The Beginning

From 1943 onwards, Alistair MacLean was stationed on HMS Royalist which was part of the Home Fleet with orders to escort convoys on the North Atlantic en route to Murmansk. Too many ships and their crews did not make it safely back from that frozen part of hell.


Like so many others, Alistair MacLean, never talked about his harrowing experiences in the Second World War but it surely must have had a lasting psychological effect on him. Although HMS Royalist was deemed lucky – it got through with nothing more than a hole in the funnel – the combination of horrendous weather conditions and the ever present danger of imminent death would result in what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) in many a survivor.

Later in the war, HMS Royalist was sent to the Mediterranean and the Far East. Alistair MacLean was apparently wounded during his service because his mother once detected a wound in his back. This injury was never satisfactory explained but a clue can possibly be gleaned from HMS Ulysses, where MacLean described a shell exploding in its barrel, hurling two men against a bulkhead, resulting in terrible injuries. A third man was luckily thrown through an open door behind him and sustaining only minor injuries. Because a similar episode happened on HMS Royalist, there’s reason to believe that MacLean was that third man.

After the war, MacLean got an Honours degree in English at Glasgow University, and taught at Gallowfleet Secondary School. He was described as a taciturn, gaunt fellow who often mumbled.

PTSD can be viewed a continuous depression as a result of experiences of intense fear, helplessness or horror. Symptoms for PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, a general numbing of emotional responsiveness, acute and unpredictable episodes of anger. Heavy use of alcohol is often associated with numbing and forgetting.

It also might explain why Alistair MacLean at first only wrote stories – among them The Cruise of the Golden Girl and The Dileas – about sailing in the Scottish waters. Those settings are far removed from the horrors of the north Atlantic. He would feel safe, secure and at home writing about sailing in these waters.

The success of The Dileas resulted in a request from the publishing company Collins to write a full-length novel for them and he responded six weeks later with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences. The writing must have been both traumatic and a meaningful way of dealing with his emotional problems.

I understand. I’m still fighting my own demons too.

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