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The Steep Atlantick Stream: A Memoir of Convoys and Corvettes

18 Aug 23


(Pen & Sword – £14.99)

ISBN 978 1 3990 7288 5

232 pages

I enjoyed reading this book, and unusually for a review, I read it in just two spells without stopping to make notes. Although the sub-title indicates the main subject matter, there is much digression as the author describes his travels to join a ship building in Canada and visits to other theatres. At times it reads more like a travel book than a naval memoir. The title is a direct quote from John Milton’s Comus.

Robert Harling was born in 1910 and joined the RNVR at the outbreak of war, quickly becoming an officer. The book, first published in 1946, covers the period until 1943, at which point he was recruited by Ian Fleming to work in Naval Intelligence. He was however a polymath and is much better known as a graphic designer, editing Typography before the war and House & Gardens from 1957 until 1993. In addition, he was typographic advisor to The Sunday Times for almost 40 years, and has written 18 books, variously novels, a memoir of Ian Fleming and books on typography, architecture and art. He died in 2008.

This atmospheric memoir – published five years before The Cruel Sea – offers an original account of war at sea aboard a corvette, escorting convoys in both the North and South Atlantic. There are descriptive and highly readable accounts of the terrors of U-boat attacks, the loss of merchant vessels and the hardships of autumn gales, as well as the relief of shore runs in ports as far apart as Halifax and Freetown. The narrative begins with Harling’s voyage from the Clyde to New York on the Queen Mary, on route to be the First Lieutenant of a newly-built corvette in Halifax, Nova Scotia, just as the battle of the Atlantic was entering its most crucial stage.

During the first east-bound convoy, the entire ship’s company underwent a steep learning curve as they struggled to adjust to the harsh conditions in the North Atlantic. Later that summer they made return voyages to Iceland where runs ashore offered some solace from the hardship at sea. Time was also spent in the South Atlantic with passages to Freetown and Lagos, before a short interlude when he operated with Coastal Forces. The corvette subsequently returned to escorting convoys from Halifax to Europe.

His narrative is at the same time serious and humorous; his picture of wartime Britain, his descriptions of being buffeted by great storm-tossed seas in the tiny corvettes, and the recounting of grim losses are all too real and authentic. His story ends as he leaves his ship after a violent cold developed into pneumonia; soon afterwards he hears the heart-breaking news of her loss, along with the captain and half the crew, after being torpedoed.

As I said this is a highly readable book. Published as it was in 1946, some of the language, particularly around class and race, are out of kilter with today’s mores. It is widely available in hardback and electronic format.