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Convoy Escort Commander: A Memoir of the Battle of the Atlantic

12 Mar 24

256 pages

David Collins

The works of Peter Gretton are having a resurgence thanks to the beneficial republishing programme of Sapere Books. His volume on Churchill and the Royal Navy (Former Naval Person) was reviewed for the NR recently. Gretton’s memoir of his wartime experience as a convoy escort commander in the Battle of the Atlantic has not lost any of its punch in the 60 years since it first appeared. It was favourably reviewed in the NR (Vol LII, 1964 – Issue 3).

Then as now this reviewer was struck by the modesty of Gretton’s style both in terms of the clarity of his writing and the easy manner in which he expresses himself. He is telling a story. While some of the sea going experiences including fighting off attacks by German wolf packs read a bit like a Boys Own, the text is always infused with self-deprecating comments about his own and his ship’s/group’s performance and the lessons learned from each engagement. He spares the reader nothing in describing the challenges at sea in old ships, newly formed crews and almost constantly adverse weather. Moreover, one would never learn from this book that Gretton was awarded three DSOs and a DSC for his wartime service, beside obtaining his brass hat early.

Apart from being a good read of the challenges of convoy duty during the Battle of the Atlantic, the author offers observations about preparedness for war that ring true today: having sea going leaders who are operationally at the top of their game; having technologically designed advanced equipment that can withstand the rigours of sea service under arduous conditions; an emphasis on team work within a group based on extensive training and exercising and the benefit of air support of the battle at sea. The performance of ocean-going escorts and their convoys would have prevented much loss earlier in the war if some of these lessons had been learned earlier.

Gretton is very good in his descriptions of managing crusty merchant captains some of whom never took to the concept of convoy operations. He points out that many more ships were lost at sea which decided to go it alone by accident or design, than by those which stuck with their convoy. The convoy system worked but it took a pretty dire first two years of the war to bring it to its ultimate level of efficiency. John Winton in his book Convoy, published 20 years after Gretton’s’ cites his wartime experience.

Written in a very personal style using memory and wartime operational reports (Gretton claims he kept no journal), the book has no footnotes and a sparse biography. These are minor quibbles. It is a delight to read a book that still resonates today as both history of the battle against the U-Boats but also about inspiring leadership at sea. Well recommended to young and old alike.