A cult techno-thriller

The Polish edition of ‘Hunter Killers’ has been published by Rebis. It has garnered attention across a range of blogs and on various web sites, not least an article in the Polish edition of ‘Newsweek’.

Polish Newsweek

Reporter Mariusz Nowik suggested that had ‘Podwodni Myśliwi’ (or ‘Underwater Hunters’, as the Polish edition has been re-christened) been published decades earlier, ‘it would have ended up creating an international scandal.’

According to his ‘Newsweek’ piece ‘Underwater Hunters’ manages to ‘reveal scenes of Cold War operations mainly in the Atlantic and the Barents Sea, which until recently were known mainly [only by] retired officers of the Royal Navy and the Soviet submarine forces.’

PolishMag1However, the star turn for raising awareness of ‘Underwater Hunters’ has to be Piotr Wloczyk who interviewed me for an expansive Q&A interview on topics related to the Cold War under the sea. This was published in ‘Historia do Rzeczy’ – a serious major military history magazine, of 100 pages, aimed at the national market – whose production values are exceedingly high.

In his blog, posted at the end of July, Tomasz Borówka asked if ‘Underwater Hunters’ was the ‘historic book for the summer?’ His answer was: ‘With the greatest pleasure!’ Observing that it is ‘a fascinating story about British submarines during the Cold War’ Mr Borówka also related: ‘When I spotted this book on the shelf in the supermarket and recognized the author’s name on the cover, I made the decision to purchase in a split second. Iain Ballantyne is a writer few people in Poland have heard of (as far as I know “Underwater Hunters” is his first book translated into Polish). This author is, though, widely known elsewhere, and for dealing with the history of the Royal Navy at war.’

Mr Borówka mentions one of my other books (‘Warspite’), which he has read and also recommends to anyone with an interest in such things. This leads him on to mention that the ‘modern submarine’ successor of the WW1 and WW2 battleship Warspite (main player in the above book) is featured in ‘Underwater Hunters’.

After observing that Cold War era British submariners ‘often rubbed shoulders with death’ Mr Borówka suggests ‘Underwater Hunters’ reads like ‘a cult techno-thriller.’

It is though, he remarks, ‘one hundred percent based on facts, established through relationships of people who over the years risked their lives in hostile depths of the ocean.’

Magazine spread

According to the ‘HISTORIAXXWIEKU’ blogUnderwater Hunters’ is a book that ‘deserves the attention of all those who are interested in such Cold War, and the history of naval warfare.’

Meanwhile my friend, and fellow UK-based author, Richard Hargreaves – while on a recent research trip for his next book in Poland – found not only copies of his latest book but also ‘Underwater Hunters’ (in a shopping mall bookshop in Lublin, in the south-east of Poland).  Richard’s excellent, visceral epic of the final days of the Third Reich is in the UK called ‘Hitler’s Final Fortress – Breslau 1945’. In Poland it’s ‘Ostatnia Twierdza Hitlera. Breslau 1945’

HK in Lublin‘Underwater Hunters’ on sale in Lublin

The fact that some of the Polish reviews and articles have referenced ‘Killing the Bismarck’ is appropriate. The German battleship set out on her ill-fated maiden voyage from Gotenhafen (the Polish port of Gdynia, captured and renamed by the Nazis in 1939 only assuming its previous name again at the end of WW2). I visited Gdynia in 1999, to report on a NATO exercise, staying aboard the US Navy cruiser USS Hue City.

‘Killing the Bismarck’ tells the epic story of the Kriegsmarine flagship’s breakout into the Atlantic, the destruction of HMS Hood and her subsequent destruction at the hands of a Royal Navy battle group.

Bearing in mind the hunger in Poland for military and naval history, I have often thought that  ‘Killing the Bismarck’ deserves a Polish edition, too. Should ‘Underwater Hunters’ prove a success maybe someone will come knocking to put a Polish edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ on the market, too?

