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Survivors of Enemy Action: Experiences of Merchant Seamen, 1939-1945

10 Oct 23


(Pen and Sword Maritime – £20.00)

ISBN 978 1 39904 2208

224 pages

David Collins

Those of us who have served with the Grey Funnel Line may not always hold our colleagues in the merchant service top of mind unless ships need to be taken into government service during times of crisis, such as in 1982, or during old naval control of shipping exercises. It is certainly true that the merchant ships and sailors who served during World War Two were not given the recognition they deserved, not only for their tremendous contributions to the war effort, but also how sailors were recognised for their arduous duty and compensated at the end of the war. Once a ship was reported lost at sea, a sailor’s pay was stopped regardless of whether he was alive or dead. If he survived, he may have been partially compensated later.

This volume by former merchant navy master and now prolific naval historian, Bernard Edwards, is an interesting construct. He uses his own narrative to describe merchant experiences during the war but also uses contributions by survivors of what they coped with day in, day out, often being torpedoed multiple times throughout their service. For a short book of under 200 pages, I was surprised at how much detail and compelling stories were revealed. The 16 chapters each describes a ship: where she sailed, the cargo she loaded and her disposition. There is a chapter on DEMS (defensively equipped merchant ships) gunners who were increasing drafted to merchant ships as the war progressed, but little detail as to their actual effectiveness.

Overall, the book reveals the skilled seamanship, the courage and the endurance of the many merchant seamen who had to abandon their ships after torpedoing and bombing by German, Italian and Japanese submarines. Over 2,535 British merchant ships were sunk in the war with almost 37,000 sailors lost, the majority by exposure to the elements rather than by enemy action.  In tale after tale, the author graphically describes what individual sailors did to keep alive whilst awaiting rescue at sea, sometimes drifting for weeks on the high seas. Organisation was key to survival whether there were four in a life raft or 24 in a lifeboat. Sometimes the most junior of crew demonstrated leadership with shipmates who were battered by foul weather or aggressive sharks.  Only those who demonstrated the will to live were generally the ones who survived. Many lost faith or hope and met their demise.

In a book that offers few chuckles, your reviewer had to smile at the comment by a member of the crew of the Fort Mumford as that ship was loading in Vancouver at how lucky he was glad to escape “the depth of a British Columbia winter”. He was fortunate not to be in Halifax!

The bravery and courage of these sailors who lost their ships is beyond doubt, except in a few rare cases. Many returned to the sea after survivor’s leave against all odds. In a couple of the latter chapters in the book, the author does not spare any detail as to what happened to sailors who ended up in the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Some of the lucky survivors were taken to prisoner of war camps in Batavia but many more were machine gunned or beheaded at sea by their captors. Ironically, many senior Japanese officers who were tried for war crimes later received only prison sentences that were commuted after six years; hard to believe after the brutal treatment meted out to their prisoners.

When I started this book, I reckoned it would be a light read. It is certainly not written in an academic style, but the juxtaposition of the author’s narratives with eyewitness accounts by survivors is very compelling. We owe a lot more to our Second World War merchant navy colleagues than perhaps we have ever acknowledged.

So, the book is highly recommended to fill in that knowledge gap some of us may have. It is accompanied by a useful glossary, a complete index and several photos that may be new to readers.