When ‘The Cruel Sea’, written by Nicholas Montsarrat, was published in 1951 it was an immediate success. One of the first reviews of Alistair MacLean’s debut ‘HMS Ulysses’ (1955) described the book as “the worst insult to the Royal Navy ever published”. That certainly alerted people and the novel soon topped the world’s bestseller lists. In other reviews ‘HMS Ulysses’ and ‘The Cruel Sea’ were compared and most reviewers agreed that both novels were equally disturbing in their portraying of the horrors of the battle of the North Atlantic.
What did Alistair MacLean write to deserve such a scalding review? ‘HMS Ulysses’ is certainly not a glamorous story about heroism but about unrelenting stress, hardship, exhaustion and extreme weather conditions that took a heavy physical and psychological toll on the crew of HMS Ulysses.
These factors lead to a mutiny on the previous trip of HMS Ulysses and the admiralty, staffed by officers that remain safely ashore, decided that ship and crew should be given the one chance to redeem themselves. They were ordered to escort a Murmansk-bound convoy, and if necessary, to act as bait for the Tirpitz that was at the time holed up in a Norwegian fjord. In MacLean’s book the real enemy is not the Germans, but the horrendous conditions in the Arctic.
‘The Cruel Sea’ by Nicholas Monsarrat is also a novel that does not portray the good and the bad as white and black but both sides of the conflict are painted in shades of grey. The book, like ‘HMS Ulysses’, focuses on the crew of a woefully inadequate corvette the ‘Compass Rose’ on duty in the icy North Atlantic to protect convoys. Monsarrat’s tale revolves too around the hardship the crew must endure continuously simply to survive. But it also makes abundantly clear the tough decisions those in command of such a vessel must make while carrying out their duties.
So, which one is the better novel? The answer to that question is a personal one and I would not want to cast doubt on the heroism of these brave sailors. I think these books have so much in common that they should be seen as a testament to that intensely cruel period that many already seem to have forgotten.