The Glamour of the 1960s Big Carrier Royal Navy

It takes a while coming, but when, finally, the warship is spotted cruising across the Mediterranean – through the cabin window of a Wessex helicopter of the Fleet Air Arm, no less – KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) enquires what on earth it is.

With the crisp and dry sarcasm only the head of British naval intelligence could deliver, Commander Waverly (Hugh Grant) explains: ‘It is an aircraft carrier Kuryakin – for a special agent you are not having a very special day.’

HMS Hermes 1960

British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes on sea trials, a type of ship featured in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’
She would be the last of the RN’s big deck aircraft carriers of the 1960s. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

It is indeed a flat top, and a British one rather than a Yank variant (as is usually the case in movies). From its appearance, as the Wessex approaches for a landing, the ship in question is Victorious or Hermes.

She has a flight-deck bursting with other helicopters and, most wonderful of all, nifty little Seahawk fighter jets. That for once the Royal Navy gets the glory in a Hollywood movie, is only sensible (and accurate). For a taster (including naval elements) watch this extended trailer:

At the time ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is set – around 1964 – the British fleet still ruled the Mediterranean and, in fact, routinely deployed several big deck aircraft carriers all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Of course back in the mid-1960s the Soviet Navy did not have an aircraft carrier at all, so perhaps it is understandable that the sight of such a vessel might flummox a KGB agent.

Having spent a fair bit of time writing about the wielding of UK and US Navy carrier power and the rise of Soviet maritime power (including carriers by the late 1960s) I was thrilled to see proper, authentic hardware depicted in this movie. It really did capture the essence of certain other aspects of the Cold War era (not just the fashion either but also espionage  and the whole East-West rivalry thing) as touched upon in my own Hunter Killers’.

Movie director Guy Ritchie has a real eye for naval detail and, as someone in his late forties, no doubt recalls the fantastic 1970s BBC TV documentary ‘Sailor’ about the big deck carrier HMS Ark Royal. For many of us born in the 1960s that show was incredibly exciting, as was the original ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ television series. Both were very, very cool.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the big deck carriers of the Royal Navy – and the dizzying succession of strange and fantastic fighter jets that flew from them – were the epitome of a Britain that, despite all its woes, still burned with the white heat of technology. It aspired to be up there with the naval big boys because it could and should.

Anyway, Ritchie’s movie only reflects the reality that there were two main players out there doing business in the fight against the Soviets during the Cold War (especially in the realms of intelligence and naval forces), namely the UK and USA.

In ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’, a stylish, sexy romp that takes us from East Berlin to Italy and out into the Med, the Russians and Americans – and eventually the British – unite against fiendish neo-Nazis seeking a nuclear weapon.

The man form UNCLE

Art work from the new movie, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros).

The climax of  ‘The Man from U.N.C.L. E.’ movie features a Royal Marine (or SBS) raid under cover of darkness with Kuryakin and CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, a Brit using an American accent) along for the ride. The Royal Navy later delivers the coup de grace of the whole drama.

Both Hammer and Cavill live up to the roles originated by Robert Vaughn (Solo) and David McCallum (Kuryakin) while in today’s ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ Alicia Vikander (Gaby) is a welcome addition to the team. Grant’s Waverly is among his better performances of late.

I had afternoon tea with the original Kuryakin once and he was a very charming chap. I must confess I was especially eager to talk about his other famous role, in ‘The Great Escape’ movie, in which he played a Fleet Air Arm aviator on the run from the Nazis, but thereby hangs another tale.

The only jarring note of the new movie is a so-called Nazi submarine that is clearly an Oberon Class (British design) boat. Bearing in mind that it is CGI creation it is a puzzle they could not create a U-boat, as there were plenty of former Nazi submarines still in commission during the 1960s. That’s a trivial moan more than made up for by the unusually prominent and accurate portrayal of the 1960s Royal Navy, which looks dynamic and decisive.

