More Lives Than a Ship's Cat : The Most Highly Decorated Midshipman in the Second World War

More Lives Than a Ship's Cat : The Most Highly Decorated Midshipman in the Second World War

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

Mark Simmons

It is no coincidence that many of Alistair MacLean's most successful novels were sea stories. His wartime experiences coupled with exceptional literary skill resulted in the runaway success of his first novel HMS Ulysses (1955) followed by The Guns of Navarone (1957) and South by Java Head (1958). These three blockbusters cemented his position as one of the most successful and highly paid authors of the era. While not a whole life biography, Mark Simmon's book provides a fascinating insight into Maclean's war service and subsequent works, which deserve enduring popularity.
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It is no coincidence that many of Alistair MacLean's most successful novels were sea stories. In 1941, he was called up after volunteering for the Royal Navy and served as Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. For the majority of his service, he was on HMS Royalist, a modified Dido-class light cruiser, seeing action in the Arctic, and operations against the German battleship Tirpitz . The ship then deployed to the Mediterranean taking part in Operation Dragoon the invasion of the South of France and later in operations against German occupied Greek Islands in the Aegean. After which MacLean and Royalist were deployed to the Indian Ocean and operations against the Japanese in Malaya, Burma, and Sumatra. His wartime experiences coupled with exceptional literary skill resulted in the runaway success of his first novel HMS Ulysses (1955) followed by The Guns of Navarone (1957) and South by Java Head (1958). These three blockbusters cemented his position as one of the most successful and highly paid authors of the era. While not a whole life biography, Mark Simmon's book provides a fascinating insight into Maclean's war service and subsequent works, which deserve enduring popularity.

ISBN: 9781399019385
Format: Hardback
Author(s): Mark Simmons
First Publishment Date: 30 May 2022
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Author(s) Mark Simmons
Customer Reviews
  1. Enjoyable book which will appeal to fans of MacLean who enjoy good old fashioned adventure stories
    Subtitled “How the Royal Navy shaped his bestsellers”, this book does not set out to be a biography of Alistair MacLean but rather focuses on how his wartime service in particular is reflected in his writing. In his early childhood in a small village in the Highlands, where his father was the Minister, MacLean witnessed the Invergordon Mutiny which features in ‘HMS Ulysses’. His family moved back to Glasgow on the death of his father and he decided on going to sea. With the start of WWII he joined up as a torpedoman. He joined the cruiser Royalist in 1943 and her wartime record was to serve as the inspiration and source for many of his books, notably ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Guns of Navarone’. The book is not just about the ship and his time on board, it also includes the strategic and historical background to the stories into which he weaves the real life dramas such as the Arctic convoys. With Royalist deployed to Arctic convoy duty, then the Aegean and subsequently the Far East, there was a rich seam of experience to be reflected in ‘Ulysses’, ‘Navarone’ and ‘South by Java Head’. MacLean was a bit of a loner, and with his taciturn nature, he didn’t really fit into mess life on board. At the time he was not a drinker- sadly, this was not the case in post-war life. After the war he went to university and initially into teaching, which he enjoyed. He bought a 34-foot Loch Fyne skiff and his exploits in the Silver Craig were to provide tales for his short stories. His first book, ‘Ulysses’ was published in 1954. Described as an “odd book” with a “large set of characters but no key character”, the tale of the horrors of war in an almost documentary style was a big success. It was followed by ‘Guns of Navarone’ – “his best book” – and his 3 wartime books were completed by ‘South by Java Head’. His wartime experiences were also reflected in many of his later books such as ‘Bear Island’, ‘Force 10 from Navarone’ and ‘San Andreas’. Many of his books were adapted for film – notably ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – but he didn’t enjoy the film process. His personal life was beginning to fall apart and a very perceptive interview by Barry Norman (when MacLean was drinking heavily) summed him up as “drunk, a monster, but sober, likeable and rather sad”. He died at the age of 64 in 1987 having written 27 novels which sold over 150 million copies. Today, the film adaptations are still very popular. The book includes short synopses of all his books and also two of his short stories which “demonstrate his skill as a storyteller”. An enjoyable read which will appeal to fans of MacLean who enjoy good old fashioned adventure stories.

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