Friday 26 April 2019

Book Review: In Action With Destroyers, 1939-45, Dennis, ed. Cummings

Unpublished during his lifetime, Alec Dennis' naval memoir is an interesting and easy read. From the ill-prepared early days, to eventual dominance and victory, he was everywhere, from the Med to Murmansk, the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

A junior senior officer (i.e. young but holding a higher echelon role!) on the Griffin, a Destroyer, he tells how this class of ship was very active, in roles from convoy escort to U-Boat hunting, and might be called upon do anything from attending to dignitaries or picking up drowning seamen. Dennis was fortunate, as most his contemporaries boats were sunk, whereas in all his postings - the longest being four years on the Griffin - he was on 'lucky' boats, and whilst hit and damaged, was never sunk. The Griffin, like Dennis, survived the war, and eventually went, again like the author himself, to Canada.

Most of his naval wartime experiences, vividly documented here, were of a quite routine sort. Although no less intense for all that, what with the constant anxieties produced by regular aerial attacks and the omnipresent threats of mines, torpedoes, etc. And even on the occasions when he took part in notable actions - from the sinking of the Scharnhorst to D-Day - he was often in a relatively peripheral position. 

He's good on the naval pecking order, and not shy of voicing his opinions on his colleagues, who range from those he clearly liked or admired to those he was less enamoured of. The times he lived through were exciting, and saw the passing of an older somewhat Victorian Imperial order. His observations of the roving life of a naval officer at large in the world at that time are fascinating.

Most of his time was spent as a second tier officer, perhaps unsurprisingly, as he was very young. Promotion came late in the war, and he was only very briefly the actual commander of a destroyer. In remarking on how the battleship HMS Belfast, a casualty of war, not only survived but was preserved for posterity, Dennis notes rather mournfully, 'It is a pity that no wartime Destroyer was thus preserved.' It's a lament he voices several times.

It might seem overly pedantic, and is perhaps more an editorial issue, but I was annoyed by the repeated spelling of fjord as 'fiord', which I've never seen before (and hope never to see again). Strangely this reverts to fjord towards the end of the book! However, this is a very minor gripe, and overall this is a terrific book. Dennis writes with an easy familiar style, in impressive detail, and with great clarity, and even a welcome touch of wit/humour. 

Definitely recommended, especially to those interested in the naval history of WWII.

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