Fred Sherwood could have been a poster boy for the RCNVR. When he joined as a midshipman in 1933, he was a self-described “gangly, naturally lazy 18-year-old who was having great difficulty getting used to the idea of hard work.” He only joined because his cousin Charlie Dillon promised him the chance of adventure and a winter Caribbean cruise. The RCNVR “took” with Fred, and he came back from the 1936 cruise “a changed man.” In 1940 Lieutenant Sherwood was loaned to the Royal Navy where he volunteered for the submarine service. Christmas saw him on his first operational patrol off Norway with submarine ace Lieutenant Commander Ben Bryant, who took a liking to the “colonial” and became his mentor.

For the next two years, Sherwood served under Bryant, seeing action in the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay, and the Mediterranean, where the Battle for North Africa was raging and Malta was under siege. In early 1943 Sherwood passed the “Perisher” (Commanding Officer’s Qualifying Course), and took command of P 556. In doing so he added to a list of World War II “firsts” — the first non-British officer to serve on a RN submarine, the first volunteer reservist of any nation to command a RN boat, and the first Canadian to command a RN submarine. April of 1944 found Sherwood command of a new boat, HMS/M Spiteful (P 227) and stationed in Trincomalee, Ceylon. Several patrols in the Far East followed, one lasting 38 days. Sherwood emerged from the war with a Distinguished Service Cross & Bar, giving him the distinction of being Canada’s most highly decorated submariner.

It’s Not the Ships . . . was thirty years in the making and draws on numerous sources. These include several interviews that Sherwood recorded in the early 1980s as part of the Naval Association of Canada’s Salty Dips oral history project. Supplemental interviews recorded in later life were also used, as were excerpts of news reports, Sherwood’s wartime correspondence, and patrol reports and logs. The result makes for a “compelling, technically precise, honest, humble, personable, and, in many places humorous” account of one man’s war.

* * *

The book title comes from Fred Sherwood’s favourite maritime adage, “It’s not the ships, it’s the men in them.” It reflected his lifelong conviction that in any situation, less-than-ideal circumstances can be more than compensated for by the attitude, skills, and initiative of the people involved.