Angus Konstam on The Convoy

John McKay

Historian of the Arctic Convoys John McKay met up with Angus Konstam to discuss his new book, The Convoy.
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Angus Konstam, many congrats on the book. What inspired you to write The Convoy?

Thanks! It was really enjoyable to write. A few years ago I read a short article about it written by Mal Wright, an Australian naval historian. It really piqued my interest, as I’d been looking for a way to encapsulate the drama the Battle of the Atlantic by zooming in on a single convoy. I also read the transcript of a lecture, covering the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, which also highlighted the importance of this particular convoy. After that I was sure that Convoy HG-76 was the perfect one to focus on. It had everything going for it – drama, tragedy, high stakes, new technologies and inspiring leadership. The more I researched it, the more I was convinced that the HG-76 story was the perfect one to bring all that drama to life.

The book’s main character, Commander Johnnie Walker, was one of the Royal Navy’s most effective commanders of World War Two. Do you think he’s had the recognition he deserves?

Johnnie Walker

While “Johnnie” Walker made his name during the HG-76 battle, and he was promoted afterwards, he was never fully given the recognition he should have. He almost single-handedly altered the course of the Battle of the Atlantic through scrapping the old way of protecting convoys, and replacing it with a far more aggressive version. For him, it wasn’t good enough to keep the U-boats at bay. Walker wanted to destroy them. His real achievement was that after HG-76, his tactics were adopted by the Royal Navy, and by other Allied forces. Had he lived until the end of the war he might have been lauded more highly, and given honous and titles he probably didn’t really want. Today he is known for being Britain’s great U-boat killer – and that, probably, is exactly how he’d have liked to have been remembered.

HG-76 was clearly one of the turning points in the Atlantic sea war. How important, do you think, it was in the overall victory in the Battle of the Atlantic?

Well, the Battle of the Atlantic was the long-running campaign of the entire war, running like a thread through it from start to finish. So, any historian worth his salt could prbably point to several “turning points”, all of which they could claim was the most important. So, I like the way you used the term “one of the turning p[oints”.  However, it was certainly a key one, for three main reasons. First, it saw the introduction of new aggressive escort tactics, which led directly to the sinking of five U-boats. Second, it demosntrated the value of the escort carrier. Without Audacity, Commander Walker and his escorts would have been hard-pressed to achieve what they did.

After the convoy, both the use of Walker’s new tactics and the building of new escort carriers became a priority for the British Admiralty. Both were developments that would dramatically alter the course of the war agaisnt the U-boats. The third reason is that never before had a convoy battle resulted in the loss of so many U-boats. In the end it was so bad that Viseadmiral Dönitz, the U-boat commander-in-chief called off the attack. This more than anything showed that the tide was turning. The Allies were no longer on the ropes, and getting pounded into submission. With HG-76 they showed they could fight back, and come out swinging.

Do you think that the sinking of the escort carrier, HMS Audacity, made HG-76 something of a pyrrhic victory?

The loss of HMS Audacity was a real tragedy, and it claimed the lives of 73 of her crew, including her captain, Commander Douglas MacKendrick. However, by then she had proved her worth. In September she had accompanied a convoy bound for Gibraltar, and one of her Martlet fighters shot down a shadowing Condor long-range reconaissance aircraft. Before then, these German FW-200s had been able to shadow convoys which were beyond the range of Allied air cover, and could help U-boats intercept them. Now, thanks to Audacity, the convoys had the means to drive off these Condors. During the HG-76 battle, Audacity did the same job, and two more Condors were shot down by the escort carrier’s young pilots. Just as importantly, they proved they could detect U-boats on the surface, often dozens of miles away from the convoy. That allowed aggressive escort commanders like Walker the chance to hunt down and destroy these U-boats. So, while the sinking of Audacity could make the convoy battle seem like a phyrric victroy, her real achievement was greater than the ship herself. Audacity was a prototype. Despite her loss, she proved the worth of this new type of warship. She then, would be the first of many – and the escort carrier would go on to play a crucial part in achieving victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

By covering a single convoy, you are able to focus on the main players and tactics in great detail. This makes for a more immersive book for the reader, and, in my view a most enjoyable read. It both informs and entertains. How important is it for you to ‘entertain’ your readers as well as providing an accurate depiction of what took place?

