This book is a collection of short stories and reflections bracketing Three Corvettes, Monsarrat's memoirs of life as a RNVR officer during WWII. During the War LT Monsarrat was assigned as a watch officer on a Flower Class Corvette escorting convoys in the Atlantic. After a year of this duty he was promoted to Executive Officer of a corvette on convoy duty on the East coast of Britain, and finally he became the first RNVR officer to command one of HM vessels when he took command of HMS Shearwater.
The interesting thing about Monsarrat's memoir is the almost entire absence of action. There are relatively few passages about attacking or being attacked by U-Boats, E-Boats or German Aircraft. Most of the attention is focused on the normal pedestrian difficulty of life at sea in a small ship. The most common foe is the weather, especially in North Atlantic Winter. Monsarrat also does a good job of recreating the blend of tedium and fear of standing bridge watch during endless winter nights, trying to stay warm and dry while waiting for one of the merchant ships to be torpedoed. Monsarrat also excels in describing the aftermath of the U-Boat attacks. The oil soaked bodies pulled from the sea frozen in their life-jackets, the crew of the oil tanker faced with a choice of burning to death aboard their ship or jumping into the frozen Atlantic with seas running too high for other ships to rescue them. There is one story that sticks with me. One dawn a lookout on Monsarrat's ship sites a life raft with three men, half dead from exposure. The seas are too rough and cold for swimmers so the ship throws a line to the raft. One of the survivors ties the line to the raft and, after great exertion; two of the three men are rescued. The line parts. The crew throw another line, but the remaining survivor makes no move to grasp it. The deck officer on the corvette tells one of the rescued survivors that the man must grasp the line or, in this sea, nothing can be done for him. The rescued man tells the officer, "He can't. He has broken a leg and both arms. He told us to go first." Eventually the corvette must move on, leaving the man to his fate. As the ship pulls away, the man waves good-bye.
Aside from the core of the book, the short stories are pretty good as well. Monsarrat is a good writer, with something of a gift from describing interior thoughts of the protagonist. There is also a fair amount of humor in the books to relieve the gloom. For example, one morning on the way out of harbor, Monsarrat querys the local lightship "Did the Germans lay any mines here last night?" the lightship replies "We'll know in a minute, you're the first ship out".
At the end of the day this is an excellent book about what it was really like to be a watch officer in one of the "small ships" that kept Britain supplied during WWII and won the Battle of the Atlantic. I recommend it without reservation.