I have read my fair share of war books over the years, and I consider myself fairly well prepared for the heart break that usually comes with these books. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what awaited me when, on a whim, I decided last week to listen to/read Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea for the 1951 Club, which is going on this week (thanks to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book). My Goodness, am I glad that I am not a sailor during World War II!
During the war, Nicholas Monsarrat was first a member of an ambulance brigade and then a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He served with distinction in a series of small warships that were assigned to escort convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. His sea stories are inspired by this service, and it is easy enough to recognize his wartime experience in The Cruel Sea.
The novel starts in 1939, when the British Navy is scrambling to build an efficient fleet to fight the Germans. The newly designed corvettes are meant to escort and protect trade ships that cross the Atlantic. The first corvette to be built is the Compass Rose, and her crew is as new and inexperienced as the ship. Captain Ericson was too young to fight in the First World War, and he secretly wonders if he is not too old to fight in the second one. Officer Lockhart, a freelance journalist, and Officer Ferraby, a bank clerk, signed up out of a sense of duty, their only seafaring experience a love of sailing and a Channel crossing to France. The despicable Officer Bennet has fast-talked and bluffed his way on board, terrorizing a number of young men who enlisted without having any idea what they were getting into. But then, this early in the war, no one really had an idea what was to come. Idealism, naiveté, and a conviction that the war will be over soon abound. (Where have we heard that before?)
After three weeks of hard training in Scotland, the Compass Rose is off to its first assignment. In the beginning, it seems almost too easy, the biggest problem being cold temperatures, continually wet clothes, and nothing but canned sausages to eat after 4 days at sea.
“Britain was short of escorts, Germany was short of U-boats: the Atlantic was a very big ocean and, in winter weather, the finest hiding place in the world. (…) Such was the battlefield of the Atlantic when 1940 dawned. The danger was there, but the two sides were hardly engaged: the U-boats lurking always, but playing their luck instead of their skill. To join this untidy battle, Compass Rose sailed early in the year.”
Of course, it doesn’t stay this easy. There are too many convoys crossing the ocean and too few escorts. Germany is adding 20 new U-boats to its fleet every month. Soon enough, there are enemy planes scoping out the waters and guiding the U-boats to organized attacks. Night after night, Compass Rose’s helpless crew has to watch as one ship after the other gets destroyed. Those men who are lucky enough to survive the sinking of their ships often die from hypothermia or the injuries they sustain when coming in contact with burning fuel.
Monsarrat does an excellent job showing the strain on the crew by focusing on different men at a time. Ericson and Lockhart adjust well enough and are able to deal with the terror by compartmentalizing. Watts and Taylor are able to shut off their thoughts and focus solely on the job they are assigned to do. Morrell muses on philosophy and his probably faithless wife. And Ferraby—poor, dear Ferraby—longs for his new bride and baby daughter, while his active imagination leaves him with no defenses as he constantly pictures himself dying a violent death.
Thankfully, Monsarrat intersperses the terror with banter, because once we get to 1942, it is relentless. I needed the humor at this point, because just reading about all the terrible incidents became almost too much for me. When Captain Ericson has to watch the merchant ship his son is on get bombed on the last night before reaching the safety of Gibraltar, I cried. I cried again when the crew comes across a life boat filled with a group of skeletons, wondering—together with Lockhart—what it must have been like for the last man of this group to die. And then I cried again when Compass Rose gets hit by a torpedo, being thankful at the same time that there were still 400 pages to read, which had to mean that at least some of the men survive. There were a good number of times when I had to take a deep breath and put the book aside for a little while.
As you might imagine, I’ve been pretty useless for the past 4 days, as I powered through this 1,156-page tour de force. For the first time ever, I did the “read-and-listen” combination, reading at night and listening to Simon Vance narrate while driving to work. I simply needed to know what was going to happen to “my guys.” There was quite a bit of naval vocabulary that I had to look up. (Fo’c’sle: whoever came up with a word that has two apostrophes in it?) There are some parts where it gets a bit sweeping, as Monsarrat necessarily has to focus on the overall state of the war, rather than just the crew of the Compass Rose.
The sailors in this book have Monsarrat’s complete sympathy—not surprising considering his background and experience, but sometimes perhaps a bit obvious. If you look up Ireland’s neutrality during the war (something that was, ahem, new to me), you are assured that Ireland was neutral but, morally, firmly on the right side of history. Monsarrat treats this fact with much more disdain, reminding the reader more than once that Ireland’s coast could have provided much-needed shelter and support, but didn’t. These things might not be to every reader’s liking, but I was enthralled (forcing the editor in me to ignore the complete overuse of colons and semicolons). I am grateful to have read this book and more than happy to add it to my list of recommended war literature.
If you have watched the movie Das Boot, I am sure you well remember the claustrophobia and terror of being stuck in a submarine that is hunted by destroyers. Thanks to The Cruel Sea, I will from now on well remember the anxiety of being stuck, like a sitting duck, in a boat that is being hunted by U-boats.
Whenever you are in a mood for a chunkster, pick this one!