Review: James a Nikolai: Teithiau Bywyd Dau Gapten by Gareth Parry Jones
Two men whose life trajectories are aimed at each other with all the grim certainty of a well-directed torpedo: these are the eponymous subjects of this book about war at sea.
It’s also a family history, too, as the author tells the tale of his merchant seaman grandfather and of his mother.
James Parry grew up within both sight and sound of the waves, in Aberdaron, that Welsh-speaking finisterre at the end of Llŷn.
It was somehow inevitable that he would become a seaman, in his case joining the Merchant Navy when he was just eighteen.
This had become the biggest merchant fleet in the world, as a consequence of the rapacious reach and huge territory of the British Empire, covering 13 million square miles of the earth’s surface.
By the beginning of the 20th century almost half the merchant vessels in the world flew the Red Ensign of the ‘Merchant’ as it was commonly known.
This massive, unarmed fleet would become a major target for German U-boats. During the First World War they were sinking ships at a terrible rate.
In 1917 they sank 250 in February alone, matching that in March and sending no fewer than 413 vessels to the depths in March.
Their predations in the Second World War were considered so important that they caused Winston Churchill to worry that they were the only thing that could cause Britain to lose the war.
Asmus Nikolai Clausen would grow up to command one of these, hunting down ships in submarines that had grown in terms of range and sophistication.
Their wolf-packs attacked convoys of ships protected by armed naval craft, mixing stealth with ferocity as they did so.
To defeat them huge fields of mines were planted in the sea, and depth charges were employed in deadly games of cat and mouse between naval destroyers and the hidden German menace.
James Parry worked his way up the ranks even as he traversed great stretches of the world’s oceans, finally becoming a captain.
His family tried to keep up with his whereabouts, which wasn’t easy as communications such as letters and telegrams were censored and he was often at sea.
Between August 1940 and October 1941 James was part of 5 convoys plying between Canada and Britain, transporting steel from places such as Nova Scotia to Liverpool as part of the war effort.
He then travelled on the Llanashe – owned and operated by the Cardiff-based shipping company Evan Thomas Radcliffe & Co – to ports as various and far flung as Basra in Iraq and Durban in South Africa.
Just one of the voyages, from Bandar Abbas on the coast of Iran to Cape Town spanned 6000 miles and would have been an arduous journey even without the U-boat threat.
A British submariner describes life underwater very well:
A patrol is just one prolonged thrill. When we hear the torpedoes hitting the target we all nearly jump for joy, then all of a sudden you can hear a pin drop when the depth charges start coming down, coming very close at times. So really you live to attack or be attacked.
The two men, James and Nikolai’s lives connected on the fateful night of the 16th February 1943, when U-182, under the command of Nikolai Clausen aimed its torpedoes at the Llanashe as she aimed for Port Elizabeth.
Despite some men managing to find the safety of lifeboats, the captain wasn’t in that number, becoming one of the many men in the Merchant Navy who ‘have no grave but the sea.’
But the book is so much more than an account of the way in which two men’s lives would cross with fatal consequences.
We learn fascinating things about Aberdaron, for example, from the history of mining for manganese in the area to the fact that the tiny cillage had its own ‘Parliament’ which would convene to make decisions about local matters.
Then there is the curious fact that the “King” of Ynys Enlli, Bardsey island declared the island to be a neutral power as a consequence of being turned down for active service in the British armed forces because he was too old.
It is rumoured he even tried to come to some agreement with the German Kaiser.
We also hear about the child-evacuees and the airmen stationed nearby who all stayed with James’ wife Mary in their house called Tywyn.
And of course we learn about the great sacrifices of war, and the way in which the U-boats drew the United States into the global fray and how cracking the enigma code helped turn the tide of the war against the U-boats.
It’s a book where the story is very well told and which wears its research lightly, even though enormous effort has gone into exploring the backgrounds of both men, not least in exploring the German side of the story, helped no end by Gareth Parry Jones making fruitful contact with Nikolai’s family.
Here were two brave men, family men, risking their lives for their countries, whose stories came together in the moment when the lethal sherbet fizz of a torpedo’s wake snaked across the sea.
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