Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Cruel Sea (1)

From War of the Worlds, possibly in the future I move back in time to the World at War and begin with the opening of Nicholas Monserrat’s important tribute to Navy vessels that attempted protect the convoys of supply vessels travelling between the UK and the USA and Canada, The Cruel Sea. 


As a school boy I bought an edited edition of the book after seeing the important film with Jack Hawkins in the role of Lieutenant Commander George Eastwood Erickson R.N.R. The film played to packed audiences throughout the UK and Commonwealth. I saw the film again recently shortly before the BBC replayed on Four extra its two one hour dramatizations. I will comment on the film and he radio plays  as I work through the original book which I recently purchased for one penny plus postage,  a 1987 reprint in The Penguin Great  Novel War at Sea series.


Some readers may want to skip the first part of 74 pages because there is no action at such, no excitement or events of significance in the great scheme of the war at sea and yet from my perspective it provides one of the most important  insights of what it was like for young men to move out of their warm offices, garages or shops into the ice cold stormy winds of north Atlantic in Winter, together with the steps necessary  for a new  crew and a new ship to be authorised to put to sea and to go to war, that is to kill the enemy and avoid being killed. Today the navy is rapidly becoming redundant except in hunting pirates and stop immigrant boats, and smuggled goods especially drugs. Yet it is not so long ago to me (30 years) that ships and men were lost during the Falklands War to Exorcet Missiles made and supplied by France to the then enemy Argentina and even as recently as 2011 naval ships were used off the coast of Libya to attack with rockets as well as bringing supplies to the rebels. Over seventy years ago it was little ships like the Corvettes and the crew of cargo vessels which kept the UK supplied with sufficient for the home population not to lose morale and for the Services to function.


Recently at the excellent Curtis Auditorium lecture theatre at Newcastle University I listened to former catholic Priest and chair of the CND, Bruce Kent on the subject of Is War Inevitable? He replied to one questioner who said he had agreed with almost everything Bruce had said but what was his response to the people of the Tyne if the government suddenly offered the building of a new aircraft carrier. The reply was why not press for a hospital ship instead to travel the world to wherever there was a natural or man made disaster? While I agree with his answer today in 1939 and 1940 the challenge was to build, equip and crew as many new ships as possible if the UK and the Commonwealth nations were to survive.


The Corvets were the best available in a difficult situation little more than trawlers with a limited top speed and with cramped conditions for the crew eating and sleeping in one area where it was difficult to keep dry from the condensation and with limited armaments of a four inch power, a two inch anti aircraft and a machine gun plus depth charges. The crew comprised a captain, a First Lieutenant with two subs, one responsible for communications and depth charges and the other for course and the guns. In the film a third sub is added, played by Denholm Elliot,


The small group of officers meant that any of the four could find themselves in charge of vessel alone for a period of up to four hours although there would usually be two officers on the watch. The officers were supported by a small team of senior ratings, middle managers, the chief responsible for the boiler room and the engines, the teams responsible for depth charges and the guns, for communications and the asdic later the radar, the supplies and kitchen.


Monsarrat describes the day from 6.30 until 10pm with first the process of working with ship builders and fitters and then sea trials to ensure the everything worked to the required standards and then formal trials to get the guns on target and the important coordination between the Captain, the Asdic crew and the depth charge team to ensure that as quickly as a target was identified and the order given depth charges would immediately be dropped  on target and to do all this taking account of the wind, the sea current and the position of the enemy both with different speeds and manoeuvrability and tactics.


While the film, and I felt the BBC play paid some attention to the process of finishing the ship, providing equipment and supplies, and the various levels of trials of ship and of the crew, it is only in the book that we are able to gain a depth of insight into the preparations and the naval traditions and culture and the complex problems facing those who had never been sea let alone to war and who were strangers one day and living in great physical and emotional intimacy the next and away from families, friends, and everything that had previously been familiar to them.


However important the role of the officers, the success and survival of the ship was dependent on team working at all levels. Towards the end of the sea trials we learn that the admiral responsible for certifying that ships and their crews are ready for war writes his report on the officers of the Compass Rose, a copy of which he shows to the captain. He has gained this knowledge from his personal unannounced visits at various times and from the communication with the Captain although the chain of command and responsibility is such that once commissioned as an officer in the fleet every individual is expected to function to the highest standards within the culture of the service.


