HMS Ulysses (novel)

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HMS Ulysses
First edition
Author Alistair MacLean
Illustrator John Rose[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Collins
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 357 pp (1994 paperback)
Followed by The Guns of Navarone

HMS Ulysses was the debut novel by Scottish author Alistair MacLean. Originally published in 1955, it was also released by Fontana Books in 1960. MacLean's experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II provided the background and the Arctic convoys to Murmansk provided the basis for the story, which was written at a publisher's request after he'd won a short story competition the previous year.

Some editions carry a prefatory note disavowing any connection between the fictional HMS Ulysses and the U-class destroyer of the same name.


The novel features HMS Ulysses, a light cruiser that is well armed and among the fastest ships in the world. Her crew is pushed well beyond the limits of endurance and the book starts in the aftermath of a mutiny. Ulysses puts to sea again to escort FR-77, a vital convoy heading for Murmansk. They are beset by numerous challenges: an unusually fierce Arctic storm, German ships and U-boats, as well as air attacks. All slowly reduce the convoy from 32 ships to only five. The Ulysses is sunk in a failed attempt to ram a German cruiser after all her other weapons had been destroyed. This echoes events in which British G-class destroyer HMS Glowworm and HMS Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser, sacrificed themselves by engaging larger opponents.

The book uses a set of events to paint moving portrayals of the crew and the human aspects of the war. His heroes are not especially motivated by ideals, they rarely excel at more than one task and they are overcome by a respectable enemy. It is their resilience that pushes these seamen to acts of heroism. The realism of the descriptions, the believable motivations of the characters and the simplicity of the line of events make the story all the more credible, though the number of coincidental accidents that plague the crew is startling.

Ships featured in HMS Ulysses[edit]

HMS Ulysses is similar to the real Dido-class cruisers. MacLean had served in HMS Royalist of that class.

HMS Stirling an obsolete WW1 era C-class cruiser cruiser of the Ceres sub-group (referred to as Cardiff Class in the novel). Stirling is virtually untouched during most of the novel, until the final act where Stirling is repeatedly attacked by dive bombers .

Aircraft carriers Defender, Invader, Wrestler and Blue Ranger, are American built Escort carriers. Accidents and enemy attacks conspire to remove all the aircraft carriers from service before the convoy is even halfway to Russia. The Defender in particular is rendered inoperable due to freak accident which results in the aircraft flight deck being partially torn off during a heavy storm.

HMS Sirrus an S Class Destroyer, the most newly built warship in the escort group.

HMS Vectra and HMS Viking, WW1 vintage V and W-class destroyers

HMS Portpatrick, a Town-class destroyer, another obsolete WW1 design.

HMS Baliol, a Type 1 Hunt-class destroyer described as "diminutive" and completely un-seaworthy for the harsh weather of the North Atlantic.

HMS Nairn, a River-class frigate.

HMS Gannet, a Kingfisher-class sloop, nicknamed Huntley and Palmer due to her boxy superstructure resembling a biscuit tin.


Alistair Maclean had written a short story, which was published to acclaim. A literary agent asked him to write a novel and Maclean originally refused, believing there was no future in it. However his boat business failed so he decided to write a novel. The book was based on real life convoys Maclean had participated in when a sailor aboard HMS Royalist.[2]

Maclean later described his writing process:

I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1-15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold blooded and calculated, but that's the way I did it.[2]


The book sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback in England in the first six months of publication. It went on to sell millions more.[2]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

The novel received good critical notices, with a number of reviewers putting it in the same class as two other 1950s classic tales of World War II at sea, Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea.[3]

Allusions/references from other works[edit]

The same background of the World War II Murmansk convoys, with the combination of extreme belligerent action and inhospitable nature pushing protagonists to the edge of endurance and beyond, appears in Dutch novelist Jan de Hartog's The Captain (1967). Comparisons may be also be drawn with Wolfgang Ott's 1957 novel Sharks and Little Fish, written from the viewpoint of a sailor who serves on surface ships and submarines of the World War II German navy, the Kriegsmarine.

The use of ship names derived from classical mythology is a well-established practice of the Royal Navy. However, commentator Bill Baley[4] suggests that the choice of Ulysses might have been less than accidental. "Unlike in Joyce's famous book, there are here no specific scenes clearly reminiscent of specific ones in Homer's Odyssey; but overall, it was Homer's Ulysses who gave Western culture the enduring template of a long and harrowing sea voyage where peril waits at every moment and of which few of the crew would survive to see the end."

References to HMS Ulysses in other works[edit]

Valentin Pikul chose a quotation from the novel as an epigraph to his Requiem for Convoy PQ-17.

Film, TV and theatrical adaptations[edit]

Abandoned film projects[edit]

Film rights were bought by Robert Clark of Associated British Picture Corporation in the 1950s for £30,000. He arranged for a script to be written by R.C. Sheriff, who had just adapted The Dambusters for Associated British; because of the amount of naval detail included, it proved troublesome for Sherriff. However, ABPC never made the film.[5] Another proposed film version was announced by the Rank Organisation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 but then was abandoned when Rank pulled out of filmmaking.[6]

HMS Ulysses has never been filmed but it was adapted by Nick McCarty for a BBC Radio 4 play of the same name which was first aired on 14 June 1997 in the Classic Play series. It starred Sir Derek Jacobi as Captain Vallery and Sir Donald Sinden as Admiral Starr.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Collins 1959: Alistair MacLean: H.M.S. Ulysses". Flickr. November 22, 2007. Retrieved February 5, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c War Is Hell, but It Pays Off for MacLean: War Pays Off for MacLean War Pays Off for MacLean War is Hell, but It Pays Off for Alistair, Johnstone, Jain. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 Dec 1972: p1.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 March 2007. Retrieved 23 February 2006.
  4. ^ Bill Baley. The Enduring Homer, Chapter 3
  5. ^ Wales, Roland (March 3, 2017). "Movie Countdown: 52 - 46". From Journey’s End to The Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches. Pen and Sword Books / WordPress. ISBN 1-47386-069-5. Retrieved February 5, 2018.
  6. ^ John Huxley. "Losses of £1.6m sound the knell for cinema production." Times [London, England] 7 June 1980: 17. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

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