RogerBW's Blog

Most Secret, Nevil Shute 04 May 2017

1945 war story (written in 1942 but held back by the censor). Four mismatched officers come together on a project to build up French morale by deploying a flamethrower against German coastal forces.

Naval flamethrowers haven't seen much use in the post-wooden-ship era (and not all that much before it); the only example that comes immediately to mind is in the Zeebrugge Raid of 1918, where they were not at all decisive. They have less range than pretty much any other naval weapon, so the only way to deploy them is to get close without declaring hostilities and then attack with surprise, something that's not really possible in a typical naval engagement. The way it's handled here is to use a French boat to blend in with the local fishing fleet, then to attack and destroy one of their guarding Räumboote (small minesweepers used for escort duties) and vanish before any other forces can be brought to bear. Clearly, many things can go wrong with this plan.

The shape of this book doesn't fit the pattern of military fiction that's been established since, which would start with an action sequence, go back to build things up, then carry on. Rather, the entire first half consists of introduction, planning and set-up before the first mission is sent off; then, since the narrator is a senior officer who stays at home, we learn of what happened on each mission first in general terms of who's made it back and in what state, then later by more detailed report as he interviews the men who return and sees occasional messages sent from occupied France.

I was reminded somewhat of C. S. Forester's The Ship, written a year later but published before this book; each of the four officers gets his own detailed introduction, explaining his background, personality, and just what it is that has caused him to hate the Germans and to want to fight them with fire. (This does sometimes descend into sentimentality, but it's plausible sentimentality.) Fire is a recurrent theme, from the death of one character's wife, via shenanigans with American rum-runners and gangsters, to the half-mad priest who regards it as the special weapon that God gives to those fighting against evil.

Many elements are thoroughly propagandistic: all the Germans we meet are vile people, all the French and English are good, and there's little room for nuance in the portrayals of anyone apart from the principals. Still, this is Nevil Shute we're talking about, and he does a good job even when he's being heavy-handed; he, and our narrator, never lose sight of the ultimate objective of the operation, to build up French morale and break down German, even when the blokes going in are focussed on the immediate mission. The morality of using such a terror-weapon is considered several times, but Shute being Shute doesn't bash us over the head with whether it was right: it was effective, and for wartime that may be good enough, but nobody's going to sleep well for a while.

(Oddly, Shute gets some of the moon phases wrong. He correctly has a full moon in early September 1941, but by the final mission he has a waning moon when it should be coming up on full, not to mention rising six hours later than it should. I wonder whether perhaps he originally planned the final mission to happen a week and a half later than it did, and forgot to re-check his diary.)

The action isn't just on the naval raids: once things start to go wrong, there's a daring over-land and over-water escape, and some life with the French Resistance.

To me this book serves as a good model for what a technothriller should be: cutting-edge engineering wielded by interesting and complex people doing daring things and pushing themselves beyond what they thought possible.

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