The Merchant Navy has not faired very well in WWII histories, taking a poor second place to the Royal Navy. The Rescue Tug Service has been all but invisible. Now there is a fine book to correct this neglect of a band of exceptionally brave men who faced not only the power of the sea, but the depredations of warships and submarines, followed by epic survival in open boats. The Rescue Tug Service was often the only thing that stood between survivors and a lingering death. This new book is a well researched and nicely presented account that is inspiring and moving. Highly recommended – a book to change your view of life in the merchant convoys.
NAME: The Tattie Lads
AUTHOR: Ian Dear
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury. Conway Books
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, World War Two, Second World War, 1939-1945, war at sea, convoys, U-Boats, Luftwaffe, Rescue Tugs, survivors, Merchant Navy, seamen, sailors, survival, rescue
DESCRIPTION: The Merchant Navy has not faired very well in WWII histories, taking a poor second place to the Royal Navy. The Rescue Tug Service has been all but invisible. Now there is a fine book to correct this neglect of a band of exceptionally brave men who faced not only the power of the sea, but the depredations of warships and submarines, followed by epic survival in open boats. The Rescue Tug Service was often the only thing that stood between survivors and a lingering death. This new book is a well researched and nicely presented account that is inspiring and moving. Highly recommended – a book to change your view of life in the merchant convoys.
When war broke out again in 1939, it followed a shocking neglect by politicians in Britain to adequately equip Great Britain and its Empire with the means to defend against aggressors. The Royal Navy was well below its strength with many warships being survivors from WWI. There were inadequate numbers of warships to provide the vital defensive screens for merchant convoys of unarmed, or token-armed, cargo ships and tankers. Many of the lessons of WWI convoy escorting had to be relearned. The neglect of naval aviation was even more shocking, with the RN regaining full control of its carrier aircraft only two years before the outbreak of war. Those aircraft were almost entirely biplanes, owing more to WWI than the new age of metal monoplanes.
Many ships still sailed alone in the vastness of the oceans, carrying essential materials to Britain and taking out men and munitions to face the enemy in a growing number of theatres. Where convoys were formed, they sailed almost entire voyages with no air cover and with a collection of merchant cruisers and older warships as a thin defensive screen. As convoys included ships from many nations, and of some antiquity, convoy speeds were often no more than walking pace. The low speeds were even within the range of submerged U-Boats, and easily overhauled by U-Boats maintaining 17 knots on the surface.
As with the airmen and soldiers of Empire, RN and Merchant Navy personnel performed well beyond any reasonable expectations, and with great bravery. Merchant seamen were working in poor conditions, many sailing in ships that should have been sent to the breakers yards years before. With all of these deficiencies, merchant ships were easy pickings and the tonnage sunk each month rose at an alarming rate. The RN was not slow at relearning old lessons and advancing the capability to defend convoys. New warships, radar and sonar systems and improved weapons began to correct the weaknesses. Merchant ship building, particularly in US yards beyond the range of bombing, began to launch ships faster than the German Navy and Luftwaffe could sink them. The notorious ‘air gap’, where Atlantic convoys were beyond air cover, shrank and the RN began deploying a new small escort carrier, equipped with fighters and bombers. All of the military technology and new tactics has been covered very well by many books, but the Merchant Navy has been badly neglected.
Although the great courage of merchant seamen should be better covered by historians, the Rescue Tug Service has previously escaped any meaningful coverage. The ships and men of this service faced the greatest dangers, usually following some way behind convoys and the convoy escorts. That potentially placed them in greatest danger as soft targets for any U-Boats chasing a convoy and overhauling it. The Rescue Tug could expect to be reached first and the only protection was that most U-Boat commanders preferred to wait until they could attack the fat high value targets, tankers and munitions ships, and general cargo vessels. The danger could be greater after a U-Boat attack on the convoy, because the rescue tugs would have to slow and stop to rescue survivors in the water, or to come alongside severely damaged merchant ships and warships, to fight fires and take the vessel in tow. The operation of putting out fires and towing in bad weather presented just one more set of major dangers for the rescue crews.
For survivors, a rescue tug coming into sight was the most welcome sight. In one incident on the Arctic convoys to Russia, a destroyer sacrificed itself to buy time for merchant ships dispersing to escape a German cruiser squadron. A small number of crew survived the sinking of their destroyer, taking to the ships open boats. One boat was found by a rescue tug after several days in Arctic conditions. Only one survivor had lasted until the tug found his boat, and the rescuers had to first cut the boat’s mast because the survivor’s hand was frozen to it. Just one of so many stories of survival and rescue, where the sea and weather presented great dangers and challenges.
The author has presented what are a fine collection of stories by ship. There are two well-chosen collections of images in two photo-plate sections, and an appendix, bibliography and index, combing to provide a considerable amount of information. The author has also not neglected to include some of the other duties of Rescue Tug Service vessels, including the laying of the PLUTO fuel pipelines across the Chanel, that supplied the tanks and other vehicles landed on the Normandy beaches. The reader may most remember the humane rescue of seamen. That was in itself a significant benefit because experienced seaman were needed urgently, but the Rescue Tug Service also saved a considerable quantity of vital supplies and valuable vessels. Their contribution made the eventual winning of the Battle of the Atlantic possible. A great story that deserved to be told, and that has been told ably in this new book.