War: The Importance of First-Hand Accounts
In many ways, The Second World War is the ultimate subject. Few other periods capture our imaginations and involve so many interlocking philosophies, national stories and moments of drama than the period spanning 1939-1945 (earlier if you count the Japanese invasion of Manchuria).
But often lost beneath the grand narratives and casualty figures are those individual stories, ones filled with countless acts of heroism, tragedy and even a bit of humor (actually quite a lot of it). It’s difficult for us, safely tucked away in the post-war era, to comprehend the scale of the conflict. For us, conversations about the war resemble those of a television series (“I swear, Hitler better die this season, or I’ll just stop watching!”). Though we will never know what it was like ourselves, first hand accounts help shorten the historical distance between the events in the abstract, and what they meant in reality.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Britain’s Royal Navy was still the superlative naval power in the world, with more surface ships than even the United States. Of these surface ships were included 66 cruisers. These ships, while not as large as battleships, were larger and packed more firepower than destroyers. In the royal navy, these would play an indispensable role in all theaters. One such vessel was the light cruiser HMS Edinburgh, and of its 750 or so sailors included a young telegraphist and decoder named Alan Higgins.
Alan Higgins, born near Cardiff in Wales, joined the Royal Navy in 1939 at the age of 16 (!), and went on to see action in the Barents Sea, the Mediterranean and the D-Day landings. In his book, You’re in the Navy Now, Alan details his journey, one laced with fascinating and charming anecdotes that humanize the many tales of carnage, tragedy and gunfire.
This includes the gloriously British situation of Higgins having to make tea for the 2 AM watch aboard the cruiser. Nevermind getting shot at by the Luftwaffe, imagine having to carry a pot of tea across the ship in an arctic gale:
Pouring the tea was an art form, especially when the ship was rolling, for if poured wit the roll the tea would rush out all over the recipient…I recall one night when the wind was so strong it blew the lid of the teapot into the sea. To top it all the operators would moan that the tea or coffee was not hot!
Unfortunately, the ship would not see the end of the war, as it was sunk in spring, 1942 while delivering gold bullion from the Soviet Union to Britain to pay for war supplies sent from the allies. On April 30th, she was leading the convoy when a u-boat fired a torpedo into her starboard side, causing her to list to one side, which Higgins describes in a rather amusing fashion:
after getting through the hatch and emerging on the catapult deck, a very funny incident occurred. Because of the number of men engaged in running a wartime cruiser, the Admiralty had issued an order that in the event of a ship listing to, say, the starboard side, providing an adjustment to the list (ridiculous!) I emerged on the side nearest the water and was told in no uncertain manner that my eight stone (112lb) was urgently needed on the high side of the ship.
The Edinburgh would carry on for a few more days, towed by destroyers while trying to make it to Murmansk, under constant attack from u-boats, Z-destroyers (managing to take one down with her) and Luftwaffe torpedo bombers. She would finally sink after her men abandoned ship, Higgins being the last sailor to leave, and was torpedoed by the destroyer HMS Foresight.
As for the 465 ignots of gold bullion, the majority was recovered by the British in the 1980s, totaling about 45 million pounds sterling. With the renewed tension of the Cold War and fiscal difficulties of the time, the Thatcher government must have been very relieved it had not been recovered by the Soviets.
It would be impossible for me to recount every fascinating story from the book and do them justice. This would include Higgins’ experiences while docked in Russia, including a man who greeted the British sailors with the injunction, “Second Front, da?” Speaking of the second front, the action Higgins saw while manning a landing craft on D-day merits special attention. Imagine being told: “You men have done a great job in Pantelleria, Sicily, Salerno and Anzio…As such, the Admiralty has seen fit to reward you.”
Higgins’ reaction resembles what most people’s would be:
medals? Leave? Promotion? However all such speculation was crushed as he continued, ‘You have been given the honour (sic) of landing on the extreme east flank of Sword Beach, which is expected to be the most hotly contested.
“Rewarded” with one of the most dangerous missions, as part of the largest amphibious landing of all time, against Erwin Rommel and the Atlantic Wall. It sounds like a skit from Monty Python doesn’t it?
Sword beach was on the easternmost flank of the Overlord landings, closest to the strategic town of Caen. Perilously close by was the 21st Panzer Division, the only large concentration of German armor active on June 6th. To say the mission would be difficult would be a massive understatement.
While waves of troops left the landing craft to storm the beach, Higgins noticed one wounded man calling to him. Both legs were shattered from the knees down. Higgins stuck needles of morphine into both knees and wound up having to saw one of them off with a breadknife. Just imagining this, from either perspective, is a horrifying thought to ponder. But then imagine one of the largest battles of all time happening around you, while water of the English Channel is roaring all around you. People often remark on the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan being some of the most terrifying action ever caught on cinema. But there’s something about reading the written narrative that produces the horror within the imagination. In a way, this is even more traumatizing that seeing it on the screen, as the true events are recreated through our own thoughts.
But the stoicism with which he seems to recollect the events astounds the reader, particularly those having to do with the sinking of the Edinburgh:
When I came home to Barry I must have been suffering from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder…I would stay on the upper deck of a ship as much as possible and I was always looking for a means of escape while below deck. On survivors’ leave I would tell anyone who cared to listen of the terrible experiences I had had to endure
On one occasion when an anti-aircraft gun fired a practice shot in Barry I ran down a back lane and crouched against (the) back door for about an hour.
Apparently his cure came while on a date, when describing how his ship had been hit by a “tin-fish” (presumably a torpedo), his date remarked, “What the hell is a tin fish?” Taking from this that moaning would do him no good, he reflects on how his later experience at Anzio and Normandy would be even tougher. And yet the book remains a cheerful, straightforward, matter-of-fact affair. This could very well be a matter of reservedness of Higgins’ part, not wanting to emote, or a genuine instance of the hardening of human resolve.
He ends his tale remarking how fortunate he felt to have survived and how much he benefited from his experience. For the readers, or anyone who cares about history as a matter of our collective consciousness, it’s we who benefit from having access to stories like this.