My daily commute into the capital allows me time to read plenty of books as long as I am able to zone out from the tinny cacophony of other passengers’ iPods and the like. Once I escape the station and walk to my office the first thing I usually focus on is the Merchant Navy memorial at Tower Hill. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ planned his Great War Memorial to be a much grander affair, placed further up river in central London. There were objections, mostly aesthetic, but some were apparently a little more to do with class. I’ve read one account that certain sections of the great and the good didn’t want the lower orders congregating in their patch to mourn. This might just be tosh, but it illustrates a Britain well and truly departed. So, the memorial found its way to Tower Hill, built, quite appropriately, adjacent to the majestic HQ of the Port of London Authority and historic Trinity House. Queen Mary unveiled the memorial in 1928. It records the names of 12,000 sailors.
It made complete sense to build an extension for more than double that number of people who died in World War II. This time the job fell to Sir Edward Maufe, the designer of Guildford Cathedral. He became chief architect to the Imperial War Graves Commission and gave us the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. His design for the Merchant Navy Memorial is nothing short of beautiful and fitting for those who have no grave but the sea. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. As with Lutyens’ edifice, this one lists casualties under the name of their ships, so, like lost battalions recalled on the Somme or in Flanders fields, those who served together, stay together. Many a time I have stood there looking at poppies taped to names and little copses of wooden crosses placed in the flower beds.
Among those listed is the Severn Leigh. Not much of a ship, really, she had several owners up the point she was lost to a U-Boat in August, 1940. I know her well because my uncle Edward was the second officer and he became the first Merchant Navy man to be awarded the George Medal for his actions leading to the survival of some of the crew. Twenty-nine others died. Then there is the magnificent between-the wars-liner Arandora Star, pride of the Blue Star fleet. She was also sunk in 1940 by the fabled Gunther Prien of the U-47, with huge loss of life; taking German and Italian internees to Canada. Eight-hundred or more people are known to have died and there are many memorials to her in British towns and cities with Italian communities. It was one of those tragedies rarely mentioned in all the post war histories. My grandfather had been her second engineer prior to the war and had been a proud friend of Captain Edgar Moulton who went down with her along with many of his crew and the army guards on board.
It suited the British propaganda machine to dwell longer on ships like the City of Benares as examples of the evils of the wolf packs. She was sunk by the U-48 while carrying evacuee children to Canada. The two-hundred-and-six deaths resulting from the disaster included seventy-seven children and put an end to Britain’s scheme for sending kids to safety in the Dominions.
Franz Kurowski is a prolific writer of over a hundred books and this gem dates from 2007. Translations can always be a bit of a nightmare, but, in this instance the job has been done with great sympathy and understanding of how to get the best from the German original. It’s a shame I cannot record the name of the person responsible because they deserve a big thank you. The author has no shame in celebrating aspects of German military prowess, despite the dangerous waters he is doggy paddling in where any such notions remain a huge taboo for many reasons I fully concur with. This is not to say there is any grand spirit of triumphalism about the book, because if there was, I would be quickly putting such ideas through my reviewer’s shredder.
I have not read any accounts of the U-Boat war before and I am pleased to say this book makes me want to find others. Fifty-years of conditioning have made it very hard to express any admiration for these piratical submariners, who have been the bogey men in many a war saga. Every story has two sides, as we all know, and Kurowski does us a service by telling the German side of it. Details of how U-Boats were fought, using mechanical computers which could plot several ships at a time and all the rigours of loading torpedoes at sea, make for an engrossing story of bravery, cunning and exceptional skill. The Germans system of radio interception, their codes The tactical brilliance of the U-Boat fleet commander Admiral Doenitz shines through and I look forward to reading a timely re-issue of the memoirs of the Great Lion in due course.
There are some exciting passages as we follow the hunters going in for the kill, sending dozens of merchantmen to the bottom. We read also of the U-Boat losses and come to appreciate the Battle of the Atlantic was very much a race, the side with the most resources and the technology being the winner. Germany could never build enough submarines (one suggestion to have them built in the USSR prior to Barbarossa was refused) even as she sank thousands of tons of British and Allied merchant shipping. Her losses were grave and the likes of Gunther Prien, best known for his daring attack on the battleship Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, fared no better than many of his less experienced compatriots in the long run.
The successive captains of the U-48 during the intense period of warfare from 1939-1941 are all amazing men who really showed the mettle and deserved the honours they received. It is pleasing to note that Herbert Schulze, Hans-Rudolf Rosing and Heinrich Bleichrodt all lived to a good age. They were all holders of the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves. U-48 finished active service in 1941 and passed to training duties. She was scuttled in 1945.
The next time I pass the Merchant Navy Memorial I will reflect on a bigger picture. Although it will remain hard to have any love for the U-Boat men, respect is another matter. They were a unique breed and we can only wonder how things might have turned out had Nazi Germany been able to build the quantity of submarines Doenitz dreamed of.
U-48 THE MOST SUCCESSFUL U-BOAT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR.
By Franz Kurowski.
Pen & Sword.
ISBN: 978 1 84832 606 4
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