On First Looking into The Cruel Sea by Julia Jones

The film of The Cruel Sea -- more straightforwardly
heroic, less bitter that the book?

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat was one of the books that was shelved above my father’s desk – but which, after 65 years, I’d still not read. Do you sometimes feel a resistance to a book, a fear that it’s going be too much for you, tell you things you don’t want to hear? It’s time to get over all that, I've decided. My father, George Jones,  died aged 65. I read his final Peter Duck log book, I feel for myself how tired he was as he faced the 1982-83 fit-out. I remember the shock of that phone call, June 16th 1983, when pfft we were told he was gone. He’d a heart attack and died in the Woodbridge branch of Barclays Bank. He’d been staying with me a few days previously. We’d had a row (about something important) but we hadn't stayed angry. He’d written a last letter -- but he couldn’t have known it was his last.

I might live another thirty years but, now that I'm aged 65 as well,  I feel as if I'm entering Extra Time. So, lucky me, I better take the chance to use it. I made an unexpected start in the autumn of 2016 when I discovered the typescript of Naromis,  my father's account of a cruise to the Baltic in August 1939, written up two years later from the far side of the battle of the Atlantic. I also found some records of his war service and I've become increasing absorbed in trying to understand not only what happened, but how it was experienced -- and perhaps how that affected people in the longer term.  The neurological manifestations of trauma are currently in the news – not only for the impact on survivors but on their children too. The group I'm interested in are people like my father who volunteered for service with the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) because they loved sailing. 

Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) was one of them. He had spent many happy family  holidays at Trearddur Bay, on the coast of Anglesey, competing eagerly in dinghy racing, then venturing further in real yachts and learning navigation by trial and error in August 1939 ‘the last year of innocence and love’. Monsarrat had been expensively educated (Winchester and Trinity College Cambridge) but by the later 1930s was struggling along as a novelist, journalist, pacifist. When war came he joined the ambulance service then, in the early summer of 1940, he responded to an Times advertisement for yachtsmen to join the RNVR. Six weeks later he was temporary probationary sub-lieutenant on an-almost completed corvette, HMS Campanula. By August she was officially commissioned. A few more weeks of  'working up' before her orders were received: 'Convoy duty. North Atlantic. And winter coming on.' (HM Corvette p25) 

HMS Campanula, a 'Flower class' corvette
The Cruel Sea (1951) is Monsarrat's novel of the Battle of Atlantic. It was written postwar, from a diplomatic posting in South Africa. So first I read the anthology Three Corvettes. It opens with three short non-fiction books HM Corvette (1942) East Coast Corvette (1943) and Corvette Captain (1944) and closes with the long short story ‘The Ship that Died of Shame’ (1952). The earlier books are autobiographical and were written when Monsarrat was a serving officer. They were published almost as soon as they were completed because, (he writes later), ‘I thought I was going to be killed. Basically it's an arrogant idea -- that you have something to say and must say it while you can. But the Battle of the Atlantic was like that -- death and fear at sea and then ,in harbour, the wish to tell people about it before you went out of convoy again.' (Author's foreword 1975)  

Monsarrat wasn’t the only serving RNVR officer to hurry into print during World War 2. The 22 year Ludovic Kennedy (son of the HMS Rawalpindi hero Captain Edward Kennedy) published his slim autobiography Sub Lieutenant in 1942. Robert Hichens, the most decorated RNVR officer had almost completed his We Fought Them in Gunboats when he was killed returning from a North Sea raid in April 1943. (The book was subsequently published in 1946.)  RNVR officer Peter Scott’s The Battle of the Narrow Seas was published in 1945. It was easier for the RNVR officers to seek publication  than for their regular Royal Navy counterparts because they knew they weren’t staying. Robert Hichens’s son records his father hesitating for a few days when diary-keeping was officially forbidden, then deciding to continue anyway. The reality of war service and its startling responsibility prompted urgent reflection. ‘If anybody had told me on the day I joined the Navy that within three years I would be entrusted with the sole charge of a ship costing many thousands of pounds, and with the lives of the eighty eight men in her, I would not only have disbelieved him – I would have voted against it.’ (East Coast Corvette)

As soon as he joined HMS Campanula Monsarrat was appointed ship’s Correspondence Officer. He was also appointed Censoring Officer. Nothing would leave the ship without his approval. Ashore, book, magazine, newspaper publishers and the BBC were adhering to a censorship system managed by the Ministry of Information and (in this case) the Admiralty. Monsarrat's wartime books were part of a managed system intended to support morale. It was important to be careful as well as truthful and it's interesting to observe how he manages this. Sometimes he says what he is not saying (for example when on an exercise with submarines) and he balances fear and privation  with comradeship and humour. These books would be read by families at home as well as by his shipmates and (potentially) the enemy.  He (and other wartime writers and film makers) produce a brand of propaganda where hardships are fully acknowledged but the determination and will to win is never in doubt. ‘It was going to be something to tell one’s grandchildren about, if one could catch them in a listening mood.’ Among Monsarrat's most heartfelt pleas is that after the war a proper account should be given of the much greater valour and endurance shown by the Merchant Navy. He would have applauded Richard Woodman’s passionately detailed account in The Real Cruel Sea (2004). 

