23 May, 2008

The Last Raider, by Douglas Reeman. Book review

Hutchinson, 1963. ISBN 009-180-114-1

The Last Raider is set on board a German commerce raider, the Vulkan, in the last year of the First World War. All the major characters are fictional.

In 1918, as the First World War in the trenches of France and Flanders grinds destructively on with no end in sight, the Imperial German Navy decides to resurrect a now little-used form of naval warfare, the commerce raider, in an attempt to disrupt enemy shipping. Disguised as a neutral merchant ship, the Vulkan departs from Kiel dockyard with a scratch crew and her new captain, the famed “Tiger of the Seas” Felix von Steiger. Her mission is to intercept, capture and destroy enemy merchant ships, maintaining her neutral disguise until the victim has been lured within gunnery range and hauling up the German flag only at the moment of attack. It is a strategy perilously close to piracy, and one that will earn the Vulkan and her crew few friends. Alone on the high seas, with no support vessel and no friendly port within a thousand miles, the Vulkan’s dangerous and lonely mission will take a heavy toll on the ship, the crew and most especially the captain.

The commerce raider as described in the novel seems to me to be reminiscent of the Napoleonic system of prize-taking or the sixteenth-century privateers. I had no idea that it was still in use during the First World War. As described in the novel, the convoy system was beginning to come into use, which meant that isolated merchant ships were less common and thus the commerce raider’s task was becoming much more difficult and much more dangerous. At one point a character refers to the Vulkan as “a scavenger”, supplies are a constant problem, and several times the captain expresses dissatisfaction with the mission’s achievements. There is a strong sense that this is the last gasp of a dying breed, and that the commerce raider’s days are drawing to a close – which I guess reflects the novel’s title.

For me, the novel’s strength is its authentic atmosphere. Not only in the details that recreate the claustrophobic misery of life in a crowded warship, but also in a brooding feeling of bleakness and near-despair that reminds me of some of the First World War poets. It manages to convey a sense of the futility of war – particularly this war, which no-one can remember the reason for and which seems as if it can never end – combined with the absolute necessity for the men involved to do their duty. This in turn raises disturbing questions about honour, decency and integrity, which the contrasting characters have to confront in different ways. How does an honourable man keep his self-respect when he is engaged in a sort of state-approved and state-directed piracy? If a passenger ship is about to transmit a radio message that will bring enemy warships to destroy his ship, how can he balance his moral obligations to the civilian sailors and passengers aboard against his obligation to preserve the lives of his own crew?

The characters are clear individuals with their own hopes, fears, ambitions, hang-ups and principles, and the tensions between these contrasting people fill the novel with conflict on many levels. The disruptive presence of a captured British woman, a passenger from a torpedoed ship, serves to heighten the tensions further. The captain, von Steiger, is inevitably the central character, if only because his actions and decisions will determine the fate of all the rest and they know it. But he does not dominate the novel, and many of the secondary characters and the sub-plots associated with them take centre-stage from time to time.

The Vulkan’s journey takes her from the storm-lashed North Atlantic to the sunny Brazilian coast, and provides a wide variety of adventures and naval problems along the way, from an encounter with an iceberg north of Iceland to the practical difficulties of coaling at sea. The combat scenes range from ship battles to hand-to-hand fighting, and are brutal without being excessively graphic. No doubt reflecting its date of publication, I don’t think there’s a single expletive in the book.

The prose is clear and readable throughout. If there was much in the way of nautical jargon I never noticed it, so it must be sufficiently clear that a non-expert can understand what’s going on purely from context. Much of the dialogue seemed rather stilted and this took me a while to get used to – I wonder if it is intended to represent formal German or is just the author’s style?

Unfortunately there is no historical note, so I have no way of knowing how much of the novel is rooted in fact. Which is a little disappointing, because now I am mildly curious as to whether ships like the Vulkan existed, whether they were used by both sides, how important a role they played and whether 1918 was indeed their last gasp (as the novel seems to show) before they were replaced by the submarine warfare famous in World War II.

Action-packed naval adventure with an unusual setting and a splendid atmosphere of realism.

Has anyone else read it?


