Book review: Citizen Sailors by Glyn Prysor

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For those of us who did not live through the Second World War, our perceptions of the conflict are based primarily on school text books, the accounts of later generation historians and the fiction of a thousand films and novels.

But how much nearer we get to the heat, action and danger of battle when we view war through the eyes of those who were there.

Take Able Seaman Charles Hutchinson, a gunner on HMS Carlisle when it was attacked for six hours by German bombers in a Norwegian fjord in May 1940. ‘Hell’s pandemonium started,’ he wrote, ‘planes attacking from all angles, and I couldn’t describe it if I wanted to. No-one except those taking part could ever realise it... It was like Hell let loose.’

Glyn Prysor is well aware of the power and immediacy of a first-hand witness and here he assembles a rare and compelling look at the Second World War as witnessed by the ordinary sailors of the Royal Navy.

The aim of Citizen Sailors is to personalise the war, to show us the humanity and horror, triumphs and tragedies, nerve-racking convoys and epic gun battles, devastating aerial bombardment and swashbuckling amphibious landings.

Prysor reveals the grinding truths of everyday naval duties alongside the bigger picture of battles, operations and strategies. Small but telling detail brings the war to life in all its shocking reality.

When a shell from the Bismarck hit the bridge of the Prince of Wales in 1941, killing two sailors and injuring the captain, Midshipman Graeme Allen recorded that ‘blood began to drip steadily on to the chart table. We caught the drips in a half empty jug of cocoa.’

By drawing on hundreds of contemporary diaries and letters, along with memoirs, oral history and official documents, Prysor tells the groundbreaking human story of Britain’s war at sea.

The sailors of the Royal Navy fought from the very first day of the war until the very last. They played a vital part in a truly global war, from America to Australia and from the Arctic to South Africa. They fought in every conceivable vessel, from vast aircraft carriers and cramped corvettes, fast motor boats and rickety minesweepers to Swordfish biplanes and ageing submarines.

As Prysor points out, the war at sea appears at first glance to have been somehow less human than other campaigns, shaped more by technology, strategy and firepower than by people. The ships, and not their sailors, are too often regarded as the main characters.

Indeed, during a Mass Observation survey in 1941, the public often commented that sailors were doing ‘lots of dull, dangerous work bravely and well.’ One respondent admitted: ‘I know no sailors but I think they are heroic.’

Personal diaries were strictly forbidden but this did not stop many sailors – both officers and ratings – from recording their thoughts on paper and some are known to have written every day, storing their papers and journals in lockers and ‘ditty boxes.’

Inspired by these writings, Citizen Sailors draws upon the experiences of this mass of individuals to create ‘a human panorama.’ Prysor explores everyday concerns, extraordinary experiences and the emotional and personal responses of sailors and naval personnel to the actions and dangers they faced.

Over the war years, the regular servicemen were joined by tens of thousands of mobilised reservists, many from the merchant navy, and later by volunteers and draftees who eventually formed the bulk of the navy’s personnel.

‘Every member of the Royal Navy shared a common duty,’ says Prysor. ‘Perhaps more importantly, every sailor retained an emotional link with Britain or the Empire.’

This, he asserts, was a central part of the sailor’s psychological condition. Whether home was romanticised or criticised, pined for or escaped from, it was a defining feature of a sailor’s everyday concerns.

Each was ultimately serving the same society with the same purpose. ‘Just as they were all sailors, so were they all citizens.’

Citizen Sailors is an extraordinarily moving and vivid history of the British sailor’s war and puts the Royal Navy and its service personnel back where they belong – at the heart of the story of the Second World War.

(Penguin, paperback, £9.99)