Reviewed by me in our July edition. A very good book indeed.
IN A month when Britain’s most senior sailor says the nation needs awakening from its slumber when it comes to awareness of the sea, rewind to the dark days of September 1941.
It looked like the Germans were on the verge of overrunning the Soviet Union, Tobruk was invested, relations with Japan were spiralling uncontrollably towards war, and the ‘grey wolves’ of the U-boat force threatened to strangle Britain’s sea lanes.
The chroniclers, commentators and monitors of the Mass Observation movement set out to discover ‘civilian attitudes to the Navy compared with the RAF and Army’.
They recorded sentiments which would find echoes today. “The Navy is doing a tremendous job with its usual silence and courage,” one interviewee said. Sailors, another told the MO, did “lots of dull, dangerous work bravely and well.” One person questioned put it simply: “I know no sailors, but I think they are heroic.”
The Mass Observation report concluded that the British people admired the Royal Navy but had little understanding of what they did.
Sir Max Hastings’ impending tome on WW2 is due to argue that the Senior Service was the nation’s most effective fighting arm between 1939 and 1945.
A similar argument is made by Glyn Prysor in Citizen Sailors: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (Penguin, £25 ISBN 978-0670918546), which uses diaries (kept against regulations by many men), letters, memoirs, oral history and contemporary documents to tell the RN’s wartime ‘story’ through the eyes of the men who were there.
In doing so he does not merely cover the ‘set piece’ actions – the Atlantic convoys (pictured above), the Bismarck chase, the sinking of the Scharnhorst – nor merely focus on the Surface Fleet; the often-overlooked role of the Submarine Service in particular is not ignored here.
And while the popular image of a wartime sailor might be Jolly Jack, carefree alongside, stolid, redoubtable reliable at sea, the reality is rather bleaker.
For many the Mediterranean in 1941 and 1942 were possibly the darkest hours in modern RN history, in particular the pounding the ships took from the Luftwaffe.
“Everybody became a bit bomb happy,” recalled Arthur Jones, a Royal Marine serving aboard battleship HMS Warspite which was damaged off Crete. “We were getting so ragged it became a punishable offence to slam a hatch because it jarred the nerves so much.”
The nerves of as many as 30 men aboard HMS Ajax – victor of the River Plate – cracked after five weeks at sea and almost constant air attacks. She put into harbour for 48 hours, her men were addressed by Admiral Cunningham – who threatened to hang any ring-leaders from the cruiser’s own yard arm, but still four men jumped overboard when Ajax put to sea again. Cunningham did not hang them – but they were jailed for three years.
Most sailors looked upon shipmates who broke with sympathy – for they realised the time-honoured saying ‘there but for the grace of God’ applied.
“The nervous strain simply grows and grows until you have to exert all your will power to stop yourself from appearing jittery or nervous,” wrote one sailor. “That is courage – the quality of being able to keep from showing your fear in the face of nervous strain.”
Indeed, one thing which shines through in this excellent book is the daily physical and mental burden on the ordinary sailor in WW2 – whatever the theatre of war: fear of death, fear of being wounded, shipwrecked, concerns about loved ones at home.
While attitudes had clearly improved from a generation before when the military refused to concede ‘shell shock’ existed, there was a reluctance to accept that long periods at sea, defence watches, battle – combined the RN’s chief psychiatric consultant called them ‘operational strain’ – was as much of a factor as an individual’s inherent weaknesses.
Not a few good men broke down, among them Philip Rambaut, a senior engineer aboard HMS Grenville, who collapsed when another ship in his group was sunk. “The strain of four years of war was beginning to have its effect on me. I was able to perform my duties satisfactorily but our doctor noticed that I was unable to relax, walking up and down a great deal and showing irritability.”
What Prysor also shows clearly is that, however diverse the backgrounds of the men of the Royal Navy between 1939 and 1945 – regulars, reservists, submariners, Fleet Air Arm – there was a common nautical bond linking them. They felt the loss of every ship, whether in the same convoy or whether they were half a world away: Royal Oak, Courageous, Rawalpindi, the Mighty Hood.
And when the boot was on the other foot, some sailors felt revulsion at wiping out the German invasion fleet bound for Crete – one called it “a massacre – bits of boat and bits of German flew into the air. Not a pleasant sight by any means”. Others felt no pity as the Bismarck went down just days later a couple of thousand miles away. “We must not have sympathy with such a brutal nation who are killing our families. No, that is not warfare, it is brutal murder.”
What many readers might find astounding is that many peacetime customs were upheld in war – beauty contests (minus female participants, naturally), crossing the line ceremonies, deck hockey – as well as other pastimes which didn’t bring life aboard a ship or submarine to a halt, such as uckers. “It is better known as ludo, but, of course, it would be too childish to play that,” one submariner wrote home, “so a more grown-up name is given to it in the Service.”
Equally fascinating are the sometimes fraught relations with the Home Front, dockyard workers especially. One petty officer fumed that while men on the front line were taking home 14 shillings a week, people in factories were earning £14. Union regulations played havoc with the need for rapid repairs, civvies who came aboard HMS Hartland to clean her boiler “sat down and read their morning papers and played cards until 5pm when they started work – on overtime,” one senior rating fumed. A song became popular in the lower decks, complaining maties spent the day “doing f**k all”.
Such vignettes help to make this one the best, most all-embracing personal histories of the Royal Navy in WW2. It is not a traditional account of battles, of tactics and strategy, but it captures the soul of the men who were there, their actions and reactions, their humanity and, occasionally, inhumanity.
They were not perfect, nor were their ships or leaders, but they came through the sternest test their Navy and their nation has ever faced. They returned, wrote one junior officer from HMS Exeter who spent more than three years in Japanese captivity, to “the same, the greatest little country in the world and [it’s] going to be better than ever just as soon as we can get things straightened out.”