HMS Ulysses (novel)
|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. (Ulysses is similar to the real Dido-class cruisers. MacLean had served in HMS Royalist of that class.) 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 this bunch of 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.
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 on the HMAS Royalist.
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.
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.
Literary significance and criticism
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. .
Allusions/references from other works
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  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
Valentin Pikul chose a quotation from the novel as an epigraph to his Requiem for Convoy PQ-17.
Film, TV and theatrical adaptations
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.
- Arctic convoys of World War II
- Convoy PQ-17, an Arctic convoy almost destroyed by the Germans in 1942
- JW 58, the convoy MacLean sailed with on Operation Tungsten
- Bound books - a set on Flickr
- 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.
- Bill Baley "The Enduring Homer", Chapter 3
- 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.