My first copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea was a twelfth birthday present, given to me in 1956. It was Cassell’s expurgated ‘Cadet Edition’, intended for a generation who knew little about the war during which they had been born. While Monsarrat’s publishers thought we should be acquainted with the Battle of the Atlantic, they clearly considered that we would come in our own time to adultery and what was then breathlessly referred to as ‘premarital sexual intercourse’. What mattered was access to Monsarrat’s brilliant evocation of a grim campaign at sea. I read it as I bumped into school on the Northern Line and have been haunted by it ever since.
Some books inspire, some comfort, others divert, but The Cruel Sea seems to have dogged me, assuming a personal significance ever since my mother hinted that she had once been on nodding terms with Monsarrat.
‘A small, dark, active man,’ she said, recalling her days as an officer in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. She also remembered that before he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Monsarrat, a journalist by profession, had been active in the Blitz, digging survivors out of the rubble of their homes. The experience inspired one of his short stories: ‘Heavy Rescue’.
I do not come from a seafaring family but was, from an early age, obsessed with ships and the sea. Monsarrat’s account of the great drama played out from the first to the very last day of the Second World War in the vast wastes of the Atlantic was a revelation. I can vividly recall the onset of an outrage that has grown large of late, and which first manifested itself in a precocious assertion at the Sunday dinner-table, where history was the main topic of family conversation.
Britain, I said, made too much fuss of ‘The Few’. It was not so much that I objected to the Royal Air Force’s claim on the nation’s gratitude for its triumph over south-east England in the s
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