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Watt, Frederick B.

Scarborough (Ont.). Prentice-Hall, c1985. 222pp, cloth. $19.95. ISBN 0-13-453630-4. CIP

Grades 9 and up
Reviewed by Neil Payne

Volume 14 Number 2
1986 March

World War II was a long, frightening six years for the Allies. Most of that period offered little hope. Most of Europe had quickly fallen to the Nazis and their friends, and Britain's defiance was not expected to survive an imminent invasion. The battles that accompanied the rapid expansion of the Nazis, and later of their Japanese allies, were fierce but short-lived. Even the famous Battle of Britain, the battle for control of the skies over Britain, lasted only a little over one hundred days. But there was one theatre of the war that ground on relentlessly through the entire six years. A theatre where sudden death came as much from the elements as from the enemy; where sabotage and morale-destroying propaganda constantly threatened to destroy the Allied offensive; where men toiled year after year with the full knowledge that attack could come at any time, yet their only defence was silence and darkness. Men knowing that a hit meant half of them would die. Men knowing that any hope of winning the war rested on their efforts. This was the Battle of the Atlantic, A battle that raged daily from 1939 to 1945. The foot soldiers of this battle were the merchant seamen, who time after time delivered the food, fuel, medicine, and munitions that kept the British and later the Russian people going, and kept the armies supplied. Time after time they ran the gauntlet of German submarines and surface raiders with little or no protection. In the early years of the war, far more merchant seamen than men in uniform died, though the seamen were many times fewer in numbers. There are many accounts of the war for people in uniform and for civilians, but very little about the role of these merchant seamen. In All Respects Ready gives us a clear look at one part of that important story.

The author, Commander Frederick B. Watt, played a central role in the Naval Boarding Service that was established as part of the Naval Control of Shipping Office in Halifax. The job of the Boarding Service was to meet every ship entering Halifax, to advise them of security regulations, to check ship's convoy equipment and fire fighting preparations, to check for signs of sabotage, to learn any requirements of the master and help him to obtain them so that his ship could be ready to sail at the earliest time possible, to provide any little comforts they could for the seamen, and to promote morale among the seamen in any way possible. In short, they were to do everything that could be done to ensure that the ships continued to sail with their vital cargoes, despite the risks ahead. The biggest problem quickly became one of maintaining the morale of the merchant seamen and their willingness to make that horrible trip again. Living conditions on many of the ships were appalling. Many had been diverted from tropical routes and had no provision for winter in the North Atlantic. Many were old and decrepit and would have been scrapped but for the war. Ships whose messdecks were cold and wet carried crews who had no winter clothes. Pay was poor. Food was often bad. Many captains who would not even have had a ship but for the war, were abusive or incompetent. Battle fatigue, desertion, and strikes caused by the horrible conditions and fanned by troublemakers, or by Nazi sympathizers, and deliberate damage to ships so that they could not sail, threatened to do what the submarines had been unable to do, stop the flow of cargoes.

The author is the ideal person to recount these events, because he was the person who day by day had to deal with these problems in Halifax, the main convoy assembly point. He also developed the system that was put into place in all of Canada's ports and he trained the people sent to establish boarding services in the other ports. Tlu's system was so successful that it was adopted for use throughout the Commonwealth. The book is very much a personal account by a humane, insightful man, who feels no need to cover up his own frailties and shortcomings. Much of the appeal of the book is the author's willingness to recount his failures as well as his triumphs and to explain how he learned from and overcame these failures.

This book is important because it gives us a partial picture of the merchant seamen who repeatedly faced death for six long years and by whose deeds victory was made possible. It is also important for the insights it gives into the human dimension of the Battle of the Atlantic. The book is easy to read due to the many colourful characters and interesting anecdotes used throughout to illustrate the points made. There are many pictures that amplify the images of places and people. And although there is no index, it is not missed as much as it would be in a more documentary treatment. This book is a must buy for libraries interested in World War II and Canada's role in that war. It would be of special interest to public libraries and high school libraries, but should also be included in college and university collections.

Neil Payne, Kingston C.V.I., Kingston, Ont.
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