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Fire & Ice: Arctic Convoys 1941-1945

04 Aug 23

With an Introduction by  G.H BENNETT

(Britannia Museum Trust Press – £25)

ISBN 978 1 83801 076 8

500 pages

BR Editor Note: The ebook version (ISBN 978 1 8380107 82) has been placed with Ebook Central and EBSCO which gives access to university students/cadets via library systems

This book is the latest offering from the BRNC archives, following 2020’s Confronting Italy and Dunkirk. As with their earlier volumes, in Fire & Ice the team at Britannia Museum Trust have breathed fresh life into the official Staff History of the Arctic Convoys. The result is a book for all seasons. It will comfortably serve academic purposes as an authoritative history, but is also enjoyable for a more casual reader. While it is a substantial volume at just over 400 pages plus end matter, it is well signposted and easy to dip in-and-out of over time.

The Staff History which forms the core of the book, originally BR 1736(44), was first written in 1943 and received updates up to 1954. As with the other books in the series, Fire & Ice prefaces this with a well-considered introduction that sets out the strategic context of the Arctic Convoys, from inception to impact. This is followed by a workmanlike section on Arctic weather and the challenge of icing. These greatly enhance the impact of the subsequent Staff History, as does the 130-page section of captioned photographs.

The book finishes with comprehensive notes and appendices. As reference material, these appendices are a valuable resource. They include an index of the convoys with key dates, Commodores, outcomes including losses, all allied warships involved, and all German forces involved. Anyone conducting research on the Arctic Convoys would do well to start here.

Centred at the operational level, the Staff History comfortably addresses both the tactical and the strategic. The often-severe weather is well illustrated, such as the recount of an escort carrier rolling 45 degrees each way, or having unbroken waves pass along the flight deck. The tactical implications of such conditions for both sides are explained in stride. Strategically, the wider context is referenced where appropriate, particularly when demands exceeded Fleet resources. I read Beevor’s Stalingrad in parallel and it was gratifying to identify clear connections across the two books. I was particularly struck how the heavy losses to PQ-17 so nearly conincided with Hitler’s decision to attack Soviet industrial capacity at Stalingrad.

I have only two complaints regarding Fire & Ice. The first is that the many excellent plans have been reproduced without their original colours. This makes it moderately more difficult to absorb the details, but may well have been a compromise to keep printing costs down. My second complaint is the high incidence of typographical errors. The book is caveated: “The historical documents reproduced here appear as unedited text, apart from minor changes to date formats and corrections to typing errors found in the original”. I am not so sure this has been achieved. There is a clear decline in accuracy of language from December 1942 onwards which a reader can overcome, but which requires some double-takes for comprehension. While I accept some of these are errors in the original, more appear to be errors induced by scanning software. Noting the book is print-on-demand, these could – and should – be corrected for the future.

These complaints should not dissuade members from purchasing the book, which is both an enjoyable read and a valuable source. It illuminates many interesting developments in the progress of the war at sea and clearly shows the complexities of 1941-45 naval operations. I greatly enjoyed it and anticipate referring back to it in the future. Recommended.