The Real Cold War
Review by Alan O. Watkins
Those that grow old do remember. It is why they who return choose not to tell what they recall of their days in the thick of the action.
We who were not there may wonder “Was it as bad as some writers say - or are they making it sound frightening just to sell their novels?” We don't know what it was like to experience a dogfight over the English Channel..or to stand for days in trenches full of mud, pieces of bodies and “rats as big as pussy cats.” But we can imagine.
Those who have been through the hell of the worst kinds of warfare bury it deep within their souls, because they don't want to remember. Yet they do.
Half a century on, there are bent old men who can finally admit what they went through as “brave young men”, the things that they saw, and felt, and smelled, and wished they could forget.
That is what The Real Cold War is about. It tells the story of the arctic convoys from the viewpoint of both sides. These are not skilled wordsmiths who tell the stories of men dying within seconds of entering the freezing waters, of ships steaming on as friends call for help. These are ordinary men - and women - who were forced by circumstances outside their control to live in a surreal world of sudden death, shattered limbs and so often the inability to assist when help was most needed.
There are few punches pulled. The compiler, Chris B. Tye, is a quiet, amusing man, now well into his Seventies, but still chewing away on a pipe that probably saw service with him in Russia nearly 60 years ago. He lives where he was born, a couple of miles from the former Chatham Naval Dockyard. He saw the ships prepared for war, and he saw thousands of the men who made the one way journey to join them on their final voyages.
Chris is also President of the North Russia Club, which he helped to found in 1984. As such he has had unique access to service and merchantmen who lived through the convoys but are still alive today. Chris - who was shore-based at Polyarnoe on the Kola Inlet during the War - has pieced together famous actions, ludicrous moments, and tragic incidents from a battle scene which so many prefer not to recall because later generations cannot imagine what they went through. For example, he relates - from the viewpoint of a Germany U-boat crew - how the Germans were able to tell the world about convoy PQ17 before the Allies knew. The battles of the North Cape and of the Barents Sea are told from the viewpoints of the people in the thick of it. So, too, are the battles with syphilis and gonorrhea... There's lots of useful statistical information at the end of the book, but it is in the tales from the souls of the crews that I found the book really came alight.
Chris' innate sense of humour comes through the signals that he kept. He had unique access to these during his service. I'll quote from two:
To the Admiralty
... Included in the party which recently left here for UK by destroyer are three Officers (two from HMS...) and three ratings from Polyarnoe.
The two Officers from HMS... have gone haywire and the other Officer from Murmansk is heavily depressed and gaga.
A Petty Officer has gone mad and might do anything given the opportunity.
A Petty Officer from Armament Party is in a complete daze.
A Canteen Assistant who passes the time by cutting girls names on his forearm with a razor blade.
Also going home are 18 Merchant Navy seamen suffering from Chronic Stomach Troubles or Mad, this includes one who imagines he is a bear.
Yes... we are carrying on successfully, but I hope you can do everything possible to remedy this situation. Our life is no bed of roses but theirs in the merchant ships must be ten times worse.
Finally, there was trouble supplying uniforms for wrens and matelots: material was in short supply. Out went the signal Wrens uniforms will be held up until sailors needs are satisfied.
Chris published the 8in x 12in glossy paperback privately (this is the second edition with a print run of 500). It has an excellent selection of B&W photographs on shore and at sea, mainly from private collections. It is 195 pages in length and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Be prepared to shed tears. Some of the stories these men tell in these pages are shocking for their horror - and the simple way they are told. It's not done for impact: these stories are what these men wished they did not remember, in all their horrifying, wastefulness.
This is not glory. It was war.
The Real Cold War costs £19.95 and can be obtained direct from Chris at his home:
Chris B. Tye
Add postage and packaging - the book weighs 1 lb. 8.75 ozs. (705 gm.).
Copyright © 1998 by
Alan O. Watkins
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