How can a fictional account of a Second World War sea battle possibly tell us anything we don’t already know about naval warfare? How can a novel, which is over 60 years old, shed light on the reality of life on board a British light cruiser?
Context. It’s all about the context.
Forester wrote and published The Ship in 1943 when the eventual outcome of the war was still very much uncertain. There was no opportunity to see the events described in their broader context, no benefit of hindsight, the fighting at this time was desperate and crucial and uncertain. It’s precisely for this reason that The Ship is well worth a read for anyone who wants to get a real flavour of what naval warfare was like during the conflict. In the same way that Moby Dick is great source material for whaling techniques in the 19th Century, The Ship manages to create a detailed, accurate impression regarding life on board ship at the height of battle.
True, this is fiction – but only just. Forester follows the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Artemis, the ship of the title, as it contends with superior Italian forces on an afternoon of scrappy fighting in the Mediterranean. It’s never mentioned directly, but this is clearly the first battle of Sirte where a small squadron of Royal Navy Ships was engaged to protect a convoy sent to supply the besieged and strategically vital stronghold of Malta.
Artemis itself is closely modelled on the actions and crew of the HMS Penelope to whom Forester pays tribute to in the book’s dedication. As part of Force K, Penelope played an identical role in the battle as the fictional ship and also sustained the same damage. Rich source material for Forester, Penelope was always in the thick of the action. When she eventually made it to port in Malta, the damage she sustained by shrapnel earned her the nickname HMS Pepperpot. At the time the novel was published, Penelope was taking part in the allied landings at Salermo, her ultimate fate still unknown.
As opposed to a military textbook, The Ship offers a glimpse of the action from the viewpoints of the men involved. Tactics, responsibility and the motivation of the crew are all interwoven effortlessly alongside the practical aspects of running the vessel. Not even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant details are neglected because, as military books so often omit, the smallest, most seemingly insignificant details often turn out to have a tremendous bearing on later events.
This is portrayed most interestingly in chapter 24 where the origin of ‘the shot that changed the course of history’ is traced right back to the girls in the munitions factory who manufactured the shell. The significance of this is heightened considerably because the war has not yet been won, everything is uncertain. A later account, written after 1945, would no doubt have dismissed the relevance of a single shell and neglected to provide such a thorough and considered analysis.
Aside from a taste of the cut and thrust of sea battle, The Ship is also of interest when viewed in its historical context. It reveals a great deal about how the war was portrayed to the public at home. As fiction it’s much more accessible than sterile, military facts, and Forester, who later achieved fame with The African Queen and Horatio Hornblower, was no stranger to propaganda. He’d spent the early part of the war in America writing pamphlets encouraging the government to join the allied forces.
With such a background, it’s somewhat inevitable therefore that Forester does, at times, lean towards describing the sort of typical plucky underdog with a stiff upper lip that was so important to British wartime morale. Fortunately, there are numerous unsavoury characters to balance things out and add to the realism: Jerningham, the arrogant philanderer with questionable courage; Ordinary Seamen Triggs, the lazy and drunken dimwit in the magazine of X turret; and Harris, the rough and unruly gunner with a natural born gift for marksmanship. There are no obvious heroes with lofty ideals of honour and duty, just lots of vastly different characters thrown together doing their jobs as best they can. Ultimately they all unite and perform admirably which is perhaps the ultimate message – whoever you are, whatever your abilities, you can still do your bit.
It’s only in the penultimate chapter where Forester openly resorts to the usual wartime stereotypes in depicting the enemy. The Germans are shown to be merciless and restricted by cold procedure whereas the Italians are lazy, disorganised and overly temperamental. This whole chapter, in fact, seems a little tagged on. A reaction from the ship that Artemis fired upon is relevant to the story, but the introduction of enemy characters so late in the book seems a little out of place. It may have been more effective to either keep them completely anonymous or introduce their viewpoint earlier.
But this is a minor criticism. The star of the show is always the ship itself. Early in the novel it is described as a huge marine animal with various sections of the crew performing the tasks of the brain, the eyes, the muscles, the voice, the teeth – even the nerves, which are likened to telephones and voice tubes. The human characters in the book are merely sketches by comparison. They have just enough substance to make you vaguely care about them – probably how the crew themselves felt towards their less familiar shipmates.
An extra poignancy is added however, when you discover what eventually happened to the real Artemis, the HMS Penelope. A year after The Ship was published, Penelope was torpedoed by a German Submarine whilst travelling at 26 knots – a unique case as no other ship was ever successfully attacked at this speed. The first torpedo struck the engine room and was followed 16 minutes later by a second which hit the boiler room. She sank immediately, taking the captain and 415 of the crew with her. Most of the characters that served as inspiration for the crew of The Artemis would undoubtedly have perished as only the handful that were on deck managed to survive.
For me in particular, this fact has extra significance. If my grandfather had happened to be a Stoker on The HMS Penelope rather than the Chief Gunner’s Mate, I wouldn’t be here today.
It’s a useful reminder of the long-lasting impact of the Second World War and the importance of all those who fought in it.