Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

A Bloody War

One Man's Memories of the Canadian Navy, 1939-1945

Lawrence, Hal

1990, McClelland & Stewart
ISBN 0933852215
193 pages, 26 b&w photos, 2 facsimiles, 1 map

Type. Memoir
Pros. Well-written, spans the entire course of World War II
Cons. Nothing major

This memoir covers the entire course of World War II. The author began his service in the tug Andrée Dupré, then moved on in succession to the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alaunia, the corvette Moose Jaw, the corvette Oakville, and the destroyer Sioux. He spent most of his time, with some time ashore in training, on convoy escort duty, covering North Atlantic, Arctic/Russian, and Caribbean routes, and also participated in the invasion of Normandy. The title of the book comes from a toast: "A bloody war and a sickly season". As the author notes, "this was a toast made for junior officers. Presumably, a bloody war would kill only those senior to us, thus opening the way for promotion; a sickly season was expected to do the same."

While Lawrence was on Moose Jaw he witnessed the curious incident in which U-501's Förster leaped from the U-boat to the corvette. Förster's motivation for this act was not easily explained, and his men demonstrated their disapproval of what they felt was their commander's abandonment of them and the boat at a critical moment by refusing to meet his eye or shake his hand as they left the corvette to go into captivity.

Lawrence recounts the boarding and attempted capture of U-94 (Ites), for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, as a complete comedy of errors. First the boarding party, preparing to launch their assault, were stunned by their own gun crew shooting too close to them. The author, one of only two boarders to make it to the U-boat after this onslaught of friendly fire, lost his only garment when his shorts split on impact with the boat's deck. Having forced most of the Germans back inside the boat, the boarders then realized they should have forced them out instead. Eventually the author entered the boat but had to exit again on finding it already too full of water, barely escaping with his life when the U-boat sank. He was soon picked up by an American naval ship, but had difficulty convincing his rescuers that he was not a German himself, because he wore no uniform.

This account illustrates the general tone of the book, in which the author emphasizes the humorous while not stinting on descriptions of hardship, but glossing over - mentioning quickly without analysis - the more gruesome aspects of his experiences, including encounters with maimed survivors, and killing Germans on U-94.

The book, now more than 20 years old, includes some outdated statistics, as well as some misspellings of German names, but overall the author does well in providing historical background for his memoir. This is a well-written and entertaining firsthand look at some well-known and many lesser-known incidents of the 1939-1945 naval war.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 25 Oct 2000.

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