HMS Ulysses was the first novel by Scottish author Alistair MacLean, and ultimately, one of his most popular. Originally published in 1955, it was also released by Fontana Books in 1960. MacLean’s personal experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II provided the basis for the story.
The novel features a light cruiser
, one of a unique type similar to the real Dido class cruisers
(MacLean had served on HMS Royalist
of that class), extremely well armed and one of the fastest ships in the world. But her crew is pushed well beyond the limits of endurance, the Ulysses
puts to sea again to escort a vital convoy
FR-77 (Based on the ill Fated Convoy PQ-17
) heading for Murmansk
. Predictably, all elements have a part to play against them: an unusually fierce arctic storm, the German
ships and U-boats
, as well as airborne attacks, all slowly decimate the convoy from 32 ships to only 5. The Ulysses herself is lost, fittingly, in a failed attempt to ram into an attacking cruiser, after all her other weapons had been destroyed. There is a true story of HMS Rawalpindi
an armed Merchant Cruiser
that sacrificed itself.
In what became a trait of MacLean's style, the book uses a relatively predictable set of events to paint moving portrayals of the crew and the human aspect of the war. His heroes are not especially moved by ideals, they rarely excel at more than one task, they are even outfoxed by a respectable enemy. It is only their resilience, as they redefine the word, that pushes this bunch of seamen to genuine acts of heroism. The realism of the descriptions, the believable motivations of the characters and simplicity of the line of events make the story all the more credible, though the number of coincidental accidents that plague the crew are startling, robbing them of any real victory.
Literary significance & criticism
The novel received good critical notices as well, with a number of reviewers putting it into the same class as two other 1950s classic tales of World War II at sea, Herman Wouk
's The Caine Mutiny
and Nicholas Monsarrat
's The Cruel Sea
Allusions/references from other works
The same background of the World War II Murmansk convoys, with the combination of extreme belligerent action and inhospitable nature pushing protagonists to the edge of endurance and beyond, appears in Dutch novelist Jan de Hartog
's The Captain
(1967). Comparisons may be also be drawn with Wolfgang Ott
's 1957 novel Sharks and Little Fish
, written from the viewpoint of a sailor in the German surface and U-boat Kriegsmarine
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
has never been filmed. However, it was adapted by Nick McCarty
for a BBC Radio 4
play of the same name which was first aired on 14 June 1997
in the Classic Play
series. It starred Sir Derek Jacobi
as Captain Vallery and Sir Donald Sinden
as Admiral Starr.