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Naval Eyewitnesses (Hardback)

The Experience of War at Sea, 1939–1945

Maritime > Naval WWII > Naval Warfare WWII

By James Goulty
Imprint: Pen & Sword Maritime
Pages: 264
Illustrations: 20
ISBN: 9781399000710
Published: 10th October 2022



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Although many books have been written about naval actions during the Second World War – histories and memoirs in particular – few books have attempted to encompass the extraordinary variety of the experience of the war at sea. That is why James Goulty’s viv-id survey is of such value. Sailors in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy experienced a war fought on a massive scale, on every ocean of the world, in a diverse range of ves-sels, from battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines to merchant ships and fishing boats. Their recollections are as varied as the ships they served in, and they take the reader through the entire maritime war, as it was perceived at the time by those who had direct, personal knowledge of it.

Throughout the book the emphasis is on the experience of individuals – their recruit-ment and training, their expectations and the reality they encountered on active service in many different offensive and defensive roles including convoy duty and coastal de-fence, amphibious operations, hunting U-boats and surface raiders, mine sweeping and manning landing and rescue craft. A particularly graphic section describes, in the words of the sailors themselves, what action against the enemy felt like and the impact of casualties – seamen who were wounded or killed on board or were lost when their ships sank.

A fascinating inside view of the maritime warfare emerges which may be less heroic than the image created by some post-war accounts, but it gives readers today a much more realistic impression of the whole gamut of wartime life at sea.

"What is most attractive about the book is the author's comprehensive appreciation of what it was to be a sailor in wartime. Plenty of books describe naval actions, usually in terms of ships doing this or that, possibly featuring the captain or, sometime, a heroic act. Goulty tells the story from the perspective of the ordinary sailor or officer who was there."

Nautical Research Journal Volume 68 (2023)

Despite growing up with small boats and spending about a year’s worth of sea-time on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, I still learned a lot about wartime life at sea. There is a comprehensive, six-page Timeline covering events from the 1921 Washington Naval Treaty to VJ Day which serves as a useful reference source for future reading.

The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord


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The Nautilus Telegraph - May/June 2023

Goulty has nicely balanced the story-telling to capture both the humour and the austerity of naval life, alongside the gravity and tension of wartime conditions. I believe this book would be widely enjoyed.

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Naval Review

"....it does paint a very good picture of virtually every theatre of war and what it was like to fight at sea.... A very enjoyable read and highly recommended."

Peter Wykeham-Martin - Warship World

The book, as one might expect from the title, is liberally laced with eyewitness accounts from different ships and different theatres of war. These come from a variety of sources, with many from the Imperial War Museum and Second World War Experience Centre archives, but also the author’s own collection and published primary sources. The memories of the veterans are placed in context by detailed explanation of many aspects of the war at sea and this book is a useful addition to the naval history of the Second World War.

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British Modern Military History Society

This is an excellent book about life in the Royal Navy during World War Two, this book looks at the views and opinions of most ranks on board from a wide variety of ships and vessels.

I think this is what makes this book is all the opinions of the variety of shipmen, how they see things, the thoughts on the war and also the daily routines of being on board a ship or submarine. In fact, I enjoyed all of this book because the information at the start of the book was also informative and useful like the timeline and the abbreviations.

A solid book that really informs you about life in the Navy during WW2.

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The History Fella

Five stars. An enjoyable and readable book with much detail, not only of action at sea but also daily routines on ship and on land.

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Army Rumour Service (ARRSE)

James Goulty has assembled in this extremely well researched book a remarkable collection of eyewitness accounts of the experiences of life in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

He has used recollections from senior naval officer, ratings, women, and men of the merchant services. Interwoven within the narrative is technical information and operations undertaken by the Royal Navy in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East. The path to victory was not a smooth one and he highlights difficulties which were successfully resolved. His focus is upon those who participated in the war and presents their observations and experiences for the reader to consider and reflect upon the contribution they willingly gave for King and Country.

It is also a valuable contribution to naval and social history for future generations to learn about the reality of war at sea.

Roger Coleman

About James Goulty

James Goulty holds a masters degree and doctorate in military history from the University of Leeds, and he has a special interest in the training and combat experience of ordinary soldiers during the world wars and Korean War. His previous publications include Second World War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians, The Second World War through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life 1939-45, Eyewitness Korea: The Experience of British and American Soldiers in the Korean War 1950-1953 and Eyewitness RAF: The Experience of War 1939-1945.

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