Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes (1962)

There’s a frame narrative which announces immediately that this is to be a first-person account of a major military disaster at sea in which many lives were lost, which led to a Court Martial and a Board of Inquiry. So the main theme of the book is sketched out right at the start – there will be no suspense about this. The narrator, Donald Ross, is brother to one of the men involved in the disaster and makes it plain in the first few pages that he has read all the documents available and interviewed all the survivors plus the officials who made the fateful decisions – so this will be an eyewitness account but embedded, as it were, in official discourse.

The plot

There’s an Army missile testing base on the (fictional) island of Lairg off the Outer Hebrides. As part of cost-cutting in Whitehall, officials decide it should be abandoned for the winter rather than expensively provisioned. But the order to do so is delayed while a bad weather front moves in. This is unexpectedly intense, creating a disastrous storm which causes a landing craft with 50 or so men aboard to founder in heavy seas, lose power and be dashed to pieces against one of the island’s treacherous cliffs.

Some of the men manage to clamber up the cliff to a spine of rock isolated from the island and completely exposed. A couple of men make it ashore and back to the mostly-abandoned base where they radio for help. The first attempt fails, as a parachutist is simply blown out to sea to drown. The second attempt by helicopter fails, when the helicopter is itself hit by a treacherous downburst of wind which smacks it into the sea. The third attempt is by tug and relies on the heroism of a Major Braddock who swims to the cliff with a rope, and then of a Captain Field, formerly a mountain climber, who scales the cliff with the rope. Thus they are able to rig up a harness to bring the shipwrecked men to the main island, and thence away on the tug.

In all 53 men are lost, along with the landing craft, helicopter and a large amount of military equipment, in an intensely described and harrowing disaster.

The personal angle

However, as with many of Innes’ adventure yarns the main incident is intertwined with a complicated personal backstory. In this case, everything revolves round the narrator Donald Ross, who is at the centre of events both public and private.

Although a painter by trade, he was formerly in the Royal Navy and then Merchant Marine. Why on earth does he travel up to the Naval Station supervising the withdrawal from Laerg, at a rather unpropitious moment? Because the officer who has been sent to organise it, one Major Braddock, turns out to be his long-lost brother, Iain.

His brother had served in the Second World War but was always a wrong ‘un, given to fighting and brawling, and he struck an officer while on active service. He was being brought back by ship to face charges when that ship was torpedoed and sunk with almost all hands. Donald mourned and got on with his life. Now a Canadian businessman turns up on his doorstep: a distant relative of Braddock’s in Canada has died and left him a pile of money. But the businessman’s wife is set to inherit if Braddock can be excluded from the will. Therefore, the businessman has been snooping into Braddock’s history, and especially into the wreck of the ship he was on, and he has tracked down and interviewed a number of other survivors and now he is convinced that the criminal Iain Ross, escaping the wreck on a liferaft with half a dozen others, murdered Braddock and stole his identity in order to escape prosecution.

In a further twist it turns out that Donald and Iain were both born and raised in the Highlands, listening to stories of their grandfather’s life and exploits as a native islander on Laerg, in the distant days before radio, oil or many boats, when the islanders lived a harsh and isloated life. Donald’s always wanted to see it for himself and now he has the motivation to combine it with seeing his brother. He withdraws all his money from the bank and catches the train north.

It is under these rather contrived circumstances that Donald meets his brother – or is it? – who refuses to acknowledge him, insisting on the name Braddock, before hitching a lift on one of the landing craft which are working a schedule of sailing out to Laerg to take off men and equipment to a regular schedule. The weather is rough but he’s allowed to go because none of them know about the disastrous storm which is brewing.

Disaster and rescue

These are the circumstances which bring the civilian painter Donald aboard the landing craft which is so harrowingly dashed in the terrifying storm and then smashed onto the pitiless rocks, who then staggers back ashore the island, and who helps with the three rescue attempts.

Thus it is that, once all the survivors are back on the mainland, Donald witnesses the press hounding of his brother, the officer in charge of the evacuation who, despite his heroic role in the final rescue attempt, is made the scapegoat for the disaster.

And thus it is that, in the strange atmospheric epilogue to the main disaster narrative, both brothers find themselves drawn back to Laerg for the final act in the tragedy, where Braddock reveals that he is Iain Ross, but tells the true story of what happened on that liferaft 20 years earlier, and what the fate of the real-life Braddock truly was.

Sea descriptions

It takes a little while for the machinery of the narrative to get us there, but from about page 100 the description of the storm which wrecks the landing craft is breath-taking, awesome and terrifying. Innes was a sailor and this novel is up there with The Wreck of The Mary Deare and Maddon’s Rock for its grasp of the detail of seamanship. The text is threaded with intense and prolonged accounts of weather forecasting and meteorology, embodied in the well-worked-out character of Cliff Morgan, since the state of the weather is absolutely vital to the concatenation of decisions which lead to the disaster.

The account of the press victimising the wrong man and then of the court martial are reminiscent of the similar scenes in Maddon’s Rock where the narrator has to prove he didn’t mutiny to a court martial. There is something deeply reassuring, something very comforting about Innes’ pacing and about the way he devotes the same amount of effort to describing the details of the court martial as of the weather reports and sea conditions and build of the landing craft and and the geography and fauna of his isolated island.

But the last 50 pages of the novel make up a surprising and strangely tranquil climax to the plot in that, once Ross’s brother, Iain/Braddock, escapes from custody, Ross is so convinced he’ll make for the fateful island that he himself catches the first train north, buys a rubber dinghy and the necessary equipment, and then makes a ludicrously risky but evocative and beautifully described day and night’s voyage out to Laerg. Although he does meet his brother there, and all is revealed about what happened on the liferaft 20 years earlier (and it is not good), for me the human element (the slightly soap opera element) in the story paled, melted away, by contrast with the factual, accurate, rooted, super-real yet also romantic and symbolic voyage across the flat empty sea, then into the darkest night, and then into impenetrable fog, before he finds himself coming ashore into one of the island’s many secret caves, which is also the location of the novel’s dark secret.

This is a powerful and evocative novel, well-made from seasoned timber, redolent with story and reeking of the treacherous Atlantic waves like a Hebridean fisherman’s boat.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

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 convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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