Merchant Sailors at War 1943-45 by Philip Kaplan

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  • The author is American and has produced a large number of books about the Second World War, particularly about the war at sea. This offering does not just depict the MN; in showing the conditions and environment in which the merchant sailors served, the sea and the escorts feature strongly, and includes, for instance, material relating to the Royal Canadian Navy and US Coastguard. In fact it also uses material from the very start of the war and presumably overlaps with the same authors’ ‘U-Boat Prey, Merchant Sailors at War 1939-42’.

    The book is divided into eight sections:

    - The sea and heavy weather

    - The tramp steamers that formed the bulk of the convoys, particularly the slow ones - life on board and ashore

    - How the war was illustrated, mostly via reproductions of posters, some American (and some items are from the First World War)

    - The corvette, with a focus on the last surviving one, HMCS Sackville which is preserved as a museum ship in Halifax, and on the RCN’s immense contribution to the Atlantic battle

    - Arctic convoys

    - Atlantic convoys, including a peaceful passage to and from by aircrew under training, contrasted with an engagement between a corvette and the Hipper

    - Malta and the cost of its survival particularly in merchant ships, coming to a climax with Operation Pedestal. (There is an editorial glitch on p.97 where editorial slides into a quotation due to an accidental deletion)

    - Normandy, mostly illustrated via shore-side subjects and closing with eight pages of photographs relating to U-boats and their concrete shelters on the Atlantic coast of France.

    The illustrations (mostly photographs, excellently selected and informatively sourced) are supported by an eclectic mixture of reminiscences, documents and quotations linked by very informative editorial, for instance regarding lifesaving equipment. These sketch in the background to the section topics, necessarily fairly briefly.

    The acknowledgments puzzled me as many of the people listed (Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling) appear to me to be dead. The text credit goes to the late Jack Currie; Seaforth seem to have adapted the present work from Kaplan and Currie’s similar but more extensive 1998 production, ‘Convoy’, published by the US Naval Institute Press. There is a full list of picture credits. The odd untrapped typo has escaped correction.

    There can never be too many reminders of the travails and sacrifice that merchant seamen of many nations endured, both via the dangers of the sea and from the violence of the enemy, to support the defeat of Nazi Germany. My second photograph shows one of the 'lucky' ones - compared to the tens of thousands who died.
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