H.M.S. Ulysses

Reading H.M.S. Ulysses — as I recently did for the first time (2010) — sharpens one's insight into Alistair MacLean. His earliest novel, written at a publisher's request after he'd won a short story competition the previous year (in 1954), H.M.S. Ulysses draws heavily on MacLean's experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II. It traces the ill-starred voyage of a group of British warships escorting a shipment of tanks, ammunition, and oil along the Arctic route from the U.S. to Russia. MacLean had been part of two Arctic convoys a dozen years earlier; one can only hope they met a far better fate than the one described in this book. While meant to be uplifting as well as tragic, this story eloquently depicts warfare's senseless savagery.


Plot keypoints

Shepherding an Allied convoy through Arctic weather and German attacks is tantamount to suicide. But Russia, fighting the common German foe, urgently needs armaments, so the Royal Navy's top brass orders another convoy to sea. Despite severe misgivings — as well as a recent mutinous uprising aboard their ship by desperate sailors — Admiral Tyndall, Captain Vallery, and Commander Turner must once again push the H.M.S. Ulysses and its crew to the limits of their legendary luck. Blizzards, U-boat torpedoes, and aerial bombardments surely await ... as, perhaps, does the seemingly unbeatable German battleship Tirpitz.



  • MacLean exerted all his writing skill in his very first novel. He lingers lovingly over the minutest details of weather, battle strategy, personal character, and all the factors that build into a sprawling naval war tale.
  • He gives a knowing look into the way WWII warships were made and operated. A diagram at the start details 68(!) parts of the Ulysses.
  • Not every crew member is infallible or heroic. Trouble from without and within the ship presents the commanding officers with many tough decisions.
  • While the ending certainly can't be called happy, the book does finish on a poignant, touching note.



  • Realistic though they may be, the seemingly endless series of blows that rain down on this convoy may leave the reader feeling as battered as the Ulysses crew.
  • A reader unfamiliar with warships will have trouble following some of the descriptions and abbreviations with which MacLean peppers the story.
  • Occasionally, characters behave in hard-to-believe ways. One jarring example is what a top-notch crew member does — or, more precisely, doesn't do — when ordered to torpedo another ship in the convoy. (The officers' actions don't ring true there either.)



Before his writing started to follow recognizable patterns, Alistair MacLean forcibly carved out his own literary path with this brutal war novel. Read it and learn about naval warfare — and about him.



 (9 out of 10)