HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean (1955)

HMS Ulysses was Maclean’s first and arguably best novel. It describes the ordeal of a ship on one of the notorious Murmansk conveys, taking oil, weapons, supplies to beleaguered USSR up over the top of Scandianavia, through the Arctic Ocean in one of the most pitiless and harsh environments known to man. MacLean, born 1922 and so 17 when the war started, had himself served on these convoys during the War. He knew whereof he spoke. To recap his war career:

He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to PS Bournemouth Queen, a converted excursion ship fitted for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland. From 1943, he served in HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. In Royalist he saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast. In 1944 he and the ship served in the Mediterranean theatre as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean. In 1945, in the Far East theatre, MacLean and Royalist saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. After the Japanese surrender, Royalist helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore. (Wikipedia)

From the first words the tone is one of immense weariness as Admiral Starr confronts the captain and senior officers of HMS Ulysses to demand an explanation for the full scale mutiny which broke out in Scapa Flow harbour. This scene sets the atmosphere of absolute mental and physical exhaustion combined with stress and nervous tension under which these men operated. With 24 hours they are putting back to see as part of a convoy – FR77 – linking up with a pack of merchantmen carrying vital supplies to the beleaguered USSR.

The novel a) introduces us to a large set of characters among the ship’s crew b) describes the events of the ill-fated convoy FR77 as it battles a massive storm, the routine horrors of the freezing Arctic weather, and repeated attacks by German ships and the terrifying U-boats. Aboard ship are:

  • Vice-Admiral Tyndall, formerly known as Farmer Giles, now exhausted and disillusioned, who breaks down after making a series of disastrous miscalculations about the attacking German ships and U-boats; returns to the bridge in his pyjamas and soon after dies of frostbite and shock.
  • Captain Richard Vallery, dying of TB who nonetheless, heroically, rallies the crew and leads by example; until he finally, inevitably, dies, his last thoughts for the crew.
  • Surgeon-Commander Brooks, “Old Socrates”
  • Johnny Nicholls, his assistant, who cleans out the various bombed stations, scooping up grisly bits of disintegrated and burnt human body, before being perilously transferred by breeches buoy to the Sirrus (I was sure he’d die) and ending up being the only survivor of the Ulysses who, in the heart-wrenching Epilogue, makes his final report to the Admiralty.
  • Commander Turner who takes over command on Vallery’s death and is last seen supporting two ratings in the sea after Ulysses’ death.
  • Navigator: the Honourable Andrew Carpenter, also known as the Kapok Kid, infallibly correct with his navigations, who has an eeries premonition of his own death and is, sure enough, peppered with machine gun fire from a Stuka.
  • Lieutenant-Commander Carrington, a natural seaman with intuitive grasp of weather conditions, who survives the ordeal.
  • Chief Bentley, takes & receives signals, has his face blown off by the Condor attack.
  • Master-at-Arms Hastings: stern disciplinarian: sacked for his vindictiveness towards Ralston.
  • Gunnery Officer Etherton: shoots himself after a mistake causes the death of the padre, the reverend Winthrop, Able Seaman Charteris and Peters.
  • Able Seaman Ralston, his brother killed in the mutiny, his mother and family killed in a German bombing raid on Croydon; he is forced to fire the torpedo which sinks the stricken freighter Vytura, thus killing his own father.
  • Sub-Lieutenant Carslake, an incompetent fool whom Ralston punches to find himself on a charge; who goes mad and tries to kill Ralston in the aftermath of the Condor attack, killing himself in the process.
  • Chief Petty Officer Hartlet who accompanies the dying captain round his ship.
  • Signalman Courtney, vapourised when a German shell hits the Radio Room.
  • Able Seaman Ferry, whose arm gets caught and pulled into a cable winch and whose life is saved by Ralston’s quick thinking, but who then falls where the railings have been destroyed and slips helplessly overboard to be mashed by the ship’s propellors.
  • Chief Stoker Hendry in the boiler rooms.
  • Engineer Commander Dodson in the Engine Room.
  • Chrysler, the 17 year-old Able Seaman who spots the glint of the U-boat’s telescope, but lives to see his brother eviscerated by airplane fire in the Asdic chamber.
  • Assistant Cook McQuater, his boots soaked with freezing seawater in the arsenal, who sets the sprinklers off to kill the fire threatening the armoury even though he knows the hatchway out is jammed ie who drowns.
  • Stoker Riley, the apelike product of a Liverpool slum, a petty thief who stirs up the mutiny but volunteers to take coffee to Dodson in the damaged steering shaft.
  • Able Seaman Pedersen who superhumanly opens the jammed hatch to the Low Power Room allowing Brierly and the other trapped sailors to be rescued, before himself jumping in and pulling the hatch shut, dooming himself in order to save the ship.
  • The crews of all the merchantmen, destroyers, Condors and Stukas who are blowm uo, burned alive, drowned, frozen to death and otherwise destroyed in war’s horrifying futility…

MacLean’s style is both pared-down and rhetorical. Factual descriptions are given in a clipped, textbook style – to the extent of there being a number of purely factual footnotes throughout the book, correcting technical and historical fact – but psychological portraits often use rhetorial techniques, particularly repetition, to convey moods and feelings, especially of the extremity of exhaustion and physical ordeal the men are going through.

I read this book when I was 11 or 12 and was struck by the way the men swear softly, viciously, fluently. None of the swearwords I’ve ever learned in English or other languages, since, have come close to capturing Maclean’s description of the muttered, fluent swearing of men pushed past the bounds of endurance.

The horrors the book describes are hard to assimilate. That our grandfathers endured times like these, scenes and experiences like these, beggars belief. The scene where captain Vallery deliberately steers through the hundreds of sailors burning to death in the oil released by the torpedoed tanker Blue Ranger in order to put them out of their agony is hard to forget…

Book cover of HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

Book cover of HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

The seeds of MacLean’s later success and failure are here. The awesome scale of the horrific subject matter here redeems the unrelenting negativity of the characters, their reliance on alcohol and fluent swearing to get them through, their tiredness and jadedness, and their ironic wit in the face of brutality. But these same characteristics will then be appended to all the male leads in all Maclean’s books, the bitterness, the jadedness, the world-weariness, the technical expertise mixed with bone-crunching physical injuries until it becomes a formula. A formula which served him well for at least the first ten of his 29 bestselling thrillers, but a formula none the less, and one which ran increasingly threadbare in the second half of his career.

The MacLean formula

  • Technical expertise with equipment, speedboats, scuba gear, cars, guns
  • Tough guy heroics combined with no-longer-young male worldweariness

The topos of tired, old men

The figures of the dying Captain Vallely and the Vice-Admiral Tyndall, two older men pushed beyond the bounds of endurance to their deaths, reminded me of the characters in John Le Carre’s Karla trilogy, particularly ‘Control’, the ageing head of MI5 who is pushed into retirement and dies a disillusioned man; and of Smiley himself who has officially retired at the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These kinds of thriller aren’t exactly aimed at pension-age men; maybe it’s that they appeal to the archetype of the exhausted, venerable old man (all four of the men named above are Good Men, honest old timers who’ve served their country well). They are noble, venerable and somehow too good for the horrible conditions of the modern world. To make a rather grandiose link they are similar to King Hrothgar in Beowulf or King Priam in the Iliad – aged, venerable men who give the entire story a kind of epic grandeur, a sense of the older generation inevitably but nobly passing away.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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