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The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943 [Paperback]

Richard Woodman
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

9 May 2005

For the British, the Battle of the Atlantic was a fight for survival, as they depended entirely upon the safe transit of hundreds of convoys of merchant ships laden with food, raw materials and munitions from America to feed the country and to keep the war effort going. The ultimate success of these convoys is much more than the triumph of one side's naval technology over the other, or of the revelations of the enemy's encoded orders assiduously teased out by the brilliant young decrypters at Bletchley Park; it is more too than the simple assertion that victory went to the Allies because they built more ships and therefore shipped more cargoes, than the Germans could sink.

A national decline had left Great Britain desperately vulnerable in 1939, when she had to mobilise her civilian ships and revive the notion of a 'merchant navy'. It was this disparate collection of private vessels which endured the onslaught of the German U-boat offensive until Allied superiority overwhelmed the enemy. In this important, moving and exciting book, drawing extensively on first-hand sources, acclaimed historian Richard Woodman establishes the importance of the British, and Allied merchant fleets to the war effort, elevating the heroic civilians who manned them to their rightful place in the history of the Second World War.

Product details

  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (9 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719565995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719565991
  • Product Dimensions: 4.3 x 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 392,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Impossible to put down ... it is the perfect book for those who love the sea, filled with the most exciting detail of navies in both world wars.' Morris Beckman (Camden Journal)

Combines harrowing, sometimes humorous eyewitness accounts with a strategic evaluation of the war at sea ... A superbly researched memorial (Christopher Lee, Literary Review)

This is military history for grownups, unsparing and unedifying, but gripping from first to last (Michael Kerrigan, Scotsman)

'Woodman set out to describe "the moral high point" of the British and American maritime effort in World War II. He has succeeded superbly.' Robin Knight. (The Old Pangbournian)

Drawing extensively on first-hand sources, Woodman establishes the importance of the British and Allied merchant fleets to the war effort. (Navy News)

Will surely serve as a semi-official wartime history of our merchant marine (John Crossland, Sunday Times)

Both in-depth and memorable (Eastern Daily Press)

Richard Woodman understands the sea and seamen and tells the story without artificial colouring (Tom Pocock, Spectator)

It completes a trilogy which will surely serve as a semi-official wartime history of our merchant marine ... Woodman leaves us with a feeling of humility and plenty of food for thought (John Crossland, Sunday Times)

The gripping story of the merchant seamen and their battle for safe passage of convoys across the Atlantic (History Today)

The finest work to date on the cruelly ill-used and underrated merchant navy in the Second World War (New Statesman)

This superbly-crafted history is a fitting testament to their valour (Focus)

Magisterial (Daily Express)

A big book, replete with scholarship and evidence of vast research ... an account which so badly needed to be written (Michael Grey, Lloyds List)

A moving tribute to the sailors who fought for survival (The Sunday Times)

Book Description

The gripping and intense story of the merchant seamen and their battle for safe passage of essential convoys across the Atlantic in WW2.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars At last, a serious merchant navy account 14 Aug 2005
By Clio
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Mr Woodman has set the record straight for the merchant navy. We have had a myriad of serious accounts of the Royal Navy at war but the merchant navy has long been the neglected branch of the services. True, there have been books about the merchant navy in the past but they have been subjective and based on woolly recollection. The Real Cruel Sea makes full use of contemporary accounts but crucially, anchors them within a structure of material fact, time and milieu. In fact the book makes a very useful complement to Blair's U boat War volumes. If you want a good factual read, this book is for you, if you are a serious historian, The Real Cruel Sea is essential reading. Either way, anyone with an interest in the sea and our heritage, should buy this book.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Forgotten Heros Recognised 9 July 2006
This book will appeal to anyone interested in the detail of WW II. The author has meticulously researched the convoys that brought imports and exports to and from our shores, and carried war materials that were essential to maintaining our participation in the war. The allied victory would not have been possible without hard-fought victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Real Cruel Sea focusses on the Merchant Navies of the UK and our allies and is a valuable compliment to other volumes covering the same conflict particularly the two volumes by C.Blair.

Although the subject matter is grim, Richard Woodman's style makes this long book a comfortable read, and despite the fact that the fundamentals of the conflict between convoys and U-boats were largely similar throughout the four years covered by the book, the narrative never becomes repetitious.

The reader is made to realise the incredible levels of stress which must have been day to day reality for the merchant seamen serving in the convoys. The use of the names of the masters of vessels personalises the narratives.

It is therefore unfortunate that the final chapter dwells on the bad behaviour of a small number of merchant seamen when the survival of this country depended on the willingness of seaman to sail into the Atlantic battlefield with its constant threat of sinkings.

In his introduction Richard Woodman is clear that he is not including statistics available elsewhere.

I believe that this is a mistake. Information summarising the details of each convoy and their losses of ships and of manpower would have been useful. The book neccessarily concentrates on those convoys that were targetted by the U-boats.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps not real enough 7 Jan 2011
Although this book concentrates on the Battle from the Merchant Navy's perspective, I'm not sure that it does it justice. There is some good worthwhile narrative, but too much of it is boring and repetitive in format. It might have been better to present some of it in tabular form, because simply reciting the name of the captain of a ship, the number of crew who died and the type of cargo carried when the vessel was sunk tells nothing of the real event and thus it is easy to gloss over the losses.

This is a book for those who are dedicated to the study of the Battle of the Atlantic. For the novice, look elsewhere.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfull purchase 13 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book for my father as he has always had an interest in WW2 and in particular our naval contribution to the war effort in both wars. My father said that reading the book is a testament to the heroism sea men who ran the gauntlet of the German U Boats and destroyers. While my father found the facts harrowing he said the book was a compulsive read and so well written and researched. It is certainly one of the better Fathers Day presents I have purchased. While I was visiting my parents my father was forever reading 'The Real Cruel Sea' at every opportunity. With extensive footnotes and bibliography there is plenty to read and digest even if the facts are sometimes less than palatable. At least this book illustrates the selfless contribution made by the Merchant Navy to the war effort 1939-43. I would certainly recommend this book to others if my fathers responses are anything to go by.
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