ALISTAIR MACLEAN’S WAR: HOW THE ROYAL NAVY SHAPED HIS BESTSELLERS

Reviewed by: ANDREW WELCH

For many of my generation (and therefore over 50% of the NR’s Membership), Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses is probably THE Second World War naval novel.[1] I am certain that I am not the only one to have been, at least partly, influenced in my choice of career by this book.  MacLean went on to write two more books – The Guns of Navarone and South by Java Head – that were directly linked to his wartime service in HMS Royalist & many of his later books had obvious ties to his WWII experiences. Mark Simmons sets out to explore these links.

This is not a biography but does cover MacLean’s whole life from growing up in the manse in a Gaelic-speaking [2] area of the Highlands to dying as an alcoholic in Switzerland. He joined the RN, aged 19, in 1941 & trained to be a TAS [3] rate in HMS Roedean (the famous girls’ school near Brighton). His first draft was to HMS Bourne (the requisitioned paddle steamer Bournemouth Queen) patrolling the Clyde areas. After AB’s course, in August 1943, he joined the brand-new cruiser HMS Royalist in Scott’s Yard in Greenock.

Onboard Royalist, MacLean was known as Alec MacLean Patterson and although he was a TAS rate, Royalist had no torpedo tubes and so MacLean was employed on maintaining the radio equipment.  He was messed with the communicators & this photo shows the Comms Division of Royalist in 1944.  MacLean is the second man in from the left sitting on the deck.[4]

Royalist was a modified Dido [5] class anti-aircraft cruiser [6] with 4 twin 4.25 turrets. The modifications had fitted her to lead an escort carrier group and, as well as the Flag Staff, she carried the extra people needed to man her Ops Room (for controlling the group’s aircraft) – one of the RN’s first purpose-built compartments for Action Information Organisation.

MacLean was to spend the rest of the war in Royalist. This covered the Arctic Convoys (March to May 1944), the Med/Aegean (July-October 1944) and the Far East (March-November 1945). Royalist returned to Portsmouth to pay-off in January 1946 & Leading Torpedo Operator MacLean was discharged on 26 March 1946. The ship subsequently went on to spend many years in the RNZN, finally decommissioning in July 1966.

 After discharge, MacLean went to university in Glasgow for a degree in English Language & Literature, married a German girl (to some family dismay) & became a schoolmaster. It was whilst teaching at Gallowflat School that he was persuaded to enter a short story competition in the Glasgow Herald. He won the £100 [7] prize with The Dileas (reprinted in full in this book) & this came to the notice of a member of Collins the publisher’s staff in Glasgow who met MacLean & persuaded him to try writing a novel. 10 weeks later, HMS Ulysses was delivered & within days the chairman of Collins had offered MacLean an advance of £1,000. HMS Ulysses sold over 250,000 copies in hardback within 6 months. A record at the time. Within 10 years, MacLean was earning the present-day equivalent of £2.5 million pa.

The half of this book that will be of most intertest to members is the detailed comparison of the first three books with Royalist’s wartime operations. HMS Ulysses starts in the aftermath of a mutiny after a Russian Convoy, when the ship has been given almost no respite & is about to be sent out again – possibly because she is the only one available with aircraft control capabilities. The senior officers are both sympathetic to the mutineers & decline to use the Royal Marines to supress the mutiny.  These were both factors in the Invergordon mutiny (1931) & MacLean’s father’s parish was just 30 miles south of Invergordon, so MacLean must have been well aware of events at the time. And Ulysses’s end whilst attempting to ram the German heavy cruiser Hipper is clearly based upon HMS Glowworm’s ramming of the same ship in 1940. There are many other interesting parallels that Simmonds draws between MacLean’s experiences & the first three books. The actual island of Navarone is fictitious (or, more probably, an amalgam of two real ones), but the style & tempo of operations in the Aegean in 1944  is very true to life. And although Maclean was not in the Far East when Singapore fell, he knew the geography of the area, as used in South by Java Head (based around the flight from Singapore), well & will have met many people who were directly involved – Royalist was in Singapore for the Japanese surrender & was involved in repatriating some of the PoWs. There is a bit too much detail on the more general course of the war around Royalist’s activities – perhaps aimed at those whose knowledge of WWII naval history is shallow – certainly not aimed at those who will have read his books in the late 50s & 60s.

The final third of the book covers his writing years, the subsequent (not always successful) films, a brief interlude as a hotelier (he owned the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor in the early 1960s), his move to Switzerland (for tax reasons) & his subsequent decline into alcoholism. MacLean was, it is clear, actually a very private person & did not find the glad-handing expected by his publisher at all easy, which may have partly led to his drinking.

Sadly, this book could have done with better editing – every automated spell-checker will miss ‘heroin’ when ‘heroine’ is meant [8] & several times the flow of text is rather ‘clunky’. However, I would certainly recommend this to all those who remember MacLean’s books – especially the first three. Simmons’ examination of the historical background to HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone & South by Java Head is well done & quite likely to encourage you to dig out your old copies – or look for them in charity shops.[9]

[1] Perhaps a topic for the Wardroom Bar?  Clearly Monserrat’s The Cruel Sea & C S Forester’s The Ship must also be in the running.

[2] MacLean lived in a Gaelic speaking household until he was 15.

[3] Torpedo and Anti-Submarine.

[4] The man on the left-hand end of the row is Coder Jack Glover, whose photo this is.  Jack Glover (who must be one of the few Arctic Convoy veterans still alive) was MacLean’s ‘run-ashore oppo’ (on the rare occasions when he went ashore) and remembers ‘Alec Patterson’ as a quiet messmate, who didn’t drink, spent much of his spare time looking at ship silhouettes in Janes Fighting Ships and was “the best man onboard at ship recognition”.

[5] Subsequently called the Bellona class.

[6] One does have to wonder how we have got from 6,000 ton light cruisers, to 8,400 ton destroyers (the T45) & 7,000 ton frigates (the T26).

[7] At the time, MacLean’s annual net salary was £300.

[8] Page 92. Talking about Ulysses’s attempt to ram the Hipper, “Maybe the ship – always called ‘she’ by sailors – is the key character, a real heroin”.

[9] There must be lots around – South by Java Head sold one million in hardback alone and one estimate is that worldwide sales of all his books exceeded 250 million copies.