BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’


Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945

Author: Kevin Brown

Total Number of Printed Pages: 276

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In public perception, the sailors of the Royal Navy are fit, healthy and suntanned and ready at a moment’s notice to die ‘for King / Queen and Country’. But is this a true picture, and when it mattered most (During World War II), how closely did the perception equate with reality? This volume was written in an attempt to find out.

Within the book, a section titled: List of Illustrations follows the Contents page. Its function is self-evident from its title. A poem titled To Absent Friends follows; it humourously (but respectfully) summarises a sailor’s perspective on life. The poem is followed by the volume’s Preface, within which the author backgrounds to the reason for its creation. The twelve Chapters which form the main part of the book now appear. Within these the author explores all aspects of the health of sailors serving within the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine during WWII, presenting the narrative from the perspective of the Medical Professionals involved.  The scope is wide and comprehensive and is concerned with all aspects of a sailor’s life.  Within the Royal Navy that life is multi-facetted and as a result (and in addition to the expected ‘surface’ operations), the subject material includes both submarines and the Fleet Air Arm (The Royal Navy’s air-defence section). Each Chapter is concerned with a particular aspect of a sailor’s health as it applied to the Royal Navy, from ‘recruitment’ (Chapter 1 Our men, Finding the Fittest) to submerged life (Chapter 7 The Waves Above), to the temptations facing a sailor ashore (Chapter 10 Neither Wives nor Sweethearts). Where appropriate, the actions of individual medical officers appear as representative of the specific narrative being discussed, while the German response to a situation is at times also noted. Invariably, the latter offers a complete contrast to British practice. Chapter 12 (Went the day Well) summarises what has gone before, and is followed by five Appendices.  These are statistical and of Table format, with the subject material ranging from Naval Recruitment and Rejection,  1939-1945 (Appendix 1) to Royal Navy Sickness and Death Rates (Appendix 5). Where appropriate within each Chapter, additional information is provided through the medium of Endnotes. These are numeric in form, Chapter-specific and sequential. The associated citations appear in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Appendices. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the written material used in the volume’s creation. Electronic sources are not listed. The Bibliography is followed by its Index, the book’s last section. Twelve pages of images accompany the narrative and appear in a dedicated section placed within the centre of the book. The captions are informative and reproduced within the previously-mentioned List of Illustrations section. Curiously, although the majority of the images carry authenticating citations, two do not.   The reason for the ommission is not known. The volume contains numerous Quotes, many of which carry authenticating citations. Equally however, other unreferenced Quotes were also noted (That on page 208 being but one example, although ironically, that specific Quote appears under a previous Quote which has had a citation [No.51] allocated to it). The reason for the discrepancy is unknown, but the lack of supporting citations raises questions about the authenticity of the statements. The volume contains no Maps or Glossary of Naval Terms / Terminology. What (For example) is Tropical Rig (page 25) or HMHS (Page 220)? In the absence of a Glossary, a reader without naval knowledge can but speculate.

This volume is informative, well-written and very entertaining. However, for this reviewer (and in addition to the previously-noted difficulties outlined above), its Index proved problematical. Random checking of the Index during the review process found several omitted entries. These included such examples as Bryan Matthews (Page 111), Medical Research Council (page 134) and Gonorrhoea (page 195). Other examples were also noted.  In addition, an Index search for WRNS indicated that references to that organisation appeared on pages 9-10 and 14 18, but omitted an entry appearing on page 186.  Why this should have occurred is unknown. Since by implication there is a problem in this area (although its size

As previously-noted, this is an informative, well-written and very entertaining book and the ‘Difficulties’ previously-outlined notwithstanding, is likely to have wide appeal. Medical Professionals with an interest in ‘Things Naval’ may find it worthy of their attention as might (Because it refers to a specific social group and their actions under stress and pressure), Sociologists and Phycologists. Military Historians with an interest in nautical matters and World War II as it affected the Royal Navy could also find it informative. Readers with an interest in the more unusual (and forgotten) aspects of naval warfare may also find it of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Submarines of World War Two: Design, Development and Operations’


Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Submarines of World War Two: Design, Development and Operations

Author: Erminio Bagnasco

No. of Pages: 288

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 8 ¾


In what is effectively an introduction to what is to follow, the author states that ‘This book deals with thee submarines of the navies engaged in the Second World War and includes those boats or classes which had been laid down, but which never entered service, or which had not been completed until after hostilities had ceased’. As a summary it is clear and concise.

