Thursday, 4 February 1999

Nicholas Monsarrat: The Cruel Sea (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 200

The Cruel Sea is one of the classic novels of the Second World War. It is the story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle between the German U-boats and the British convoys keeping Britain supplied - and in the war. Not only did the two sides have each other to fight, but the Atlantic itself was always ready to claim another victim.

Monsarrat picks two men - Ericson, a regular navy officer from before the war, and Lockhart, a volunteer former journalist - and follows their service together from 1939 to 1945, first on the corvette Compass Rose and then the frigate Saltash. Their story is one of physical and psychological endurance; the horrors of the war in the Atlantic from the position of the British naval convoy escorts and their impact on the men who were not killed is Monsarrat's theme.

Like all books about the horrors of war, The Cruel Sea makes me wonder whether any cause is worth the suffering it causes; this question is one which Monsarrat's characters would certainly answer in the affirmative (at least, most of the time). In some ways, this makes the anti-war impact of the novel even stronger.

There is a tendency in popular fiction to view the Second World War as a kind of game, the world of The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape, of Secret Army and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Cruel Sea brings home something of what it was really like to those who bore the worst of it, the grinding and soul-destroying war of attrition, in a campaign where "Boy's Own" style adventures were hardly imaginable, let alone appropriate.

The Cruel Sea is a traumatic read, particularly the middle section when the tide of the war seemed about to overwhelm the convoys. There is a different kind of heroism being portrayed from the norm in thrillers, a bleak kind that accepts hardship and danger not just for the fun of it (because there is no fun in the particular hardship involved), not for egotism, but to save others from hardship and danger.

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