Naval Eyewitnesses: The Experience of War 1939-1945
By JAMES GOULTY
(Pen and Sword – £25)
ISBN 978 1 39900 071 0
Stored safely somewhere in a box of books, I have a 1941 pocket diary intended for Hostilities Only naval personnel. Along with many useful facts about the service, it includes a beautifully drawn cross-section of a fleet destroyer, practically illustrating its important points and how they fit together. Naval Eyewitnesses very much reminded me of this little diary. In a little over 200 pages, it captures a cross-section of first-hand experiences from across the Second World War Navy, carefully placing them in context of platforms and organisations.
The book tells the story of the Royal Navy at war through personal narratives and recollections. The author has drawn on an impressive range of sources. In addition to recorded interviews held by the IWM, he has drawn on the Second World War Experience Centre at Otley (war-experience.org, noting the importance of the ‘tack’ to distinguish from a similar American site). His secondary sources include a large number of memoirs. Overall, the book is very well researched and uses comprehensive end notes, giving a strong sense of credibility and gravity. Sixteen pages of photos at the centre of the book strike a balance between illustrating life at sea and showing examples of different ships and aircraft referred to in the text.
The author has structured the book sensibly, pairing elements of the Service together to provide both contrasts and analogies between experiences. His first chapter, ‘Big Ships and Smaller Vessels’, does this nicely, first exploring life in capital ships, then various escorts before turning to coastal forces. Apart from illustrating wide differences in living conditions, he nicely exposes the variations in community, organisation, and culture. He goes on to do the same for the Fleet Air Arm, with some interesting contrasts between life in an escort carrier and life in a catapult-equipped merchant ship. This is followed by submarines and anti-submarine warfare, convoys, and amphibious warfare. Goulty rounds out the book with chapters on discipline and morale, and demobilization. Each chapter is tailored to its subject – he has not attempted to force any sort of template – and the overall style is very readable.
My one criticism of the book is that it occasionally spends too much time on the platforms at the expense of the personal experiences. The aviation chapter is notably affected by this, with rather more time spent explaining the nuances of various aircraft than I would have liked. That said, I accept this is important context for the individual experiences and is perhaps to the taste of some readers. Personally, I would have preferred to see some first-hand recollections from those working the flight decks.
Overall, this is a great book. I found it enjoyable to read, to the point of looking forward to dipping back into it after a day spent reading. Goulty has nicely balanced the story-telling to capture both the humour and the austerity of naval life, alongside the gravity and tension of wartime conditions. I believe this book would be widely enjoyed. It might make a notably thoughtful passing-out gift for those joining the Service family.