The Cruel Sea


Just today, I finished The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. Monsarrat served as a Naval officer during WWII, where he participated in escort convoys. He also wrote one of the three “classic” novels of World War II Naval fiction. I say “classic” because this information comes from Wikipedia … but I’ll go with it. As so happens, I’ve read the other two within the last year: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, and HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean (all three men served in their navies during the war).

I know this because I remember reading HMS Ulysses this past summer. I wasn’t sure when I’d read Caine Mutiny, but as so happens, I have a habit of tucking my sales receipts into books I’ve bought (they make good bookmarks), and I remember starting the book almost as soon as I’d picked it up. The sales receipt? Dated January 16th of this year.

The Cruel Sea tells the story of two Royal Navy officers — Captain and his First Lieutenant — over six years of convoy escort duty during the Second World War, first aboard the corvette Compass Rose, then the frigate Saltash. The book is at times boring, at times exciting, at times heart breaking.

HMS Ulysses focuses on the lead ship of the Royal Navy escort of a convoy bound for Murmansk, Russia. I read this book in the summer, and outdoors, in the sweltering heat of a Washington, DC summer, with sweat stains down my collar, the book convinced me that I was cold through the flesh, with bones replaced by solid ice. The convoy is brutal, the U-boats and attack planes are thick, and the story is just unbelievably, impossibly, heart breaking.

The Caine Mutiny takes place in the Pacific, and it’s not nearly as violent as the title might lend you to believe. It’s my favorite of the lot, Wouk’s an incredible writer. The officers of the destroyer-minesweeper Caine find themselves opposing their cruel commander, Captain Queeg, who is petty, vindictive, and lacking in seamanship. This builds to a head during a typhoon, when the first officer relives Queeg of command (the mutiny), and the ship’s junior officers face the judicial apparatus of the United States Navy. Fun fact: playing Queeg was Humphrey Bogart’s last film role.


Next on my reading list: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.