I don’t read much historical fiction, but I occasionally make exceptions since this book relates very closely to naval history and is semi-autobiographical.
Published in 1951, The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat chronicles the Battle of the Atlantic from the perspective of the crew of a Royal Navy corvette given the unglamorous duty of escorting convoys across the Atlantic Ocean.
Largely based on Monsarrat’s own experiences as a Royal Navy officer during WW2, The Cruel Sea is an epic novel that spans the entire length of the war. The story follows Royal Navy Commander George Ericson and his crew assigned to the rather dinky and underwhelming Flower-class corvette, HMS Compass Rose (a fictional corvette). Ericson and his crew are given the cold, wet, monotonous, and generally miserable duty of escorting convoys of merchant vessels to and from England through the Western Approaches as they battle mostly the weather and the occasional U-boat.
The book itself is divided into seven parts with each part covering one year of the war. It begins in 1939 as the Compass Rose is commissioned, and ends in 1945 with the surrender of Nazi Germany.
As each year passes and another begins, historical context is given for how the war is progressing in the Atlantic. Anyone who is familiar with the Battle of the Atlantic will note that the wolfpacks of U-boats gradually put a stranglehold on Great Britain’s supply lines which reached a crescendo around 1942-43, after which the Allies slowly began to gain the upper hand. The plot is historically accurate, but there isn’t much discussion on the grand strategy of the war in Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, or the Pacific apart from a few references. This is probably realistic given the nature of convoy escort duty. Some of the characters ponder the larger picture of the war in other parts of the world, but their minds are mostly centered on the job at hand.
The low point of the narrative occurs when Compass Rose herself gets torpedoed and sunk. The survivors must endure a night in the cold waters clinging to anything that floats, fighting off delirium and hypothermia, and awaiting rescue…not everyone makes it. Once they return to England, a new and bigger warship awaits them, the HMS Saltash (a fictional River-class frigate).
A more light-hearted part occurs later in the story when the Saltash pulls into Brooklyn Navy Yard for refit. The crew gets to spend two and half months in New York comparing and contrasting American and English cultures. Naturally, Commander Ericson gives his crew a speech about how they’re guests in America and to not make fools of themselves since they are representing England. Most of the men revel in the abundance that the United States has to offer, but one of the men, Johnson, consistently comes to the same humorous conclusion about the bloody Yanks during his stay.
They’ve go no discipline!
They’ve got no morals!
They’ve got no common sense!
The Americans are not a bit like us!
You could make the same argument for literally any person in any country in the world.
Naturally, the book ends with the surrender of Nazi Germany.
While it is a war story, much of the narrative is really about the crew of the Compass Rose and how they cope with their duties and each other. Apart from Cmdr. Ericson, the other main character (supposedly based on Monsarrat himself) is Lt. Cmdr. Keith Lockhart who starts out the story as a young Sub-Lieutenant (along with Gordon Ferraby) and learns the job the hard way…at sea in wartime.
In many ways, The Cruel Sea could be seen as a counterpart to Lothar-Gunther Bucheim’s Das Boot, or even as a Royal Navy version of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. What each of these works of historical fiction offers is realistic depictions of life at sea during WWII. One thing that Monsarrat conveys very convincingly is the feeling of life aboard a warship. The seemingly endless hours of standing watch, the bland food, the wind, the rain, the fog, the rough waves, the long nights, the routine, and the boredom of it all. There are 100+ men crammed aboard a steel vessel with a captain in charge, and powerful weaponry, and they all have to learn to do a job, fight the enemy, and work together without killing each other and sinking their own ship. Punctuated in between all of these tasks are intermittent moments of sheer terror as a torpedo slams into a merchant vessel in the convoy sending a geyser of water and flames sky-high. The unfortunate ship goes down and the escorts begin a search for survivors and the offending U-boat.
The personalities of the crew are both colorful and realistic. There’s the steadfast and brave commanding officer Ericson, the dependable Lockhart, the mousy and awkward Ferraby, and the petty and spiteful Bennett. That’s only a sample of the men aboard the Compass Rose. As the story progresses, we see these characters, and others, grow and change. Not everyone survives for various reasons.
Anyone who has served can tell you that they’ve met people just like the characters in this novel. We’ve all met the George Ericsons and Keith Lockharts that you can count on to be the rock that holds everything in place. We’ve all met the shy and timid Gordon Ferrabys that you hope can find their confidence before they screw up royally. We’ve all met the James Bennetts that have let their egos go to their heads and you just can’t stand to be in the same room with them, yet you have to follow around because they outrank you. We’ve all met the John Morells who have a dry and sarcastic comment to sum up the situations you find yourself in.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a brilliant piece of literature. The writing is good, but not fantastic. The story is simple and there are really no overarching themes or morals. It’s really just a story of a ship and her crew in the Atlantic during WW2. What Monsarrat does well is to draw upon his real-life experiences to paint a picture of life in the Royal Navy at the time. I’m reminded of my own (albeit limited) experiences at sea. Apart from technology and equipment, not much has changed since WW2 and sailors are still sailors. The people, the ships, the drills, the routine, the food, the weather, and above all, the vast and cruel sea remain. Based on that alone, I can recommend The Cruel Sea as a very good wartime adventure novel.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time).