This volume was originally published in Italy in 1977, a detail which has a bearing on the way that it is laid out. It opens with a multi-columned Contents page, which is in turn followed by a multi-functional section titled Data Key / Abbreviations/ Bibliography. This clarifies the volume’s purpose and contains both a Glossary and a list of the abbreviations used throughout the book. Although what is described as a Bibliography also appears within this section, this is a somewhat-loose term to classify what a note accompanying it describes as a ‘…List of books [what] may be of value to the reader who wishes to pursue specific subjects further’ rather than a list of titles and sources used when writing the book. By way of explanation the same note states that ‘In the original Italian edition of this book the author did not furnish a bibliography’. A Preface follows. This elaborates on the statement made at the start of this review, with the author further stating that he has ‘…Endeavoured to furnish the reader with…enough material to compare the technical and operational histories of all the submarines that took part in the war’. It is an ambitious aim. The book’s Introduction is next. While primarily a highly-detailed history of both submarines and submarine warfare from the time the craft was invented, to the end of World War II, a sub-section within it details post World War 2 developments in both submarines and submerged warfare. The main part of the volume follows.  This is arranged alphabetically, and consists of eight named ‘Sections’ (somewhat analogous to ‘Chapters’) of varying size, each devoted to submarine users. Seven of the Sections are devoted to ‘major’ submarine users with the title of the final section (The Lesser Powers) being self-explanatory. According to the author each Section / Chapter’ is divided in turn subdivided into two sections. ‘The first treats of naval policy, preparations for undersea warfare, types of wartime operations undertaken and the characteristics’. The second section…gives a detailed description of the various classes of submarines…lists the names of the boats, description, principal technical characteristics, a brief history of their wartime careers and the fate of each member of the class’. It is an excellent precis. In most (but not all) instances, at least one photograph of the class under discussion is provided. Where appropriate, a profile drawing of the vessel may also (but not always) be provided; in some instances these being expanded to a three-view format. While these are not to a constant scale, the scale to which they are drawn appears alongside the individual drawing. Where there are significant differences between individual vessels within the class, smaller ‘thumbnail’ illustrations may also appear together with any modifications undergone by the specific vessel. Typically, these may include alterations made to armament, or structures. In addition to the previously-mentioned specifications etc., additional information is provided through the use of tables, technical diagrams, plans, graphs, charts and ‘detail’ photographs of equipment. The volume contains numerous unsourced photographs of individual submarines. Although all are captioned, the amount of information presented varies in quantity from image to image. Although submarines operated in a wide range of areas during World War II, no Maps are provided to indicate where these might have been.  An Index placed at the rear of the book is its last section. This lists all vessels mentioned within the volume.

For this reviewer this volume was let down by the very narrow focus of its Index. As previously-noted this section ostensibly lists all the vessels that appear within this book. In fact it doesn’t, and only lists the location of the vessel’s Class / Specifications entry, not the locations of relevant text or photographs outside that section. To use the French submarine Surcouf as but one example of this practice, that vessel’s Index entry indicates it appears on page 53; and, there is indeed an entry and technical specification for Surcouf on that page. That there are in fact other entries for that vessel on pages 42, 43, 54 and 55 is not however mentioned. As this was but one of several examples noted while reviewing this volume, this practice would seem to be widespread. In addition, the section contains no references to individuals, theatres of operation or geographical locations; ommissions which serve to limit its usefulness. Should a reader seek an individual submarine they will find at least a reference to it. However, should they wish to know why it was constructed, who commanded it, where it served or what it did, they will search the Index in vain. This is unfortunate, as it considerably reduces the volume’s usefulness and value as a research tool, removing it from the ‘Work of Standard Reference’ category as a result.

There is no doubt that this volume is comprehensive in its coverage of its subject, and, despite the ‘limitations’ listed above,  is, indeed, encyclopaedic in its coverage. On that basis it is likely to have wide appeal to readers interested in submarines, submarine warfare and general ‘things naval’. Military historians interested in submarine operations may find it of use, while warship modellers and war-gamers with an interest in submarines may find it to be a useful reference source.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given this volume an 8 ¾.





