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Still the benchmark

THE best ideas, so the aphorism goes, are written on the back of fag

packets. This one was written on the back of an envelope. From 15 programme suggestions made by the Imperial War Museum’s then director, the great Noble Frankland, four decades ago grew the greatest history documentary ever produced. In a multimedia age, it’s almost

always being screened on some channel,

while TV historians

voted it into the top 20 British programmes of all time. Nearly 40 years on from its

first airing and the 26-episode The World at War (11-disc DVD, £79.99, nine-disc Blu-Ray, £99.99, available from September 20) has been ‘reinvented’ for a 21st-Century audience. Every frame of footage, every second of audio has been restored, enhanced and cleaned up – more than 3.6 million changes across the entire series – for what FremantleMedia call the ‘ultimate restored edition’ month.

released this

These days we’re lucky if we get a documentary series lasting more than four or five episodes. Back in the early 70s, ITV (remember when they made quality documentaries?) committed themselves to 26 hour- long episodes at a total cost of nearly £1m (the figure today would be 12 times that). They did so at just the right

time. Today’s WW2 documentaries rely either on diaries and letters to tell their stories, or the accounts of increasingly-frail veterans who invariably held very junior ranks 70 years ago.

The team behind The World

at War had access to ‘ordinary’ men and women, but also many of the wartime commanders: a wonderfully-entertaining General Brian Horrocks,

an urbane

Anthony Eden, an unrepentant Otto Remer (he helped to crush the July 20 plot against Hitler) and a wizened Karl Dönitz whose testimony, in halting English, is

● Steppe change... original and restored colour cine-fi lm footage of Axis troops advancing in Russia ever was.

juxtaposed with his former foe in ‘Wolfpack’ – the episode dealing with Battle of the Atlantic (and the one most Navy News readers will perhaps turn to first...). For all the excellent restored footage and the even- crisper-sounding tones of Sir Laurence Olivier’s narration, it’s the ordinary human testimony which still has the power to move. Imagine a documentary in 2010 giving three minutes of continuous airtime to an elderly sailor. There are no dramatic reconstructions,

fancy graphics. Yet the testimony of Capt William Eyton-Jones remains as compelling now as it was in the early 1970s. The Liverpudlian skipper of the steamer SS Benvrackie, Eyton- Jones watched his ship sink in four minutes when she was torpedoed


by U105 in May 1941, some 500 miles off Freetown, Sierra Leone. For 13 days he guided 58 sailors in an open boat made for 48 men, guarding the meagre rations – a dipper of water and a biscuit per day. S

cre Ben Ey ass “W lot O

ov re

were saved. The skipper earned the OBE for his skill in sailing the boat towards shipping lanes. His account is a timely reminder of the perils of the sea – naval warfare may change, but the ocean remains as unforgiving to shipwrecked mariners now as it

a h

eventually spotted by a hospital ship; 58 lives

th e

Some of his Chinese crew panicked. In true Benny Hill fashion, Eyton-Jones tried to assuage their fears: “What’s all the bothery, lot of talky-talky.” One man jumped over the side. On the first occasion he was recovered, but not on the second.

The lifeboat was

Indeed the whole episode is a timely reminder of our nation’s reliance on its maritime supply lines. It’s one hour of viewing which should be compulsory for any sailor joining Raleigh or BRNC Dartmouth.

Snide and prejudice

THE second volume of Ned Willmott’s magnum opus on the supposed Last Century of Sea Power, Volume 2: From Washington to Tokyo, 1922- 1945 (Indiana University Press, £29.99 ISBN 978-0-253-35214- 9) covers the period from the eponymous treaty of 1922 to the end of WW2.

anything, the gratuitous insults are even more obvious than in the fi rst volume (Review, April 2010), writes Prof Eric Grove of the University of Salford.

offi cers rather than naval historians who are on the receiving end of the abuse.

This time it is British Naval

a myriad of extras) are eminently watchable too... ■ We have two copies of the DVD box set to give away – and for runners up two copies of the accompanying book by Prof Richard Holmes. To win, tell us for which 1944 colour film did Laurence Olivier receive an honorary Oscar. Send your answer, plus your full name and address, either in the post to World At War Competition, Navy News, Leviathan Block, HMS Nelson, Portsmouth, PO1 3HH, or via e-mail to worldatwar@ We must receive your entries by mid-day on October 15 2010. Normal Navy News rules apply.

