Tuesday, 1 October 2013

“A Home on the Rolling Main: A Naval Memoir 1940-1946”, A. G. F. Ditcham

Representing life as a junior officer primarily aboard Royal Navy destroyers during World War Two Ditcham’s autobiography provides a frank, accessible, and unflinching account, highlighting the wry humour and periodic human tragedy that's inherent with any life spent when momentous historic events take place. In this way the matter of fact delivery is reminiscent of Fitzroy Maclean's marvellous "Eastern Approaches".

One of the things I have always found fascinating about accounts of naval life is the less dramatic description of what ordinary life below decks was like, and here Ditcham's account provides a vast amount of valuable local colour, with critical details such as the Gunroom not being slept in by junior officers when at sea aboard HMS Renown, and sailors having to find any available square inch giving a real insight into the realities of being at sea.

The work throughout is punctuated with a rich vein of understated humour, such as his introduction to drinking beer and other such substances, which he clearly took to with some gusto! This is coupled with a welcome level of self-effacement; in the face of Norwegian barbarity, when he recounts how a Norwegian cabin mate ashore "blundered into the cabin, sat down on the edge of his bed, and pee'd on his bedside rug like a horse in a stall". Ditcham took this as an opportunity to request a move in quarters, which in retrospect he sees as the move of a prig.

A keen aircraft spotter it's striking that he managed to see such rarities as a Messerschmitt Jaguar and Dornier Seeadler in the course of his career at sea. Continuing in the vein of the unusual, the work contains accounts of some lesser known aspects of the war, such as Vichy France's bombing of Gibraltar in retaliation for the Allied Operation ‘Menace’ against Dakar in 1940.

It's always hard to avoid being too gushing when you encounter a book as genuinely good as this. Ditcham's autobiography simultaneously adds valuable narrative material to our understanding of the war at sea and the experience of the ordinary people who made up its cast of characters while remaining an enormously entertaining read. The late John Keegan, on the cover endorses "A Home on the Rolling Main" as "one of the most vivid and immediate war memoirs I have ever read", it is very hard to disagree with this. No library on the Second World War at sea should regard itself as being complete without a copy of this on its shelves.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided gratis for review purposes by Pen and Sword Books.

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