Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

Hammond Innes

(Ralph) Hammond Innes OBE wrote some 34 novels, as well as children’s and non-fiction books, in a career spanning nearly 60 years from his first book, The Doppelganger (1937) to the last one, Delta Connection (1996). After private school he drifted through a number of jobs including journalist for the Financial News, all the time working on his early novels.

He was chuffed to get his first novel accepted by a publisher but not so pleased to find himself tied into a four-book deal at a low fee. He rattled these first four books out pdq before switching to new publishers with a better deal. Later in life he conceded that this first burst of piece-work taught him the craft.

Wreckers Must Breathe

Wreckers Must Breathe (1940) is Innes’ 6th book ie still very early. It’s a ripping yarn about a journalist/drama critic, Walter Craig, on holiday in Cornwall. His fishing boat is nearly rammed by a U-boat which he and the local fisherman mistake for a shark. Returning from the beach he falls in with a man wading ashore, leading him to suspect something odd is going on. That night he goes down to the shore with a local fisherman, Big Logan, only for both of them to be caught at gunpoint and taken aboard the aforementioned U-boat.

There is a thrilling sequence where the U-baot is forced to dive and our heroes wait as suspensefully as the german crew while a British cruiser tries to depth charge them. The U-boat survives and Craig and Logan are taken prisoner to a secret underground U-boat base worked into the remains of a ruined Cornish tin mine. (The book includes a clear diagram of the layout of the base which becomes very useful as the novel progresses.) Here they are forced to work helping maintain the small fleet of U-boats and all the time wondering how to either escape or blow the place up.

Maureen Weston’s story

Craig’s first-person narrative is interrupted half way through by a collection of documents which tell the story from the point of view of a lady journalist, Maureen Weston. She is contacted by Craig’s London paper to investigate his disappearance and her investigations are chronicled in telegrams, letters and transcripts of phone calls which the narrator claims to have later assembled. This harks back to the Victorian use of letters and other media in popular stories (think of Dracula) and is a reminder of the eternal problem of point-of-view in a novel.

These pages, Maureen Weston section of the novel, have their own distinct tone and style, different from Craig’s first person narrative, that of a tough, sardonic woman journalist. She’s a very modern and enjoyable character.

Weston pieces the bits of the jigsaw together and begins to realise:

  • the U-boat base is a disused tin mine right on the coast
  • it was abandoned after a disastrous flood
  • it was subsequently bought by an out-of-town businessmen who got local miners to dig a set of new exploratory shafts fanning out from a central cavern
  • he then supposedly abandoned his efforts
  • but they were in fact finished off by Germans brought over by U-boat.

She only completely confirms this on a trip down the mine with three local miners when they stumble into the base and are themselvescaptured and locked up in the cell next to Logan and Craig. The prisoners in the two cells realise they can communicate by morse code.

Tension

The situation might have drifted but great urgency is lent the story because early on Craig had discovered that the secret coastal meeting which they blundered into right at the start of the book was between a German spy handing over a naval document stolen from London to the U-boat captain. This document gives the co-ordinates for a rendezvous of Royal Navy ships in the North Sea. Thus tipped off the U-boats are planning to attack and sink the lot, with not only loss of British lives but giving the Germans important propaganda early in the war.

Showdown

In a sustained and bloody climax to the novel Logan, Craig and the three miners take out their guards on a submarine they’re loading, then seize large amounts of weapons and start a small war. They blow up the tunnels leading to their dock and use the U-boat’s main gun to destroy the entrance to the cavern, then fight off all-comers with small arms and hand grenades.

In a strange and haunting finale Craig sets fire to oil and petrol above a seam of limestone, knowing it will reduce the stone to quicklime and release large amounts of carbon dioxide. Our heroes lock themselves in the U-boat with its handy air supply and oxygen apparatus. The Germans try to break in using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment and are half way through cutting the U-boat hatch open when all sounds of activity cease.

When our heroes emerge, weating the oxygen masks, they find hundreds of Germans collapsed all over the docks due to asphyxiation. They escape into the older mine workings which they are cutting their way through when they are discovered and rescued by a Royal Navy party.

