Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews


Merchant Sailors at War, 1939-1945

Kaplan, Philip and Currie, Jack

1998, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 1557501378
Hardcover, 224 pages, 228 photos (117 b&w, 112 color), 1 plan, glossary, index, bibliography

Type. General History
Pros. Good overview, great photos
Cons. Nothing major

This pictorial-and-text history of World War II merchant marine and convoy operations is a good companion to the authors' earlier Wolfpack, following the same three-pronged format of text, images, and sidebars.

Once again, the photos and reproductions of posters are excellent, and the narrative interesting and informative. Topics covered include merchant ships and the convoy system; an overview of U-boats as well as mention of surface raiders and aircraft which also attacked convoys; a look at the Liberty ships, tramp steamers, and corvettes; specific threats to convoys and the development of escort defense tactics; the special dangers of serving on board tankers; the experience of the shipwrecked in lifeboats on the open sea; the typical career of a merchant marine cadet; and specific venues and campaigns, such as the Malta convoys, Russian convoys, and the invasion of Normandy.

A chapter on the merchant sailor details the dangers of wartime and the already sparse and harsh living and working conditions these men experienced. We learn that the British fared rather badly in terms of pay and status compared to their US counterparts, but that the brave efforts of these sailors in the course of the war greatly improved public opinion of their profession.

The chapter entitled "Will She Starve" describes Britain's tenuous lifeline across the Atlantic, and includes many interesting propaganda posters, recipe book covers, and similar items used to encourage British citizens to use food economically.

One of the most interesting chapters describes the experiences of one of the authors. Under the terms of the Lend-Lease plan, RAF pilots could train in the United States. Jack Currie was one such RAF flyer, and provides an account of his adventurous crossing on the troopship HMT Wolfe in January 1942 from the Firth of Clyde to Halifax, and the return trip in October 1942 on Stirling Castle. Currie died in 1996, before the publication of this book; thus it seems even more appropriate that this short memoir should appear in his last book, which is partly dedicated to him.

Perspectives and quotes from the literature of both sides of the conflict provide a balanced view of hunters and hunted. Includes a glossary, index, and bibliography with good coverage of English and adequate coverage of German sources. Recommended as a useful pictorial overview.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 29 Apr 2000.

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