Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II - Michael G Walling

Title: Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War II

Author: Michael G Walling
ISBN: 978-1-84908-718-6
Pages: 284
Publisher: Osprey Publishing

One of the most under-appreciated facets of the Second World War has to be the valour and sacrifice of the sailors of the merchant marine and the navies of the Soviet, British, American and Allies that struggled against tremendous odds to maintain a supply lifeline through the frigid Arctic waters, to the Soviet Union throughout the particularly bleak years of 1941-1943. Ranged against them, and no less determined and valourous, were the units of the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe who did their utmost to strangle this 'warm line' of support. Relatively speaking, little has been written about these efforts and the voices of these sailors and airmen have remained silent. This is no longer the case as a result of the efforts of Mr Walling.

The impact that the convoys had on the war effort may best be summarized by a quote from Mr Waling's book: "If a submarine sinks two 6000-ton ships and a 3000 ton tanker...(to achieve an equivalent loss) by air bombing, the enemy would have to make three thousand successful bombing sorties: from a 1943 US Navy assessment". This begins to provide strategic perspective on the importance played by these men and women and the merchant/convoy system to the success of the Allied war effort in the East. 

Walling presents his book with a synopsis of the convoy system, the nature of the threat posed by the Germans, the intelligence gathering methods of both sides and the methods available to the Allies to counter the Germans; this is critical as it provides the reader with the background to appreciate the rest of the book. The narrative of the book is both a rendition of the Allied convoy experience and a medium whereby the voices of the participants are heard again through recollections of survivors. 

The author is particularly adept at blending the narratives of the survivors within the larger storyline. This adds depth and appreciation of the sacrifices made by these crews and the incredible hardships to which they were exposed. Walling touches upon the fate of PQ-17 in some detail, representing as it does, the tragedy that results when German tactics coincide with Allied errors. What I found particularly interesting, were the sections relating to German surface and subsurface operations in the Kara Sea to the east of the Ural Mountains. The German cruiser Admiral Hipper and a number of u-boats conducted operations against secluded Russian northern coordination and tracking centres. There is little to no account of these operations in any detail that I have seen before and I was struck by the sheer isolation of these encounters in one of the most hostile environments on earth.

Mr Walling has written a fantastic book; a well-researched, high quality and eminently readable publication. The risks undertaken by those operating in the north were enormous and the bravery exhibited by both the Allies and Axis sailors and airmen in their struggle for supremacy must stand as one of the least appreciated aspects of the Second World War. I strongly encourage those with any interest in the history of this regional conflict to read this book.

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