the British troops on the northern beaches of the Salerno landings. In the morning of September 9 responded to two fire support requests. Two more fire missions came on September 11 with three more following on September 12. On September 11 her gunners destroyed a Me109 that was part of an air attack. Her final fire missions came on September 18 and 19 when she fired on a German headquarters inland. Now Roberts needed an overhaul and on October 20, 1943 she arrived at Port Said, Egypt for an overhaul. The next five months were spent in Egyptian waters.
As 1943 ended and 1944 began preparations and planning continued on the greatest of the European amphibious operations, Operation Overlord, the invasion of northern France. In this operation Roberts and Erebus would again be called upon for fire support, as Abercrombie was still under repair from being mined. Older battleships were also selected for this role. Roberts along with Warspite and Ramilles were Bombardment Force D, supporting Sword Beach, the closest beach to Caen. Roberts left Egypt on March 5, 1944 to prepare for the Operation Neptune, the naval plan for the invasion. On June 6 Roberts anchored 12 miles west of Le Havre and opened fire on a battery of 155mm guns. S-boats came out of Le Havre and an torpedo attack was made on Roberts. One torpedo passed along each side of the monitor. Later in the day she fired upon troop concentrations. However, at 21:35 the right gun burst its jacket. The jacket split but the whole gun did not burst. She was sent to Portsmouth but it was decided not to replace the damaged gun until the left barrel also needed replacement. So on June 9 Roberts went back into action but with only one 15-inch gun operational. For the next five days the monitor performed fire missions off of Sword and Juno beaches. On June 14 Roberts withdrew to steam back to Portsmouth to exchange both of her main guns. On June 21 she arrived back to Normandy. For the rest of the month and into July Roberts continued to provide fire support for the British troops around Caen. Roberts last support missions came about in support of Operation Goodwood.
Roberts next came into action in support of British and Canadian operations in the Netherlands. This time it was Roberts, Erebus and Warspite as the bombarding force. On November 1, 1944 Roberts and Warspite opened up. Targets were coastal batteries, radar stations and strong points. Warspite left for new guns in the evening, leaving just the two monitors. On November 3 the monitors also returned to Portsmouth. Although other fire support missions were planned, the Roberts never was again tasked to provide gunfire. After the fall of Germany it was planned to send Roberts and Abercrombie to the Indian Ocean to support an attack on Singapore. Both left for Ceylon in July 1945. Of course this never occurred because with the surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945 Roberts was at Port Said and Abercrombie was off Aden. Both ships were sent home and arrived back in Great Britain in November 1945. Roberts survived for another two decades, serving in various roles. She was sold for scrap and on July 19, 1965 departed for the breakers. (History from Big Gun Monitors by Ian Buxton. This title is the best source available on the history of the 42 monitors of the Royal Navy. Published in 1978, it is long out of print but with diligence and patience, you can find it in the used book market.)
The next thing that is noticed is the very thin splinter shielding of the quad pom-pom mounts, twin 4-inch HA mounts and circular 20mm mounts. The quad pompom positions are abreast of the barbette with twin 4-inch mounts amidships and aft. Each position has its own unique splinter shield configuration. Add to this the nice capstans, breakwater, ready ammunition boxes and other assorted deck fittings and you get a wealth of deck detail with the Combrig Roberts. After examining the hull and plans and profiles of the vessel, you may wish to consider some small extra additions on building this kit. The bulge featured a series of access ports along its length. I believe Gold Medal Models, White Ensign Models or both produce the proper size access ports to replicate these features. There is also a series of smaller strakes along the bulges. I purchased the smallest Evergreen strips but even these may be too large to replicate the smaller strakes. Unlike the Abercrombie kit there is no cast on anchor chain with the Roberts.
As nice as the detail of the hull, the finest single piece of casting is of the twin 15-Inch turret. The British 15-Inch Mk I barrel flared out at the muzzle. Turned brass barrels do not replicate this flare but Combrig has captured it perfectly. Look at the photographs of the barrel muzzle. They come with hollow muzzle ends. There is no need to drill them out. A friend of mine examined the turret and asked if I had drilled them out. When I said no, this is the way it came, he said that the casting was so good that Combrig should sell these turrets individually as replacements for the turrets of other 1:700 models of RN battleships and battlecruisers that mounted the 15-Inch. I agree completely. It is an outstanding piece of casting. Additionally the look of the blast bags is very well captured. The HMS Roberts carries a heavy load of armament. The four open back shielded twin 102mm mounts, 8-barreled pom-pom, two quad pom-poms, twin 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikons are all there, ready to be attached to the model to give it the AA kick of a cruiser. About the only addition required will be gun shields for the single Oerlikons.
For a small ship the Combrig HMS Roberts kit comes loaded with parts. The superstructure is very busy with a mass of decks and platforms. Cranes, davits and towers are everywhere. Unlike the Abercrombie, which lacked locator holes or outlines on the deck, the Roberts includes ordnance locator holes and plates. Additionally, because of the design of the model affixing the superstructure to the hull will be far easier and less susceptible to error. Still, it is good policy to carefully study the enclosed plan in the instructions to achieve the correct placement of all parts. I recommend using white glue for this part to allow sufficient time to maneuver the part to the correct position. The decks, platforms, starfish, directors, paravanes and carley rafts are all nicely done. Of the smaller parts, I think that it would be beneficial to replace the cast resin radar with photo-etch from White Ensign Models. The kit does not come with photo-etch, however, almost any WEM WW2 fret will have almost all of the brass parts that you will need.
The Combrig 1:700 scale HMS Roberts is an excellent kit. With the Roberts, Combrig corrected mistakes made in their Abercrombie kit, making the Roberts even more attractive for the modeler over her sistership. With a little RN pattern photo-etch, you can build a beautiful reproduction of the last of the monitors.