Monday, 3 April 2017

The hell of the Arctic runs during WW2: review of "Soldier, Sail North" by James Pattinson

This book was written in 1954 and is republished. It narrates the hell on earth that were the Arctic runs. The allies had promised Stalin to send him material to use in his fight against the Germans. The result were convoys under constant attack by the German navy and airforce.

Flint Whitlock describes it like this:
The voyages across the North Atlantic and from Iceland to the Russian ports of Murmansk, Archangel, and Kola Inlet involved more hazards than in any other kind of naval duty. Severe weather was commonplace. Ice fields could be encountered at any time of year. Floating mines were a constant menace. German submarines, surface craft, and warplanes could strike at will from nearby bases in German-occupied Norway. And, prior to the spring of 1943, when an effective Allied antisubmarine offensive got underway, ships and men making the so-called “Murmansk Run” had about one chance in three of returning.
This was no glamorous sea campaign, with full-sail, tall-masted men-of-war firing broadside after broadside into their enemy’s rigging. It was a cold, dirty, dangerous business in which seamen might be blown into a flaming sea of burning oil and left to die of wounds, burns, or hypothermia.
Once the convoys reached their destinations, there was no guarantee of safe harbor, either, for the Germans often attacked while the cargo ships were in port, unloading. Then there was the return trip.
The history of the convoy operations, which went on nearly continuously from the autumn of 1939 until May 1945, is one of intense suffering, great loss, unparalleled bravery, and uncompromising devotion to duty. The epic saga is one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II—one that has for too long been overshadowed by other events. (See: http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/running-the-gauntlet-the-murmansk-run-wwiis-arctic-convoys/)
It took many decades before those merchant sailors on the Murmansk runs were regarded as war veterans in the USA. No GI-bill benefits. And if I remember correctly only a few years ago the British survivors received a medal for having taken part in the campaign.

Most novels have one or maybe two or three central characters we readers can identify with. The heroes of the story. Here it is a whole team of gunners of the Maritime Royal Artillery who board the S.S. Golden Ray of Liverpool. The have to man the gun during the trip to Murmansk.

Of every gunner we come to know a bit of his background. But that is not enough to really bond with the person. However it is a great opportunity to narrate the different aspects of the war: The effects on marriages when the husband has to leave a few weeks into the marriage and only to return almost a year later, the bombardments on the British cities, the old officers who came back from retirement, the British communist and fascists movement, people surviving a sinking to see their mates die of hunger and thirst in the lifeboats, the very lives suddenly cut short. The book works well as a kind of history book.

The writer accomplishes to make you feel the stress. Icy waters with wolfpacks lurking in the depths, planes circling that are the scouts of the attack that will come. Ships going up in balls of flames all around you.

What is also quite special is that the only Germans mentioned are a pilot who is shot while he is floating by after his plane went down (by then a warcrime too) and the captain of a submarine who is described as quite a good bloke because he hands out food and water to survivors in a lifeboat.

The cover of the book is a real ship from the Arctic runs.

An interesting read.

There are a few editing issues in the beginning with words slurring together. I am sure the publisher will amend that.




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