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Glyndŵr Pub





Glyndŵr Publishing 438 pages paperback illustrated 2007

WH Smith Welsh Book of the Month

‘WH Smith Welsh Book of the Month: Cardiff lost over 100 ships; Barry lost more men at sea per capita than anywhere in Britain, and convoys for the longest and most important battle of the war - the Battle of the Atlantic - met at Milford Haven. These are the first-hand accounts of the experiences of Welsh men and women serving in the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, naval bases and dockyards. Without those who served at sea, freedom and democracy would have been exterminated. This is the debt owed by the present, and all future generations. Churchill's only real fear was losing the war at sea, and it was not only the longest battle of the war, but also one that was very nearly lost. 'One can only wonder at the mystery of human courage, in the face of what must have seemed overwhelming odds against survival.’

A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council. ‘A book of first-hand accounts of the experiences of Welsh men and women serving in the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm dockyards and naval bases during the Second World War. It shows how Churchill feared losing the war at sea, and examines the events that took place at Cardiff, Barry, and the Battle of the Atlantic.

"Nearly 70 years have now passed since the events and stories related in this book, and there is the realisation that witness testimony, now more than ever, needs to be recorded, in order to preserve the records of individuals and communities, vividly and accurately, for posterity.

The mere fact that the stories are able to be related in such a vivid and accurate way shows how these events obviously had a huge impact on the lives of, for the most part, ordinary men and women, called on to do the extraordinary.

The book (438 pages and 99 black-and-white photographs) consists of 17 main chapters, the largest being quite rightly given over to the individual stories of the men and women who served mainly in the merchant navy, at sea or in allied activities during the Second World War. (Imagine my surprise to find that I was actually acquainted with one of the seamen, who lives in my home town!)

The overview sets the scene with the statement that ‘by 1941 1,000 merchant vessels had been sent to the bottom and by summer 1941 seven million tons of allied shipping had been sunk. All too often the crews died, either trapped in their sinking vessels, drowned while abandoning ship or killed by exposure to the elements in fragile lifeboats.’

This continuous strand of death, destruction and appalling living and working conditions at sea pervades throughout the book, and as with all war accounts of this nature, it is incomprehensible to try to understand what seafarers went through. In most cases, men and women were plucked from their ordinary everyday lives and thrust into the front line, sometimes with only the most basic of training. In addition to the inherent dangers of war, there were the hardships of low pay, long hours (64-hour working weeks), rat infested ships and highly dangerous occupations, such as stokers, trimmers or gunners.

A few brief examples from the many individual stories illustrate the range of dangers and appalling living conditions. One story tells of a merchantman, whose ship was torpedoed and he spent three weeks in an open boat. Because his ship was sunk (i.e. his place of employment was no more!), he was never paid for those three weeks. Another explains how ‘firemen’ and ‘trimmers’ in the engine rooms hardly stood a chance if they were torpedoed and they invariably went down with the ship. One seaman recalls their fears of being captured by the Japanese, as allied merchantmen and sailors had been plucked from the sea only to be mercilessly tied together and beheaded. If you survived the sinking of your ship ‘even lifebelts were no use against the cold. Men struggled for a while but then seemed to give up. They died of hypothermia.’ One of the most horrifying stories concerns an 18-year-old sailor who climbed down to save a friend from the water only to find that he had lost both his legs and could not climb onto the ship. He had to be left to drift away and die. Another officer talks about the never-ending burials at sea, and there is a description of sailors shaking their beds over the side of the boat, turning the sea black with bugs and lice.

Later chapters include brief letters from sailors and merchant seamen, showing snapshots of life at sea. A whole chapter is dedicated to the contribution of one Welsh Port, Barry, to the Merchant Navy, although the author acknowledges the importance of recognizing all those individuals and ports who gave so much to the war effort. This chapter endeavours to show how a whole community was affected. Barry in particular suffered very high losses of both men and ships.

Chapters six to twelve mainly relate the fate of particular merchant ships, including a reference to the U172, with a more than passing reference to a possible ‘war crime’ by the German vessel. The later chapters detail Welsh merchant ships lost and damaged, the Atlantic Convoy system and the U-boat threat. There are also two very poignant poems, and a concluding chapter.

This book was extremely interesting, and at times difficult to put down (although the format of short stories does lend itself to dipping into the book). It is pleasing to note that the authors also intend to apply the same meticulous research and collation of witness testimony to the airmen and soldiers of Wales in future ventures.’ Ken Jones


‘One can only wonder at the mystery of human courage, in the face of what must have seemed overwhelming odds against survival. For me the laconic acceptance of terrible injury and loss in some of these accounts is deeply moving. One example is enough: that of the sailor, barely eighteen years old, who climbed down the side of his ship to rescue a companion from the sea, only to find his friend although still alive, had lost both his legs and was unable to climb onto the side netting. Our young sailor had to let go his friend’s hand and allow him to drift away to his inevitable death. An account worthy of the pen of Xenophon…’

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