Brendan A. Maher, 1996. A Passage to Sword Beach: Minesweeping in the Royal Navy. Naval Institute Press.
In A Passage to Sword Beach, Brendan Maher, an Englishman living in the US, takes us through his own experiences of the war. Starting with his childhood, which was so rudely interrupted by the war, Maher then takes us through his training as an ordinary seaman in 1943, before his advancement to officer cadet. After his commission, he recounts his experience first on Motor Minesweeper 84 and then fleet mineweeper HMS Jason, before he is transferred to ML 137, just under halfway through the book.
From there he describes his role on D-Day and subsequent work clearing the sea lanes and Cherbourg port, prior to the clearance of Brest and then, after the cessation of hostilities, Dutch waterways. It is here that he is wounded and the book follows him through a number of hospitals up until he leaves the navy in 1947.
Maher’s book was only published in the US and Maher takes time to translate some of the more obscure Royal Navy language for an American audience. Fortunately this does not detract from the narrative: Maher is a very good writer and if anything, his decision to spell out many aspects of his experiences makes for a clearer and less complicated story.
An interesting aspect of the book is Maher’s use of two diaries. The first was a midshipman’s diary that his first CO ordered him to maintain, the second is his own personal diary. Maher’s style or reproducing these before expanding on what they recount at first seems a touch jarring and upsets the narrative. However, he marries the three separate sections of prose quite well and, in any case, his reliance on the diaries fades as the book proceeds, largely as time prevented him from filling them out.
At the same time, the use of his diaries allows for some fascinating descriptions of life at sea, captured at the time. Maher was clearly a good writer during the war (as well as in 1996) and there are excellent descriptions of the various mines and methods used to sweep them by all types of sweepers in the navy, stories of life on board an ML and the numerous other tasks it might be asked to fulfil. The author’s role in minesweeping also leads to some detailed and quite tragic accounts of vessels lost to mines. One aspect that stands out in the diary entries is his recollection of the sounds made by sinking ships, which is not something so frequently recounted in other memoirs written long after the event.
All in all this is an excellent book that fills a certain void in Coastal Forces memoirs. There are few accounts of minesweeping in MLs and no other complete memoirs on the subject.
© Spitfires of the Sea