Loch, Jocks and a few smoking bunkers

to fascinate historians. Enter two books on the subject, one from a local historian, the other from one of the German submarine service’s leading authorities. David Hird’s The Grey Wolves of Eriboll (Whittles,

ISBN 978-1-904445-326) is an excellently-researched and extremely accessible account of the U-boats’ demise. When the war ended in May 1945, there were more than a good three dozen German submarines at sea, 20 or so of them on patrol in and around the UK, and scores more in foreign ports.

surrendered U-boats were directed to Loch Eriboll, a bleak natural harbour, 15 miles east of Cape Wrath, and, before 1945, a regular haunt of the Royal Navy.

was brief – within a few days many had been escorted to Loch Alsh and, subsequently, Lisahally in Northern Ireland. A couple were eventually

Their stay at this remote spot More than 30 £16.99

SEVEN decades after they were forcibly tamed, Hitler’s U-boats continue

from Allied and Axis veterans. The victors were curious about their foe – and their kit – and were shown around. The crew of HMCS Nene were most disappointed when they toured U295, however. “We got practically nothing,” their furious CO complained. “The RN boarding parties looted our U-boats like a bunch of thugs, even taking some personal gear. Two of us got helmet and badges but no blondes. Hope for better luck in Derry.”

surfaced preparing to surrender,

and take a bite of the sour apple.” Official naval correspondent

intercepted message read. “We must obey the orders of our Führer

th in re th

Eric Williams interviewed the surrendering German Matrosen (matelots).

transferred to the Soviet Navy, one was handed to the Americans for evaluation, the rest were sunk as targets under Operation Deadlight. So Eriboll’s place in the sun was extremely short-lived – but it’s an important moment in the RN’s 20th-Century history. And those ten or so days are

charted with some wonderful testimony gathered by the author

remorseless bunch. “Nowhere did I find any admission of guilt or regret,” he wrote. “Discipline came first. Unquestioning obedience. When I asked an officer whether he would obey an order he knew to be wrong, he smiled deprecatingly. ‘We do not get wrong orders.’” ■ Few people know more about the U-Bootwaffe than the prodigious Jak Mallmann-Showell, the son of a submarine engineer who was killed in the Battle of the Atlantic; he’s devoted his life to the research of the German silent service. Hitler’s U-Boat Bunkers (History Press, £14.99 ISBN 978-

They were a

from headquarters in Germany were broadcast en clair. “Comrades nearing England, we have to carry out a mission and obey the law of their people,”

su su fr in b

E c a


07509-45554) charts the birth, life and slow death of the concrete and steel carbuncles which pepper the French

coastline. The fall of France in June 1940 presented the German Navy with the opportunity of striking at Britain’s lifelines from bases on the Atlantic. To safeguard the influx of U-boats, 4.4 million tons of concrete were used to build bombproof shelters – pens or bunkers – in several French ports (the complex at La Pallice, famously, can be seen in the final scenes of Das Boot). For three years, the RAF tried

to get at the boats in their bunkers – but with little success until the


As the boats messages

final 12 months of the war. Enter Tallboy (12,000lb) and Grand Slam (22,000lb) bombs which would ruin most people’s day.

The first Tallboys were dropped on the pens at Brest.

landed on the huge structure, five penetrated the previously- impenetrable roof (pictured left) but did little damage to the boats themselves.

author, was considerable. Until that moment, the bunker had been a refuge – now it had become “a deadly liability”, the effect of a Tallboy exploding “as if the men’s chest were being hit with sledgehammers”. There were more than a dozen raids using these ‘bunker buster’ bombs in the closing months of World War 2 – yet the raids proved surprisingly ineffective. There’s only one documented case of a U-boat being sunk by an attack on a pen – the brand-new U4708, sunk inside its protective shell in April 1945. Such was the air pressure caused by the blast, the instruments of a neighbouring submarine (which didn’t sink) were convinced the boat was 40 metres down. Nothing remains of the Kiel complex, the Kilian bunker, but most of Hitler’s U-boat pens survive and some, such as those at Brest, are still in use (under new ownership,

part history, part photo chronicle, part battlefield guide – which makes it indispensable either for those interested in the U-boat arm, or in a spot of military tourism.