BOOK REVIEW: ‘Submarines of World War Two: Design, Development and Operations’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean

Author: Dag Pike

Total Number of Pages: 222

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In Winds, Currents and Wild Seas, the introductory chapter to this volume, the author describes a close encounter he had with a storm in the North Atlantic [or ‘Western’] Ocean. He concludes ‘…The experience taught me to observe due reverence and respect for the Western Ocean, a wild stretch of sea that for centuries has been both a route for commerce and a barrier to trade’. Although the Atlantic Ocean actually has two sections (‘North’ and ‘South’) this book is primarily about its Northern section and, delivered with ‘Due reverence and respect’, it details mankind’s battle with what the author terms ‘The world’s Toughest Ocean’. It is a fascinating read.

The volume is prefaced with an Acknowledgements section in which the author thanks those who assisted him in its writing. Unusually, he also thanks ‘…The millions of people who have crossed the Atlantic in a variety of ships and boats…’; for this Reviewer, a nice touch. The twelve Chapters forming the main part of the book then follow. The previously-mentioned Chapter 1 (Winds, Currents and Wild Seas) acts as both a precis for the volume and a scene-setter for what is to come. In addition to the author’s personal narrative (and as the title suggests), it also details the geographical and atmospheric phenomena which contribute to the whole ‘Toughest Ocean’ appellation. Effectively, it acts as a base for what follows.  The geography and phenomena thus established, Chapters 2-9 narrate the maritime history of the ocean, and traces the exploration and exploitation of the North Atlantic Ocean over many centuries. The technological developments that occurred during this period are also explored, while the at-times bizarre attempts by individuals and groups to cross the ocean under their own power and for their own reasons are also investigated and assessed. Chapter 10 (An Ocean in Turmoil) returns again to the theme of the North Atlantic’s weather and waves, with the author’s personal experiences again adding a human touch to the narrative. Perhaps inevitably, Chapter 10 is followed by another Chapter (Number. 11) titled Disasters on the Atlantic. Within this the expected names appear (RMS Titanic being one such example), together with other, lesser known, vessels, their common theme being that they all fell victim to the ocean’s wrath. Chapter 12 (The Future) is the final part of the volume’s main section. In it the author reflects on future possibilities and liabilities associated with the Atlantic Ocean, offering his thoughts about the sea, ship design and human nature while so-doing. A Select Bibliography placed after Chapter 12 records the sources used when writing this book, while a six-page Index completes it.  The volume contains a large number of monochrome prints, and black and white and colour photographs (some sourced, the majority not), together with an assortment of Maps, Plans Diagrams, Charts and Tables that relate to the narrative. While informatively captioned, the existence the Maps, plans etc. is not noted on either the Index or Contents pages. Unusually, and  although there is a ‘local’ map (Captioned ‘The North Atlantic Ocean stretches from the Tropics to the Arctic’) there is no Mercator-type expanded global map to precisely-fix the Atlantic Ocean’s location on Planet Earth. For this reviewer, it is an unhelpful omission. Unfortunately there is also no Glossary to enlighten non-maritime readers as to the meanings of the nautical terms that the book contains. What (for example) is an ‘Astrolabe’ (page 29)? In the absence of an informative description, a reader cannot know.

While well written and informative, for this reviewer, this book was let down in several areas. Numerous unsourced quotes appear within it (Alain Gerbault’s on pages 102-103 being but one example), but with no supporting citations, their authenticity is inevitably suspect, and they have little value to researchers. The Index should also be treated with some caution. A random ‘Index’ search for La Dauphin (page 27) and  Mary Celeste (page 195) found nothing, while curiously, although the Flying Enterprise (page 197) was also missing from the Index, her captain (Curt Carlson) appears within it. As these ‘errors’ were found during a random search, there is no way to know what else may be missing, and (at least for this reviewer), the authority of the Index is now in doubt. Small grammatical errors were also noticed.

This volume is eminently readable, there being no doubt that the author of knows his subject. As a result (and despite the previously mentioned ‘failings’), it is likely to have broad appeal. It likely to be of interest to both Historians with an interest in ‘Things maritime’ and the ‘Weekend sailor’ who just wants to read and learn more about the ocean at his doorstep.  Those who love ‘ships and the sea’ in a more general way are also likely to find this book of interest, while a reader looking for something for a wet Sunday afternoon, will probably find it worthy of their attention. Ship modellers may also find some of the images of use.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent I have given this volume an 8.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean’