The Sea Takes No Prisoners

Reviewed by: Gav Don

Most narratives of war are written by officers. Trained to write, perhaps with bigger reputations to protect, and probably with more time to spare, leaders dominate the narrative. Happily, the wardroom has not monopolised all of those narratives. The Imperial War Museum has long made a practice of capturing spoken memories, and here Jack has the edge – outnumbering officers by a dozen to one. The IWM has a staggering 33,000 recordings. That number alone puts a barrier between us and the sound archive, but it is a barrier that Edmund Wong has scaled, in The Sea Takes No Prisoners.
Mr Wong has given us a great service. He has curated a collection of those narratives from sailors of the second war, and brought them to print. Along the way he has placed them in context with photographs and a reminder of the relevant historical events.
The result is a book which is both readable and entertaining, even to the saltiest naval historian. With such a broad canvas Mr Wong has edited the list to sixteen chapters. Some cover a single ship or event – Ajax at the River Plate is one, the sinking of Repulse another. Others cover a subject – boy sailors for example, flying in Swordfishes, the Malta convoys, little ships escorting convoys, and half a dozen others. Dividing them up in this way works – inevitably every reader will skip one or two subjects, but find interesting, even profound, nuggets in others. Perhaps the only sad omission is that there is no chapter on submariners, and that is likely to be because submariners were few in number in the first place, and because so many of that small number did not return to record their reminiscences.
At the level of storytelling, Mr Wong’s book is liberally scattered with delightful dits – the Swordfish pilot who turned to find his air gunner hanging half out of the plane to look over the side to make sure that his torpedo was dropped into a trough, not a peak, or the substitution of a cup of vinegar for a rum tot as a practical joke. There are plenty of more moving episodes – Jack’s feelings about sinking the French battle fleet at Oran are here too.
But this is not just dits and stories. I believe it is also an important work. For page after page the reader is left in quiet admiration and respect for the strength of character of the men (and women) who fought the war. Terrifying, and horrifying, experiences are narrated with a calm endurance which is not just a product of survivor’s perspective. One finishes this book with a deep sense of respect for that generation, and indeed a considerable affection too. These are men one would have liked to serve with.
This is not, though, a book to devour in a sitting. The stories of death, destruction, cold, hunger (especially in Malta), ice (that blasted Arctic again!), hubris, success and disaster are too much to take in all at once. But taken in small doses Mr Wong is a powerful physic (as Jack Aubrey would have said). He has also done an excellent job of steeping himself in pusser’s English, with only a smattering of not-important editorial slips creeping in from his US Navy heritage. Those do not detract at all from the pleasure of reading his work.
Back to that word, “important”. Mr Wong’s work is more than just a jolly collection of dits. It also presents a powerful lesson in the importance of service over self, and of the willingness of ordinary men and women to suffer with good humour in the face of certain death. As important, that lesson is accidental, not intended. Mr Wong does not set out to preach, or praise great men, but to tell some of their stories.
As such, I put it down thinking that it should certainly be required reading for all new members of the Naval Service (officers and junior ratings, as well as all civil servants tasked with anything remotely naval), for it quietly narrates an ethos which appears now to be slipping away.