Book Treats -Maritime +

Book review


Billy Ruffian – David Cordingly

For lovers of eighteenth and nineteenth century history this book is a special treat.  Even more so if there is an interest in Maritime affairs.    It details the life of one of England’s most famous warships  the ‘ Bellerophon ‘  from birth at Rochester to her last days at Plymouth.   It is an absolutely fascinating factual account, carefully researched and attractively written by David Cordingly.   The ship was universally known as the ‘ Billy Ruffian ‘ and was affectionately given this name by the sailors, both professional, and those pressed into service on her.  

The Billy Ruffian was destined to take part in three of the biggest sea battles of the era, namely those called – The Glorious first of June, The battle of the Nile, and Trafalgar itself.     The brutal hell of the battles, and the carnage on the gun deck is vividly brought to life.       The wild battles with the French,  punctuated with long boring spells guarding channel ports were a feature of her long  life. 

For many readers it will come as a surprise that Napoleon Bonaparte was a ‘ guest ‘ on board the.   ‘ Billy Ruffian ‘ in Torbay, prior to his banishment to St Helena.      He fondly hoped to be able to retire to a country home in England, but the Government had other ideas.  It was a sensation that he was in England at the time, and efforts to keep the news secret failed, leading to a huge flotilla of boats surrounding the big ship.    Although Napoleon is known for his military prowess, the book unearths the fact that he saw himself as an administrator first and foremost with ambitions to bring order and good governance to the countries he overran.    

The measure of a good book must be the feeling of sadness when the last page is turned, and that was the case for this reader.      Thoroughly recommended.  

BOOK REVIEW –  ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’

Currently in the bookshops, is ‘ The Battle Of The Atlantic’ by Andrew Williams.    The first thought is ” Why do we need another submarine book to add to the hundreds that have been published? “. However, for those people like me,  still fighting WW2, it was a treat!      My own collection of books on the u-boat war is quite impressive, but there is always something new, and this proved to be the case.      Among the depressing statistics of poor souls dumped in the freezing and oily ocean to die, there are amazing anecdotes, the most amazing for me was the one about Admiral Doenitz helping some Jewish people to escape oppression.   It seems when he first drove into France to research bases for the German submarines, he offered a lift to an escaping family, and chatted affably to them  during the journey. 

The narrative is concerned mainly with the Atlantic struggle as viewed from the German side.  There were shortcomings in the German organisation – another eye opening fact, and this book confirms once again the huge importance of the back room technical struggle. The best account of this by far is another outstanding book entitled ‘ Most secret war’ by R.V. Jones

Individual U-Boat commanders and their exploits are featured in the book, and it reinforces the known fact that it was only a handful of individuals that caused 80% of the losses.     The majority of commanders either failed to do damage or had a very meagre score. 

Reading about this conflict at sea always promotes instant depression, with its catalogue of murderous and terrifying destruction of ships and people.  What keeps the interest, is the seesaw between the sides through the years of 39, 40, 41, etc to the end, and ultimate surrender, and this swing backwards and forwards is brought out clearly in Andrew Williams book.      Anyone approaching the subject of the Atlantic war  for the first time would get a very balanced and comprehensive picture of those terrible events, now long ago. 

Alan Rawlinson (author of ‘Any budding Sailors’)

“Serenade to the Big Bird”   

  Author  –  Bert Stiles

This is not a new publication, but copies are still available.    Paper copies are offered at ‘silly’ prices on Amazon, but a Kindle version can be downloaded for 0.99p.  It is a gem for anyone of philosophical mind who wonders about the horror and futility of war.   This highly recommended read  has earned ‘ classic’ status, and is now accepted as one of the masterpieces of WW2 writing.

Bert Stiles was a young American man, one of thousands that gave their lives in WW2.   Unlike the vast majority of servicemen of all nationalities that served without question, the author had a deep and wide reaching view of the world, basically one of sympathy and understanding.   He was not a dreamer that only saw the good and the beauty, although there is plenty of that in his writing, but it was an all embracing, warts and all view.  One that still met with his full wonder and approval.  He ached to survive the war and contribute in some way to peace and a tolerant world. 

