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Battle of the Atlantic: Gauntlet to Victory

“This book will serve to put faces and emotions to the facts and dates of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest-running campaign of the Second World War,” writes Gordon Laco, Senior Communications Advisor, Royal Canadian Navy in the foreword to Battle of the Atlantic: Gauntlet to Victory, the new book by Ted Barris (Harper Collins 513 pg. $36.99)

“The battle was waged for nearly six years—2074 days. In human terms, that period represents five North Atlantic winters; thousands of bleak dawns, thousands of days and nights of vigilance despite desperate fatigue; thousands of days and nights during which death might arrive unheralded.”

Mr. Barris has published twenty non-fiction books with a dozen of them being wartime histories. For fifty years, he has worked as a journalist, contributing to national newspapers and periodicals while broadcasting on CBC, CTV, and TVO in Canada and PBS in the United States. For 18 years, he taught journalism at Centennial College in Toronto, and he continues to write his weekly print column and blog, Barris Beat.

As part of the weekend commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Dieppe, Mr. Barris and fellow military historian David O’Keefe spoke at an event organized by the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. The following are excerpts of an interview Mr. Barris did with The Voxair.

The Voxair: Why are you and David O’Keefe both speaking at the ceremony marking the Dieppe Raid?

TB: David is an expert on the subject of the ill-fated Dieppe Raid. We’re linking the story of Dieppe with the Battle of the Atlantic. They’re inextricably connected because without the knowledge that the allies had about the Germans encrypting and encoding and decrypting devices, the Battle of the Atlantic would have been a whole lot more destructive.

TV: What prompted you to write this book?

TB: The reason I chose the Battle of the Atlantic was that many years ago, my dad, Alex Barris, and I co-authored a book, Days of Victory, which was reprinted recently.

We had done a whole series of interviews with veterans across the country. Dad and I decided to talk with veterans about the end of the war because we were coming up to the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995. So, Dad went east and I went west to do interviews. We transcribed all the tapes and began to construct the memories of what veterans remembered at the end of the war.

We had to find out what they were doing during the war, so I had this whole library of material sitting there with a lot of navy people talking about their experiences in the Battle of the Atlantic which I never used.

That stuff has been calling to me from the bookshelf for many years. Then, a dear friend of mine, Malcolm Kelly, a sports journalist and an author, said, “Your next book has to be on the Battle of the Atlantic.” I said, “Yeah. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do.”

It became my pandemic project-- the longstanding call from those tapes and pulling that data out, and the additional extra new material on the internet. It all fell into place. I had a great editor at Harper Collins too.

TV: Is there is anything else you would like to say?

TB: Yes. The merchant navy was a vital part of the story.

These are people who were civilians. They stepped up in a civilian environment offering what services they had to companies delivering goods from one side of the ocean to the other.

The merchant navy is essentially a commercial operation hiring radio operators, stevedores, stewards, officers, trained military people if there gunners on board.

When the war was over and the veterans of the military came home, they got veterans’ benefits because of their service. The merchant sailors did not.

They didn’t receive (official) recognition as veterans until 1994. In light of that, I felt it was important to tell their story through the voices of the interviewees.

Women also play an incredible role in this story. When you realize that the majority of those working at Bletchley Park (the principal centre of Allied code-breaking during the Second World War) in Great Britain were women, Royal Navy Volunteer Service, all of the support staff, and many of the civilians who were hired because they had very capable minds in decrypting and decoding information.

A woman whose story I offer in the book was a civilian who had been born in Great Britain, raised in Canada, and returned to GB when the war broke out. She finds herself in an interview at Bletchley Park because someone thought she would be capable enough of handling the kind of work that was there. She served with the cream of great minds, including Alan Turing, there.

Battle of the Atlantic is now available at bookstores in Winnipeg.

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