John R McKay, Surviving the Arctic Convoys (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Berwick lad Charlie Erswell served in the Royal Navy during World War II. It was an ambition he had always wanted to fulfil; war and his 18th birthday gave him the opportunity. Surviving the Arctic Convoys is his autobiography as told to John McKay.
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Too young to join up on the outbreak of war, Erswell worked as a telegram boy during the London blitz, but he signed up for the Royal Navy as a gunner in December 1941. He describes the perils of the Arctic convoys that would challenge him and his shipmates when he joined the destroyer HMS Milne. Erswell’s first Arctic convoy was PQ18, the one that followed the disastrous PQ17, so there was some apprehension on board HMS Milne. Submarines and enemy aircraft presented the biggest threats to the convoys, and Erswell narrates the action as they were encountered by his ship and others. He also relates the horrors of ships being sunk around HMS Milne, and the Milne’s rescue efforts to save sailors from the freezing seas. Despite incessant attacks, convoy PQ18 survived relatively intact and Erswell emphasizes the roles of training and efficiency in ensuring that success.
Routine maintenance and fighting the bitterly cold conditions occupied the sailors’ time in between German attacks. When they arrived off the Soviet Union, the destroyer escort turned round to take another convoy home with the fear of submarine attack ever present. On completion, HMS Milne sailed south to take part in Operation Torch via a boozy night in Gibraltar. On the way home, the ship was diverted into the Atlantic for more convoy duties and more U-boats. Some leave followed HMS Milne’s return to Scotland, then it was back to Arctic convoy work for Erswell in February 1943. A change of ship, to the HMS Savage, came next, in early 1944, and another Kola Run as the Arctic convoys were called. Despite the loss of an accompanying destroyer, it was clear to Erswell that the tide of war had turned against the German U-boats. Erswell next saw active service at the D-Day landings, defending against possible E-Boat attack. Then it was back to the frozen north but facing considerably less opposition. His last convoy escort took place in March 1945. Discharged in June 1946, Erswell joined the Merchant Navy. He bounced around the Mediterranean before leaving that service in 1949.
On first reading, Charlie Erswell’s autobiography has a ‘so what’ feel to it. While he certainly took part in some hair-raising combat in extreme conditions, Erswell himself did little of note other than his duty, which he freely acknowledges. Much of the rest of the book contains stories that many ex-sailors can relate to. But it is the very ordinariness of Erswell’s war that is the most profound aspect of this book. War has its heroes, but it is the extraordinary circumstances of war that ordinary men find themselves in that are the pulse of socio-military history; that in itself makes Erswell’s autobiography valuable. He isn’t helped by his editor, John McKay who takes too much for granted from his readers, leaving Erswell’s story under-contextualized when greater background detail could have added so much more to the story and the veracity of the memories on display. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable read and an eye-opener for readers who have not realised the importance of the Arctic convoys and the men who fought to keep them afloat.