ORDEAL BELOW ZERO: THE HEROIC STORY OF THE ARCTIC CONVOYS

Reviewed by: Anton

This book is an oddity. Ostensibly it is an account of the Arctic convoys seen through the eyes and recollections of the civilian merchant seamen who sailed in them. For people used to reading memoirs of officers in the Naval Service the change of perspective is interesting, and Georges Blond did indeed collect some unique and important accounts. These are not confined to the matelot’s description of repeated air attack in the painful summer of 1942, but extend to life in Murmansk, survival stories of rowing 300 miles to the coast of Novaya Zemlaya, and to life in Iceland. One vignette (involving an embarrassing incident in a destroyer wardroom alongside in Murmansk, followed by a shocking Soviet response) is particularly startling.
Sadly, to a reader who likes his data, Blond provides almost no numerical or operational context – he is primarily focused on the human experience of life as a civilian matelot in a steamer plodding towards Murmansk at six knots. Since he clearly had too little material to make a full book out of the personal accounts (and, as he himself admits, the stories of freezing sleepless misery become a little repetitive) Blond padded out his book with collateral stories. This padding gets rather in the way, but it does lead the reader to pause, and ask who Georges Blond was, for the publishers have lightly jumped over that part of the story, to the detriment of the book as a whole.
Wikipedia reveals that Blond (a pen-name) was French, an ardent fascist, an enthusiastic German sympathiser and collaborator, and a favourite of the Vichy regime. As a naval engineer Blond enlisted in the French Navy, was interned in the UK in 1940, and repatriated in 1941. Once home he wrote an Anglophobic memoir of his experiences in Britain. After the war he suffered “degradation nationale” – a form of non-violent punishment handed out to lesser collaborators – before being “reaccepted” into French civil society some time in the ‘50s. This book, published in 1956, might well have been a part of Blond’s efforts to rejoin “society”, since it is only marginally, and occasionally, Anglophobic, while often and loudly appreciative of Les Rosbifs (my word, not his) and even of Les Yankis.
Sadly, the publishers ignore this back-story, which should have been a preface. A better editor might have added Blond’s memoir of England while removing the padding.
The Arctic convoy story was a truly bloody one only during three months of 1942, when convoys PQ16, PQ17, PQ18, and their returning twins QP12, QP13 and QP14, lost some 57 ships – approximately 80% of all losses from 1,400 sailings on Arctic convoys. Because Blond summarises accounts from only a handful of survivors they don’t quite make a full book, so he tagged on hurried summaries of the battle of the Barents Sea (Hipper and Lutzow), the North Cape (Scharnhorst), and the X-boat attacks on Tirpitz. While these are all written with a certain zest they predate the disclosure of Ultra by some 20 years, and are now redundant. One gets the feeling that they were written as much as an exercise in personal rehabilitation as for their historical value, since they allow ample scope for Blond to praise great (Allied) men and be rude about Germans.
In sum, this is a mixed kitbag. To this reviewer, Blond has done us a service in providing a voice to men whose experiences might otherwise have faded from the narrative, but the editors of this re-publication could have made a much more interesting work with only a little extra effort, by putting Blond in its foreground.