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The Black Pit...and Beyond Paperback – September 28, 2000
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
The title of this very interesting memoir refers to that area in the North Atlantic in which Allied convoys were out of range of covering aircraft, at least for part of the war. Mumford, an English teenager who joined the Merchant navy and became a radio operator, had the misfortune to be crossing the black pit before Allied air cover was extended. On Boxing Day 1942, his ship, the SCOTTISH HEATHER, was torpedoed and most of the crew took to the lifeboats. They drifted for a full 24 hours before they were rescued by their own ship, which had been saved from sinking by a skeleton crew. But this was not Mumford's only adventure. He later had an eventful tour of duty in the Mediterranean, and was then posted to a merchant ship operating in and out of the Scheldt estuary in late 1944. On Christmas Eve (Christmas seems to have been a season of misfortune for Mumford), his new ship EMPIRE PATH struck a mine off the Scheldt estuary and sank. This time, rescue vessels were near by and the survivors of the EMPIRE PATH barely got their feet wet. Mumford's memoir is an excellent contribution to the literature of the naval war. He seems to have been naturally introsepective rather than gregarious (a characteristic that might be traced to his brutal mistreatment at the hands of nuns and brothers in Catholic schools), and spent much of his free time exploring various ports on his own. His description of the supply operation into the Scheldt estuary also adds an interesting dimension to the history of that campaign. The Black Pit ends with Mumford receiving a posting as chief radio officer on a small tanker bound for operations under South-East Asia Command at Trincomalee. It is hoped that this will be the subject of the next volume of memoirs. --Canadian Military History Book Review Supplement, Wilfred Laurier University, Spring 2001, Issue 13
The Black Pit is one of the most engaging and well-written personal accounts of Canadians at war that I have encountered for some time. The story, which from beginning to end reads more like an adventure novel than an autobiography, recounts the author's service as an English-born, now Canadian, radio officer (carrying the standard sea-faring nickname of Sparks) in the Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine, outside the regular armed forces, but facing dangers and losses just as great, was until fairly recently an unfairly ignored element of the war effort. This book will serve to highlight something of the real significance of the Merchant Marine's role, and it will bring its members to life as an immensely interesting array of characters, none individually significant as defined by history books, but, under the author's pen, very real as human beings. In some ways, that kind of portrait provides the most effective way of understanding the meaning of war; and someone in the age group to which the author and his war-time companions then belonged cannot help but emerge with a richer insight into the meaning and impact of the experience. Those who, themselves, lived through those years and experiences will find this book a reassuring reminder of what was good in a evil situation, thanks to the enduring qualities of decent people. War is not romanticized, but one is left with faith in human beings. As an adventure story, the book leaves few waters unexplored. It begins in 1942, with the author's being torpedoed in the North Atlantic (in the so-called Black Pit, that portion of the Atlantic that was beyond the reach of protective air cover, and in which the convoys were on their own against the U-boat & wolf packs. Surviving that, the author went on to service in the Mediterranean/North African campaign, and then into the invasion of Sicily and Italy, this time facing the constant dangers of air attacks. Even later, he saw service in the North Sea, plying between Britain and Holland. There, the danger lay in mines, to which his ship once again succumbed. With victory in Europe, the book ends with the author's setting off for his fourth and final theatre of war, the Far East. In all of this, we have not just the intensity of the moment of conflict and danger, but also the more typical day-to-day details of life aboard a ship at war. Tortuous seas and life-threatening attacks play a large role in the story; but significant time is given to the pure adventures of travel: in Gibraltar, Spain, North Africa, and Italy, as well as visits to wartime London. All of this is part of an accelerated coming of age, with a premature and often confusing introduction to drink, prostitution and personal nastiness. The story is also one of a young man's coming to terms with the difficulties of his past: of the sudden death of his father, and haunting memories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse in a religious school. We see him struggling with his first love affairs, and with his difficulties in pulling away from a mother's domination, while, at the same time, maintaining the family relationships he still needs. Some of this tumult is rather graphically (but never offensively) portrayed, and the author does offer a faithful rendition of the nautical vocabulary: a filmed version would no doubt carry a language warning. But it is an honest story of an ordinary adolescent-man in a test that few of the same age today could even imagine. It is a fascinating personal account; but one that also provides an excellent insight into what war actually means for the ordinary participant. Highly recommended. --CM: Canadian Materials, vol. 7, no. 12, Feb 16, 2001
J. Gordon Mumford was born outside London and trained as a radio operator for the British Merchant Navy in 1942. He first went to sea in 1942 on a Danish collier which met an untimely end which we read about in occasional flashbacks. We first meet 17-year old Mumford on the SS SCOTTISH HEATHER which sailed in convoy ONS 154 from England bound for New York. The 'Black Pit' referred to by the title is what is also known as the 'Air Gap' -- the part of the North Atlantic beyond reach of Allied aircraft where German U-boats waited like hungry wolves for defenseless sheep. There is an unusual twist to the adventures that befall Mumford and his fellow SCOTTISH HEATHER crew after they are torpedoed. His next ship, the EMPIRE HARMONY spent 18 months in the Mediterannean shuttling from port to port -- wherever her heavy-lift cranes were needed to unload Sherman tanks or other heavy equipment. At times the ship is just behind the front lines, under heavy attack, at times the crew enjoys shore leave in friendly territory, and we experience a young man's impressions of the world. Unlike some memoirs whose authors hide their youthful feelings, Mumford is not afraid to talk about his confusion regarding sex when he is approached by the ever-present prostitutes, in view of his mother's admonition to 'save himself for marriage.' The EMPIRE PATH takes Mumford up the Scheldt River to Antwerp where they are under frequent attack by V2 rockets. You'll have to read the book to learn what happens to the EMPIRE PATH and her crew. Gordon Mumford is a very talented writer. While all his ships were British flag, his story is compelling and well worth reading to any lover of history and the sea. --U.S Merchant Marine website --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Too young to enlist in the armed forces, Gordon Mumford served as a Merchant Navy radio officer (1942-47) in the North Atlantic, Europe, Mediterranean, and Pacific war theatres. After the war, he worked as a field services technician in East Africa in the 1950s. He was a member of the small team that surveyed, then constructed the 1000-mile long VHF radio-repeater route for long distance telecommunications. They explored virtually unknown places in East Africa in the search for the best route for a modern radiotelephone system. The route took them from mountain to mountain, across the deserts, swamps, and plains, in all sorts of weather. Living under canvas for months at a time, they faced extremes in weather conditions, ruggers country, and wild animals. Halfway into the project, however, they faced more danger than they had bargained for. The Kikuyu tribe in the central province of Kenya rebelled against British rule (Mau Mau), and the safari crew found themselves in the midst of a savage civil war. He immigrated to Canada in 1958. After qualifying as a teacher, he returned to Kenya in 1961. He and his family spent the next 20 years in Africa, where he worked as a technical instructor in Kenya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Indonesia, under contract to UNESCO, CIDA, and other international aid programs. He returned to Canada in 1981 where he worked for the Pacific Region of Communications Canada, serving as the federal government emergency planning liaison officer. After his retirement, he began writing. In addition to three books about the Merchant Navy, he is now writing about his experiences in Africa in the 1950s. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.