HMS Ulysses vs. The Cruel Sea

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.

The Novels (written by others)

[01] 1980 Hostage Tower [by John Denis | UNACO-01]

[02] 1981 Air Force One is Down [by John Denis | UNACO-02]

[03] 1989 Death Train [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-03]

[04] 1989 Night Watch [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-04]

[05] 1990 Red Alert [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-05]

[06] 1991 Time of the Assassins [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-06]

[07] 1992 Golden Girl [by Simon Gandolfi | Golden Girl-01]

[08] 1992 Dead Halt [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-07]

[09] 1993 Golden Web [by Simon Gandolfi | Golden Girl-02]

[10] 1993 Code Breaker [by Alastair MacNeill | UNACO-08]

[11] 1994 Golden Vengeance [Simon Gandolfi | Golden Girl-03]

[12] 1995 Rendezvous [by Alastair MacNeill]

[13] 1997 Prime Target [by Hugh Miller | UNACO-09]

[14] 1997 Storm Force Navarone [by Sam Llewellyn]

[15] 1998 Borrowed Time [by Hugh Miller | UNACO-10]

[16] 1999 Thunderbolt from Navarone [Sam Llewellyn]

The Novels

[00] 1954 The Cruise of the Golden Girl

[01] 1955 HMS Ulysses

[02] 1957 The Guns of Navarone

[03] 1957 South by Java Head

[04] 1959 The Secret Ways – The Last Frontier

[05] 1959 Night Without End

[06] 1961 Fear is the Key

[07] 1961 The Black Shrike – The Dark Crusader

[08] 1962 The Golden Rendezvous

[09] 1962 The Satan Bug

[10] 1963 Ice Station Zebra

[11] 1966 When Eight Bells Toll

[12] 1967 Where Eagles Dare

[13] 1968 Force 10 From Navarone

[14] 1969 Puppet on a Chain

[15] 1970 Caravan to Vaccares

[16] 1971 Bear Island

[17] 1973 The Way to Dusty Death

[18] 1974 Breakheart Pass

[19] 1975 Circus

[20] 1976 The Golden Gate

[21] 1977 Seawitch

[22] 1978 Goodbye California

[23] 1980 Athabasca

[24] 1981 River of Death

[25] 1982 Partisans

[26] 1983 Floodgate

[27] 1984 San Andreas

[28] 1985 The Lonely Sea

• The Dileas

• St George and the Dragon

• The Arandora Star

• Rawalpindi

• The Sinking of the Bismarck

• The Meknes

• MacHinery and the Cauliflowers

• Lancastria

• McCrimmon and the Blue Moonstones

• They Sweep the Seas

• City of Benares

• The Gold Watch

• Rendezvous

• The Jervis Bay

• The Good Samaritan

• The Black Storm

[29] 1986 Santorini

Shona MacLean: Alistair MacLean’s Niece

Shona MacLean (1966) is one of the five children of Alistair MacLean’s brother Gillespie MacLean and his wife Margaret. Her progress through life was closely followed by her uncle Alistair MacLean and he even encouraged her to become a writer.

While at university, Shona studied in France for a while and Alistair MacLean – not wanting his niece to waste time and effort on menial jobs to earn a bit of money – simply suggested to deposit the then considerable sum of ₤3,000 for her. He told Shona that she could “pay him back when I’m old and decrepit and bankrupt”.

[Image: Shona MacLean,Source: Quercus]

By the time she started working on her first novel, in her early twenties, her uncle had died. She didn’t finish that first effort and only recently returned to writing. Shona MacLean, currently lives in Conon Bridge (Scotland) with her husband, Dr James Vance, the rector at Golspie High School, and their four children.

At the moment Shona MacLean has published a total of four novels and they all feature Alexander Seaton, a disgraced minister turned teacher who is caught up in the political and religious turmoil of Scotland in the early 17th century.

