It is hard to find any other 20th century English language poet who has contributed so much to ‘war at sea ‘ poetry than Alan Ross. Born in Calcutta in 1922, and settled in England at the age of seven, he studied Modern Language at St. Johns College Oxford, until starting his war service.

Ross’ first posting was with the Arctic convoy JW51b :On 30th December 1942, what became known as the Battle of Barents Sea began . Ross’ ship the Onslow was shelled by the German ship Hipper. He later devised an epic poem ‘JW51b’, described well by fellow World War 2 serving poet Vernon Scanell in ‘Not Without Honour’

“A most impressive achievement:over five hundred lines composed in a variety of metres, free verse, rhyme and half-rhyme, ….given overall authority by close familiarity with the technicalities of fighting at sea and an accurate ear for the idiom of the lower deck.”

In these lines , a sea battle is part of the conflict evidence in the natural sea world.

“Hipper and Onslow, sea-horses

Entwining, as one turned the other

Also, on parallel courses

Steaming, a zig-zag raking

The forenoon, as two forces,

From each other breaking.

Manoeuvred for position

Like squids squirting their ink

In defence, ship smoked sky

Round them, camouflaging.”

(JW51b )

Ross, a serving rating, was despatched to fight a below deck fire, a steel door closed behind him, seawater was also breaking in.

“ So Onslow rejoined in falling darkness.

Having aided the elements cancellation

Of each other;fire and water

A litany henceforth for all

Who had use for litanies.”

(JW51b )


The sea burial of those who died so magnificently depicted

“Beneath the ice-floes sleeping

Embalmed in salt

The sewn-up bodies slipping

Into silent vaults

The Sea of Barents received them

Men no faults

Of courage, for the weeping

Would be elsewhere

Far from its keeping.”



A great difference between World War 1 poets and World War 2 poets is how the latter have rarely been considered as offering an insight into the nature of the conflict. Our view of World War 2 is simply not defined by poetry. However, Ross’ work demonstrates the ferocity and claustrophobia of war at sea, and his comments from 1975 when republishing some of his earlier work deserve consideration ;

“I can think of no one I served with who resented the reasons for the war against Nazi Germany, however intolerable they may have found the reality.”

(From the introduction to ‘Open Sea’ anthology 1975)


Ross didn’t glamourise war, noting-

“The boredom, the misery and the waste were part of a larger experience that remains.”


Neither did he romanticise the sea

“What I recall from those years is often resenting the sea as much as the Germans” , ( All quoted in ‘Open Sea’ above)

Ross later went on to become an esteemed sports journalist, magazine editor, translator, travel writer. Yet his experience on board HMS Onslow remained with him.

“Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.”



Suggested reading:

‘Alan Ross Poem-Selected and Introduced by David Hughes ( Harvill Press -2005)

‘Blindfold Games’ , Alan Ross autobiography leading to the end of World War 2 Colin Narvil 1986,

‘Open Sea ‘ collection of poetry , London Magazine Edition 1975

‘Red Sky in the Morning -The Battle of the Barents Sea 1942’ by Michael Pearson , Airlife Publishing, 2002, for general background

‘Not Without Glory-poets of the second world war ‘ Vernon Scannell, Woburn Press (1976)


Michael Bully, December 2016