Book Review: The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester

Topic

Set sometime during the Battle of the Atlantic, U.S. Navy Commander George Krause assumes his first command aboard the fictional Mahan-class destroyer, USS Keeling. Krause and the other British, Canadian, and Polish warships must escort a convoy safely across the Atlantic to England while fighting off the German U-boats prowling the waters beyond the range of Allied air cover.

There are only 3 chapters in this book, but chapters 1 and 3 are very short with the bulk of the narrative occurring in chapter 2 and covering 13 four-hour watches from 0800 Wednesday to 1200 Friday. Forester makes it clear in the disclaimer at the start of the book that this is a work of fiction. The names of the ships and characters are not real, but the overall setting of the Battle of the Atlantic during WWII was. Interestingly, the cover of the version I read (seen above) shows USCGC Spencer (WPG-36) depth charging U-175 on 17 April 1943.

This book would later be adapted into a 2020 film titled, Greyhound, written by and starring Tom Hanks as Krause. Review to come.

Author’s Background

C.S. Forester (born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) was born in 1899 in Cairo, Egypt but raised in London, England. During WWII, Forester worked in the United States producing propaganda for the British Ministry of Information to convince America to remain on the side of the Allies. Following the war, Forester settled in Berkeley, California. Forester is most well-known for his Horatio Hornblower series set during the Napoleonic Wars. However, he also authored a number of other military-themed novels including The African Queen, The Barbary Pirates, The General, The Gun, The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck, Rifleman Dodd, and The Good Shepherd which was published in 1955. Forester died in 1966.

Plot

SPOILERS AHEAD!

During WWII, 42-year old U.S. Navy Commander George Krause has had a long, if a somewhat uninspired career in the navy. To escape a failing marriage, Krause requests duty in the Atlantic escorting convoys of merchant ships to England and is given command of the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Keeling. In his first crossing, Krause finds himself commanding not only his own destroyer but also the other warships assigned to protect the convoy. Accompanying the USS Keeling (callsign: George) are the warships HMS James (callsign: Harry), HMCS Dodge (callsign: Dicky), and the Polish destroyer Viktor (callsign: Eagle). Over the course of the three days, the escorts manage to sink 3 probable U-boats while losing a total of 7 merchant ships and 1 destroyer (Viktor) before reinforcements arrive. During that time, Krause barely sleeps and eats only a few meals. Having safely made it across the Atlantic, Krause ponders his failed marriage and the overall burdens of his duties as a captain.

Critical Observations

Positives

While I have never read Forester’s more famous Horatio Hornblower series, The Good Shepherd is an entertaining read. Forester’s writing is clear and reads fast. Much of the novel is devoted to detailing the seemingly neverending hunt for the U-boats stalking the convoy. Forester’s writing dives heavily into the maneuvers of the USS Keeling and Krause’s decision-making processes; allowing the reader to effectively get inside his head.

Reflecting the cat-and-mouse nature of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW, or colloquially “Awfully Slow Warfare”), the action scenes in the book move along at a meandering pace, but thankfully they manage to keep most of their tension with the escorts having to determine if they are chasing around an actual submarine or a sonar decoy. While I cannot speak to the authenticity of the tactics, it appears that Forester did his research and much of the dialogue and jargon is accurate. Forester’s accuracy should also be commended given that he had no service background in the Royal Navy, although he did take a Pacific cruise aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Abner Read in 1943 (Symonds, 2020). No doubt this book would appeal to naval officers, especially those with service aboard destroyers and a background in anti-submarine warfare. Of course, anyone with an interest in WWII naval warfare and the Battle of the Atlantic would do well to check out this book.

Negatives

While the book has a number of thrilling parts, I must admit that there is a certain dryness to the narrative. Most of the dialogue consists of Krause giving orders to the men in the pilothouse. Orders such as, “steer course ____,” or “meet her!” become all too common throughout the book, and after a while, it feels like you are just reading a logbook. If you are a landlubber with no understanding of helm orders, it can feel very bland and repetitive despite the fact that these ships are essentially moving in a two-dimensional space to track a submarine under the surface. Still, given that there are no diagrams, charts, or maps to provide the reader with a geographical representation of what is happening, they may find themselves lost at sea amidst the naval jargon.

The book is mum as to when exactly the events take place, but naval historian Craig Symonds speculates that the events occur sometime between March and May of 1943 and is based on several different convoys and convoy battles (Symonds, 2020). In fact, the presence of a Mahan-class destroyer in the Atlantic is entirely inaccurate since all of those ships saw service in the Pacific. Krause does mention having some difficulties with his ship’s older model SC radar versus the upcoming SG models which might narrow the time period down to sometime in 1942 since SG radars became standard around early 1943.

Thankfully, the book does not delve too deeply into the technical minutiae to the point where it becomes a technical manual or misrepresents weapons or tactics. However, it perhaps overrepresents the effectiveness of destroyers at sinking U-boats given that the convoy battles depicted are far greater than most actions that occurred during the real Battle of the Atlantic. However, we must remember that this book is historical fiction and not based on any singular event or person. Thus, Forester was free to take some artistic license with the story and create an ahistorical event.

My final critique of this book is the fact that there is almost no character development for any of the characters. Krause’s inner monologue mostly revolves around him wrestling with the burden of command. He strives to set an upstanding example for his men, remain pious (he frequently quotes biblical passages), and make the right decisions in order to complete his mission. However, at no point in the story does he seem to have a major epiphany about any of these things. The rest of the characters essentially exist to follow his orders and are devoid of any personality. The only insight we get into any of the other characters is what Krause thinks about them, but even those thoughts are largely limited to whether or not he thinks they will be good naval officers in the future.

Verdict

In many ways, this is a very simple sea adventure story that takes place over the course of three days. While it does have some decent action in it, the dialogue is mostly limited to a bunch of commands and the characters are fairly bland and uninteresting with only Krause receiving any real description. It is clear that Forester did his research when crafting this story, but as a narrative, there is not a lot to it. Unfortunately, this is not as character-driven as Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, and it is not as sprawling as Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea. By no means badly written, this book will largely appeal to fans of Forester and anyone with a background in one of the sea services or those with an interest in WWII. If you enjoy reading about the details of the Atlantic convoys and their escorts, then you will likely enjoy this book. Do not get me wrong, for the most part, I enjoyed this book. However, as a piece of historical fiction, I found most of the dialogue to be very standard naval jargon and the characters and plot to be flat and undeveloped.

Rating: 3 out of 5

References

Symonds, C. [Naval Historical Foundation]. (2020, June 17). David T. Leighton Lecture with Dr. Craig Symonds – “Hollywood and History” [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvEdZZy8FcY.

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