The Sinking of the Lancastria, by Jonathan Fenby

July 21, 2011 at 11:39 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Second World War, War) (, , , )


Reading this book, it’s easy to see that Fenby has not really left behind his background of journalism. The formula of “find an event, slap a scandalous title on it, and interview as many people as possible who were remotely connected” is really the pith of this book. In contrast to Fenby’s much more meticulous work on the life of Chiang Kai Shek, it seems an extremely poor hash of a harrowing and tragic story.

“…a man swimming past a flaming patch of oil towards the float on which he sat. Suddenly, the man’s hair caught fire. He began to scream. His head went under, and the oil closed over him.”

-The Sinking of the Lancastria

For Fenby to take this dreadful event and try and squeeze a cheap conspiracy theory out of it seems rather cynical (the subtitle is, “The twentieth century’s deadliest naval disaster and Churchill’s plot to make it disappear”), and the disjointed journalese simply does not lend it credibility as a historical account (one might reasonably expect to see the individuals’ ages printed in brackets after their names). Needless to say there is not the slightest piece of evidence presented in the book to justify this book’s bombastic title, and surprisingly little attention given to either the Dunkirk evacuation (to which Fenby constantly references in passing but never in detail, and frequently with derision) or any contextual information detailing naval warfare, the legitimacy of troop ships as targets, or other peripheral essentials.

With those damning shortcomings, it has to be said that the quality of the interviews is second to none, and that if this book is useful in any regard, it gives the reader quite a good idea of what it would be like to survive a bombed ship during the Second World War. It is short and easy to read, and if the hyperactive claims and conspiracies are ignored then it is quite a useful source book.


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