Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

First published in 1951, The Cruel Sea has been re-issued at least twice. My father served on corvettes in World War II. When I saw Dad lying on his bed, ankles crossed, reading this novel, I was too young to understand about corvettes, or "the war," though I'd already heard plenty about both.

A half-century later, Monsarrat's faithful evocation of life aboard a corvette rivets me. I am amazed by the primitive simplicity of these nautical sheepdogs, "not much more than a floating depth-charge platform." As well as being small, these ships were slow and poorly armed. Early versions would pitch and roll up to 45 degrees.

Yet they guarded the convoys of merchantmen that crossed the Atlantic, with its bitter storms and wolf-packs of U-boats, carrying life-saving supplies to an embattled Britain.

My father, Petty Officer Leonard Johnson, was a stoker; he spent the war firing the boilers below the water line. In the novel, after a terrifying incident spooks him, one seaman refuses to go below at all, not even to sleep.

Among the many poignant scenes is the one featuring three Norwegian captains who were saved when Captain Ericson took the risk of stopping the corvette Compass Rose so they and other survivors could be pulled from the water.

After a trip ashore in Gibraltar to drink and buy civilian clothing, the Norwegians return to visit Ericson and thank him for their lives. Having witnessed his decision to attack a U-boat that was attacking the convoy while men were still in the water, the other captains sympathize across the language barrier.

“There is no blame,” said one.
“But there may be thoughts,” said another.
“Naturally there will be thoughts.” 

“For thoughts there is gin,” said the first captain, with an air of logic.

Skoal!” said Ericson.'

And so they drink together. Drinking when off duty is a strategy for getting the job done as situations arise. Ashore, the narrator, Lockhart, Captain Ericson's Number One, as he is called in naval parlance, drinks twelve pink gins. Two other sailors go ashore and sink seven pints of beer each without showing "an atom of difference to either their diction or their bearing.” 

Drinking is also a defense, as the men become parts of "the tireless machine of war." This "hateful struggle," former journalist Monsarrat tells us, "demanded one hundred percent from many millions of individual people; death was in this category of demand, and, lower down the list, the cancellation of humanity was an essential element in the total price."

Eventually the war ends. After the German surrender, the U boats leave their hiding places and surface, "dripping and silent, in the Irish Sea, and at the mouth of the Clyde, and off the Lizard in the English Channel, and at the top of the Minches where the tides raced...near Iceland, where Compass Rose was sunk, and off the northwest tip of Ireland, and close to the Faeroes, and on the Gibraltar run...and near St. John’s and Halifax, and in the deep of the Atlantic."

The deadly Battle of the Atlantic was waged by England and Canada. Early on, the convoys met in mid-ocean, where the British took over from the Canadians to guide the ships into Liverpool or the Clyde, while their allies returned to St. John's or Halifax to start the journey again with another convoy. Though it seems so distant now, this is a significant aspect of the history of our nation.

My father was part of it. Reading Monsarrat's book, I felt sorry not to know more of the details of his convoy experience. Did he serve on the dreaded Murmansk run to the icy Russian port on the Arctic Ocean? Did he sail to Gibraltar, "where the sunk ships lay so thick?" I'll probably never know.

This remarkable book has been adapted for radio and was made into a 1953 movie as well.

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