As described in my previous article here, Alistair MacLean served on HMS Royalist, a light cruiser of the Dido-Class of the Royal Navy. HMS Royalist was launched on May 30, 1942 and was commissioned after rigorous trials and tests in September of 1943. Following her commissioning, HMS Royalist spent several months of extra trials, during which time she underwent repairs for trial defects and for alterations and additions. In March 1944 HMS Royalist finally joined the Home Fleet and served for a short period in the Arctic theatre.
On the Naval History website it is mentioned that HMS Royalist protected only a single convoy. Although the dates do conflict with the official reports, the convoy, designated HX 276, departed from Halifax, Canada on or around January 22, 1944. HMS Royalist joined the convoy on February 2, 1944 and left the convoy after a rather uneventful journey on February 5, 1944. Weather conditions were described as average for the time of the year in the North Atlantic: throughout January 28 and 29 a moderate gale blew from the south, veering to the southwest, making it impossible to oil the escorts. Most of the escorts were occupied in rounding up stragglers.
Jack Webster in his book, Alistair MacLean, A Life, wrote that ‘MacLean’s ship took part in only two full runs to the outskirts of Murmansk…’ Sadly, this statement cannot be verified at this moment.
On March 30th HMS Royalist joined the escort for several battleships – HMS Anson, HMS Duke of York – and the aircraft carriers HMS Furious, HMS Victorious and HMS Jamaica in an unsuccessful attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, which was hiding in the Norwegian Altafjord (Operation Tungsten).
On her return from that sortie, HMS Royalist was ordered back to the Tyne shipyard for an extensive refit that lasted until August 1944. HMS Royalist was then ordered to steam to the Mediterranean to support the allied landings in the south of France (Operation Dragoon).
All this seems to suggest that Alistair MacLean might have used more of his imagination and less of his wartime experience in the Artic to write his terrific novels that feature ships, cold, ice and wind, such as HMS Ulysses, Bear Island and San Andreas. But one should never underestimate the long-lasting effects of intense fear on a person’s psyche. Which means that fear might be the key to unlocking Alistair MacLean.