It was veteran journalist and author Tom Brokaw who first coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those Americans who had lived through the Great Depression and who had fought in World War II. In his 1998 book of the same name, Brokaw wrote, “it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” They fought, he wrote, not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
I am old enough to have a very direct connection to that generation… in its English variant at least. As a kid, WWII and the challenges that generation overcame, were as real and as much a part of my everyday life as Ilderton Road Primary School, New Cross Speedway and Millwall FC.
My mother, aunts and grandparents survived the Blitz on London, and walking to school, my mates and I passed by the ruins of a several houses destroyed during one of the hundreds of air-raids that city endured. Nobody seemed to think it odd or particularly remarkable that more than a decade later, the blasted and burned shells of family homes were left like decayed teeth among rows of otherwise normal looking, if modest, terraced houses in the street next to ours. For my friends and me, it was just a cool place to explore and play in, a situation that would send Health and Safety inspectors into a coma today.
During WWII, my father spent six years in uniform — much of that time in North Africa fighting the Afrikakorps — but he rarely shared stories. Most of any insight I gained about being “at war” came from an uncle who served on a Flower-class corvette assigned to convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.
“Uncle Dave” told me about the way his ship rolled around even in moderate seas, dipping her head with every wave and throwing salt water over everything and anyone on deck. He explained how crowded it was, with every inch of space below deck occupied with men or supplies… or both. He spoke about the constant and unappetizing diet of canned and powdered food, and the antics to find anything resembling real food whenever the ship reached harbor. He told me about standing watch on Arctic convoys dressed in every scrap of available clothing, but still feeling the bite of freezing temperatures. The day-to-day routine sounded relentlessly boring, and only occasionally punctuated by any action approaching the classic fight between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine that we see in war movies.
There was no drama about these very occasional “adventures.” He had no flamboyant tales of dashing into action against U-boat wolf packs, and sinking them all. Perhaps this is hardly surprising since the approximately 200 “Flowers” that saw action in the British and Allied navies from 1939 to 1945, are credited with sinking only 47 German and four Italian submarines. His take on the Battle of the North Atlantic was far from romantic. “We lobbed depth charges into the sea that’s about the truth of it,” he said. His take on battle tactics was very simple. “The Old Man [the captain] would steam around hoping to keep the U-boats busy while the convoy disappeared over the horizon. No fuss, just like a drill.”
He spoke about no surface battles with marauding waves of planes trying to bomb the merchant vessels his ship was charged with protecting. No hand-to-hand fighting with crack troops from the Waffen-SS.
In truth, just the good-natured recollections of a young cockney lad from Southwark trying to do what he believed was expected of him… and hoping to make it home at the end of it.
Perhaps because of these stories, both their content and the way they were told to me, I have a true love of ALL shipwrecks that are casualties of war, and especially those who met their end as a casualty of WWII.
And over the years, I have been lucky enough to dive on scores of them, from the Bell Island Wrecks sunk in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, to the Japanese merchant vessels cloaked in living color at the bottom of Truk Lagoon, Micronesia. And in between, wrecks of Nazi and Allied shipping off the coasts of England, France, Nova Scotia, Scotland, the Carolinas, New York and New Jersey. Each wreck, war ship or merchant ship, a story to tell and I am simply glad that through some serendipity, I have the ability to listen.
I did not have the privilege to serve. My father convinced me that a spell in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces was not the best career path for me. Therefore, I have no special context, no special knowledge about how to organize the things these wrecks tell me.
I have simply marvelled at the destructive force of a torpedo while hanging in the water looking at the evidence of one exploding against a steel hull. A hole big enough to drive a London Bus through. The metal melted and twisted, the keel broken by shockwaves, any poor soul standing close by vaporized in an instant.
I’ve swum though holds filled with the materials of war: planes, trucks, explosives, ammunition, uniforms, food, a perfectly intact Sherman tank. All fascinating, all hugely interesting, and something divers like you and me have a special opportunity to visit.
During a trip “home” several years ago to spend time with family, my uncle asked me about the wreck of a U-boat I had recently been on. He wanted to know what class it was, the state of the hull, how it had been sunk, and the usual question about how deep it was.
After a barrage of questions, he finally asked if there were any members of her crew on board. There were and I told him so. He sat quietly for a few moments and then got up to make us a cup of tea. I was left wondering if the tears in his eyes were for buddies on his side of the conflict or for those German sailors who were trying to do what was expected of them… but who did not make it home at the end of it.