Commander Ian Fleming, who, in addition to creating naval superspy James Bond had a part in originating ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ for TV, would be most gratified.

This is a variant of an article is to be published in the October 2015 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, available from September 18.

‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros, Cert 12A) can still be seen at the cinemas and will be released on DVD and Blu Ray in the near future. 

Iain Ballantyne’s next book, ‘The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare’ is currently being worked on most diligently, and is due for publishing by Orion Books in 2017. 

 

 

The Peculiar Cruelty and Mercy of War

A visit to the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester provoked thoughts on the peculiar cruelty and mercy of war, particularly in relation to a warship blown apart at the Battle of Jutland just over a century ago.

When soldiers fall in battle there is often, though not always, some spot in a foreign field that will forever be a place of pilgrimage for their descendants to go and commemorate their loss.

At sea, those killed in action are often lost with no sign of their passing. The wreckage of their vessels soon disappears below the waves. Smoke and blood lingers for mere moments before dissolving on the surface of the sea or being diluted to nothing. The fact that there will never be any fixed grave for the loved ones of those killed in sea combat makes the loss all the harder and more devastating.

Such was the case for the battle-cruiser HMS Indefatigable, last in the fighting line among David Beatty’s hard-charging battle-cruisers at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. Hammered by German shells, Indefatigable rolled over and blew up. Not long afterwards the battle-cruiser HMS Queen Mary was also sunk with huge loss of life.

HMS-INDEFATIGABLE-b

The Devonport-built and manned battle-cruiser HMS Indefatigable, which was blown apart at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

An officer in the super dreadnought battleship HMS Warspite – steaming fast with the rest of her heavyweight squadron to provide the battle-cruisers with support – later remarked: ‘I suddenly saw our battle cruisers coming close by about four cables in the opposite direction and I realised they had turned back. I saw Queen Mary and Indefatigable were adrift but never for a moment realised they had gone.’

Like Indefatigable, the Warspite was both a Devonport-built and manned ship. While the latter survived the battle to fight another day, the destruction of Indefatigable and the obsolete cruiser Defence (also manned by men of the Devonport division) delivered a devastating blow to hundreds of families in the city of Plymouth (which to this day plays host to Devonport dockyard and naval base).

In the aftermath of Jutland worried relatives gathered at the dockyard, outside the office of Commander-in-Chief Plymouth and at the Western Morning News Building in the city centre. Reports based on an official Admiralty communique were placed in the windows of the newspaper offices: 1,017 men had been killed in Indefatigable with a further 900 lost in Defence.

On seeing the names of destroyed ships confirmed in black and white, wives and mothers broke down and had to be escorted away by friends and relatives. A few sad souls remained late into the night, lingering outside the newspaper offices hoping for further news that might hold out some hope a loved one had survived after all.

The names of Devonport-based sailors killed in the two world wars of the 20th Century are recorded at the Naval Memorial that dominates Plymouth Hoe. In its shadow are information plaques on selected ships lost and how they met their fates, not least Indefatigable and Defence. The Imperial War Museum North, in Trafford, Manchester also has a moving reminder of the loss of Indefatigable. There is even a remnant of the ship herself.

MEMORIAL-HOE1a

A grizzled Royal Navy sailor as carved in stone on the Naval Memorial, Plymouth Hoe.
Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

A tour of the capacious, softly lit interior of the Main Exhibition Space in IWM North brings you face-to-face with the disaster as revealed in a simple, but powerful wall display. In addition to horrifying photographs of the ship exploding, it presents a lifebelt emblazoned with the ship’s name. Notes reveal that it was retrieved from the sea by a British warship searching desperately for survivors. A Jutland veteran donated the lifebelt to the IWM in the 1930s.

What really rams home message of war’s cruelty is the notion that the lifebelt not only weathered a cataclysm that ripped apart steel and the mere flesh of her men, but also that it failed to serve its function. It is more than likely nobody was able to use the lifebelt while they awaited rescue.

