Wingfield at War

Author Rating:
4.5/5,
  • Author:
    Mervyn Wingfield
    This work is the first of a series of Royal Naval memoirs edited by Captain Peter Hore, a published author on naval history and for many years the Daily Telegraph's naval obituarist, in succession to John Winton - a tough act to follow. He presents here Wingfield's own autobiography, originally written for family consumption and now edited by Hore for the general reader.

    Captain Mervyn Wingfield DSO DSC*, Royal Navy (1911-2005) went to Dartmouth (where the jokes and strange, not to say slightly mad, people start, and for entertainment we witness - vicariously - a formal flogging) in 1925 from Pangbourne after a very dysfunctional childhood. He ended up as the second highest achiever of his term of 50, beaten for the eventual top place only by Admiral Sir John Frewen GCB.

    His cadet and midshipman's time reveal a system which seems tailor made to beat all initiative and individuality out of young officers. However that seems to have been water off a duck's back to Wingfield. Exams were not his thing but he struggled through, the while considering that there was far too much unnecessary theory, science, spherical trigonometry, and stuff like that. He found his metier in submarines at the age of 20 on the China Station and, married, returned there as a 1st Lieutenant in 1937, returning across France just as the 'Phoney War' (which it exactly wasn't for the RN) got real, to qualify for Command. Now nearly everything was serious, including losing one boat, Umpire, and nearly his life in a collision. Wingfield served in the North Sea and right up to Murmansk and on the St Nazaire raid before being appointed to Taurus in which he was busy in the Mediterranean and clandestinely in the Aegean. He trained his gun crews intensively including action from submerged - surface, shoot, down again - which produced excellent results particularly against small fry like caiques. In late 1934 Taurus went East and managed to bag a Japanese submarine almost immediately. More good work followed until it was time to come home. Taurus arrived and paid off in July 1944 and Wingfield was soon involved in bringing captured U-boats back to Britain from Norway.

    For Wingfield at Peace it was then back to the Navy he had so carefully avoided - first in London and then as Commander of the cruiser HMS Euryalus where he did well and had much to do with his admiral - Mountbatten. This was followed, soon as a Captain, by staff and diplomatic appointments in Washington, London, Scotland and Athens - this last complicated by EOKA terrorism in Cyprus and our Suez adventure - enabling an addiction to golf to take hold, and the jokes and the name dropping (there are numerous interesting walk-on parts for then or later senior people) flow again. In retirement Wingfield went back to sea as a second mate in the merchant service.

    There are several pertinent black and white illustrations and a foreword by fellow submariner, and former Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce. Although codas from (Wingfield's friend) Admiral Hezlet's standard work on our WW2 submarines are placed as page footnotes as correctives to Wingfield's narrative, originally written from memory in 1983 (the chronology is sometimes a puzzle), there is much material in the endnotes that would have been better also so treated. In note 37 the 'execution' by the Germans of prisoners taken on the St Nazaire raid would I think have been better recorded as murder.

    Wingfield comes across as independent, irreverent, and not immune from dropping the occasional brick on some important foot. He could spot an idiot through his periscope a very long way away and several of his seniors are hung out to dry in these pages. He was relaxed and very sociable - clubbable is the word - and via this book I much enjoyed 'meeting' him.

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  1. JINGO
    An excellent review SW. I must say I’m very tempted. I seem to be reading an awful lot more about the Royal Navy in WW2 these days. So many interesting characters.