Tuesday, February 17, 2009

10. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

The Cruel Sea pictureI was given this book by the groom of the wedding we went to in Winnipeg last year. He seemed to have good taste in books, though not prolific. He simply said, "Oh yeah, this is good. You want to read this." It looked a bit daunting at the time (440 pages, small print) and I already had picked up like 25 used books in Winnipeg that weekend. His assuredness and confidence, plus that it was a beautifully aged Penguin paperback, won me over.

I'm glad it did. This is an amazing book. It's ostensibly fictional, but I'm pretty sure it's mostly autobiographical. It's the story of the volunteer navy who manned the corvettes that protected the shipping convoys going across the Atlantic during World War II. Most of it is told from the perspective of the Captain and the First Mate, but there are many other characters and little moments of their existence are displayed as well. It is divided into sections, by year and then into chapters. Each chapter is made up of little snippets, some entire stories, some just little slices of life aboard the ship or on land, some studies of the men as they react and grow to their situation. All of it is well-written and enjoyable, sometimes deliciously so.

The real impact of this book, though, is to remind us modern readers about World War II. We see it today in the gloss of history and myth (and marketing). You almost get the sense compared to the portrayal of the Vietnam War that WW II was somehow cleaner and easier. You also forget that there was a long period, especially in Europe, where there was a real chance that they would lose. The Cruel Sea will re-educate you quickly on these erroneous notions. This was some fucked-up shit! Convoys would go across the ocean, ships of civilians and goods, protected by smaller corvettes with depth charges and one gun. Often there wouldn't be a real battleship with the convoy. They were hunted by "wolf packs" of German U-boats, who would torpedo as much as they could. When a ship was torpedoed, most passengers died and those survivors, who made it out of the wreck without being sucked down, or burnt by the flaming surface oil, would never be rescued. It puts the significance of current U.S. war myths like Blackhawk Down in perspective.

Furthermore, until the U.S. joined the war and the British had gotten their war production properly amped up, the British ships were pretty threadbare. They were uncomfortable and crowded, with minimal safety equipment. Riding through storms that lasted days, they would just lash all the furniture in the wardroom to one side and eat standing up when they could. Men would learn to sleep with one arm wrapped around the bedpost. The depictions of these storms sound almost worse than getting blown up.

In the last third of the book, the tone changes, as did the war. The tide is finally turned against the Germans in the Atlantic in late 1943 and more U-boats start to go down than convoy ships. The equpment gets better. The main characters move to a frigate. The war becomes more professional, less human. It's a bittersweet development, because you know the good guys are going to win, but something is lost in the process. There is a real camarederie in the old corvettes, a family atmosphere despite the strict formality. The management of the war became a game of numbers and production and this is reflected in the culture of the ships in the last two years of the war.

There is a final coda where the ship takes a two-month leave in New York City. The sailors are surprised by both the abundance of goods and the relaxed, but welcoming attitudes of the Americans. There is certainly some resentment there, as their efforts are dismissed offhand (though not totally unappreciated). Reading this book, you get a powerful sense of the difference the 3 years it took the U.S. to join the fight made. You also get a sense that American self-importance and media exaggeration are nothing new:
"The newspapers play it up of course, now that America's started fighting: everything's a disaster, everything's the biggest victory since Bunker Hill, everyone's a hero, even if he just puts on a dirty-looking pink uniform and bullies a lot of mess-waiters at the nearest canteen. I wonder what would happen if they had a real air raid on New York? All the reserves of bravery have been expended already on waving goodbye to Joe when he leaves for basic training; and as for the papers, they haven't any adjectives left to use... They're not a great nation at all. There are just a lot of them."
Prescient words.

We've lived in relative peace and military dominance for so long that it has become almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to live without constant material and psychological suasion, impossible to imagine total individual sacrifice for a greater social cause. The Cruel Sea will remind you a little bit. It's also an excellent read. Strongly recommended.

4 comments:

Buzby said...

Nice review. This sounds like a great read, I love the books that really describe the grittiness of WWII.

Crumbolst said...

Wow, no masts or sails? No trade winds or doldrums? That alone might make it a bit refreshing for the sea-faring genre. I'm teaching WWI and WWII this Spring so I might pick this one up for some ammo.

Nice review!

Max Cairnduff said...

Nice review indeed, oddly enough I just bought this myself recently. I'm going skiing at the end of March and may take it with me, your review makes it sound more interesting than it promised to be actually (I was wondering if I'd made a mistake, sounds like not though).

Redwing said...

I'm definitely going to pick this up! I usually go for the WW2 submarine books, and I didn't have a good experience with Forrester, but I'll try Monsarrat...


(Watch it, Crumbolst!)