Monsarrat provides a summary of what we have learned about the Captain and his officer’s team. There were two inter-related problems, The First Lieutenant; a former car salesman is a bully, workshy and a sponger. How he talked his way from officer training course to an instant promotion is beyond the Captain and the reader, except that it is war and men with self confidence, ambition and aggression will be needed. Similarly the man he bullies Ferraby, married only weeks before departure,  should never have been accepted for officer training or once accepted should not have been allowed to complete the course although again it was an unplanned war and it is important not  judge how recruitment and deployment was approached then rather than since.


Oddly in the radio play there is little reference to the First Lieutenant while in the film the crack included, not in book, about Ferraby having left a bun in the oven as well as the man’s obsession with “snorkers, good ho,” his passion for tinned sausages at least for one meal a day.  However in fairness to number 1 the depth charge crew also have no confidence in their officer and the senior naval rating attempts to take charge something which the young sub finds it also difficult to cope with.


It is the mature mid twenties other sub Lieutenant Lockhart who provides the buffer. A single man, former self employed  journalist, no longer innocent about the ways  of men and women, who sides steps and ignores Bennett played in the film brilliantly by Stanley Baker. He is not prepared to tolerate the way the First Lieutenant expects one of the subs to buy his drinks and at one point her cannot resist suggesting that if he wants to get the best out of Ferraby he needs to support and help his confidence and not constantly undermine. When Bennett insists on reporting Lockhart to the Captain, Erickson is faced with a dilemma. Lockhart was out of line but he is only too well aware of the behaviour of Bennett who he feels obliged to support but the rebuke he gives fails to satisfy the bully who insisting on pressing his concern once he is with the captain on his own but Erickson is not prepared to take the matter further which is of itself a message to Bennett.


The other aspect of the book is that the line between officers and crew is kept pretty tight  and it is Ferraby who engages in conversation with a rating, just as young and new as himself over a mug of cocoa the night he is left in charge for a couple of hours while the skipper catches up on sleep. He is sufficiently confident to alter course away from the Scottish coast when they encounter a fishing fleet. The manoeuvre wakes the captain who calls the bridge to know what happened having been awakened as the change of course affected the noise of the engines. That he went straight back to sleep was a proud moment for the young man revealing that in normal circumstances   he was able cope but the circumstances are not normal.


Captain Erickson (in the film was played by Jack Hawkins), immediately inspires confidence despite the  fact that he has been out of the Royal Navy for ten years and worked as the captain of a cargo ship before his recall as a reservist. He is a strong disciplinarian determined to get the ship and the crew in condition to go to a war which fears is going to be a long one. He has reservations about the ability of the ship as designed to do the job required, especially its lack of speed and tendency to roll badly.  He can be sharp and comes down hard when mistakes are made and individuals fail to reach the standard required if they are to survive and cope with what is likely to come their way.


Monsarrat, himself a naval officer during World War II also understood the need that seamen have to separate the lives they lead, and in fairness to Bennett he also appreciated the distinction to be made, a man with his mind on matters ashore, was no good to his colleagues when things go wrong, in moments of crisis and as the were to find when involved with the War at sea. From the start the sea is their demanding mistress and dominates their lives rather than the enemy who face the same challenges as themselves.


It is the partners left at home who also have to learn to cope in their own way. Ferraby’s young newly married wife appears stronger and more understanding than her husband. She is disappointed when Bennett refuses permission for her to join him, more for the sake of her husband than herself. Erickson’s wife has become experienced as coping with the separations, she has her knitting. She knows that however much her husband enjoyed being with her when ashore, there always comes a time when his real mistress demands  attention 24 hours a day, weeks on end. Lockhart also appears to have adjusted quickly to what is expected of him and has no intention of complicating his life even with a casual relationship. Bennett on the other hand brings someone unsuitable, probably picked up at his hotel to the wardroom party just before they set off for their sea trials on Christmas Day. (To be continued)

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