The Quiet Heroes – British Merchant Seamen at War
By Bernard Edwards, Pen & Sword Military, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS. ISBN: 978 184884 290 8
The author, who has many other maritime history books to his name, wrote this book with the laudable aim of highlighting the critical contribution made by merchant seamen in maintaining the flow of food and war materials throughout the Second World War.
However, as he argues in the last chapter ‘… despite the torpedoes, the shells, the mines, the bombs and the one-in-three prospect of a cold unmarked grave, Britain’s merchant seamen never once refused to leave port. It is sad to reflect that the bravery of these men went almost unnoticed when the accolades were handed out.’
Apart from a brief Prologue chapter, which summarises the immense dangers and challenges facing the British merchant fleet, the body of the book consists of 21 chapters, each of which describes a particular incident concerning a British merchant vessel. The chapters follow a predicable pattern – after a brief description of the war situation, we read how the ship is attacked, by enemy aircraft, surface ship or U-boat, and in most cases is sunk, and we then learn of the fate of the crew and usually at the end of the chapter the fate of the attacker. Although the incidents are unique, after a while I must admit to finding a certain ‘sameness’ between them, which is not helped by the official black-and-white photographs of ships involved, which to an untrained eye are bland and add little information. The last chapter of the book is titled ‘Requiem’, and after lamenting the lack of recognition of the sacrifice made by the seaman, it recounts with sorrow (and warning) the rapid decline of the British merchant fleet from its pre-eminent position before the war.
This book makes no attempt to be a definitive history of the merchant navy – instead it consists of a number of ‘snapshots’ that highlight the perils and bravery of the merchant seamen during this extraordinarily dangerous period. Those who find this approach helpful in understanding this aspect of the war will find this a satisfying book, but it will be of limited interest to anybody who is looking for a more authoritative description of the invaluable part played by the merchant fleet during this period.
Reviewed by James Saumarez
Add your comments
Please note: this is not an email facility, all comments are placed on
this page and on our Forum