'Citizen Sailors' by Glyn Prysor


War Hero
Book Reviewer
Prysor is a professor of history and has achieved the fairly remarkable feat of compressing a comprehensive history of the Second World War at sea, as experienced by the RN, into 472 pages, as a framework for citing the personal memories culled from the diaries and letters of a large number of participants mined by him from several archives including the IWM. Not all those quoted are sailors, there is the odd soldier grateful for being rescued, the occasional wife, and even a German. The result is a litany of hardship, privation, shipwreck, broken bodies, total fatigue and above all fear, of men taken almost to (and occasionally beyond) breaking point.

Here's a taster:

Vincent Shackleton of the minesweeper HMS Salamander describes the conditions during one voyage to Britain from Russia:

“ …there is no way that I can convey to others the awesome nature and power of those rolling mountains of water. There is no yardstick that can be used, no similes, no adjectives, no extravagance of metaphor that could convincingly impress on the most comprehending mind the scale of the fury ... The sea was a boiling white mass almost permanently obscured by driving spray, massive waves that hung high over the bridge like apartment blocks before breaking in great avalanches over the bows ...

“Continual noise and movement stretched the frayed nerves almost to breaking point, with no relaxation of tension by night or day ... The bows rose high, borne aloft by the huge wave .. As it passed beneath the hull the screws raced, then the bows crashed down with a hammer blow that shook every plate in the vessel.”

.. and then there is the violence of the enemy.

As to the editorial, there is the occasional error of fact and not a few errors of terminology but when the people speak for themselves that makes the book worthwhile for the reader - in places an absolutely cracking read - and valuable as a piece of history.

If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't sign on ..

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