Book of the week: Windrush, A Ship Through Time by Paul Arnott

Alan Slingsby discovers in an unusual and compelling history book that there is a great deal more to the Windrush than its Brixton connection

nazi salutes on ship
The Windrush, under her original name Monte Rosa, carried members of the Nazis’ Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) leisure organisation on holiday cruises in the 1930s.
Picture: Interfoto/Alamy

We’ve all seen pictures of the Windrush. It looks like a typical, rather old, rather ordinary ship.

So you would expect a book about it to chug along with an unremarkable biography full of dates, data and not much drama, made significant only by the landing of the first members of the Windrush Generation at Tilbury in 1948.

But Paul Arnott’s Windrush, A Ship Through Time darts around like a motor torpedo boat, blowing lazy historical assumptions out of the water and dropping depth charges that explode beneath the conventional narratives of 20th century history.

In his accessible and readable story, he traces the birth of the ship in a Jewish-owned shipyard in pre-nazi Germany and its intimate connections with the evils of fascism and national socialism, both in Europe and South America.

The Windrush pioneers were not its only politically significant human cargo. The ship took Norwegian Jews towards their death in Auschwitz.

The ship was also at the heart of one of the greatest stories of the Second Wold War; it was supply ship to Hitler’s feared battleship the Tirpitz.

It ferried British soldiers from the nightmare of Indian partition. It had a role in the war in Korea and took British soldiers to combat Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya.

Paul Arnott steers a course like the Windrush through the horrors of those times.

His book ends with a typically British cover-up of the sinking of the austerity-crippled ship in the Mediterranean in 1954 which turned the death of four sailors into good news about how the passengers were rescued.

His is an intensely political story, told with bite and concision, and grounded in the mechanics of a single ship and the people who sailed in her.

There is one tiny error in the book that we must reluctantly correct given its local importance – the legendary Windrush passenger Sam King became the first Black mayor of Southwark and not of Lambeth.

If you are locked down in Brixton while political leaders all over the world lie, bluster and obfuscate in the face of a disaster they should have known was coming, there can be few better reads to put into context what we are going through now.

Windrush, A Ship Through Time, published by The History Press (ISBN: 9780750991209) is available online from the publisher and online retailers as an ebook, audiobook or hardback