Mallmann-Showell’s book is course). of The morale effect, says the Nine The remaining 25 hours (plus

After asserting that the ‘Royal Oak Affair’ was “the intellectual high water mark of the British Navy (sic) in the inter- war period” he goes on to write that “this invokes the imagery of the (apocryphal) story of the incident in which a British na- val offi cer was almost trampled to death by a horse while two other British naval offi cers who tried to come to his assistance were also badly injured: in the event, all were saved when the manager of the store came out of the store and unplugged the horse.” Clearly RN offi cers do not qualify for the tolerence to which, along with dissent and uncertain- ty, he has dedicated his book! The offence is compounded by a footnote that reads: “Alternative- ly, the point might be made by the assertion that the surest means of making the eyes of a British naval offi cer light up is to shine a beam of light into one of his ears.” That a university press in the USA allowed this crude abuse to appear in one of its publications, is a sad comment on both its edi- torial standards and perhaps an anti-British impulse in parts of the USA that has not gone beyond the hostility of the Washington Treaty period.


The author can make such de- meaning and unhistorical remarks because, as usual, he cannot bring himself to read the serious histori- cal works on the inter-war period, that have, generally speaking, cast the actors in naval policy of that time in a relatively good light. In particular, Willmott’s wrong- headed assertions about neglect of anti-submarine warfare, could not have been sustained if he had bothered to read the works of Franklin and Llwellyn-Jones. Presumably “the fi nest naval historian ... writing today”, as the cover blurb repeats, is unwilling to have his prejudices affected by se- rious historical analysis. Even

Americans might be

slightly concerned with Willmott’s argument that the maritime war against Germany was largely peripheral and the only front that mattered was the Eastern. He does admit – but under-

states the importance of – direct Western aid to the Soviets but, more importantly, he completely ignores the effect of the invasion of Sicily on the decision to call off Zitadelle, the last German offensive in the East. Never again were the Germans able to mass their whole forces against the Soviet Union and if one compares the German force- to-space ratios of mid-1943 and mid-1944, one can see the effect of Allied sea power in drawing forces away and enabling Soviet offensives. There is more to war than the crude butcher’s bills upon which Willmott bases his rather old-fashioned views.

The author delights in fi gures and much of the book is taken up with tables, that makes reading it more rapid than one might think for a 680-page tome. These are both comprehensive and useful and make the book a convenient reference tool and a most useful

It does not disappoint; if

The Grove Review

addition to a naval library. The author also allows himself to make good use of his fi gures to provide sound analyses of mer- chant shipping losses and the im- portance of international shipping to the Allied cause. He also has ex- cellent coverage of the unfortunate story of the French Navy in World War 2. For old times’ sake, I was pleased to fi nd myself in full agreement with his critical assess- ment of Mers-el-Kebir. His brief account of the battle between the French and the Thais in January 1941 will also come as news to many.

new W

est the he

sup the de wh str


deed, as the author argues, more important than the usual accounts of battles and the conduct of ad- mirals – although he cannot resist taking a swipe at Admirals Halsey and Yamamoto.

ping losses. These were in- ping losse

Willmott is strong- est in his discussion of the Pacifi c War, where he provides a well- supported analysis of the reasons for Japan’s defeat by the over- whelming industrial strength of the USA. He correctly em- phasises, based on fi gures in more ta- bles, the importance of Japanese supply shortages and ship-

ph b

g sh

He also demolishes Fuchida’s account of the supposed demand for a follow-up raid on Pearl Harbor. The latter’s memory has already been heavily criticised by Parshall and Tully in their ground-breaking reassessment of Midway, which appears in Willmott’s bibliogra- phy, but not in a footnote to his brief account of the battle. As I said in my previous review,

Dr Willmott is his own worst ene- my. He cannot resist gratuitous in- sults which he, and his publisher, confuse with witty criticism. More seriously, he resorts to these in- stead of addressing the literature. He seems not to want his preju- dices to be challenged. He hides behind tables of fact, which he sometimes uses to great effect. However, it is such a pity that the author’s sheer self-indulgence is not kept more under control by his editor and publisher. They do their author no favours

by puffi ng him in their advertising and allowing him to produce com- mentary like this.

expurgate volume three which, based on the fi nal comments of its predecessor, might be a very odd book indeed.

One hopes it is not too late to

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