RogerBW's Blog

HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean 25 March 2017

1955 thriller/war story, MacLean's first novel. Ulysses, a heavily-modified Dido-class cruiser, has been worked nearly to death on the Arctic convoys, but in spite of that, and of an arguable mutiny among the men, she's sent out for one more run.

At around 105,000 words this was a hefty book for its day, but it feels short: MacLean's writing scoops up the reader, the action starts as soon as the prologue is over, and very soon one's re-read the whole book. And it's not fluff, either: this is not a story of happy endings, though it is most definitely a story of heroes, above and below decks.

And for the crew of a mutiny ship, for men already tried and condemned, for physically broken and mentally scourged men who neither could nor would ever be the same again in body or mind, the men of the Ulysses had no need to stand in shame. Not all, of course, they were only human; but many had found, or were finding, that the point of no return was not necessarily the edge of the precipice: it could be the bottom of the valley, the beginning of the long climb up the far slope, and when a man had once begun that climb he never looked back to that other side.

Everything is stacked against the convoy: no rescue ships (the Kriegsmarine has taken to torpedoing them too), the enemy air, surface and underwater forces know they're coming, and the Royal Navy back home wants to use them as a trap for the Tirpitz; as if that weren't enough, the men are exhausted, and the weather is extreme even by Arctic convoy standards.

The cold was now intense: ice formed in cabins and mess decks: fresh-water systems froze solid: metal contracted, hatch covers jammed, door hinges locked in frozen immobility, the oil in the searchlight controls gummed up and made them useless. To keep a watch, especially a watch on the bridge, was torture: the first shock of that bitter wind seared the lungs, left a man fighting for breath: if he had forgotten to don gloves-first the silk gloves, then the woollen mittens, then the sheepskin gauntlets-and touched a handrail, the palms of the hands seared off, the skin burnt as by white-hot metal: on the bridge, if he forgot to duck when the bows smashed down into a trough, the flying spray, solidified in a second into hurtling slivers of ice, lanced cheek and forehead open to the bone: hands froze, the very marrow of the bones numbed, the deadly chill crept upwards from feet to calves to thighs, nose and chin turned white with frostbite and demanded immediate attention: and then, by far the worst of all, the end of the watch, the return below deck, the writhing, excruciating agony of returning circulation.

Characters? Well, they're here, but lightly; the whole crew, working together, is its own character, and that gets more development as a mass entity than does any one member of it. Specific people are lightly sketched in, but there are so many of them that I didn't really feel the lack of individual detail.

MacLean served on two Arctic convoys during the war and clearly knew what he was writing about. (Some readers may find the specialised vocabulary a bit heavy-going, but we have the Internet now.) His thrillers, particularly the early ones, are good solid stuff, but this is one of his best.

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