Lifeline Across the Sea: Mercy Ships in the Second World War

Written by David Williams
Review by Edward James

Clausewitz famously coined the phrase ‘total war’ and defined it as an ideal state. This did not mean, as some suppose, that he recommended it; rather it was an abstract concept against which all real wars should be measured. In practice all wars are ‘limited wars’ to a greater or lesser extent. Even in the Second World War, the most total of recent wars, the belligerents observed certain rules, if not universally.

The best example of this are the 30 seaborne missions which took place between the Allies and the Axis powers to exchange sick POWs and ‘protected persons’ (diplomats, medical staff and the like). Fifty ships were employed, repatriating over 150,000 persons (one was sunk on its mercy mission). Not many compared to the scale of the war, but a significant triumph of humanity over hostility.

Williams describes each mission in detail. It is not bedside reading, unless you like counting ships. However, it is wonderful source material if ever you consider writing a WWII novel.