The Real Cruel Sea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 12:00am

The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943

by Richard Woodman

John Murray $450

During the first world war, the blockade of vital trade routes by German submarines almost brought Britain to its knees. By late 1916, one in four merchant ships was being lost and the Admiralty was advising an accommodation with the enemy. The Royal Navy had too few ships to escort merchant convoys. It was only the entry of the US into the war that allowed the formation of escorted convoys to transport the men and material.

This close call and any lessons about the advisability of an island trading nation securing vital shipping lanes were largely forgotten in the years between the world wars. By 1939, Britain's merchant fleet was in a deplorable state.

In The Real Cruel Sea (a reference to the novel by Nicholas Montserrat, rather than poor grammar) English naval historian and novelist Richard Woodman details how this motley collection of ships and crews - many of whom were Chinese or Indian - braved the onslaught of the German naval offensive.

In the early days of the war, shipping losses were relatively light. Ship owners were reluctant to adopt the convoy system, as was the Royal Navy, which remained adamant that the real threat was posed by German surface raiders. After the fall of France and the establishment of submarine bases there, losses of merchant shipping mounted alarmingly, especially as U-boats now hunted in packs. During just one night in late 1940, dubbed 'night of the long knives' by jubilant commanders, wolf-packs sent 20 Allied ships to the bottom.

The Battle of the Atlantic degenerated into a desperate struggle for survival. Even after the Americans entered the war in late 1942, for every 11 million tonnes of shipping produced in Allied shipyards, Axis forces were sinking 12 million. This was in part due to America's refusal to black out its ports, making ships entering or leaving easy targets for the U-boats lurking offshore.

It wasn't just U-boats the merchantmen had to worry about. In addition to the sailors' old enemies of collision, storms, shipwreck and fire, they now had to contend with the threat from Focke-Wulf Kondor long-range bombers and other enemy aircraft, mines, fast E-boats, surface raiders and capital battleships.

Winston Churchill described the Battle of the Atlantic as a war of 'groping and drowning, of ambuscade and stratagem, of science and seamanship'. There's certainly plenty of drowning in The Real Cruel Sea, which in parts is a depressing catalogue of sunken ships and dead men, punctuated by tales of heroic rescues and epic journeys in open lifeboats.

Whether such tales can hold a reader's interest throughout the book's 680-plus pages is questionable. Presumably, this is aimed at libraries and serious naval types, which might explain the lack of explanation of terms such as 'luffing davits' and 'bowsing tackles'.