Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

Home from Sea

Winn, Godfrey

1944, Arrow Books
Paperback, 256 pages, 21 b&w illustrations

Type. Personal, campaign and incident history
Pros. Vigorous obscure style, sympathetic depiction of a class-bound nation desperately at war.
Cons. Strange, subtle, smooth propaganda: almost cliched, stilted essence of British wartime journalism.

Home From Sea is less effective, and less historic, but as accurate as the author's PQ-17. This book was written before PQ-17, in 1943-44, after Winn had returned from the convoy to training and service as an HO rating in the RN. He wrote it after he was invalided out by illness at the age of 36, twice the age of many of his shipmates. It is a sequel in writing and in events. Winn had already decided (even before his arctic convoy voyage) to join the RN, after his first trip in the converted steamer- turned AA-Cruiser HMS Pozarica. He had decided, despite his considerable skills as a reporter and writer, that he was best employed on the lower deck, as an ordinary seaman. This is his class consciousness: in the mould of many comfortably-off and educated men of both world wars, he chose not to enter officer training, or remain doing PR for the Ministry of Information. Instead he took his chances with those ordinary conscripts he most admired, those he felt most worthy. He was posted as a communications rating to the gun turret of a heavy cruiser on the Arctic convoy run, a member of the very cruiser squadron he had seen "running away - at high speed" (as the newspapers put it) from PQ-17 only months before.

Here he was merely a tiny figure, one among hundreds aboard HMS Cumberland. He was no longer the outsider, the landlubber, the press man here to tell the ship’s story to the world. He was an unlikely figure, separate from his rough matelot messmates, by class and knowledge, a sensitive society background of plays and opera and high culture. He had deliberately put away the privileges of the visitor, the newspaperman. He might have had a very safe, or useful, war, in the Ministry of Information, or stayed with the press, risking himself in small doses to cover famous incidents. He had already been to sea, been on patrol in an aircraft over the Atlantic, been on an air attack on Germany, for his newspaper.

Instead, in a very romantic ‘Great War’ gesture, akin to Wilfred Owen’s sacrificial return to duty, he had chosen to set these aside and serve for the duration. He was rapidly promoted to leading seaman once his intelligence and ability to adjust and take and form orders became known.

Oddly, he was not ostracised or criticised by those messmates, not pointed as a figure of fun or made an outsider, which is the cliche one expects. Nor did he look down on them, which is perhaps why he integrated so well. He had the common touch, almost like Humphrey Jennings, the documentary filmmaker of Fires Were Started and other works which portrayed and presented the wartime working classes without caricature or rancour.

Here his hellish experiences on the Kola run before also made him an unlikely, unusual figure, amid the boys and ratings. He was now both an upper-class softie beginner, and a veteran of a hard route, in the blackest, deepest part of its course. He had been there, through the air attacks, through the scattering and the hiding and the long dull summer in Archangel, and the dangers of the return voyage, and had then chosen to join up. This was beyond sacrifice and beyond a mere desire to do ‘his bit’. He had come through it all unscathed, only to have a hand injured in a door slamming in a USN destroyer on the way home! This made it difficult to do knots in training, an injury his instructors were critical of, till they found out how he obtained it.

Like PQ-17, this book is well illustrated with Winn’s wartime photos, more shots of forgotten ordinary seamen and weather, vessels at sea, the men and places he knew. There are a considerable number for a limited wartime publication, though it too ran to 110,000 copies. It has a colour dust-jacket, with a more stereotypical, limited illustration of a cruiser in weather. Indeed, it is easy to see what the cover art for HMS Ulysses was inspired by! That later work used a darker, moodier equivalent of the same image.

The story is more ordinary than that of PQ-17 because the events are more ordinary. There were no actions, the cruiser this time was always on patrol. Indeed HMS Cumberland had the wartime record for days steaming at sea. Winn could see little, from his action station closed up in the turret. His defence station was more rewarding, cramped with three other men in an A/A director, where they could see things happening. He wrote instead of the world of the messdeck and his mates, from an involved but upper-middle class perspective, at once indulging, analysing, comparing and contrasting their lives with his, and with those of his readers. He writes of the strain and worry of action stations, with only the voicepipes and the strange muted pounding on the steel caused by guns firing, far-off bomb bursts, the changes of speed and course and the lurch of the sea in bad weather.

Far from making his account dull, or routine, it is even more valuable than PQ-17, because it focusses on the ordinary, the mundane, the normal that made up 95% of convoy passages and naval operations. This focus makes his work distinct, almost unique. Here was the stuff usually squeezed out of the tale by stereotypical, unrealistic concentration on the unusual and the exciting, by writer and editor alike. Here Winn showed the RN as it actually was. Here were the dull hours of patrol and maintenance, snatched sleep and the noisy, sweaty, intensely male world of the mess and action station. Winn concentrated on the unremitting procedures and repetitive motions that actually comprise real life. They are what ought to comprise proper history. It ought to depict the actual scale of the tiny fragments of action. They are only our biassed selection and expectation: our deliberate focus on the exciting bit: the end point of hours and days of ordinary duty and service. It is a stereotype of British wartime journalism: of accuracy, restraint, unitedness: things in common to all and the rightness of the cause. This is the world Winn was at pains to present.

The reviewer welcomes your comments on this review.

Review written by Ian Campbell, Launceston, Tasmania.

Published on 28 Sep 2017.

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