Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book review: "All Brave Sailors" by J. Revell Carr

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles from land, two men in a lifeboat consider their fate. It has been three weeks since their ship sunk. They are dying of thirst, starvation and exposure to the unrelenting sun.

So they decide to end their lives.

Bob Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe climb into the water, intending to end their misery by floating away and disappearing beneath the waves. But the cool water seems to change their mood and they climb back into the boat. After a short wait, they decide again that it is time to die. They slip into the water and Tapscott starts to float away. But Widdicombe clings to the boat's lifeline.

Angry, Tapscott returns to the boat. He and Widdicombe argue, then both climb back into the boat. They will not kill themselves, at least not today. Soon they notice something that had an escaped their attention before. Their compass is filled with a liquid that allows the device to spin freely. It's alcohol.

Carefully, they open the compass -- perhaps their most important possession at this moment -- and empty out the few ounces of alcohol it contains. They split it among themselves and drink it. Soon they are so drunk they forget they're on the brink of death.

This is just one scene in the true survival story that lies at the heart of "All Brave Sailors," by J. Revell Carr. I've read many of the best survival stories -- "Unbroken," "The Long Walk," and accounts of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic ordeal -- and the story told in this book is equally as amazing as any of them.

The trouble is, the tale of how men from the Anglo-Saxon freighter survived an attack by a Nazi merchant raider in 1940 is only part of "All Brave Sailors."  Carr tries to fit a lot into this book -- possibly too much -- as he covers some 50 years of events around the globe.

Many of the pieces are interesting, but the desperate ordeal of the British sailors is the only part that is truly gripping.  And Carr struggles to fit everything in a form that flows smoothly.

"All Brave Sailors" is truly about three men -- Tapscott, Widdicombe and Hellmuth Vonk Ruckteschell, the commander of the German "commerce raider" that ruthlessly destroyed the Anglo-Saxon on Aug. 21, 1940. Carr traces the lives of these three men before and after their fates intersected on that day.

Carr fumbles around at the beginning of the book trying to fit the disparate elements in. The first problem is right on the cover, which suggests that "All Brave Sailors" is only about the events in the lifeboat. This is misleading -- nearly half of the book is about the life of Ruckteschell.

The cover of the book also gives away too much, telling us how long the sailors were stranded on the ocean. Even worse, the very first thing that you see as you start the book is an annotated map that gives away multiple key points in the story. Talk about spoilers.

At the outset, the book hops strangely, starting with a hurried description of the attack on the Anglo-Saxon, then jumps backward to start the biography of Ruckteschell. In the third chapter, Carr gives us biographies of key sailors on the Anglo-Saxon, but we have no context for them. We don't know how each sailor is important to the story. It would be better to insert these as the characters emerge in the narrative.

Here's what I suggest: Avoid looking at the map until late in the book. Skip the first part of the book and start with chapter 5. It's not perfect -- you might want to skip back to fill in a few details -- but it gets you into the meat of the story with less confusion.

From there, the book gets much better. Carr has done tremendous research and he fills in details beautifully. He describes the way the Widder, the German commerce raider, cleverly disguised its guns so as to appear as an ordinary merchant ship. During the lifeboat section, we can really feel the misery of the sailors as they slide from hopes of rescue to desperation and, for some, death.

The book has some surprising moments but I don't want to spoil things by giving them away here.

In the end, I think Carr is too soft on Ruckteschell, the German commander.  This is a man who was essentially a terrorist, sneaking up on unarmed ships, attacking with multiple guns and torpedoes, and sending many defenseless men to their deaths. Carr catalogs the commander's war crimes carefully, but he doesn't seem to have the hatred for the German that I developed as I read it.

If you're interested in the history of German commerce raiders you might be interested in "The Wolf" by Richard Guilliott.

If you like survival stories of men lost at seas, consider "Adrift" by Steven Callahan, and "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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