This superb book tells the story of how Britain fared in the battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War II. It pitted the Allies against the superior U-Boats (which attacked in sinister-sounding "wolf-packs") and war ships of Germany and it lasted until May 1943, when the German forces were overcome by new uses of the technology available to British vessels (improved radar and sonar known as "asdics"). During this battle the Allies lost 36,200 sailors and 36,000 merchant seamen, and the Germans lost 30,000 sailers. In addition, the Germans lost only 783 submarines, while the Allies lost 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships. At the end of the war, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, Commander-in-Chief Canadian North Atlantic, remarked, "...the Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or Air Force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy."
The statistics tell their own story but the individuals involved, in sometimes horrendous events, bring the numbers to life. The Compass Rose, a vessel known as a corvette - a small ship that was used to search out and attack U-Boats and also to pick up survivors from ships that had been sunk, is captained by Ericson and though there are personal problems between the initial No.1, Bennett, and his fellow officers, this is sorted out when he opts to remove himself, supposedly suffering from a duodenal ulcer. Captain Ericson and his new No.1, Lockhart, make a good team. The writing is brilliantly perceptive as long as the men are at sea and there is plenty of heart-in-mouth action here. The portrayal of men who have been torpedoed and are waiting to be picked up by rescue ships, was devastatingly realistic and horrendous.
On land, however, I felt Monsarrat had a jaded view of women. One working-class woman's portrait is particularly viciously drawn as she proceeds to neglect her sickly baby by leaving it alone all night while she's out having fun. No one doubts it happens, but it is odd that we only see the faults of one sex. All the problems men have in the book are caused by women, but there is only one unfaithful sailor, mentioned right at the end. Why raise this subject at all if not to apply blame - and what about the millions of women who were faithful?. Captain Ericson reflects on the history of Gregg (whose wife is another slut) and concludes that: "women, marriage and emotion should not play a part in war... Some women were worthless, and some were getting bored with the war: when the two things coincided, no result, however mean or sordid should ever come as a surprise." Later he compares unfaithful women to people doing nothing for the war effort, States such as Spain and Ireland, for instance. Airily, he concludes these are also degrees of unfaithfulness and: "one may forgive a woman an occasional cold spell, but not her continued and smiling repose in other men's arms." The conflation is stunningly inapt. How is it possible to compare female incontinence with a preference for neutrality among sovereign states? I find most of his remarks about women quite bizzarre. I tend to think I should overlook all this nonsense because the rest of the book is so good.
Elsewhere Monsarrat raises two approaches to the war in the persons of Hamshaw and Keys. Hamshaw the smug administrator earns Monsarrat's scorn by being content to be a sheltered cog in the war machine, while Keys is lambasted for his cynical belief that no one in this war is doing anything that won't promote their self interest. But these are just extremes and there are much larger forces that act upon people and much more compelling reasons for going to war. Not many young enlisted men believed they would die - few really believe it will happen to them. In the end there are only inadequate rationalisations for war. Most often, people do what they feel is right, or follow blindly behind the next man.
I feel Monsarrat's gifts for describing action and the actual conditions and events that these brave and honourable men came up against are wholly impressive. This novel is a wonderfully rousing account of the Battle for the Atlantic and a stirring and often poignant read.