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Readable vignettes about British merchant ships in WW2
on 10 July 2013
Stories of courage and tragedy about British merchant ships in WW2. The death rate amongst British merchant seamen in WW2 (17%) was higher than the Royal Navy or the RAF (both around 9%). The book has 21 short chapters, usually following a particular merchant ship until it was attacked, with a description of the fate of the crew, and the careers of the attacking vessel and captain. These vignettes cover a range of circumstances: ships sailing in convoy or independently; in different oceans; and attacks by submarines, surface ships or aircraft. Mostly they involve ships being torpedoed and sunk by submarines. One notable chapter describes two different actions where a lone merchant ship successfully fought off with gunfire an Italian submarine attacking on the surface.
The author is a professional merchant captain who began his career at the end of WW2. His feeling for the profession is evident. The book is easy to read. Its value is in highlighting the unheralded work-a-day courage of merchant seamen. Once attacked survival was a lottery. Most poignant are the stories of men lost without trace. The book is otherwise disappointing. The vignettes are superficial and repetitive, providing little insight in the character, motivations and circumstances of the officers and men of the merchant service. There is a brief overview but limited analysis or context to deepen the reader's understanding.
For those seeking greater depth and insight into the great trials, and highs and lows of conduct in the merchant service see Night of the U-boats, Nightmare Convoy: The Story of the Lost Wrens or PQ17 Convoy to Hell - the survivors' Story - in-depth accounts of individual Atlantic, Gibraltar and Arctic convoys respectively, with a strong focus on the merchant ships and written by a convoy veteran; Convoy: The Greatest U-boat Battle of the War (Cassell Military Paperbacks) - an excellent account also with a strong focus on the merchant ships; Convoy Commodore the insightful memoir of a commodore, the officer who commanded the merchant ships; The Rescue Ships, the heroic history of the merchant ships tasked to rescue survivors; or The Real Cruel Sea, a very thoroughly researched and comprehensive although dense history of the merchant service in WW2.