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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie

Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II

Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II - Michael Walling [b:Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II|13330293|Forgotten Sacrifice The Arctic Convoys of World War II|Michael Walling|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1351213382s/13330293.jpg|18537924] gets 4 Stars for bringing a little known arena of conflict to life. Probably not the best written war history, it is a great collection of first person accounts but cries out for someone to put the events into context. (Can someone call Sir Max or Mr Beevor and interest them in this story?) I recommend this book highly but also suggest you go watch a few episodes of "Deadliest Catch" to put you in the mood for this unforgiving theater of war.

The route, which was open to U-boat attack throughout its entire length, was limited to the west and north by ice and to the east and south by an enemy-occupied coast, well provided with anchorages whence surface forces could operate at will, and airfields from which aircraft could dominate 1,400 miles of its furthest east, and therefore most vulnerable, waters. The whole route, including the terminal ports at each end, lay within range of enemy reconnaissance and at two points was crossed by German routine meteorological flights. British shore-based air support was confined to what could be given from Iceland and Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands.

The British seamen and the first of the American merchant seamen learned bitterly in the winter of 1941-42 about Arctic weather. The gales blew across the 900-mile-widespace between Greenland and Norway and swept northeastward. The wind struck the slowly laboring columns of a convoy with an unbroken fury. The crews lived in almost perpetual darkness for 115 days during the dark winter when the sun barely rose. It was so dark that a lookout stationed on a ship’s bridge could not even see the bow of his own vessel. The positions of the ships ahead, on each side and astern were unknown; all were under complete blackout regulation. Convoy machine-gunners had orders to fire directly at any light shown. But another ship might be detected by a veering wind gust that held a tang of stack smoke, or her engine sounds, the thud of her propeller, the waves hammering her hull.

Men strained to hear and to smell as well as to see. They explored the caverns of the wind in the lulls between gusts with extremely sensitized perception. Buffeting wind blurred their vision, and the unwilled tears froze on their cheeks. The eyebrows and eyelashes were frozen. Their lashes would fall off later, painfully, in the heated quarters of the ship. Breath was agony if taken fully before the wind; a man turned aside, breathed, swung back and examined the reaching dark again.

A good accounting of the entire series of Artic convoys, as well as individual battles. Survival, if you had to go in the water, was measured in minutes. Many stories of heroism are told. Here is a story from one crew torpedoed on the run to Murmansk:

On arrival in Murmansk, the survivors were transferred to Chaser for the passage home. I talked to a group of Mahratta ratings—none of the officers had survived—who told me of the heroism of their doctor. Having managed to climb onto one of the few Carley floats to have come through the sinking, he set about hauling the others aboard. The float soon became overcrowded. Remarking almost casually, “There’s not enough room for us all," the doctor slipped over the side into the sea and was never seen again.

The straightforward manner in which the survivors recounted this event, and the admiration and affection with which they spoke of their doctor—whose name (oddly enough) none of them knew—made a deep impression upon me.

Not until months later, and then quite by chance, did I discover that Mahratta’s doctor was none other than Peter McRae, a contemporary of mine at school. As a boy he had been one of the most delightful and gifted of people. A good all-rounder, successful in all he undertook, yet completely unassuming …Several years after the war, a proposal was mde that his self-sacrifice should be recognized by a suitable award but, sadly, the Admiralty did not concur.

So sad that the references for the Russian part of this operation date from the 1990's or 2000's. I bet there are many incredible tales lost forever because the secrecy demands of the USSR outlived the participants.