Today’s Times Weekend published an article called Horrible Histories: The Woeful Second World War. What follows is 2800 really interesting words on the blitz, the home guard, the RAF, shelters, rationing and then a chronology of how the war unfolded. It was only when I got to the end that I realised there wasn’t a single mention of the Royal Navy. Or any navy. Or the maritime. Not one.
Curious, I contacted Terry Deary, the successful and prolific author of the series from which this was taken. He kindly replied that he was asked to write his intro focussing on the blitz and that the rest was extracted by the paper from books he wrote 25+ years ago. Without reading all of his books, or contacting the Times editorial desk to ask why they chose the sections they did, neither of which I have time to do, it’s hard to pin down how this omission came about. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how anything can be written about World War II that excludes the maritime in this way.
The Royal Navy secured our lifeblood during this war because as an island we didn’t produce enough food or fuel to feed ourselves, let alone carry on the fight. In 1939, Britain was importing 20 million tons of food per year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits, about 70% of cereals and fats and more than half of its meat. Much of this was carried by the civilian cargo ships of Britain’s Merchant Navy and their crews of sailors from across the globe, defended by the ships and aircraft of the Royal Navy – the biggest in the World at the start of the war, all sustained by hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who worked in the great ports at places like London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow to lift these goods off the ships and onto the trains, lorries and boats that would take them to the homes, shops and factories. Many thousands more worked night and day in Britain’s huge shipyards at places like Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, hammering vast sheets of steel to build, replace and repair ships ravaged by war.
It allowed the rescue of the army at Dunkirk and its return to France on D-Day, as well as allowing millions of troops from allies such as the United States, Canada, Australia, India and others to be moved to Britain and around the World, along with transport of millions of tons of food, aid and military supplies.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest of the war, lasting from the sinking of the very first ship, the passenger liner SS Athenia, just a few hours after war had been declared, right through to the sinking of the last German U-boat, the U-320, the day Germany surrendered. All fought in conditions that were consistently horrendous for the military and merchant crews of both sides. Losses were staggering. 3,500 merchant vessels were sunk and some 36,000 civilian merchant seamen lost. On the other side it was even worse. Of 830 U-boats operational during the war 696 had been sunk along with over 30,000 crew killed and captured – a casualty rate of 75%.
Even the blitz was directly linked to the maritime. The very first target? The East End Docklands. As the aerial campaign expanded, other ports such as Liverpool and Bristol were added to the target list. In fact, of the 171 air raids on Britain between August 1940 and June 1941, 141 were targeted at port cities (if not always directly at the port itself).
Sea blindness is an affliction that has plagued mariners since the dawn of time. That a commentary can be produced on World War II that doesn’t even mention a naval effort and sacrifice of this magnitude suggests that it is alive and well. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, hydrocarbons through the Strait of Hormuz, Russian underwater activity in the North Atlantic are just three examples of contemporary and persistent activities that would attract more column inches if the seriousness of them being compromised was easier to understand; more tangible. If one could see and feel the conditions that merchant mariners have often endured since the start of Covid, and then quantify what would happen if that system catastrophically failed, the scandal that it (still) is would dominate the news. Likewise, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a whole different level of nasty when compared to its equivalent off the Horn of Africa) barely gets a mention even when some pour soul is beaten to death.
Advocates of the sea will tell you that we are now entering a new maritime era. I would posit that we never left it. If fact, we’ve been in it ever since the Austronesians stood on a beach in Taiwan c5000 years ago facing SouthEast and wondered ‘I wonder what happens over there?’ But you wouldn’t always think so. Interest when it comes, is often fleeting. Wars cause spikes but they don’t last. So do piracy and migrancy although, ironically, navies can’t solve either.
It doesn’t help that even our own defence architecture can’t agree on this. I’m not for one second going to disparage the importance of cyber and space but anyone who believes they should have primacy over the maritime just now either doesn’t understand or is trying to save money.
The good news is that this year, the Royal Navy has an almost unparalleled ‘peacetime’ opportunity to raise awareness of what it does with the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her multi-national task group to the Indo-Pacific. The timing literally couldn’t be better. And I wish them the best of luck because if The Times is able to publish anything on World War II, no matter how it came about, without even mentioning the pivotal role of the Royal Navy, then there is clearly still plenty to do.