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Book Review, NRJ 68.1

March 07, 2023 1:38 PM | PAUL R MITCHELL (Administrator)

Balchen’s Victory: The Loss and Rediscovery of an Admiral and his Ship

By Alan Smith

HMS Victory is a name synonymous with Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and British naval power. Yet, Nelson’s Victory was not the first Victory, nor the only Victory with an influential role in shaping British sea power. An earlier HMS Victory, its commander Admiral Sir John Balchen, and their loss in 1744 led to significant change in British ship design and construction that allowed for the successes of later British Admirals, including Nelson. Balchen’s Victory rediscovers the importance of Admiral Sir John Balchen and his HMS Victory on reforming British naval power and laying the groundwork for future glory. Alan M. Smith, a former international shipping journalist and current volunteer at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, sets out to explore the intwined lives of Balchen and his Victory through exploring written, visual, and physical evidence. This story presents an intrinsic link between the commander and his ship and their invaluable influence on reforming the Royal Navy.

Smith deftly weaves a story of an admiral and his ship from their conception through their loss and subsequent rediscovery. This story begins at the end with the loss. With this scene of loss set, Smith weaves together different sources of evidence, including artwork, poems, and newspaper articles, to exhibit the importance, mystery, and sadness shrouding the loss. He couples the stories of loss and lamentation with the life histories of both Balchen and HMS Victory. These life histories, as Smith shows, parallel one another. Beginning about the same time, both admiral and ship went through a series of trials, successes, and rests before their connection. Smith brings the story back to the loss with the discovery of the shipwreck and the legal battles over the preservation of the site.

Balchen’s Victory balances biographies of the admiral and the ship with an exposé of the state of the Royal Navy of the early eighteenth century. The breadth of available evidence allows Smith to weave the separate yet parallel life histories together to show the importance of both to their contemporaries. Smith simultaneously illuminates through these histories the state of the Royal Navy shipbuilding enterprise at the time. Balchen through his experiences called for reform to shipbuilding tactics and hull designs, while HMS Victory showed the need for these changes. Smith’s writing style and use of a variety of sources shows the importance of the Navy to Britain’s political aspirations and British society. 

Smith brings together this story of Balchen and HMS Victory to show that the admiral and his flagship were more than the tragedy of their loss. Following similar works that have reanalyzed similar tragedies, Smith adeptly weaves a narrative of adventure for both the admiral and the ship with the repercussions of their loss. Without the role Balchen and HMS Victory played in both service and loss, the Royal Navy reformations that allowed for future naval dominance would have progressed much slower. Balchen’s Victory offers an example of the importance of analyzing the lives and contributions of lesser-known men and ships. More importantly, it illuminates the need to rediscover tragic losses through the lens of their contributions to future improvements.

  • Barnsley: Seaforth Books, 2022
  • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xv + 206 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $52.95
  • ISBN: 9781399094122

Reviewed by: Allyson Ropp, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology

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