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Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Gerald L. Duskin and Ralph Segman
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2004

This seems to be a good time for tales of heroic naval action. First came James L. Hornfisher’s very successful The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (see review in World War II, April 2005). The image of Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”), with its tiny escort carriers and destroyers, hurling itself against the powerful battleships of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force Fleet off Samar Island—with the heavily laden transports of General Douglas MacArthur’s Leyte invasion fleet as the prize—is as compelling now as it was on that October day in 1944. It is a modern retelling of a David and Goliath tale, and no wonder modern readers have responded to it.

Those same readers should love If the Gods Are Good. In late October 1940, convoy HX 84 left Halifax, consisting of 38 merchant ships bound for London with a cargo of precious food and materiel—everything from evaporated milk to petrol. On November 5, far out into the cold reaches of the North Atlantic, it ran into some unexpected and thoroughly unwelcome company: the modern German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. There should have been nothing particularly dramatic about the ensuing battle. With six 11-inch guns that far outranged anything within the convoy, all Scheer had to do was steam in a lazy circle around its quarry, choosing its targets and blasting one ship after another into the hereafter.

It did not turn out that way, however, due to the presence of the convoy’s lone escort ship, Jervis Bay. A converted steamer that had been designated an “armed merchant cruiser” (AMC), it carried a motley assortment of guns, archaic 6-inchers, some of which had first seen service in the Boer War and none of which had any business taking on a modern battleship. “Fire control,” if we can call it that, consisted of directions bellowed down 2.5-inch tubes into big, brass earphones worn by the communicator within each crew.

In the unforgiving calculus of war at sea, Jervis Bay should have been dead long before there was anything within range of its puny guns. The ship stood tall enough in the water to represent a side-of-a-barn target to any reasonably trained enemy. Even after its refit as a fighting vessel, it retained enough of its original wood trimmings to make it a potential bonfire. Not for nothing did the men on board those ships joke that AMC actually stood for “Admiralty-made coffin.”

On that chill November day, however, none of those problems seemed to matter to Jervis Bay’s captain, Edward S. Fogarty Fegen. He had been in the service long enough to know that a Royal Navy captain was not supposed to waste time computing the odds against him or plotting a retreat path. He was supposed to close with the enemy, and that is precisely what Fegen did.

As Admiral Scheer steamed into view, bearing down on the convoy from the northeast, the British skipper gave two simple commands. One was to the convoy, ordering it to scatter. The other one was to his helmsman, ordering a sharp turn to port. It took Jervis Bay directly into Scheer’s path, and what was soon a blizzard of German fire. The first salvo, in fact, scored a direct hit on Jervis Bay’s bridge, nearly taking off Captain Fegen’s arm. A second direct hit several minutes later killed him.

And so it went. Jervis Bay took a fearful pounding but managed to stay afloat, a result of the 24,000 empty 45-gallon steel drums that it carried for buoyancy. Its guns fired until they were silenced. It was hopeless, for the most part, but the escort did manage to land one lucky shot on Scheer that destroyed the German ship’s radar crystal and reduced its spotting capability enormously.

Moreover, even after most of the crew was dead or dying, secondary explosions from cordite bags on the stern continued, looking enough like gunfire to make it seem as if Jervis Bay still had some fight left. Captain Theodor Krancke, commander of Admiral Scheer, had no choice but to keep raining down shells on the AMC. He was holding the whip hand at the moment, but he knew that it was a big ocean, that he was all alone in it, and that getting damaged by another lucky shot was a real possibility.

As he turned Jervis Bay into a flaming wreck, demolishing it section by section, much of the desperately scattering convoy managed to get away—some 27 ships in all. While Jervis Bay did sink two hours later, Fegen’s sacrificial charge made him a British national hero, the “first and greatest convoy hero of the war.”

It is an inherently exciting tale, and Gerald Duskin and Ralph Segman tell it well. The authors are particularly effective on the personal side, introducing us to the ordinary men who crewed this ungainly vessel, sailors out of British central casting with names like Tom “Davo” Davison, Nobby Clark and Tiddly Bonney. According to the authors, these were men whose wartime experience was “little recognition, minuscule pay, and fear of a sudden torpedo in the ribs.”

There is also a solid and interesting analysis of the ways in which both Captain Fegen and his able first officer, Commander J.A.P. Blackburn, managed to turn a crew of merchant seaman into a cohesive fighting outfit, even on a second-class vessel. The account of the ship’s transformation from merchantman to man-of-war is a classic. The first voyage alone featured a fouled anchor, a broken capstan, a near-collision with another AMC (Aurania), and then the real thing, a disaster that resulted in the sinking of the destroyer HMS Sabre. Sent back to Newcastle for repairs, Jervis Bay promptly blew off its moorings and came dangerously close to beaching itself on the mud flats of the Tyne.

It is with the arrival of the main event on November 5, however, that the book comes alive. The authors know how to describe fighting, and their description of the aftermath of the battle, of men bobbing in the icy water during what must have seemed like an eternal night, clinging to wreckage amid the oil slicks and the flames, is unforgettable.

They also give rightful credit to one of the day’s real heroes: Captain Sven David Olander of the Swedish freighter Stureholm. Flouting both his own crew’s inclination to get as far away from the fighting as possible and his own country’s neutrality, he made a momentous decision to return to the scene and help search for survivors. “We go back,” he said, a laconic but brave order that saved 20 of Jervis Bay’s gallant crew.

The book has so many positive qualities, in fact, that one can’t help but wish that it had been subject to a more rigorous process of editing. The first chapter is simply dreadful as the authors take us on a long, utterly generic look at Nazi foreign policy and the first year of the war. Scholars will already be intimately familiar with it (although they may argue with this or that interpretation), and buffs looking for a good action-centered read will not care about it at all. Either way, it is only peripherally related to what is to come. My advice: Skip to page 29, start reading and settle in for one of the most exciting maritime tales that World War II has to offer.