“This is an aspect of World War Two that we have largely forgotten about, yet we can see the evidence of it every day. In cemeteries such as Penzance, for example, there are lines of graves where some of those lost during the coastal convoys are remembered. And if you stand on the coastlines at Plymouth, Lyme Bay, the Lizard and other places around the South West, you can see the final resting place of dozens of vessels.
“When we think about Britain’s maritime past, we largely talk about sea lines stretching around the world operated by vessels that were technically ahead of their times. What is hidden are the tales of the smaller vessels that are equally as vital closer to home, whether that is during wartime or in everyday life. These little ships may not be glamorous in their appearance, but the country couldn’t survive without them and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
When you think of civilian vessels and the roles they played during the war, what probably spring to mind are the rescues from Dunkirk or the battles encountered by merchant ships transporting goods across the Atlantic. But this is a battle that took place every day within sight of our coasts, and it is a story of outstanding bravery and heroism that has been significantly undertold. Every day, almost to a timetable, there were convoys of small ships travelling everywhere between the Firth of Forth and Milford Haven. That put them directly in harm’s way because they were not always operating under cover of darkness, and could not outrun – or fight back against – some of the fastest and deadliest elements of the German Navy. The fact they got through was critical to the war effort. Without them, war industries would have run out of power, stores of food and fuel around the country would have been depleted and people would have had even more of a struggle to survive the long years of war.
Associate Professor (Reader) in History
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