I thought this book was going to suck and I was proven horribly, amazingly wrong. Is this going to make me less of a snob about these books? It should!
Sink And Destroy: The Battle of the Atlantic, Bill O’Connell, North Atlantic, 1940, Edward Kay, 2014.
I’m the worst. This is the second I Am Canada book I have read, and I thought they were going to be awful, but I’ve been very favourably impressed by both of them. I should get my act together and read the rest of them now! I will, when I get there, it’s just that I’m so horribly bored by most of the topics that it takes me forever to even crack one open. Anyway, this one is great. But full disclosure, I wrote most of this review while watching Das Boot, because it reminded me how much I liked it, and also because I used to love that movie. That was my favourite movie! What was wrong with me? What 20-year-old girl’s favourite movie is Das Boot? This does not say anything good about my psyche, I’m sure.
Another full disclosure: the first good chunk of this book is pretty dull. It does take a while to get going. There’s this whole boring segment where Billy is fishing away, which is how you know some bad shit is going to go down. Whenever there’s an idyllic family fishing scene you just know people are going to die or have something brutal happen. Anyway, Bill is a poor kid from Iroquois, which is right on the St. Lawrence River, who has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a younger sibling. He works on a merchant ship as a teenager, and there’s several boring pages that more or less just recap the war. Invasions, bombings, blah blah blah. Things finally get going when Bill enlists in the navy, much to his parents’ dismay, and we’re finally off!
He gets shipped off to Halifax for basic training, and the usual: it’s crowded, it’s hard, it’s gross living with a thousand other dudes, you know. He gets sent to gunnery school and is attached to the crew of the Wildrose, which is a corvette, and he and everyone else are horrified to see that it’s basically just a floating bucket. And I mean, the corvettes weren’t the most attractive ships in the world, but I can’t imagine you would feel great making your way through all that training and getting posted to a little boat with just one big gun. They pack a hundred dudes on this ship to go to the UK, and the galley is described as “about the same size as the cooking area in a typical family home. It had a four-burner stove, an oven, and a countertop about 6 feet long.” Now go look at your own kitchen, and imagine trying to cook for a hundred men three times a day in that thing. Luckily, or not luckily, everyone is wildly seasick and not so interested in food for the first several days. Including a notable interlude where Bill vomits into his own cap several times to avoid vomiting on his superior officers. It’s oddly charming, if gross.
On top of that, water gets absolutely everywhere, so nothing is ever dry. “I had to master the art of sleeping in wet clothes, under a wet blanket. Fortunately, because they were wool, they would warm up quickly, so I tried to think of it as a hot, wet cocoon.” Just imagine the smell of this ship for a second. They do make it safely to Scotland, where they’ll be training at Greenock, and Bill meets a nice Scottish girl named Aileen. They go out while he’s in Greenock for a couple of months, she seems nice, Bill qualifies as an anti-aircraft gunner, and then once he’s done he has to get back on that damn Wildrose and head back to Halifax.
Turns out in Halifax everyone hates the soldiers and sailors, and they receive a very poor welcome there. He’s baffled by this, but I live in an army town and I can tell you why: because young men in quantity are horrible, and they drink and smoke and trash places and treat people horribly. But Bill is such a nice, naïve dude that he doesn’t realize, and instead just putters along writing to Aileen and his parents. By this point it’s the end of 1941, and they’re all excited when America joins the war. Not thrilled by Pearl Harbor, of course, but just pleased that this may speed things up a bit. Bill and his buddy Ken are assigned to convoy duty and head back to Scotland, and along the way they actually engage with some U-boats! It’s horrible—one of the merchant ships is torpedoed and goes down while they can do nothing but watch as men drown and die horribly.
They make it back to Scotland safely, though upset, and Bill goes to meet Aileen’s family and has a nice time while recovering. He gets sent back to Halifax in February, and as anyone could tell you, the North Atlantic is not a nice place to be at that time. I guess if you ask Bill, the only upside of a winter crossing is oh wait there is no upside. Everything is awful, the ice collects all over the deck and the guns and everything else, they watch a Greek merchant ship just capsize because it’s so heavy with ice, and on top of everything the sea is so violent that everyone is even sicker than they ever were before. So they have to chip frozen puke off of stuff, too. This would be an amazing book for a 14-year-old boy but I have to confess it is making me a tiny bit ill to read about that much vomit.
