I haven't read much fiction about WWII but I was motivated to read this because waaaaaay back in my late teens I read The Master Mariner, by the same author, a kind of Wandering Jew story covering the history of shipping from I can't remember how far back up to the age of oil super-tankers. It was good but frustrating in that Monsarrat died before completing it and most of the 20th Century exists only as a brief outline. This book being much more famous, I picked it up when I saw it reprinted and have finally got round to tackling it.
For those who have seen or heard about a particular incident in the film adaptation, I say now that no seagulls fly backwards over the cruel sea in the book...
Monsarrat notes before the action begins that this is a "long" book. Given that it is fewer than 500p it hardly seems so, but it is three times the length of a more typical novel of its day...and there is no bloating or padding here. It's a compelling tale from the outset and all the way through to the end, which covers the entire period of the war as the Royal Navy attempts to keep the vital supply lines of Merchant Navy traffic protected from the depredations of the German U-boats.
Initially we are introduced to a group of characters who will form the senior officers of a newly built corvette; a ship designed for submarine hunting. The captain is portrayed as a competent and experienced career naval officer. It is interesting how similar the notions of what this competence consists of and how it is displayed are to those given by O'Brian describing Jack Aubrey, anaval captain from the Napoleonic era. It would seem that the technology has changed but the fundamentals of the Royal Navy and the demands of running a ship of war haven't changed, if you can rely on O'Brian's historical portrayal.
The history of WWII in general outline drawn here should seem familiar; losing until the U.S.A drop neutrality, then clawing back on to even terms and after D-Day slowly struggling to victory; it's not really interesting in this regard. What is more interesting is the views espoused by the officers about the war and the contrasting attitudes given to civilian characters.
Ireland comes in for a lambasting; the country is potrayed as contemptible for remaining neutral and benefiting from the vital food and other supplies from North America, guarded by the Royal Navy, whilst at the same time allowing the Nazis to run an espionage base on their territory.
Civilians are largely viewed as soft and lacking dedication, unless they are part of the Merchant Navy. The men of the Royal Navy are mostly a stoically heroic bunch, but not in a propagandist, unrealistic way.
Various views, some cynical, about the motives of the war are espoused. One character suggests that the war is simply about who will dominate Europe; this was of course true: would it be the people who, despite such mass-murders as the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, never had genocide in mind, or would it be the perpetrators of the Holocaust?