The narrative throughout is a matter of fact account of the brutality and horror in the Flying Fortresses of the U.S. airforce flying from British airfields; the day to day minutia;  the sudden, unpredictable death or worse, the gory mutilation of the young men that had been full of life a few minutes earlier, and the brief moments of pleasure in London and elsewhere.  

The horror was common in many theatres of war, but what makes this account special is the torment borne by the young author as he constantly questions the meaning of it all. He liked nothing better than to lay quietly on his back in a field of grass, looking up, and trying to make sense of the war, and reflecting on what should be.      Blessed with a gift of insight, and the ability to express his doubts powerfully in his writing, he penned a book that has stood the test of time, and which was later published by his Mother.   All of the young participants were aware that death could come at any time, and still they threw themselves into the task they had been allotted.    

After reading this fascinating  account, it is clear that Bert Stiles gave all he had to the service, and he flew the maximum number of 35 sorties in the B-17 heavy bombers, whilst at the same time sparing more than a thought for the unfortunate people down below.    In this he was perhaps different.  It made it more difficult as his mind struggled to accept the horror and absurdity of it all.   Of course, too many questioning service personnel would have been a nightmare for warmongering governments.  All their efforts are aimed at having an unquestioning band of automatons, whether on land, sea, or air.     

The author died at the young age of 23,  flying P/51 Mustangs fighters over Germany, after successfully transferring from bombers.  He left this tender and sensitive portrayal of life and war as a thoughtful postscript to posterity. 

(1).  A Short Ride In The Jungle:The Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorcycle.       

by Antonia Bolinbroke Kent.   Paperback. 

A gem of a book. A mixture of entertainment and sombre facts about the area today and the dreadful conflict imposed on the people of Vietnam and the bordering countries. The writer managed to carry out this journey in a cheerful and resourceful way, relaying a beautiful pen picture of the terrain; the people; and their sufferings.  The statistics are so mind boggling, it takes a second look to believe your eyes.   Man’s inhumanity to man has never been so aptly demonstrated as in this part of the planet, and it will fill the peaceful and gentle reader with despair. 

Apart from the horrendous effects of the war, the reader is made aware of the continuing rape of the landscape with illegal logging and grandiose dodgy projects. Unexploded ordnance and the after effects like agent orange scars the lives of the people, and the narrative covers this in a factual way without labouring this human disaster. To cap it all, the reader is reminded that the whole exercise by the Americans was a ‘ mistake’.

I highly recommend this book to travel buffs, and Vietnam war students alike. 

(2) Oars across the pacific   –

by john fairfax and sylvia cook – Hardcover

This is an amazing and entertaining account of an almost unbelievable achievement all done in a matter of fact way.   John Fairfax just recently died, but the journey took place some years ago when he was a fit young man.  The other rower, Sylvia Cook,  was interviewed  in the press some months ago explaining that she rarely talks about this period in her life where she now works in a clerical job at the south coast.    It is so at odds with her ‘normal’ life!

Each chapter in the book has its own appeal, and the casual way in which various feats are carried out way beyond normal human limits makes it truly remarkable.  A stop at Washington Island in the remote Line Islands 600 miles south of Hawaii, and the friendly interaction with the native residents is a charming  interlude.   This also is an excellent read with fascinating snippets throughout.  AAR

Th e Great Days of Sail – Andrew Shewen

For those interested in reading the real action and trials and tribulations of life in the sailing era, this book is hard to beat. Copies are still available on the various book sites and I thoroughly recommend this to anyone with a fascination for life on board the clippers and windjammers. The detail of the demanding work, and the dangerous conditions on the China coast etc are all there.


This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in not only Nelson who has been written about endlessly of course, but in details galore. Details of the ships, guns, signalling, construction, manning and lots more. The author had a lifetime in the Navy and a love of maritime history which resulted in the best book about Nelson and his period that I have seen. The research is painstaking and there are supporting diagrams and drawings where needed. Very strange to say, but for a book with a pretty uninspiring title – I couldn’t put it down.