Irving David - The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17

Author : Irving David
Title : The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17
Year : 1968

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All books have something which their authors most wish to bring to their readers’ attention. Some authors are successful in this, and their readers remain prejudiced to the authors’ points of view for the rest of their reading lives; some authors are not, and when the last page, the last appendix and wearisome footnote have been scanned the reader asks himself: what was it all about? I fear that I fall into the latter category, and lest this book be misunderstood its readers should know before they enter into the narrative proper that the guiding light in deciding which incidents in this canvas of tragedy to dwell upon, and which to suppress, has been a conviction that gallantry is best portrayed in its real setting; the ships should be shown to be crewed by normal men with normal fears and feelings. Too often one has read histories of individual acts of heroism, and one’s appreciation has been dulled by the picture’s lack of relationship to normal human character. So The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17 is primarily a book peopled with ordinary people: we see how men reacted when confronted with a grim situation which meant certain disaster and probably death. But against this sombre background we shall find that the individual jewels of gallantry sparkle most, emerging unexpectedly to dazzle us by their now unaccustomed shine. Nor can there be any doubt but that in PQ.17 it is a sombre background; crews mutiny, and are confined in chains below decks; their Masters haul down the Allied flags and display signals reading ‘Unconditional Surrender’; they deliberately run aground and abandon their vessels; nine merchant ships are deserted by their crews even though still seaworthy, some of them before they have even been attacked; and American captains volunteer to scuttle their ships so that they can finish their voyage in safety. But it is this background which allows one fully to savour the heroism of the few brave men, faced with identical perils, who single-handed bring their ships and cargoes into port, often against the wishes of their crews, with officers like the British lieutenant who urged the Americans to drop their plan to scuttle their ships, like the Welsh rescue-ship captain whose gallantry was such that he was one of the first three Merchant Navy officers to win the military Distinguished Service Order. In the story of PQ.17 we find that there are indeed two kinds of courage in war—both the single and outstanding acts of reckless gallantry with which we have come to associate the individual units of the Royal Navy, and a quiet moral courage which alone can sustain an officer in acting against his every human instinct, when he understands from the orders given him that this is the only way in which he can serve the higher plan. The dogged manner in which Captain E. D. W. Lawford of the anti-aircraft ship Pozarica (afterwards awarded a D.S.O. for his rôle in this operation) carried out the instructions which had been given him in spite of the entreaties of the merchant ships, is an example of moral courage as worthy of our admiration as the more spectacular feats of the smaller vessels’ skippers. These are, I hope, more convincing brands of heroism than the synthetic deeds of valour of which the war’s propaganda media were so monotonously full. ...

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