One of the only two survivors from Indefatigable does, however, get to tell us his tale, via a quote extract that is included in the display. Interviewed by the IWM in 1964, as part of efforts to ensure veterans’ accounts are preserved for all time, Signaller C. Farmer recounted how he clung for dear life to a piece of wood.

As night clashes between the Grand Fleet and the German High Sea Fleet raged around him, he prayed for salvation. By 3.00 a.m. on the morning of June 1, Farmer was giving up hope of being saved. In a transcript of the IWM sound archive recording he recounts: ‘all of a sudden I could hear something coming towards me and I had to gaze up. It was a German destroyer. Two sailors got down, picked me up and dragged me aboard…’

GrandFleet1915

The very symbol of British maritime power a century ago: The battleships of the Grand Fleet steaming in line abreast formation in the North Sea, 1915. Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

While Farmer was in the hands of the enemy, he was at least luckier than the 6,097 sailors and marines of the Royal Navy killed at Jutland. Despite that loss it was ultimately considered a strategic victory for the British, as the Kaiser’s fleet rarely poked its nose out of its bases from then on and mutinied before surrendering in 1918.

Showing the human face of war and terrible loss is the core rationale of the IWM North, which also numbers among its exhibits a heartbreaking exchange of letters between the parents of a child evacuated to Canada and the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, the organisation running the process.

The letters crossed in the post. Even as her parents’ asked if she had reached Canada safely, nine-year-old Beryl Myatt had already lost her life. The evacuation ship SS City of Benares was torpedoed on September 18, 1940 by U-48, with 83 children killed among the 260 who lost their lives. A subsequent request for a wreath to be dropped on the spot where Beryl died was requested by her mum and dad, but was refused by the Admiralty due to the risk from U-boats.

In addition to such letters, the same display at IWM North tells us that Marion Evans, also being sent to Canada, survived the sinking of SS Volendam. Remarkably, though hit by two torpedoes, the Dutch evacuation liner did not sink. The vessel was taken in tow after suffering only a single death. The bitter twist in the tale is that Volendam’s near sinking was in August 1940 and some of the children who survived that attack were later put aboard the City of Benares and lost their lives to U-48’s attack.

While the large central void of IWM North is used very effectively for performances that bring to life aspects of war at home and on the front line, it is also filled with larger artifacts. These illustrate the technology of warfare and also convey the results of conflict, not least a US Marine Corps Harrier and jagged fragments of the Twin Towers destroyed by Al-Qaeda attack.

In one of the displays along the walls of the Main Exhibition Space there is even J.R.R. Tolkein’s revolver. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ author saw action on the Somme during the summer of 1916, but, after contracting trench fever, was rendered unfit for further service. Anyone who has read his novels or seen the movies based on them can be in no doubt that, as he lay in hospital during WW1 – and for many years thereafter – Tolkein brooded on the many faceted nature of war and men, its mass cruelty and moments of kindness.

Among these could be included the Germans who blew apart the British battle-cruiser Indefatigable one moment and held out the hand of mercy to save one of her sailors the next. Then there was the lottery of being evacuated to Canada for safety’s sake and straying into the path of a prowling U-boat. Such are the thoughts stirred up by a visit to the IWM North.

IB-SHOT-OF-IWM-NORTH

The striking exterior of the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the August edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine and also the Western Morning News 
Iain Ballantyne recounts the loss of the battle-cruisers and other moments during the Battle of Jutland in his book ‘Warspite’ (Pen & Sword, £14.99, paperback).
The fate of the City of Benares and the toll of Allied shipping taken by U-48 will be touched upon in the forthcoming book ‘The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare’, which Iain is currently labouring over.
IWM North is located at The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ. Admission is free and it is open daily from 10.00am to 5.00pm, except for December 24 – 26. Further details here.

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