Thank you for saying that. Yes, for me the telling of a good story is a key part of the whole thing. It has to be fun to read, or else it isn’t worth doing. We’ve all read history books that are fairly turgid, despite covering some fascinating historical events. So, I like to make sure the reader enjoys reading the book. It was the American historian Bruce Catton who first showed me the potential of writing well-researched history in a style which took the reader along with it. I’m simply following that hallowed example. The best review I can have is when someone said they enjoyed reading the book.

HMS Audacity

The numbers involved during the Battle of the Atlantic are extraordinary – over 70,000 losses on the allied side, around 30,000 German U Boat submariners. It was a vital victory nonetheless – is this the fascination for you?

You’re right -the casualty figures were horrendous. I once spoke to a merchant seaman who’d been torpedoed three times, and lost shipmates in each  ship. He hid it well, but the shadow of those experiences stayed with him for the rest of his life. As for the U-boat crews, their chances of survival were slim. All of these young men – and yes, most of them in the merchant ships, escorts and U-boats were young – many in their mid 20s or less – were asked to place themselves in harm’s way, and many of them paid the ultimate price. I used to be in the navy myself, and know that there’s a bond between mariners – one where once an enemy vessel is sunk, the crew are no longer foes, but fellow mariners in need of help. For these men, that basic instict had often to be ignored, as it wasn’t always possible to rescue survivors, in case the rescuers bacame victims themselves. So, what I really am fascinated with is the stories these young men told, later in life, when describing the experiences they went through. Their story, after all, is the one we’re trying to tell.

How close was the battle – did the Kriegsmarine come close to victory?

One of the real advantages of wiring The Convoy was that it let me “drill down” and look at one particular convoy involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. That big picture is almost too big of a canvas to portray – at least in a way that readers can easily engage with. Choosing Convoy HG-76 allowed me to look at a particularly hard-fought convoy battle, with losses on both sides. The British lost the escort carrier Audacity and the old destroyer Stanley, while the Kriegsmarine lost five U-boats.You can even claim a sixth boat, lost at the hand of others, but from the same predatory wolfpack.  In many cases when these vessels sank there were very few survivors – and in some cases all hands were lost. The human cost then, was high on both sides.

This though, was a convoy battle, so the real arbiter of victory was the number of merchant ships which were sunk.During 1941, some convoys lost a dozen merchantmen, and heavy losses were the norm. In HG-76, of the 32 merchant ships which sailed from Gibraltar, all but two of them reached Liverpool safely. That then, was a real achievement. Despite the loss of Audacity and Stanley, the Admiralty were delighted with the outcome. Were it not for Commander Walker and Audacity, things might have been very different. Thanks to them though, this was a convoy which had defied the odds, and achieved a victory which marked the way forward in this bitter, hard-fought war.

The book is extremely well researched. Is this an aspect of your writing that you enjoy?

Thank you. Actually, I love the research part of any project like this. It’s almost impossible now, to interview those who took part. Fortunately though, their experiences have often been recorded in one way or another, and so their voices can still be heard.The research can often mean pulling long hours reading through things like naval log books, muster lists, action reports and even the records of ammunition expended. You can learn a lot from that though. The idea that some of Walker’s escorts reached port with almost no depth-charges left reveals a lot about the ferocity of the convoy battle, The secret though, is taking all this information, and presenting it in a way the reader can enjoy reading, without being submerged in a tsunami of detail.

I’ve always been keen to wear my scholarship lightly. I see it as the historian’s job to trawl through all this information on behalf of the reader, and then to present it in a way that’s understandable. So, while I was writing the book, I had to become something of an expert in a whole bunch of things, from the way torpedoes were fired, or depth charge patterns launched, to the way aircraft are handled on a flight deck. A lot of this is information you can’t really get from the archives, or from books. Fortunately, I had people I could ask, who’d done many of these things, albeit in a slightly later navy to the one described in The Convoy. So, what I enjoy the most then, is the learning of new things. If I can learn something from researching and writing a book, then what I really want is that the reader is able to learn something too. That, actually, is what gives me the geatest thrill of all. Like any book, The Convoy was something of a labour of love. If I can pass on some of that love to the reader, then the whole thing has been well worth it.

Angus Konstam is the author of The Convoy: HG-76: Taking the Fight to Hitler’s U-boats, published by Osprey. John McKay is the author of Surviving the Arctic Convoys.