Monday, December 19, 2005

A security blanket

When I am tried and stressed, I tend to find that I turn to rereading favourite books. Some of these I have read many times, and one of my most-read must be Alastair Maclean's HMS Ulysses, which was, I believe, the first of his that was published.

It is a superb book, a tale of the Russian supply convoys. HMS Ulysses is the lead battleship in the fast convoy FR77 sailing from Scapa Flow to Murmansk, providing destroyer cover for a fleet of ships carrying tanks, ammunition and fuel to bolster the Russians on the Eastern Front. Although the Ulysses and FR77 are fictional, Maclean has done his research, and the story is peppered with references and footnotes to ships and convoys that actually existed, in particular PQ17.
In July 1942 convoy PQ17 was ordered to scatter following reports that German battleships and a cruiser had sailed to intercept the convoy. However, the German ships were merely changing port and abandoned their sortie the morning after the dispersal order was given. Only 11 of the 36 merchant ships in the convoy succeeded in running the gauntlet of U-boats and German bombers.

The survival rate on the Russian convoys was not good. The constant attacks by U-boats, the bombing raids from out of Norway, and the ever-present threat of the feared Tirpitz, compounded with the severe cold to ensure that nothing similar has ever been endured, in any theatre of war.
In summary, about 1400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to Russia. 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. The Germans lost a number of vessels including one battleship and at least 30 U-boats as well as a large number of aircraft.

HMS Ulysses is not only particularly good at documenting the extraordinary tensions and deprivations of these convoys—not least the fact that survivors of stricken ships were rare due, in no small measure, to the extreme cold of the arctic ocean—but also the extraordinary feats of bravery—heroism—of her fictional crew. The characters are beautifully-drawn, especially the firey Surgeon-Commander Brooks, the piratical Turner, the flippant Andrew "Kapok Kid" Carpenter, Rear Admiral "Farmer Giles" Tyndall and the gentle, doomed captain, Vallery.

So convincingly is it written, that you can imagine that the ship existed, that that wasted, near-mutinous crew actually fought, and that you share the sleep-deprivation (always helped when you spend all night reading it) and the cold. It's a great book—though it'll never make it into the pantheon of Britain's finest literature—and well-worth a read if you want something tense, horrifying, pitiable, desperately sad, and yet incredibly uplifting too.

Just thought that you might like to know...

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