Book Review: Naval Eyewitnesses: The Experience of War 1939-1945 by James Goulty

Review by Linda Parker

Naval Eyewitnesses: The Experience of War 1939-1945

By James Goulty

Pen and Sword 2022 ISBN 139900713 Price £25.00

245 pages 15 Black and White Illustrations.

In setting out to chronicle the wide variety of the experience of the war at sea the author has chosen an ambitiously wide canvas to paint a picture of the personal experiences of those serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War.

Over the course of seven chapters, he narrates the actions and experiences, good and bad, of the men serving on many different ships ranging from aircraft carriers through capital ships, convoy escorts and submarines to amphibious vessels. The many differences between men serving in “big ships “and “small ships” in the conflict are highlighted in the first chapter, a chapter which provides the template for further chapters containing detailed factual description laced with many personal accounts of the rivalries, achievements, and challenges within the senior service.

A detailed and well researched chapter on naval aviation is followed by a fascinating chapter on underwater warfare which explains the different roles carried out by submarines. The personal accounts in this chapter are particularly effective in bringing to life the distinctive characteristics of submariners and the dangers they faced.

One of the major tasks of the navy was to protect the convoys carrying vital materials for the allies around the world, but particularly across the Atlantic. An evocative personal account describes the tedium of watching and waiting, followed by sudden action and attack of the convoy, followed by the tense task of submarine hunting. 

The chapter on amphibious warfare covers much ground, from the genesis of the early “hit and run”  raids on continental  Europe to the D-Day landings, with some interesting thoughts on loading, logistics and personal and eyewitness accounts of the amphibious landings from a variety of sources, including landing craft crew and the survivors of early raids.

The large influx of Hostilities Only (HO) crews and officers led to fear of watering down the essential character of the navy. HO men, reservists and regulars were engaged in what the author calls ”An industrialised form of warfare.” In this chapter on discipline and morale scope is widened to include the work of WRENS, experience of naval prisoners of war, the work of the marines. The role of medical staff and chaplains is mentioned and the importance of entertainment in ensuring morale was maintained is stressed.

The last chapter reflects on the diversity of experiences that the men and women of the Royal Navy faced, which shaped their post war lives, but as one veteran quoted said: “We felt it was a job that we had to do. After all there was a war on.” The author stresses that “For many coping with peace was a tough proposition”.

The book, as one might expect from the title, is liberally laced with eyewitness accounts from different ships and different theatres of war. These come from a variety of sources, with many from the Imperial War Museum and Second World War Experience Centre archives, but also the author’s own collection and published primary sources. The memories of the veterans are placed in context by detailed explanation of many aspects of the war at sea and this book is a useful addition to the naval history of the Second World War.

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