Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea is one of my favourite novels – sea, war, and generally – of all time. Much of it was based on his experiences in – wait for it – three corvettes during WW2, respectively as an under officer, first officer and captain. He took notes and that is what these essentially are, edited together into a coherent whole. So, as well as a glimpse at ordinary people doing extraordinary things – he makes much of the fact that his fellow sailors were mostly conscripted in from civvy street, some of them rescued from the horrors of 1930s level of poverty – it’s interesting to see the original versions of fictionised scenes I know from the later book.
A theme I remember well from The Cruel Sea is his contempt for black marketers riding on the backs of the sacrifices made out in the Atlantic, like dock workers who steal the emergency rations from the lifeboats and sell them on. Monsarrat had seen the cost in men’s lives of getting a single drop of petrol across the Atlantic, so meeting smug civilians back in Blighty who had, for instance, classified their private car as a taxi to get more petrol ration (but had no intention of using it as such), and felt quite pleased with themselves for beating the system, made him almost homicidal with rage. Quite rightly.