Most war or action novels have a few things in common : A handsome hero who can shoot you between the eyes with his left hand while he lights a cigar with his right, a funny sidekick who never ever tries to steal the limelight, a pretty girl who is in serious and frequent need of rescuing, and plenty of ugly, stupid bad guys. My favorite one of all time (and I assure you, I’ve read a lot), however, involves a single warship at sea. The handsome hero is missing, so are sidekicks and pretty girls. The bad guys are not ugly or stupid at all. They are menacing, ruthless and brilliant; and they manage to outfox the good guys at almost every turn.

Welcome to HMS Ulysses (1955), the first novel by the Scottish author Alistair Maclean.  Maclean, incidentally, also happens to be one of my favorite authors. The story takes place in the backdrop of World War II, and offers a barely believable and emotionally shattering picture of what used to happen in the ill-fated Russian Convoys of WWII. For those of you unfamiliar with the Russian convoys, please check out the link. Also, just to give you an idea of the conditions on those ships, here’s a glimpse of HMS Sheffield on a such a convoy sometime between 1941-45, courtesy Wikipedia :

To return to our story, it’s about an ill-fated voyage of a light cruiser of the Royal Navy. HMS Ulysses, a warship armed with all the latest technologies of her time, is used to escort the merchant ships through the Arctic Ocean, trying to protect them from German attacks as they sail to Russian ports carrying priceless supplies of war equipment.  Repeated voyages through the extreme arctic conditions, the cold, the violent sea, lack of sleep, exhaustion, hunger, and the ever-present fear of a sudden, violent death delivered by a German torpedo or bomb has pushed the crew beyond human endurance. And after a short, failed mutiny, HMS Ulysses is once again ordered North to escort FR77, a convoy sailing from America to the Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk. Most of the crew went because they were past caring. A few others, like the Captain Vallery, chose to do the job simply because it had to be done. The captain, whom the crew actually loved, is not one of your typical heroes. He is old, sick and dying. His loathing of war is matched only by his bitterness at the futility of it. He does not give rousing speeches, he is not a one man army, he is not a genius. He is just a common man, full of compassion and understanding, whose primary concern is always his men. The voyage is a catastrophe right from the moment it begins. The convoy has to face freak accidents, an unbelievably fierce storm and relentless, determined German attacks throughout the way. Interestingly, unlike most WWII novels, the Germans are not painted as monsters. In fact, the respect the officers and especially the captain has for a brave, determined and intelligent enemy is refreshing and moving.

The beauty of the book is not in its portrayal of naval battles or assault tactics. It is in its depiction of the human elements of the war and the brilliant way Maclean builds each character, from a lowly able seaman to an admiral of the fleet. Maclean describes the sub-human conditions on those ships with a level of detail that will, frankly, torture you. This is not a happy book. Although you will find the occasional humor here and there, the book is heartbreakingly sad in many, many places. You will suffer with each member of the crew as they travel through the hell that the Russian Convoys were. You will cry with them as their beloved ones die around them, you will start praying that the sufferings of the Ulysses be over or that it has a lucky break for a change.  You will love the characters : Tyndall, the admiral with his temper and his pain, Captain Vallery –  the man who carried the ship on his back, Brooks – the good doctor, the L.T.O Ralston who lost his entire family in the war and begged his captain to stay with the ship, The Kapok Kid and Nicholls, Riley and Petersen, you’ll come to know them, you’ll love them and in the end, you’ll cry for them. As I told you before, this is not a happy book. The closest thing to this you have probably come across will the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Just like the movie, this tells you about the futility of war, about the mindless violence that takes away so many good men, and for no reason. It will tell you how ordinary men, left with no hope and no relief rise up to be heroes.

It’s  a story that will make you sad, but it’s worth knowing, because what you read is actually what happened or used to happen in the convoys in the war. In case you doubt that, please note that the author himself served during the war on HMS Royalist, a ship of the same class as Ulysses. Also, this is scarcely believable, but the story of HMS Ulysses is based loosely on the true events on Convoy PQ-17, a similar convoy which was travelling to Archangel in 1942 under similar conditions, and met a remarkably similar fate.

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Thanks for the pingback. This is how a post about this author should have been written..much better than my humble effort 🙂
    Kudos and will follow you eagerly from now on

  2. Anushree says:

    Lovely!! 🙂 He is one of my favourite authors. Sadly I haven’t read this one but I have read many MANY others!!!

  3. Better make the time and read it. This is by far his best work, including Guns of Navarone and Night without End.

  4. Anushree says:


  5. Anushree says:

    Loan me a copy 🙂

  6. oghma says:

    MacLean is my favourite author. Excellent review, i’m looking forward to more by you!

    Keep writing, stay inspired!

  7. telescoper says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Following on from yesterday’s post about the Arctic Convoys, here is a review of HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean which I found on another wordpress site.

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