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The Most Dangerous Moment of the War

John Clancy
The late author's father, then a Stoker Petty Officer, survived the attack in which HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire were sunk by Japanese aircraft off Ceylon on 5th April 1942. This book explains how British and Japanese forces came to be set against each other at that time and place, what happened during the action - something not available elsewhere at this level of detail - and includes gripping and at times uplifting reminiscences from survivors of the sinkings. It is at this level, the descriptions of what actually happens when a warship is attacked and sunk, that the book has its greatest value. The insight is very moving.

The political and strategic background is well covered but in such a short book (171pp) is unavoidably a bit sketchy. Relevant photographs and a track chart are included at appropriate points in the text although often on such a small scale that detail is impossible to discern and I needed a magnifying glass to make use of the latter. Clancy's background as an archaeologist equipped him for marshalling data but I found the writing style somewhat jerky. The book needed much more rigorous editing before publication ('interred' on p.158 presumably means 'interned'). The English is sometimes poor in both vocabulary ('loosing' does not mean 'losing') and grammar, there is much unnecessary repetition; sometimes the narrative is self-contradictory and the sequencing of the argument can be confusing, as is the equivocal post-action analysis at the end. Punctuation can also be faulted - the phrase '.. the D-Day landings at Walcheren in the south of France ..' (p.156) is ambiguous.

As to naval matters, the cover picture is somewhat misleading as it relates to the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales which preceded what is the main subject of the book. On p.17 the 'Albacores' ought to be 'Swordfish', and while the minute photograph on p.75 correctly shows Warspite as she was in 1942, the larger one on p.64 shows her before her 1924 refit. On p.118 the diesel oil is actually Furnace Fuel Oil, a much more awkward proposition for swimmers in the water .. and so forth. Civilians who write naval history should get a naval person to proofread! 'General Quarters' and 'flank speed' are unwelcome Americanisms. There are other solecisms that a writer more familiar with RN usage would have avoided. The author also seems to think that Swordfish might have had a role against Zeros, and not to understand that the numbers of aircraft per carrier were a function of ship construction - ours to completely different strategic and tactical requirements in the 1920s and 1930s from those of the Japanese - not a product of 'die-hard Sea Lords', itself a regrettably childish jibe. It was the Third Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson, who led the improvements to past practice designed into HMSs Illustrious and Formidable in 1936. All this unpicks the credibility of the author's general judgements, some of which are perfectly sound.

This is all such a pity as there is a wealth of detail of events and timings which I think will not be found elsewhere, including a detailed account the valiant endeavours of the RAF. The barbaric sadism of the Japanese towards wounded, defenceless prisoners is deservedly recorded.

This is fundamentally a book for the general reader. The naval historian might be better served by 'The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters' (1935-42) by Alexander Boyd which I reviewed in June.
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