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Book Review, NRJ 68.4

May 05, 2024 5:12 AM | JAMES HATCH (Administrator)

Alistair MacLean's War: How the Royal Navy Shaped his Bestsellers 

By Mark Simmons

“Alistair MacLean was a giant figure when I was growing up,” writes thriller writer, Lee Child, in his foreword to this book. Many adults and children growing up in the 1950s to 1970s would agree. For many of these readers, Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses was probably the definitive Second World War naval novel, and he went on to write two more books—The Guns of Navarone and South by Java Head—that were directly linked to his wartime service in HMS Royalist, while many of his later books had obvious ties to his World War II experiences. Mark Simmons sets out to explore these links.

This is not a biography but does cover MacLean’s whole life from growing up in the manse in a Gaelic-speaking area of the Highlands to dying as an alcoholic in Switzerland. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of nineteen in 1941. After promotion to Able Seaman in August 1943, he joined the brand-new cruiser HMS Royalist in Scott’s Yard in Greenock. MacLean was to spend the rest of the war in Royalist. This covered the Arctic Convoys (March to May 1944), the Mediterranean and Aegean (July-October 1944) and the Far East (March-November 1945). Royalist returned to Portsmouth to pay-off in January 1946 and MacLean was discharged on 26 March 1946. 

After discharge, MacLean went to university in Glasgow for a degree in English Language & Literature, married a German girl (to some family dismay) and became a schoolmaster. While teaching he was persuaded to enter a short story competition in the Glasgow Herald, winning the £100 prize, which brought him to the attention of staff of the publishers, Collins.  They persuaded him to try writing a novel, which Maclean completed in ten weeks: HMS Ulysses. The book sold over a quarter-million copies in hardback within six months, a  record at the time, and within ten years, MacLean was earning the present-day equivalent of three million dollars annually.

The first half of this book is a detailed comparison of Maclean’s first three books with Royalist’s wartime operations. The mutiny that opens HMS Ulysses has resonance with the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931, which took place only thirty miles from MacLean’s father’s parish, so he must have been well aware of events at the time. The cruiser’s end while attempting to ram the German heavy cruiser Hipper is clearly based upon HMSGlowworm’s ramming of the same ship in 1940.

There are many other interesting parallels the author draws between MacLean’s experiences and the first three books. The actual island of Navarone is fictitious but the style and  tempo of operations in the Aegean in 1944 is very true to life. Although Maclean was not in the Far East when Singapore fell, he well knew the geography of the area, used in South by Java Head, and would have met many people who were directly involved since Royalist was in Singapore for the Japanese surrender and involved in repatriating some of the prisoners of war.

The final third of the book covers his writing years, the subsequent films, a brief interlude as a hotelier when he owned the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor in the early 1960s, his move to Switzerland for tax reasons, and his subsequent decline into alcoholism. MacLean, it is clear, was actually a very private person, which may have partly led to his drinking.

Sadly, this book could have done with better editing; there are spelling errors and occasional infelicitous writing.  Nevertheless, this book is recommended to all those who remember MacLean’s books, especially the first three, for its examination of the historical background to HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, and South by Java Head.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2022
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiv + 193 pages
  • Photographs, maps, glossary, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
  • ISBN: 9781399019385

Reviewed by: Jennifer Nelson, University of Iowa

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