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Running the Gauntlet: Cargo Liners Under Fire

14 Mar 23

This was a mostly enjoyable book, which flows well in a style intended for the general reader. It comprises 15 vignettes, almost in short-story style, that explore losses of merchant shipping during WWII. The book gives a sense of the breadth, and a glimpse of the complexities, of the WWII merchant marine. As the connective tissue of global trade, many of the pressures and strains faced by merchant mariners have been catalogued elsewhere. In these stories, we see the fates of faster ships, mostly outside the convoy system, as they encountered commerce raiders and submarines. From what I can see, this is a relatively under-represented area of WWII history and this book is a welcome contribution to the narrative.

That said, it is not definitive, and I was frustrated as the book took a very wide focus. Despite the sub-title placing the focus on ‘cargo liners’ these are very loosely defined in the short preface. Woodman’s History of the Ship suggests the majority of the British merchant fleet after WW I comprised cargo liners, so it is not entirely clear to me how the author selected these 15 stories to tell. Perhaps this simply represents a gathering-in of research from Edwards’ 27 other books? Whatever the inspiration, this book would have benefited from a more detailed contextualisation of British merchant shipping leading into WWII. The dynamics of multi-national crewing, for example, or the employment of their large crews would have added some human interest while rounding out the stories.

Further, several of the vignettes spent as much time on the ‘opposition’ as on the subject merchant ship. Too many pages, in my view, are expended on the German cruisers, submarines, their captains, operations, and history. If the book is meant to be about cargo liners, this space should be spent on them.

Finally, the editor needed to work a little harder. There is a sprinkling of avoidable errors, throughout the book which simply detracts from the final product. I was particularly irritated in Chapter 15, narrating the loss of MV Melbourne Star, where page 185 explains: “The sun set at 1800 on the dot, as is the norm in tropical latitudes….” Three pages later, the survivors were enduring “…bitter cold at night, when the temperature fell to just a few degrees above freezing.” Perhaps the set and rate were exceptional. Perhaps the facts have been sacrificed to florid language. Either undermines the book. Overall, likely interesting to the general reader, but not recommended for members.