A Prayer for the Ship
by Douglas Reeman
Written in 1958, a decade before he started the Bolitho series under the pseudonym Alexander Kent, this book was Douglas Reeman's first novel. It is based on the author's personal experiences as an officer in Britain's Light Coastal Forces during World War II. And I think it's a good place to start experiencing the wide variety of naval fiction by this very prolific and popular writer who, more than 50 years later, is still working as I write this.
The opening of this book finds Sub-Lieutenant Clive Royce, sort of a naval reserve officer, as he joins his first ship: MTB 1991. The MTB stands for Motor Torpedo Boat, part of a group of zippy little "tanks on water" which, together with Motor Gun Boats (MGB), cruise the North Sea off the Eastern Coast of England. World War II is on, and German vessels on and under the water are a menace to Allied shipping. The Light Coastal Forces are a key part of Britain's nighttime defense of its shores and harbors. Plus, they often provide an armed escort for supply ships and troop convoys; and, when there's nothing else to do, they patrol the Netherlands and Belgian coast in hopes of catching the other side's E-boats and armored trawlers.
Compared to the age of sail, battles in the modern age of rockets, ordnance, and motorized craft is a swift and inhumanly brutal business. Within minutes of sighting an enemy ship, an MTB's crew could be cut to ribbons by flying bullets and shrapnel, or blown sky-high by a shrewdly aimed torpedo. The boats are fast, communication (by radio) is still faster, but death can come even more swiftly when ammunition penetrates solid steel, whereas there isn't more than a few planks of wood between a petrol-powered engine and a storm of fiery death.
So, Clive learns to keep his eyes well peeled through the long, cold, dark nights. And he rises fast, through the death of one commanding officer in MTB 1991 and his own nearly crippling injury while seconding another. Soon he commands an even larger and more powerful boat and is forced to take even more responsibility, but when nothing is less certain than whether one will live to see Christmas, falling in love may be the most dangerous maneuver he has to make.
I learned a lot while reading this book. I had to, obviously, since I had never before read a book based on 20th century naval warfare. I spent the first third of it, give or take, poking around Wikipedia and other websites for photos and descriptions of types of weapons and ships named in the book, as well as some naval slang I had never heard of. If you have no idea what an Oerlikon is, or a "Hostilities Only" rating, or an A.F.O., this book may be your opportunity to immerse yourself for a little while in a remarkable era gone by--one that wasn't, after all, so long ago.
After reading several other books by Reeman, I have begun to sense that this book is representative of his style in many respects, even though he covers diverse maritime subjects ranging from pre-Napoleonic ships of war to modern battleships with diesel engines, machine guns, and radios. For one thing, he has a strong inclination toward romance, frequently weaving into his adventure a love story (whether it ends happily or not), which may help his books attract more female readers than other authors in the genre. For another example, Reeman's books reveal a recurring type of psychological conflict within the main character, simultaneously serving his country with honor and courage while also loathing and dreading the carnage and wastefulness of warfare. Even in his more historically oriented fiction, the inner voice of Reeman's heroes reflects a present-day sort of humanity, making the heroics of previous generations all the more impressive.
For another early Reeman novel based on his own WWII naval experience, look for High Water (1959). I certainly will. For a list of Douglas Reeman titles in publication order, with cover images and plot summaries, see this page of the author's website. A quick scan of these summaries indicates that, while the greater number of Reeman's non-"Alexander Kent" novels are set during World War II, he covers a whole range of action from 1850, in the early days of the steam era, to as recently as 1970. You can take the sails out of the wind but, apparently, you can't take the wind out of the sails of this fine author, or of the Royal Navy and Marines whose bravery he honors.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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