|ARRSE Rating||4.5 star(s)|
The author, Bernard Edwards, is a much respected master mariner, who has achieved a well-deserved following with a series of several books to his credit, concentrating principally on lesser known aspects of the outstanding feats of the Merchant Navy during World War II.
This book is a fine example, telling as it does the tale of the many British registered cargo liners whose relatively high speed and greater load capacity were of vital importance to the war effort, especially with their ability to operate alone and use their superior speed and experience to avoid Nazi surface ships and submarines, and merchant-type commerce raiders, or to participate, especially as the war progressed, in high speed convoys.
Reflecting on the relatively small size of the British-registered merchant fleet of today, especially compared with those now sailing under flags of convenience, it is extraordinary to consider that when the war started, British companies owned and operated some 4000 ships, representing nearly two-thirds of the world’s merchant shipping, which kept Britain supplied throughout the war with the enormous amount of fuel and food, and arms and ammunition, together with raw materials and all the many other requirements of a country at war. These ships were manned by initial numbers of nearly 145000 merchant seamen, aged from mid-teens through to their late seventies, together with stewardesses in some of the larger ships, as well as other women serving as either engineers or medical officers. It is estimated that an overall number of up to 185000 merchant seafarers served over the war years, with over 2500 ships lost due to enemy action or other war causes, leading to the loss of nearly 37000 lives, a considerably greater casualty rate exceeding almost every branch of the uniformed Services, except those of the Submarine Service and Bomber Command.
It is both inspiring and heartening but thoroughly chastening to learn from this very well-informed book how these all too under-appreciated crews, who had not signed up for what comes the way of the Armed Services, were tested in extraordinary situations, often suffering great hardship before ending up in open lifeboats or being confined in dreadful conditions in German ships, even then at risk of death or injury from their own side before incarceration in Germany. Chastening too to consider that merchant seafarers lost their pay from the date of the loss of their ship, unlike the Royal Navy, who were paid throughout including time in prison camps, although a variation introduced during 1942 brought many merchant seaman broadly in line with the Royal Navy practice.
Many of the events start similarly, with the cargo liner concerned making her solitary way across an empty ocean, followed by sighting or being sighted by a commerce raider, an almost invariably unsuccessful attempt to outrun the raider, a gallant attempt by the ship’s small gun crew to take on the more heavily armed raider, and ultimately the abandonment and sinking of the merchant ship ,with substantial loss of life, either at the time or after long spells adrift in open boats, for as long as 103 days in one extreme case.
Although the best known raider was probably the so-called pocket battleship GRAF SPEE and, following her scuttling and loss off Montevideo to the subsequent associated rescue in Norway by HMS COSSACK of the imprisoned crews from the supply ship ALTMARK, the book relates in great detail how the commerce raider KORMORAN spent ten months at large in two oceans, and sank six Allied ships totalling nearly 70000 tons, before being finally caught off the coast of Western Australia and succumbing to the six inch guns of HMAS SYDNEY. Most unfortunately, as she sank herself, KORMORAN succeeded in her death throes in torpedoing the SYDNEY, which had ventured too close, and sank with the loss of her entire crew of 645 men, whilst 318 out of KORMORAN’s own crew of 398 survived but tellingly never revealed the full story.
The book contains an awe-inspiring series of events, describing in detail, and some breathtakingly vivid eye-witness accounts, some of the terrible hardships they had to endure, demonstrating astonishing bravery and resilience, not least considering that these men, and the select number of women, had little or no training for the fighting and bloodshed forced upon them. Sadly, they were not always successful, and those who are aware of the cruel nature of the more extreme original forms of “running the gauntlet” will be well aware that it often lead to death, and sadly that is precisely what happened all too often with these gallant ships and their crews.
Perhaps one particularly striking chapter, very aptly entitled “A Sense of Duty”, gives a sense of what these valiant seafarers endured, and describes the saga of the Blue Star Line’s EMPIRE STAR, whose Master, Captain Selwyn Capon, had been awarded the OBE as a junior officer during World War I, and which arrived in a convoy off Singapore on 29 January 1942, when what had been planned as a rescue rapidly turned into an evacuation. On 12 February 1942, having not even unloaded, she left Singapore in a small convoy, with no fewer than up to 2160 refugees (since no one was counting) in addition to her crew of 75, consisting of British and Australian personnel, including 133 Australian nurses.
Within hours of leaving, they were attacked by Japanese dive bombers and, as the largest ship, suffered most attention, including three bombs which killed 145 and wounded 17. Thanks to incredible skill by Captain Capon, the ship evaded more damage from further attacks and the convoy safely reached Batavia, now Jakarta, before the EMPIRE STAR continued alone to Fremantle in Western Australia. For his distinguished service, Captain Capon’s OBE was elevated to a rare CBE, and no fewer than 17 of his crew also received awards at other levels.
Sadly, there was no happy ending since, having returned to Liverpool via the Panama in September 1942, the EMPIRE STAR sailed on her own for Suez via the North Atlantic to the Cape, only to be sighted at dusk on 23 October 1942 by U-615, Despite being hit by as many as six torpedoes, the first of which did not explode, and the crew having had no option but to abandon ship and take to the three remaining lifeboats, the gallant EMPIRE STAR refused to sink until the coup de grace of a seventh torpedo.
Most regrettably, and perhaps fearful of early retribution from any searching warship, the commander of U-615 failed to comply with Admiral Dönitz’s specific orders which required him to surface and capture both the Master and the Chief Engineer (a policy intended to create a shortfall of experienced senior officers), and left the scene and the survivors to their fate, 600 miles from the Azores, the nearest land and in a full gale increasing to Storm Force 10 with resultant enormously heavy seas.
Fortunately, despite their SOS not being acknowledged, a miracle occurred and the sloop HMS BLACK SWAN had indeed heard the SOS and, following a long search, found 34 survivors the next day and the first 27 the following day. Fatefully, the third lifeboat was never seen again, with the loss of all on board, including their courageous Master, Captain Selwyn Capon CBE. It can be of little consolation that U-615 was sunk by a USN Martin Mariner PBM on 7 August 1943, with a better outcome than the EMPIRE STAR’s gallant crew in that 43 survivors, but not including their ill-famed captain, who bled to death from wounds, were rescued by a USN destroyer.
In conclusion, it seems most fitting that this thoroughly recommended book, and the memory of all those crews who served the country so valiantly throughout six years of war, can perhaps be best summed up in a précis of the very words of brave Captain Capon himself on his return to Liverpool in September 1942:
“Of my ship’s company, during those particularly hectic days, I can only speak in terms of highest commendation, for… their outstanding coolness in moments of greatest danger. We men of the Merchant Navy grimly carry on despite the heavy balance of odds against us. We are amongst the last to receive a pat on the back, but we foster no heartaches over that fact. We neither look for them nor in any way invite them. Amongst ourselves sufficient it is for us that in our own hearts we have the proud knowledge and the gratification of a job well done….to the fullest extent of our ability…. Actually we, each one of us on board at the time simply did our duty…”
Amen to that - they certainly did and this fine book gives them full due credit for their selfless sacrifice.
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