SURVIVING THE ARCTIC CONVOYS: THE WARTIME MEMOIR OF LEADING SEAMAN CHARLIE ERSWELL & UNFORTUNATE OCCURRENCES AND KNAVISH TRICKS: THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE SS CAPIRA, 24TH NOVEMBER 1941 TO 31ST AUGUST 1942
Reviewed by: ANDY FIELD
Both of these books have at their core, the experiences of seamen on the Arctic Convoys, but approach their topic in different ways. Both are hence very different books, but enjoyable, nevertheless. John McKay, an author who had written a novel on the Arctic Convoys, The Worst Journey In The World, and was invited to visit the 97-year-old Charlie Erswell, after he had read this, and written to McKay to praise him for his accurate depictions. From this, came this memoir.
McKay’s interpretation of Charlie’s memories and recollections reads like a novel in places and inevitably seems to have some author’s artistic licence in it. Nevertheless, I found the book lived up to the claims on the jacket – ‘unputdownable’ – I read it in an afternoon. It is fast paced, and we learn of Charlie’s early life in Berwick-upon-Tweed, his attempts as a 14-year-old to join the Navy, his early war as a Post Office Messenger in London’s blitz, before, finally, he joins up and is sent to HMS Ganges, St Mary’s Barracks, Chatham and finally, the new destroyer HMS Milne.
His service on Milne and subsequently, HMS Savage, mainly, but not exclusively, on the Arctic run, form the major part of the book. McKay introduces us to the “Petty Officer” in Charlie’s ‘B’ turret of HMS Milne, the steady, older hand, who manages to calm his younger charges through all of the dangers and hardships of Arctic convoy runs and who may well represent ‘the Navy’ as a whole.
Did the conversations really happen, word-for-word, as written, though? Would a Leading Seaman gun layer really know which U-Boat wolfpacks were hunting the convoy? Does it really matter? Well, to some it does, and if you are one of those readers, be warned.
Charlie’s story ends with his brief career as a merchant seaman, before coming ashore in 1949. A short Epilogue reminds readers how poorly the survivors of the Arctic run were treated by successive governments, with Charlie reminding us of those white bereted men who marched down Whitehall in May 2004, to present a petition to gain recognition for all of those who fought in the Arctic. Charlie did receive his Arctic Star – in 2014 – along with the Russian Ushakov Medal. He also received his 75th anniversary award from the Russian government in 2020.
All in all, an easy, enjoyable read of one man’s recollections of his life, especially his time in the navy. Gripes? Well, they’re minor, really. The ‘reported’ conversations may niggle some. How much are they Charlie’s words, and how much McKay’s interpretation? My own niggles were the mention of a Gnat torpedo, without an explanation of what it was, until much later in the book, the references to something called an ‘Electronics Warfare Room’ on the destroyers, (Asdic cabinet?) and the mention of a Martland naval aircraft. Was it a Martlet or a Maryland? And, of course, there’s the story of the German shadower, of which more below.
Chuter takes a different approach with his account, introducing us to a young, unnamed, merchant seaman who, in 1941, signs on the SS Capira, a 21-year-old Panamanian registered freighter. Using this unnamed seaman as something of a centrepiece, (we only find out who he is at the end of the book), Chuter builds up a compelling narrative of life on the convoys. I think it is one of the best books I’ve read on these, taking in the conditions the merchant seamen could expect to live, work and fight in, as Capira sails in convoy to Boston, and then, in time, to Iceland to join a convoy, PQ15, to Murmansk.
The narrative was, in my opinion, compelling reading. Chuter supplements what was occurring on, and to, Capira with quotes and the experiences of other men, both naval and merchant, whether it is the Convoy Conferences, the role of the Convoy Commodore or the exploits of the naval escort. Rightly, the hazards and hardships endured by the men are also given prominence. I have no idea how these men managed to sail their ships in such conditions, and although it may sound trite to say so, I’m full of admiration for them.
Capira returns to Iceland in QP13, the homeward convoy that was largely untouched as the Germans expended a greater effort on PQ17, whose story is briefly told as well. From Iceland, our unnamed seaman and Capira sailed to Iceland and New York, before joining the homeward bound SC97. She was one of only two ships sunk in this convoy. Our unnamed seaman survived the sinking, and indeed, the war and went on to become, amongst other things, John Chuter’s father.
I thoroughly enjoyed both books. It’s hard to make a comparison as they are written in different ways, possibly for slightly different audiences. If I had to choose one, though, it would be Chuter’s. I liked the way the narrative was constructed and the way I felt it gave me a greater overview of events as a whole, as well as what was happening on individual ships. It read as the more ‘authoritative’ of the two, although in a way such a comparison is unfair.
McKay’s book would certainly have passed my ‘Dad Test’. It’s a book that I could well imagine him borrowing from the library and thoroughly enjoying it. However, if I had to recommend one of these books to members, I’d say Chuter’s was the better buy.
Oh, and the story of the German shadower? Both books mention a German shadowing aircraft circling a convoy, safely out of gun range, until an aggrieved escort signalled and asked for it to circle the other way, as it was making them dizzy. Now, did such an incident ever occur? If so, was it on convoy RA61A (McKay) or PQ15 (Chuter)? Or did it happen more than once? Does anyone know?