Nick Hewitt. Coastal Convoys 1939-1945: The Indestructible Highway. Bransley: Pen & Sword, 2008. Appendices. Notes. Index. Cloth. 244pp.
Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University
Aimed squarely at the general reader, this book has some obvious and significant flaws in terms of its academic value. It relies on a less than exhaustive search of English-language secondary sources (three pages of the sources section). In terms of primary research, the author has concentrated very heavily on securing first person accounts of the Channel battles from convoy and survivors reports from the British National Archives, together with additional material from the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive and BBC People’s War Website. Thus, the emphasis of the book is very much on the view from the bridge and the engine room, and on particular actions in the Channel from 1939 to 1945. The view from the Admiralty and from German naval headquarters is largely missing, and there is not a great of deal of exploration of grand strategy and tactical and technical evolution.
That being said, this book is a thoroughly scholarly effort of considerable value. If the title had been Coastal Convoys 1939-1945: An Oral History there would be little room for complaint. The oral history is extremely well done. Nick Hewitt has done a sterling job in gathering so many accounts and in marshalling them into an engaging narrative. Even though the emphasis is very much on the actions in the Channel he manages to range very widely within his subject to both maintain interest and to illuminate forgotten corners of the war at sea. The book is highly readable and it opens the door to further investigation and discussion of a range of side issues from German mining policy, through to the Allied intelligence effort to protect the coastal convoys.
Hewitt has a definite thesis that he develops quietly and with some skill. His argument is that the Channel battles were vital to Britain’s survival (without coal brought in from the North the power stations in the South of England could not have continued to operate and the cities would have gone cold during the winter). Despite this, little has been written on the Channel battles. In comparison with the vast literature dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic it would be hard to dispute his claim. Peter C. Smith’s Hold the Narrow Sea: Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945 (1984) and J.P. Foynes Battle of the East Coast (1994) being the two other most recent contributions to this field. Hewitt further contends that the war along the South and East Coasts of England was markedly different to the struggle beyond the Western Approaches.
Of course, he is right, but his real skill lies in using oral history to demonstrate the point. The ships were tiny in comparison with some of those that plied their trade across the Atlantic. While the coastal boys were less than fully proficient in the dark arts of navigation by sextant and star (a keen set of eyes and the ability to work by shore lights at night were sufficient), working a boat around coast and estuary required its own particular skill set in which ship handling, knowledge of the currents and shoals were paramount.
In the circumstances of the Second World War, the coastal trade held particular terrors. The need to move goods, especially coal, by sea meant that the coastal convoys had to run to a schedule as regular as any train company. Constrained by shoals, sandbanks and wartime minefield evasive routing was not an option as it was in the vastness of the Atlantic. During 1940 and 1941, German E-boats could cross the Channel by night and lie in wait in the safe channel along the East Coast for the convoys to arrive. Against this 40 knot, heavily armed torpedo boats, the escort for the coastal convoys in the early years of the war was invariably inadequate and frequently makeshift. Whalers and ocean-going trawlers taken into service with the Royal Navy Patrol Service had to do a job that would later be done by growing fleets of motor gunboats, motor-launches and hunt class destroyers. A strike from a torpedo designed to sink a large freighter was a particularly devastating event for a coaster one-tenth of the size of an ocean-going ship. It was not until 1943 that the E-boat threat was effectively contained. Likewise, before the attack on Russia in 1941, the Luftwaffe was similarly able to benefit from concentrations of shipping running regular-as-clock-work along the English coast. The stresses and strains on the men who fought the war in the narrow seas were very different from those who faced the U-boats in the Atlantic. A peculiar campaign that saw more than its fair share of tragedy and heroism. Hewitt’s skill as a writer is to convey this, and to allow the reader to look through the eyes of the men whose contribution to winning the war continues to be largely overlooked by historians and by the wider public.
Hewitt’s book, well supported by a detailed index, is an important contribution to our understanding of the war at sea, even if it has some limitations from an academic perspective. It illuminates a forgotten corner of the war and demonstrates the value of oral history in opening fresh avenues for academic research. The general reader will find this an engrossing read and a useful contribution to the narrow field of literature that deals with military operations along the British East and South Coasts from 1939 to 1945.
Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Nick Hewitt. Coastal Convoys 1939-1945’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 17 March 2013
You can download a copy of the review here.