Life Line: the Merchant Navy At War 1939-1945

Life Line: the Merchant Navy at War 1939-1945 by Peter Elphick.

This is not a history of the British merchant navy in World War Two but a collection of well researched anecdotes. As such, it does not provide a sweeping view of the war but instead provides a series of personal stories which make this book special. I rate it three stars.

Some outtakes:

…seaman of the Jewish faith, from Britain itself or from other countries, who were considered to be under special risk if captured by the Germans…were given the option of sailing under names other than their own; if the option was taken up they were issued with identity papers in that false name.

British merchant sailors had traditionally been paid by the voyage. Pay began when one began working whether painting the ship, helping load the cargo, et al. Pay ended when the ship returned to port and the men were discharged. Few sailors worked for specific shipping lines. As we would say in our time, they were all “independent contractors.” This was not the case in the US. What made this system especially unfair to British sailors was that pay stopped if the ship sank. So if a British merchant sailor was on a ship which was torpedoed and sank, his pay stopped the moment he left the ship, hopefully in a lifeboat. Every day the sailor drifted along in the lifeboat was “his time.” The shipping company did not pay him. Even in the worst circumstances after men had survived brutal conditions in open lifeboats, they were not paid for that time. This did not change until a decree from the British government changed how merchant sailors were paid and guaranteed pay between voyages.

Unlike the British forces, lads as young as fifteen worked as cabin boys on merchant ships and officers long in retirement were recalled at ages more advanced that the army or navy would have accepted.

60% of British merchant ships sunk in World War Two were sailing independently when they were sent to the bottom by a German U-Boat.

At the start of the war, the British had few weapons available to arm their merchant ships so weapons were invented using existing equipment. The most dangerous was the Holman projector:

…basically a steel tube linked to the ship’s deck steam supply… The idea was to build up steam pressure to the maximum, drop in a hand grenade, and release the steam pressure, which would, hopefully, blow the grenade clear of the ship, and even more hopefully, destroy any very low flying enemy aircraft. The device was a mañanas not so much to enemy aircraft but to the crew of the ship it was fired from.

This is why I am an armchair sailor. The following occurred in the North Atlantic. According to Captain James Roberts of the US liner President Harding

…his ship ran into one of the worst storms in living memory, during which a giant wave towered over the bridge of the 14,000 ton ship before falling on her decks with a tremendous force, injuring seventy-three people.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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