We, the readers, have known that all along the Craig’s newspaper had been informing the police about what Maureen Weston was discovering, and that the police had contacted MI5 who had pieced the whole story together and alerted the nearest naval force. Who come triumphantly to the rescue and take the Germans prisoner.

Thriller tropes

The opening passages of Wreckers Must Breathe are very interesting purely as social history. They capture the mood of England on the days leading up to the outbreak of World War II, giving a vivid sense of the fears and anxieties of ordinary people – and then the horrible sinking feeling as war is declared.

But once into the main body of the story, it is fascinating to see just how many tropes it contains which are staples of later thrillers, scenes I’ve read about or seen in movies countless times:

  • Crew trapped in a submarine while an enemy ship depth charges it, everyone silent, holding their breath, looking up.
  • The enormous elaborate underground U-boat pen built in an abandoned Cornish tin mine is described in great detail and sounds very like the secret baddy bases of the James Bond movies.
  • An impression reinforced when it is the setting for the final bombing and shooting spree which our heroes unleash as they try to escape, five of them taking on over 500 Germans.
  • The lady journalist is presented as genuinely strong, feisty, intelligent. But she also happens to be good looking and ‘startlingly provocative’. And, given the presence of a lady, certain tropes are inevitable:
    • inevitably she falls behind and the big strong fisherman has to go back to ‘rescue’ her
    • inevitably both he and the pretty lady are then captured and used by the Germans as human shields
    • inevitably, as the Germans open fire, big strong fisherman is able to nudge the machine gun their guard is using to open fire on Craig, thus saving his life – obviously he is then gun-butted in the face, a moment I’m sure I’ve seen in scores of movies
  • In a scene I’ve read and watched scores of times (Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape) there is bitter enmity between Gestapo and ‘ordinary’ naval officer: for example the scene where the Gestapo man orders Big Logan to be tied up and whipped – and watches the scene with a sadistic glint in his eye – but on the second lash the commandant storms in demanding to know who gave the order for this, has a flaming row with Mr Gestapo which escalates until he punches Gestapo man and orders his guards to arrest and drag him off.
  • And the cavalry – well, Navy – arriving just in time to save our gallant heroes, as they’ve done the bulk of the work but when their strength is flagging and just as they think they’ll never be able to dig their way through the final rockslide.

I’d love to know whether these tropes were already established when Innes wrote (by whom?) Were they part of the pulp thriller underworld by then? Are any his creation?

The ghost of Conan Doyle

If thriller writers’ disclaimers actually reveal their influences, whose shadow they’re trying to escape from – if Desmond Bagley’s characters’ frequent claims that they aren’t James Bond tell you not so subtly what influence Bagley is seeking to evade – then the one literary reference in this book is to a much older but acknowledged master of popular tales and yarns who was publishing eerie stories right up until 1930. As Maureen Weston writes of her descent into the abandoned mine workings:

The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle’s Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as if I’m writing the diary of one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible… (page 128)

And the final scene where the five breathing English survivors pick their way through the landscape of Germans asphyxiated by carbon dioxide is also from a different type of text than a straightforward War novel.

The sight was amazing. The whole dock seemed to be strewn with the bodies of German sailors. It was like rowing in some fantastic crypt filled with the dead. I looked at Davies, pulling steadily on the oars, his face obscured by the awful futurist mask. So one might depict a modern Charon rowing a new-comer to Hades across the river Styx… There were men everywhere, but not a soul stirred. It was like a place of the dead. And we five masked figures looked like five horrible ghouls picking our way amongs the dead. (p. 185)

This reads like Conan Doyle in fantasy mode. Or the sci-fi of HG Wells. One of the pleasures of Innes’ novels is that they are a little unstable; they admit other influences and styles which later, more professional thriller writers, more completely exclude. But here, early in his career and in the history of the genre, there is room for experimentation. Witness the strong Edgar Allen Poe Gothic feel of one of his first post-War novels, The Killer Mine.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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