After some deliberation it’s been decided to move the goal posts a little . The Great War at Sea Poetry Project website at greatwaratseapoetry will keep to its original remit. This blog will also cover World War 2 sea poetry as there is some magnificent work out there which gets overlooked by emphasis on World War 1 poetry.
The Arctic Convoys 1941-1945
As the USSR was blockaded by Germany and their allies, the North Atlantic Fleet despatched some seventy convoys to send vital supplies to Murmansk and Archangel via the Arctic . Merchant ships were protected by Royal Naval destroyers, and aircraft carriers. The weather conditions were horrendous needs to be added to the dangers of being attacked by air, by mines, by torpedoes, by enemy destroyers.
Some of the most impressive war at sea poetry from World War 2 was written by Alan Ross (1922-2001)
who served aboard destroyers on the Arctic Convoys.
Alan Ross -‘Survivors’
With the ship burning in their eyes
The white faces float like refuse
In the darkness – the water screwing
Oily circles where the hot steel lies.
They clutch with fingers frozen into claws
The lifebelts thrown from a destroyer,
And see, between the future’s doors,
The gasping entrance of the sea.
Taken on board as many as lived, who
Had a mind left for living and the ocean,
They open eyes running with surf,
Heavy with the grey ghosts of explosion.
The meaning is not yet clear,
Where daybreak died in the smile –
And the mouth remained stiff
And grinning, stupid for a while.
But soon they joke, easy and warm,
As men will who have died once
Yet somehow were able to find their way –
Muttering this was not included in their pay.
Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning
With cracked images, they won’t forget
The confusion and the oily dead,
Nor yet the casual knack of living.
Ross’ work depicts war realistically, reporting what simply is. Never sentimental, but neither does he try to argue against the war taking place. In fact in a booklet titled ‘Open Sea’ published in 1975, he wrote
“I can think of no one I served with, who resented the reasons for the war against Nazi Germany, however intolerable they have found the reality.
What I recall from those years is often resenting the sea as much as the Germans.”
Great War at Sea Poetry is sometimes accused of being quite static. There can be triumphalism, evident in poets such as Hopwood and ‘Klaxon’, the sense of loss that appears in Kipling’s ‘My Boy Jack’, the solitude evoked by Edward Hilton Young, Paul Bewsher, Miles Jeffrey Game Day, the poetic imagination gradually coming to terms with new war technology such as Editha Jenkinson or Henry Head writing about minesweepers or destroyers. It’s hard to find examples of Great War at Sea Poetry evoking the heat of battle at sea.
J.W.51.B- A convoy
Alan Ross wrote one epic poem about his experiences ‘ J.W.51.B- A convoy’, which is an incredible depiction of sea warfare that took place at the Battle of the Barents Sea on 31st December 1942. The opening line is startling
The sea, phlegm-coloured, bone-white, fuming
The language is direct and economical. To take another verse.
‘Hammocks swinging as the sea swings,
Creaking and straining and sly.
One bright eye.
Perpetually open, a smoky fever
Of dream in the lamp’s shadowing rings.
Some dreams are for ever. ‘
One passage particularly recounts the peak of the fighting.
” Hipper and Onslow, sea-horses
Entwining, as one turned, the other
Also, on parallel courses
Steaming, a zig-zag raking
the forenoon, as two forces,
From each other breaking,
Manouvered for position,
Like squids squirting their ink
In defence, ships smoked sky
Round them, camouflaging. ”
The courage of those who served in the Arctic Convoys was arguably downplayed during the Cold War with neither Britain nor the Soviet Union wanting to acknowledge their alliance and military co-operation .
Fiction more than poetry had supplied more emphasis on the Arctic Convoys providing the setting for Alistair Maclean’s first novel ‘HMS Ulysses’, first published in 1955, and based on the writer’s own naval service. Nicholas Monsarrat’s seminal novel, ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1951), though largely about the World War 2 Atlantic convoys, features one Arctic Convoy voyage, which was left out of the 1953 film.
A highly recommended anthology is Alan Ross Poems-Selected and Introduced by David Hughes 2005
Further information on the Arctic Convoys