I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
The Cruel Sea – Nicholas Monsarrat
This 500-page fictionalized WWII memoir deals with the Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Monsarrat’s experience with his crew of a corvette escort ship, The Compass Rose, and later the frigate Saltash. The 30-something hero, Lockhart, drifts into the Royal Navy after working in journalism. He serves under a grave but teacher-like captain, Ericson, who instills qualities of leadership and a sense of duty to carry through on the job. Their mission is to protect convoys of merchant vessels from the predation of German submarines.
The main villains, indeed objects of debasing hatred, are the U-boat packs, “taking people by surprise, stalking them, giving them no chance.” There are also blunt evaluations of oafish officers and lazy shipyard workers who sabotage the war effort with slow slipshod work. Monsarrat is not adept with his female characters because they are either paragons of virtue like Mrs. Ericson and the Wren Julie or ruthlessly unfaithful wives like Mrs. Morrel. However, he is quite good at capturing the quotidian nuances of being married. The true bad guy is not only the titular sea, but the war itself, which leeches people of their humanity after years of deprivation, lack of rest, an excess of stress, the emotional toll of watching helplessly while people die, and too many decisions that cost people their lives.
Monserrat has created stereotyped characters that are as satisfying as Sherlock Holmes or Kate Nickleby and appropriate to the genres of fictionalized war memoir or adventure fiction. He handles with plausibility and English restraint the bond between Lockhart and Ericson. Monserrat’s main strength is his ability to tell a story. The macabre episodes “The Dead Helmsman,” “The Burnt Man,” “The Skeletons," “The Burning Tanker" and other set pieces make almost unbearable reading. The novel has no underlying themes save the passage of time and the tendency of war to always to turn out worse than anybody expected at the beginning. However, Monserrat weaves the narrative magic that makes us eager to find out what happens next.
This novel was a huge best-seller when it was released in the Fifties. It was made in a popular movie starring Jack Hawkins, the absolute personification of undaunted English bravery in roles such as The Bridge over the River Kwai. Though it’s not on the literary level of The Things They Carried or The Naked and The Dead, I’d still strongly recommend this fictionalized war memoir.