Her first novel is called The Redemption of Alexander Seaton and her publishers have called it “a compelling thriller and brilliant historical novel”. That she has all the historical facts correct is no wonder: Shona MacLean completed a PhD in 17th century history at Aberdeen University.

But you could run into problems if you should want to search for books that bear her name because her publishers, Quercus, have decided to re-brand her books under the name of S.G. MacLean. “The thinking was that my name was too soft and feminine and men wouldn’t buy my books,” she explained. It is however an obvious attempt to emulate the success of Joanne Rowling, better known as J.K. Rowling.

All of this is really unnecessary because the books should speak for themselves. They are simply brilliantly written historical novels. They also show that Shona MacLean is a worthy successor to her uncle.

A novel ‘With the impact of Alistair MacLean’

Group Captain Eugene Emile Vielle (E.E. Vielle) was born in London in 1913, the son of a naval officer. His career in the Royal Air Force ranged from being a fighter pilot to world-wide duties during Word War II. He ended the war commanding one of the largest RAF bases in England and in 1949 he was appointed Deputy Director of Operational Requirements at the Air Ministry in London. Quite an impressive career. Vielle celebrates his 100th birthday this year.

Vielle wrote two novels that were marketed as ‘With the Impact of Alistair MacLean’. While No Subway is now a somewhat dated – and justly forgotten – story about problems that could possibly occur during the construction of the Channel Tunnel, his The Shadow of Kuril is a still harrowing story that features HMS Thunderer, the latest of the navy’s nuclear submarines that disappears.

Does The Shadow of Kuril even now has the impact of Alistair MacLean? I dare you to buy and read the novel and I can assure you that it still delivers the same punch as it once did in 1971.

The Shadow of Kuril casts a long shadow. Read it and understand why the publisher thought this novel had (and still has) the impact of Alistair MacLean. The Master Storyteller himself would agree.

Novels that weren’t written by Alistair MacLean

In the olden days, when internet wasn’t invented yet and nor its sister site weren’t there to help, it could be very problematic to check who wrote a book or who played in a movie. Thus, in my first edition of the truly massive Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1568 pages) from 1980, some novels were erroneously attributed to Alistair MacLean.

The problem arose with Alistair MacLean’s choice of his pseudonym Ian Stuart when he decided to show his publishers that he could sell a huge amount of books even when his own name wasn’t on the cover. Alistair MacLean was proven wrong and both The Dark Crusader (called the The Black Shrike in the US) and The Satan Bug only really started to sell when the name of Ian Stuart was replaced by that of Alistair MacLean.

What Alistair MacLean clearly did not know was that there already was a novelist that bore the name of Ian Stuart. This real Ian Stuart (1927-1993) wrote some 19 thrillers and among them were The Snow on the Ben (1961), Death from Disclosure (1976), Flood Tide (1977), Sand Trap (1977), Fatal Switch (1978) and Weekend to Kill (1978).

These six thrillers were therefore not written by Alistair MacLean but were erroneously attributed to him in the first edition of Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.

The sad ending of this story is that Ian Stuart didn’t even get his own section in the Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers and these days his novels – although quite entertaining – are simply forgotten. I think that Ian Stuart’s novels should deserve a second lease of life.

His publishers, Robert Hale Ltd, responded to my mail asking for a reappraisal of Ian Stuart and a possible re-issue of his novels with ‘We do not in fact have any plans to republish any of the Ian Stuart books, but thank you for contacting us’.

Four Sea Thrillers Re-Issued

HarperCollinsPublishers have decided to re-issue four classic tales of adventure at sea from Alistair Maclean, the master of action and suspense, and make them available for the first time in an e-bundle.

Discover why Alistair MacLean was the most popular thriller writer of his generation in these four classic stories of the sea, from the treacherous frozen seas of the north Atlantic, to the warmer but no less deadly waters of the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

This publication features San AndreasThe Golden RendezvousSea Witch and Santorini. The publication date is expected to be August 15, 2013.