One of the lesser known fronts of combat in World War Two is the Arctic convoy run from the UK to Russia. From 1941 through to almost the end of the war, Allied ships sailed some of the most inhospitable waters on the planet to keep the Soviets equipped with American made planes, tanks, trucks and fuel. The Arctic Convoy runs are probably the closest thing to combat in outer space that humanity has seen so far. Any exposure to the elements without extensive protective equipment resulted in permanent damage, and any man who fell overboard would have frozen to death long before he could be rescued, and the convoys were far outside the reach of any Allied reinforcements. The author of HMS Ulysses, Alistair Maclean, served on several of these convoys in World War II, including one of the most infamous: Convoy PQ 17. Using that experience he wrote his first novel: HMS Ulysses
Almost the entirety of the story takes place on the titular vessel. HMS Ulysses is a fictional ship, but is described in a way that would make her very similar to a Dido class cruiser (the same type Maclean served on during the war). The novel starts with a bit of a cold opening, describing a partial mutiny that took place on Ulysses as she returned from her last convoy run. It’s revealed that Ulysses has made more Arctic convoy runs in the last year than any other ship in the Royal Navy. With her crew at the breaking point, and her captain’s health deteriorating, Ulysses is assigned to escort one more convoy before she is stood down and refitted.
Like many breakout novels from other authors, it’s easy to see why this book launched Maclean’s career. The first thing that stands out in my memory is the constant description of the environment. The visceral descriptions of the cold, its effects on men’s bodies, as well as the conditions inside the ship are surprising in that they never feel repetitive. Throughout the book there is a very real sense of tension, as the convoy comes under attack the reader is only as aware as the characters themselves. There are no characters or perspectives from outside of Ulysses’ decks and the effect is for the reader to continue to assume the worst. The characters themselves are delightful, each one feels truly unique and well rounded. No doubt they’re based on men Maclean served with, and that makes them seem all the more believable.
HMS Ulysses is a very powerful novel that does an excellent job of maintaining tension, making you care about the characters, and delivering a rewarding ending. I’m not too proud to admit that this is one of the few books whose ending genuinely made me tear up a little. I would heartily recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or just dramatic fiction in general.