Dan Snow: My Gramps did not want to remember the Battle of the Atlantic

"But now that he’s gone, I’ll be in Liverpool remembering him and all those others"

My grandad served in the Battle of the Atlantic. He hated it. He had lived his life as a boy on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Jumping off barn roofs into stacks of hay in warm summer sun and playing hockey ’til the laces froze to his skates in icy winters. He wanted to train as a doctor. He wanted to get to know his wife after they met, fell in love and quickly married in their late teens.


But all that had to wait. It had to wait for years spent ploughing the towering seas of the North Atlantic. Years spent in a converted cruise liner without a panel of armoured plate, shepherding lumbering cargo ships from Halifax to Liverpool, Londonderry and Glasgow across an uncaring sea that, in winter, killed in seconds.

The chief engineer told him that if a torpedo hit, the ship would sink before he could get his foot on the first rung of the ladder. Gramps witnessed, but never talked about, other ships torn apart by torpedoes and bombs. Men in the water who they were unable to rescue, the screams of crew caught in a pitch-black warren of passages as ships slipped below the waves.

He lived with the knowledge that at any second that could be him and his mates. He knew the cargoes being carried contained components for weapons, to be used on distant battlefields against an enemy he’d never met, or dropped on their families, factories and towns.

On Sunday in Liverpool, the headquarters of the British effort during the Battle of the Atlantic, there will be a time to remember those, like my grandpa, who gave years or, in many cases, their lives in the longest of Second World War battles. For the remaining veterans it will be a powerful indication that their losses and hardships are still appreciated.

I will be there helping to interpret the experiences of these veterans for those who do not have a direct memory of the war. Of all the different aspects of my career, this is by far and away the most important. Throughout history we have failed to transmit the horrors of war to subsequent generations. Within a couple of generations of the Napoleonic Wars, our image of them was all oil paintings and glory. Perhaps nothing will change, perhaps the reality of the Somme, the Atlantic, Arnhem, the Blitz will shuffle into the past. Remembered only by geeks like me, taking their places alongside Naseby, Blenheim, Vitoria and Sebastopol in the long catalogue of organised violence and horrific suffering in our past.

But perhaps, by marking these occasions, recording interviews with the veterans that will roll undimmed through the years, and broadcasting moving sounds and images from this anniversary event we will achieve something that eluded our forebears.

Perhaps we will transmit something of the horror of the Battle of the Atlantic to generations who have been born into a very different world. If, as she grows up, my daughter still feels even a shred of the repugnance that my grandpa felt for the maelstrom of violence, then we will have achieved something. My Gramps did not want to remember. There were no pictures or medals in his house, no parades to attend. He would never forget. But now that he’s gone, I’ll be in Liverpool remembering him and all those others. Because we might forget; and when we forget, we repeat.


The Battle of the Atlantic: Remembered is on Sunday at 10:00am on BBC1