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One of the best stories of war at sea ever written
on 27 July 2004
Cecil Scott Forester is best known as the creator of Horatio Hornblower, but before writing the "Hornblower" novels about Nelson's navy he wrote many other books, from "Death to the French" to "The Peacemaker."
This little gem, "The Ship" describes the action seen by the crew of a light cruiser in the course of an afternoon's fighting as they struggle against overwhelming odds to get a vital convoy through to Malta during World War II.
Each chapter starts with a few words from the captain's official report of the battle and then describes what this meant from the viewpoint of the human beings involved, from the captain himself down to the most junior seaman. The contrast between the dry, understated language of the official document and the suffering and heroism of the real events can be very powerful. And the amount of detail packed into the book about life on a 1940's warship is amazing.
On the way the book includes a large number of brilliant pen portraits of members of the ship's company and how they do their jobs, from the captain up to the lookouts in the crows nest and down to the bowels of the ship where the bigamous Torpedo Gunner's Mate keeps the electrical system going and a stoker is posted in a dark shaft tunnel to watch the bearings and keep the screws turning.
Many of these pen portraits are quite unforgettable, from the 20 year old seaman who was a brilliant poet but whose genius only one man would ever have the opportunity to appreciate, to the seaman who is ordered to save the ship by flooding a magazine - and finds the wheel he has to turn to obey that order is red hot and burns at the touch ...
When you read a tale of a heroic battle against impossible odds you tend to assume that the author has made up the story, but in this case you would be wrong.
Although this novel is fiction it appears to have been inspired by the two 1942 convoy actions at Sirte. In both of these battles, forces of Royal Navy light cruisers and destroyers under Admiral Phillip Vian, escorting supplies to Malta, ran into much heavier Italian forces commanded by Admiral Iachino, flying his flag in the battleship "Littorio." Aspects of the story appear to include elements of both actions, but in particular the ebb and flow of the battle in this book and the tactics used by both admirals appear to precisely correspond to those in the real second battle of Sirte on the afternoon of 22nd March 1942.
"The Ship" is dedicated to the officers and ship's company of HMS Penelope, one of the cruisers which took part in the second battle of Sirte. CS Forester, who worked for the Ministry of Information during the war, visited HMS Penelope while she was being repaired in America and sailed on her trial cruise after the repairs. I am told that he heard about the story of the two battles at Sirte at that time.
"The Ship" can therefore in one sense be seen as wartime propaganda, though not in the perjorative meaning of that word: although it is completely partisan as between the Allies and the Axis powers the book is also sincere and to the best of my knowledge presents an accurate picture of what war at sea was like.
Some readers may find "The Ship" a little jingoistic. However, the real men and women who stood up to the nazis and their allies sometimes had to display heroism comparable to that in this book and perhaps they had something to be proud of.
There are four classic novels of World War II at sea: "H.M.S. Ulysses" by Alastair MacLean, "The Cruel Sea" by Nicholas Montsarrat, "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk, and "The Ship" by C.S. Forester. In my opinion, "The Ship" is the best of the four.