HMS Ulysses - Alistair MacLean HMS Ulysses is a ship badly in need of rest., Having already been on several Arctic runs to Murmansk, she and her borderline mutinous crew are being sent on another high-speed convoy with supplies desperately needed by the Russians. It’s FR 77; the weather is deteriorating, and the Nazis know the convoy is on its way. No rescue ships on this convoy; given what happened to the Stockport and Zafaaran, (both torpedoed with a loss of all hands and many who had been rescued from other ships that had been sunk) it probably wouldn’t make any difference anyway.

MacLean’s nautical descriptions excel at vividness. And the Ulysses must fight its way through one of the worst storms ever recorded and no one understands or describes a warship moving through such an event as MacLean.

The cold was now intense: ice formed in cabins and mess-decks: fresh-water systems froze solid: metal contracted, hatch-covers jammed, door hinges locked in frozen immobility, the oil in the searchlight controls gummed up and made them useless. To keep a watch, especially a watch on the bridge was torture: the first shock of that bitter wind seared the lungs, left a man fighting for breath. . .But the real danger of the ice lay in its weight. A ship, to use technical terms, can be either stiff or tender. If she's stiff, she has a low centre of gravity, rolls easily, but whips back quickly and is extremely stable and safe. If she's tender, with a high centre of gravity, she rolls reluctantly but comes back even more reluctantly, is unstable and unsafe. And if a ship were tender, and hundreds of tons of ice. . ..
And then there were the torpedoes...

“"The sea was on fire. Flat, calm, burdened with hundreds of tons of fuel oil, it was a vast carpet of licking, twisting flames. That much, for a second, and that only, Vallery saw: then with heartstopping shock, with physically sickening abruptness, he saw something else again: the burning sea was alive with swimming, struggling men. Not a handful, not even dozens, but literally hundreds, soundlessly screaming, agonizingly dying in the barbarous contrariety of drowning and cremation.

"For a man in the sea, oil is an evil thing. It clogs his movements, burns his eyes, sears his lungs and tears away his stomach in uncontrollable paroxysms of retching; but oil on fire is a hellish thing, death by torture, a slow, shrieking death by drowning, by burning, by asphyxiation-for the flames devour all the life-giving oxygen on the surface of the sea. And not even in the bitter Arctic is there the merciful extinction by cold, for the insulation of an oil-soaked body stretches a dying man on the rack for eternity, carefully prfeserves him for the last excruciating refinement of agony.”


This is not a feel-good book. It’s about as realistic a portrayal of the Murmansk run in mid-winter as one could imagine. Characters you like die. War sucks. The Murmansk run was a killer. It’s based, in part, on the experiences of convoy PQ17. Ripping good story. One Amazon reviewer noted, “Don't read this book unless you plan on leaving a part of yourself in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.” Impossible to say it better.

MacLean knows whereof he speaks. He saw service in the Royal Navy in the Arctic, Mediterranean and Far East theaters and was, in fact, involved in naval action against the Tirpitz while serving in the Arctic. I believe Ulysses was his first book, appearing in 1955, followed by The Guns of Navarone.

Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea is perhaps slightly better if less depressing. Another favorite is The Captain by Jan de Hartog (different in tone from MacLean as de Hartog was a pacifist.) A really good non-fiction account is Arctic Convoys 1941-1945 by Richard Woodman. One I just added to my TBR list is Arctic Convoy Pq8: The Story Of Capt Robert Brundle And The Ss Harmatris. A view from the commons sailor side is COXSWAIN IN THE NORTHERN CONVOYS which has been republished on the Internet at http://www.naval-history.net/WW2Memoir-RussianConvoyCoxswain.htm. You can reformat it at readability.com and then send it to your Kindle.

References related to Murmansk Run: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murmansk_Run