There’s a moment of horror early in HM Corvette where Monsarrat describes a wreck near the mouth of the Clyde: ‘On a nearby shoal, with her mast and one funnel showing above water, lay a sunk destroyer, full of dead Frenchmen. Her story had been one of the brief horrors of the war: an explosion aboard had been followed by a fire until the ship became one vast incandescent torch. Now she lay there, a rusty weed-washed charnel house, marked by a green wreck buoy; and many time later as we came up the river at dusk and drew nearer that green, winking eye, I would project my mind below the surface of the water, and try to picture the horror’s details and what it was our anchor saw as it shattered the still water and plunged below. Indeed I could not help this imagining which always persisted long after we had swung and settled to our anchor: the mast proclaimed an ugly angle in the near-darkness, the green eye accused me – ‘you are alive’ it said: ‘and we are dead, very dead; charred, swollen abandoned – and there are scores of us within a few hundred feet of you.’ It was the other side of the medal, frightful in its detail, final in its implication. It was not the RNVR: it was our introduction to war.’

It's a startling passage for publication in 1942. Perhaps it was the fact that the dead sailors were French and that the disaster had not been caused by direct enemy action that sanctioned publication. After the war the sea  itself became tainted for Monsarrat. As he journeyed to his new posting as a diplomat in South Africa, ‘I could never forget that we were sailing, peacefully at last, over ground literally strewn with dead sailors, blown up, burned to death, shredded by the sea, sucked down, drowned – the most awful word in a sailors word book. ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ – the fathers and sons were all there, just under our keel. The sea now seemed poisoned for ever…’ (‘The Longest Love, the Longest Hate’ Observer, 1974). When writing The Cruel Sea there was no longer any reason to hold back from macabre description, from anger and disgust. The action is violent, the horrors graphic, the mood embittered. I'll never know what my father thought when he first read it. I need to think more carefully myself. 

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


Bill Kirton said…
Powerful, Julia, especially to those of us of even more advanced years (I'm a child of that August you mention). My dad was in the navy throughout the war. He was an avid reader and encouraged us to be the same. The one exception I remember, though, was 'The Cruel Sea'. He had a copy but it was forbidden - Not,(we knew), because of its horrors, etc. but (thanks to reading about it in the newspapers) because it had 'rude bits' (or maybe just 'swearing') in it. That meant, of course, that we read it (discreetly) as soon as we could - and you're right, it had a powerful impact (and I don't remember any 'rude bits'). What a charmed life I've been able to lead in comparison with (and thanks to) Dad's generation.
Sandra Horn said…
I haven't read any Monsarrat - always thought it wasn't for me - so I had missed the humanity of the man and how deeply he felt about the horrors of war. Thank you for sharing this.
Jan Needle said…
Me too, Julia. I've seen the film (as a youth) and now I'll read the book. Growing up in Portsmouth after the war, sailing by the wrecks up harbour, my uncles, my aunties in the Wrens - all of it. The most poignant relic was an entirely derelict and rotting U-boat, lying on the Portchester mud. Nie wieder Krieg... (some hopes).
julia jones said…
Thank you for helpful comments -- there is some SEX in the book (fantasy-beautiful Wren officer, Virginia McKenna in film) + prostitutes for the bad guy and VD for the innocent. But none of that in film. Am getting more and more absorbed by all of this (the war at sea not the sex!) Which bit of navy was your father in Bill? Am collecting RNVRs (might even Write A Book, one day) Thanks for U-boat image Jan
Umberto Tosi said…
I'm putting this on my reading list! Haven't read any Monsarrat as yet. Thank you.
julia jones said…
Will be fascinated to know what you think
Lydia Bennet said…
Great piece as ever Julia, a reminder too that more sailors die/have died in fires at sea than by drowning. Also the powerful love/hate relationship sailors have with the sea. I also love the Keats sonnet you end with, the force of 'swims'... I often think of it when I see the moon in daylight like a jellyfish swimming. And of course, the end of the sonnet takes us to Swallows and Amazons and their 'peak of Darien'! My father grew up in a Northumbrian fishing village, out in fishing cobles all his childhood, and would have joined the navy like many other local lads did, but became air crew in the RAF instead because they would take him a year earlier!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Author Newsletters by Allison Symes

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones