SAILOR IN THE DESERT – The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915 – Review by Mark Barnes

Phil Gunn followed his father into the Royal Navy in 1911 as a boy seaman and retired holding the rank of captain at the end of World War II. To say he had a colourful and fulfilling career might be an understatement.

This book offers an account of his service during the Great War as an able seaman aboard the sloop HMS Clio, a ship powered by steam and sail. With the Clio he enjoyed adventures on the China Station and found himself a participant in an increasingly disastrous campaign waged by the British in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Things started out well enough with the expulsion of the Turks from reach of the pipeline providing oil the Royal Navy was dependant on. But an ambitious streak of mission creep allowed the British to begin pushing to capture Baghdad and the disaster that followed fell on the army commanded by Charles Townshend at Kut-al-Amara. The hapless general could blame the lot of himself and his doomed army on his superior General Sir John Nixon, a man who always seemed to want more from his army and who allowed himself to fall into the ambitious trap of pushing his forces too far. Thousands would die in battle and even more in the hell of Turkish captivity.

Phil Gunn saw all this from his command of a launch making her way up the Tigris in support of the army. He formed a bond with the Indian seaman under his command and learned much from contact with other cultures and ideals. He witnessed his superior officer and hero, Lieutenant Commander Edgar Cookson, win a posthumous Victoria Cross. Gunn, himself was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was not yet twenty years old.

Afflicted by malaria he was fortunate to survive amid a scandalous lack of provision of medical services recalling the worst horrors of the Crimea sixty years before. The graphic account of this nightmare is not pretty despite the gentility of the author’s prose. This is a shameful episode of British military history. Evacuated by river boat, our hero owes his life to an Indian man who stopped to carry him from the place he had been abandoned. Others in his situation were brutally murdered by local Arabs on the hunt for booty.

Phil Gunn was commissioned a few years after the war and went on to command shore establishments and ships. As duty captain at the Admiralty, his distinguished career culminated with the responsibility of telling Churchill that the weather conditions at Normandy had sufficiently improved for Overlord to go ahead. All this was a far cry from the lad who had climbed the rigging to play out the sails of a British warship decades before! You might say his life with the Royal Navy had seen it through the final years of it’s mastery as the pre-eminent navy in the world. From this juncture it seems good for him to have gone out on a high.

In retirement Captain Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN, became a landscape artist and one of the highlights of this splendid book are a selection of paintings showing his service in Iraq during the Great War. There can’t be many images of this sort of the war in Mesopotamia. The quality of the art is superb. It has a richness I really like. Phil Gunn passed away in 1983.

This is a delightful book. It won’t take you long to read and it is far from challenging, but the realism of it comes through with a warmth perhaps only a son retelling his father’s adventures can have. A former naval officer himself, the author must feel blessed to have had such a truly inspirational figure as his dad. I hope we get to read more of his story.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915.
By David Gunn
Pen & Sword Maritime
ISBN: 978 1 78346 230 8







Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.