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Churchill’s Thin Grey Line: British Merchant Ships at War 1939-1945

While Edwards’ new book might be seen as just another book on the history of the naval war during World War II it provides valuable insights into a particular aspect of this war that is well known by specialists but nevertheless often overlooked or mentioned only in a brief paragraph: the activities of the British merchant marine fleet between 1939 and 1945.

Opposite to most other books dealing with the subject Edwards is not focusing on the big story of numbers and tonnage of ships sunk by Nazi U-boats and surface vessels or the total cargo volume transported by the merchant marine to support the war efforts in nearly all theaters, but focuses on the British merchant mariners themselves and their individual contributions to and experiences during the war. This micro-history or history from below approach is definitely the strongest strength, but at the same time the greatest weakness of the book.

Organized by chronology Edwards tells for each year of the war exemplary stories of the fate of individual ships and their crews. While the focus is clearly on the British side, he incorporates the perspective of the enemy into more or less every individual story, showcasing that between success or failure, live or death was often only a thin line regardless of being the attacker or the attacked.

For the reader with decent knowledge on the overall development of the war at sea this approach will definitely help to get at better understanding of the war at large, while for the reader without such knowledge it might be hard to piece together the larger picture and to understand the relevance of the sacrifice made by British merchant mariners during the conflict.

The integration of short pieces of primary sources, like diaries, reports etc. into the stories definitely helps to provide not only an authentic feel but a better understanding how merchant mariners as well as German U-boat men and other naval crew experienced and perceived the respective situation and thus to support the concept of a history from below approach. However, as Edwards is not providing the sources for these firsthand account showcases also that the book is somewhat limited when it comes to its usefulness as a secondary source. There is no doubt that Edwards did excessive and meticulous research for preparing the manuscript and could have easily provided this information. Why it was not included remains an open question with one possible answer, that the book is not intended for a professional readership, but mainly an audience with a somewhat casual interest in the subject. Fortunately there is at least an index and a short bibliography. Nevertheless the situation with the bibliography is comparable to the one of the detailed references for the primary sources. It is a kind of disappointment for the professional reader as the few entries in the bibliography mainly refer to the standard books on the subject, while the complete scholarly body of work published in scholarly journal articles is omitted. Again, the explanation is probably the intended audience for the book, which means the book being a publication for the general public and not a specialized readership of professional naval and or maritime historians.

When thinking about Edwards’ book as a publication for a general readership, the previously made critical comments need to be reverted at least to a certain degree. Edward should be commended for bringing the subject of the service of merchant marines to a broad public attention without simply telling heroic stories, but providing a more nuanced picture that allows one to identify not only the different motifs why merchant mariners have volunteered to man the ships that were so critical for the war effort and how they perceived and coped with the imminent danger these ships were facing once they left the port. Equally nuanced, he tells the story that not all crewmembers of Nazi U-boats were the always successful heroes as depicted in contemporary propaganda, but had to face minor misfortunes that often decided on success or failure.

In the end, this review can only be concluded with a very mixed recommendation: For the professional reader looking for a history of the British merchant marine during World War II and its importance for the war effort at large the book will be a disappointment. For the more casual reader interested in understanding how ordinary merchant mariners on British ships experienced the war it will be a relevant and interesting book as it puts individuals into the center of the story. These readers easily will be able to relate to, in particular if the reader might have a background in or connection to the maritime industries him or herself. If understanding and reading the book as a general history book the issue of references and completeness of the bibliography becomes a minor one, but the issue of illustrations becomes more or less automatically a major. The book contains a comparable small selection of black and white photographs that is useful for a general understanding of the types of ships involved on both sides of the conflict, but lacks completely any contemporary photographs of merchant mariners themselves. Including some photographs of life and work aboard under wartime conditions would have substantially increased the overall relevance of the book as giving faces to the names (even if not the actual face of the person) would have helped the reader to better understand how the mariners coped and were ravaged by sailing under the permanent threat of their ships being torpedoed or shelled.

With a retail price of only £ 19.99 or US$ 34.95 for a hardback of good technical quality the book will hopefully find its readership and while probably not the scholarly most important book on the subject of the British merchant marine during World War II, it is a most welcome book as it helps to broaden the general interest in an important facet of naval/maritime history, showcases that naval warfare was by no means limited to the navies and sailors themselves but that civilian mariners were equally involved and affected, and most important that it were not only the “great men” making history, but ordinary merchant mariners.

Churchill’s Thin Grey Line: British Merchant Ships at War 1939-1945
By Bernard Edwards, Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, UK, (2017).

Reviewed by Dr. Ingo Heidbrink, Professor, Old Dominion University.
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