An obscure book but by far the best memoir of an officer on North Atlantic convoy duty is Escort by D.A. Rayner. Not only is Rayner an outstanding writer but he has a keen eye for the absurd, even in war. This is a terrific read and not well known and its a shame. Rayner was a natural leader of men and was the only Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Officer to receive command of an escort group. This required him to win the approval of one of the most formidable and important figures of the war, Sir Max Horton, Commander in Chief, Western Approaches. He is not well known but is a key figure in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. I will discuss him in later posts.
D.A. Rayner and all other escort commanders were worked under appalling conditions, spending weeks at a time at sea in leaky ships with a monotonous diet and little sunshine. Rayner was almost continually at sea for years and had a nervous breakdown which he describes with great poignancy. He also wrote several novels about his experiences in the Battle of the North Atlantic. They are not well known but are worth tracking down:
– Convoy Escort Commander by Sir Peter Gretton is another outstanding memoir, also beautifully written. Gretton was one of the great convoy escort commanders in the Battle of the North Atlantic. On every ship he took with him his personal steward, Mr. Harvey, who had been a headwaiter at the Savoy Grill in London. Although only an enlisted man and not a very high ranking one at that, officers and ratings aboard the various ships called him “Mr. Harvey”, such was his bearing and dignity. Peter Gretton wrote after the war that even in the worst storms, Mr. Harvey always appeared promptly at mealtimes with Captain Gretton’s food, which Mr. Harvey served with great aplomb as if he were in the dining room of the Savoy and not in a small cabin of a British destroyer. He was never known to drop a dish or tray in spite of the plunging of the ship.
– Crisis Convoy: the Story of HX 231 is also by Sir Peter Gretton. What is unusual about this book is the author writes in the third person and makes criticisms of the senior officer escort, who happens to have been the author himself.
– There is also a good biography of the greatest of all escort commanders, Frederic John “Johnnie” Walker titled The Fighting Captain. He sank fourteen U-Boats and invented a number of the tactics used by Royal Navy and, later, American escort ships to sink U-Boats. Walker was a specialist in anti-submarine warfare, something of a backwater between the wars, and a little too keen on talking shop in the mess and was passed over for promotion to Captain before the war. He was about to retire as a Commander when war came. His performance was such that in an unprecedented move his commission as captain was backdated to the time he was passed over. He won the Distinguished Service Cross with three bars – that is he performed so brilliantly and with such gallantry they awarded him the DSC four times. He was under immense strain during the first years of the war when the U-Boats had the upper hand and he dropped dead of a stroke in the middle of the war. At his funeral, the eulogy was given by Sir Max Horton himself and the casket, placed on a gun carriage, was pulled through the streets of Liverpool escorted by six Royal Navy captains, a tribute hardly seen before or since.
– Finally, another good autobiography is by Captain Donald Macintyre, another of the top escort commanders, called UBoat Killer. Macintyre writes in such a delightful “you are there” style that his book gives one a special pleasure when reading. He is quite self deprecating and at one point writes that he went into the wardroom after an air attack on his ship and saw several of his officers sitting calmly at the table, drinking tea. They seemed so calm in fact that Macintyre said he envied them because when they were under attack he always shook like a leaf. The other officers said that they were just discussing how fearful they were when under attack and how they envied him for being so calm. A good laugh was had by all and no doubt Macintyre made a point of saying this. He wrote several other books after the war which are also well written: Narvik and The Thunder of the Guns. These books are dated and you won’t get up to date information from them but they are a pleasure to read.