This book isn’t the most spectacularly-written book I’ve ever come across—it’s engaging and interesting and fine, but lots of it is on the plain-journeyman side. Not a bad thing, but it isn’t what I would call high literature, except there are a few really lovely passages. “As I swung in my hammock the whole room tilted around me and just seemed to stay there….nobody said a word. There was no shouting, no crying. Everyone was silent. I resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to die tonight. It was that simple.” You see what I mean? It’s simple and wonderfully powerful and packs an enormous punch.
When Bill gets a couple of weeks of leave and goes home to visit his family, he’s happy to see them, but also he feels very weird going from the busy intense world of his ship to the considerably less thrilling life in his small town, and he’s almost excited to get back to work. His parents don’t understand him or what he’s going through, and he’s oddly lonely. So he’s pleased to get back to sailing and back to Scotland—by now it’s February of 1943—and heads to Aileen’s street, only to find the whole damn street has been completely eviscerated by bombs. And Aileen’s house was destroyed and the whole family killed and the funerals were three weeks ago. I have to freely admit I was COMPLETELY taken aback by this, I definitely expected Bill to marry Aileen and bring her back to Canada, and I did NOT think she was going to die suddenly in a bombing raid!!!!
Back to Halifax, where shore patrol is just hanging around hassling sailors for their ID all the time, and Bill gets into shit with them for hassling them right back, which they honestly probably deserve. So he gets lobbed right back onto convoy duty, where they at last are able to engage and destroy a U-boat. It’s awful—they manage to strike it, but it surfaces and tries to surface fire on them, and they end up firing back and ramming it, and watching as German submariners basically die horribly in front of them. Bill tries to rescue an injured sailor from the waves, but can’t, and watches him just slide into the ocean and disappear. He manages to fish him out at the very last minute, the guy coughs the water out, and they take him prisoner along with sixteen others.
That’s the last of the real excitement—after that Bill is removed from corvettes and assigned to a destroyer with one of his friends, though. They engage with a German bomber which fires on them, and his friend at the next gun is completely obliterated. “I thought I’d been wounded but I couldn’t feel any bleeding anywhere. I realized I didn’t have a scratch. Beside me was part of a body. There was nothing left of it from the waist up. I could see feet, legs, and a belt around the top of the trousers. But above that there was nothing, just a piece of the spinal column sticking out. Then I realized what I was looking at. Ken…The gore that was covering me was Ken.” Oh my god, this is too horrible to read.
So poor Bill is pretty messed up after that and he’s sent to training duty for a break, but returns to combat duty in 1944 to assist with the D-Day liberation. The German sea efforts are growing gradually weaker, and then Bill is in Halifax when he hears of the final surrender. But instead of jubilation, Halifax cocks everything up by closing the bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, and the sailors (obviously, predictably) loot the liquor stores and riot. The locals thoughtfully assist. And that’s more or less the end of things.
In the epilogue, Bill volunteers for the Pacific contingent, but isn’t there very long before Japan surrenders in August. He goes home only to find his family had moved to Ottawa permanently—his dad wasn’t well, and his brothers were working there. On top of that, his hometown was destroyed after crews demolished it to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. And that’s it—Bill’s hometown and his friends and his first girlfriend were all erased as if they’d never even happened. “Except that I know it happened. Because I remember it all.”
Rating: B+. I enjoyed this far, far more than I expected I would or that I had any reason to! It was much more powerful than I thought it would be, and more interesting, too. I debated about giving it the A rating, but ultimately decided against it—there wasn’t enough actual plot, or character development, and it leaned a little too frequently into “now I’m going to describe the specifications of this specific weapon and/or ship” for my taste. But I’m definitely not the target audience here, and I can see this going over gangbusters with nerdy teenagers. But for adults, we should all just go watch Das Boot for the thirty-fourth time. (No? Just me?)