Alistair Maclean / Nautical Fiction / Royal Navy / World War II

HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean

This wonderful thriller draws heavily on MacLean’s personal experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II, especially the ill-fated PQ-17 convoy to Murmansk. The novel features a light cruiser, similar to the real Dido class cruisers, extremely well-armed, and one of the fastest ships in the world.

However, her crew is pushed well beyond the limits of endurance, and the book starts in the aftermath of a mutiny on board. Ulysses puts to sea again to escort the vital convoy FR-77 heading for Murmansk with much-needed supplies for the Red Army.

Seemingly all elements have a part to play against them: they encounter an unusually fierce arctic storm, German ships, and U-boats, as well as airborne attacks. Together, nature and the German attacks slowly decimate the convoy from 32 ships to only 5. HMS Ulysses herself is lost in a failed attempt to ram into an attacking cruiser after all her other weapons had been destroyed.

The heroes in this book feel very much like real men – with the failings and weaknesses of real men. They are not smarter than their enemies. They are not better at what they are doing. They are not even more motivated than their enemies. But they are resilient to the extreme. Their heroism stems from a stoic will to not give up, not give in.

HMS Ulysses is perhaps the most gripping war story I have ever read. It is so realistic, and Maclean pays so much attention to detail, that you can almost feel the movements of the sea and taste the salt on your lips. It is a book of man against the sea as much as a book of man against man. Ulysses has brilliant character development and superb technical detail. It is an exceptional thriller, superb, in a class of its own. If ever there was a must-read, this is it.