With the warmer weather well underway in the Northern Hemisphere (albeit somewhat variable) one of the great pleasures at this time of year is relaxing outdoors with a good book – and a chilled beverage. There must be hundreds of thousands of books that have been written about various aspects of the Second World War, from high geo-political strategy to the famous battleships of the day to the role of secret intelligence services. I particularly enjoy reading memoirs of the seamen who fought in this terrible conflict. In this BookPick I have selected three titles dealing, not with the steel goliaths of the age, but with the small boats and their crews, indomitably venturing into Neptune’s realm on daring missions.
Crash Boat by Earl A. McCandlish and George D. Jepson
This is the compelling – and largely unknown – story of an American crash boat during World War II in the South Pacific, whose dramatic rescues of downed pilots and clandestine missions off Japanese-held islands were done at great peril. Earl A. McCandlish was commander of the 63-foot crash boat P-399, nicknamed Sea Horse. The vessel and her crew were credited with over 30 rescues, fought a fierce gun battle with enemy forces, experienced life from another age in isolated native villages, were ordered on boondoggle missions, and played a supporting role in America’s return to the Philippines. This book resonated with me as not only did I spend some years in this part of the world with the Australian Navy but I did time at Pearl Harbor under COMTHRDFLT and at sea in USS Midway, that legendary original WWII flat-top. Crash Boat reminded me of some of the Yankee characters I met during this time – such as the officer’s messman in Pearl, an old, grizzled marine who had gone in at Tarawa, and who certainly had a salty yarn or two to tell! Much recommended for its warmth and atmosphere.
The Shetland ‘Bus’ by Stephen Wynn
The Shetland Bus was not a bus, but the nickname of a special operations group that set up a route across the North Sea between Norway and the Shetland Islands, 110 miles north-east of Scotland. The first voyage was made by Norwegian sailors to help their compatriots in occupied Norway, but soon the British Secret Intelligence Service and the Special Operations Executive asked if they would be prepared to carry cargoes of British agents and equipment as well. Fourteen boats of different sizes were originally used, and Flemington House in Shetland was commandeered as the operation’s HQ. The first official journey was carried out by the Norwegian fishing vessel Aksel which left Luna Ness on 30 August 1941 on route to Bremen in Norway. These were extremely courageous individuals who helped maintain an important lifeline to the beleaguered Norwegians. It also allowed British agents a way in to Norway to liaise with the Underground movement and carry out important missions against the German occupiers. A moving tale of grit and determination of men pitted against the rough and unforgiving waters of the North Sea.
Gunboat Command by Antony Hichens
This biography draws heavily on the personal diaries of Robert Hichens (or ‘Hitch’ as he was known). After a brief description of his early life, his motor racing achievements (including trophies at Le Mans) and his Royal Navy training, the book focuses on his wartime experiences. Hitch was the most highly decorated RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) officer of the war with two DSOs, three DSCs and three Mentions in Despatches. He was recommended for a posthumous VC. Hichens served in vulnerable minesweepers and the Dunkirk Dynamo operation. In 1940 he joined Coastal Forces in the very fast MGBs (Motor Gun Boats), earning his own command and subsequently that of a flotilla. He was the first to capture an E-Boat. His abilities led to many successes and his reputation as a fearless and dynamic leader remains a legend today. The book contains detailed and graphic accounts of running battles against the more heavily armed E-boats. Tragically, he was killed in action in April 1943, having refused promotion and a job ashore. A fitting tribute by his son, who himself served in the Royal Navy.