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Published by Mercier 2012. ISBN9781856359344
Leaving aside all the other constituent parts that make up a decent book, the most essential aspect is that it’s a good and enjoyable read. Without that key factor, then any other attributes or failings are broadly meaningless. In Mark McShane’s first publishing venture he has achieved this essential aspect by the bucket load.
The Battle of the Atlantic like many of the great campaigns and battles of WW2, has been covered by many and all, with no aspect seemingly untold. To some extent that is also true of the role played or not (depending on your personnel viewpoint) by a neutral Ireland during WW2. You could be forgiven for thinking that the book would be overly political and dare I say boring from its title alone, but you would be greatly mistaken, as was I in that matter. McShane has achieved a great balance between the macro & micro elements of this unfolding drama that is often sadly lacking in more notable authors works. This book contains the attention to detail you would expect to find in the works of Clay Blair, and the human aspect often vividly described in the works of Anthony Beevor.
The book itself details through the actions surrounding the fates of several merchant ships, warships and U-Boats and their crews, the unfolding nature of warfare waged in and around Irish shores. The fate of the ships themselves and the crews set adrift are vividly recounted in a narrative style that grips you tight and holds you close, whilst also putting a human face to the combative elements involved. The author also makes a welcomed decision to give voice to the events after the fortunate survivors reach the Irish shoreline. No matter what the nationality, the welcome, hospitality and help given to all by the local coastal communities is pleasing to read and learn. The rather obscure organisations that helped the various seamen when in Ireland are also covered in part, and helps give flesh to the bones of the story. Its also testament to them and the Irish people that only 6 men of the 2330 that landed in Ireland, died of the wounds received either in action or whilst in their lifeboat.
However the main thrust of the book is played out upon the dark cold waters of the Atlantic, where fate, luck and chance play just a bigger part as skill, knowledge and courage in the fight for survival. The 17 chapters tend to follow a format but a well thought out one, that lets the reader understand the broader picture of the events that are about to unfold, so that your not just reading about a sinking out of context. We see in the beginning how the German U-Boats abided by the rules of the sea, and put themselves in unnecessary danger to ensure that the lifeboats had more than a fighting chance of reaching safety. As the war progressed this aspect dwindled to the well known story of unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought so much death and fear to all. The first chapter deals with the infamous sinking of the Athenia in 1939 and the subsequent actions in each and every year. In May’43 we read of the fate of the Irish steamer Irish Oak that was spotted by U650 but upon inspection was satisfied with its neutrality. Only for it to be sunk by U607 two days later because it feared it was an Allied Q-ship! The Wexford Steamship Company’s coaster the Kerlogue in late December’43 undertook the extraordinary rescue of some 168 German sailors from 3 Kriegsmarine surface vessels lost in a recent naval engagement with the Royal Navy. The skill, endurance and humanity of this specific incident are uplifting to read. The later survival of the U-Boat crew of U260 in the final days of the war is also recounted in the final chapter of the book.
The book is full of snippets of interesting and obscure information from wave-quelling oil used by seamen in lifeboats, to the usage of nautical words such as Thwarts, which had me reaching for a dictionary.
The book is completed with two appendices and a detailed Notes section which only adds to ones understanding of the main narrative, and the ubiquitous Bibliography. The book has several maps that give you a visual aid to where the various vessels mentioned within, were actually lost.
However there are sadly no photographs of these vessels, which is the only real criticism I have. This book for those interested in the Battle of the Atlantic is a must, and would be a welcomed addition to anyone’s collection.
5 out of 5 stars