Annis said...

Carla, you might find it interesting (if you have time!) to read "The Sea Devil: The story of Count Felix von Luckner, the German war raider, (by Lowell Thomas (Non-fiction, but as engrossing as a good adventure novel.)
Von Luckner's "Seeadler" was one of the most well-known merchant raiders of WWI

Constance said...

haven't read it, but I might have to go search it out thanks to your review. It sounds interesting! I have a thing for WWI and WWII novels... especially from other perspectives.

Rick said...

Annis already beat me to it - there were indeed German commerce raiders like the one in the book, and the author surely used von Luckner and his colleagues for inspiration.

From our perspective, in spite of the semipiratical element the surface raiders, like the early fighter pilots, were one of the few cases in WW I that retained a bit of chivalrous flavor. Compare to the U-boat campaign, which was also a commerce raiding strategy but a purely modern one.

Bernita said...

Sounds like a fascinating read.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

What made you pick this up in the first place Carla? I'm just incurably nosey!

I haven't read any Reeman myself, but my mother has read and enjoyed most of his oevre. He used to be one of her favourite sea-story authors.

tenthmedieval said...

The background is certainly real. Both sides in the Great War used such disguised ships, though for different purposes: the Germans had their disguised raiders, and the British had Q-ships, vulnerable-looking merchants with hidden guns that were supposed to attract U-boats (which, under Prize Rules, were supposed to challenge before attacking where there was no visible danger, not a restriction that was adhered to for long) and then uncloak and sink them in a hail of shot. Actually, they just got torpedoed, and made German captains a lot less likely to adhere to Prize Rules. But the Germans (and the Japanese) also used disguised commerce raiders in the Second World War. Some of them were fiercely successful, and several did better than any of Germany's genuine warships in terms of tonnage sunk. I can't find the book I once read about these ships (it may have been this), but the Great War vessels are listed here. One of the more successful Second World War ones managed somehow to sink an Australian cruiser in single combat in the Pacific, though it didn't survive the exploit; they only just found the wreck of the Australian ship last year, she's been a mystery for half a century.

Real swashbuckling stuff and some amazing stories, though of course this was war so also rather a lot of horrible oily or frozen deaths. Of such things we are capable.

Hazel-rah said...

I haven't read this particular Reeman novel, but this post is rather timely as it happens...
One of the great naval disasters, for Australia, of WWII was the sinking of HMAS Sydney, from which not one crew member survived. It is the single greatest loss of life in history of the Royal Australian Navy and the biggest vessel of any country to sink with all hands during the war - although this latter statistical distinction is still debated. The location of the wreck had been a mystery for years, and was located March this year, and caused a considerable stir here.

What was known was that the German ship Kormoran, which was merchant ship converted into a raider, lured it to close range under false flag - it was pretending to be a Dutch ship - and then hit the Sydney with artillery and torpedoes. The Sydney fought back and the Kormoran was so badly damaged it had to be scuttled. Most information about the sinking came from German survivors, some of whom were picked up by other Australian ships. There are a thousand ways or more to die in war at sea and all of them are absolutely hideous. Waters are reported to have turned white after a battle with the sea churning with sharks.

One of my grandfathers was in the navy and assigned to HMAS Canberra at the outbreak of the war. He would have known many of the Sydney's crew.
During some voyage he contracted a tropical disease affecting the kidneys and was hospitalised. When Canberra was given orders to sail he went to the base to get aboard, but was told his papers had not been forwarded by the hospital and another man had been given his berth. My grandmother, thinking he had sailed, found him waiting for her on the front veranda of their house. My mother still remembers her crying, thinking she had missed him, possibly never to see him again.
HMAS Canberra was sunk by Japanese cruisers in the battle of Savo Island, along with three other allied warships, and the man who took my grandfather's place was killed. It's remotely possible my wife's grandfather (my wife is Japanese) was serving on one of the opposing ships, although I haven't been able to establish that.

Carla said...

Annis - Many thanks! I undoubtedly will find that interesting if I can get hold of a copy - thanks for the information. Completely agree that real events can be every bit as engrossing as ficton, if not more so - it was striking when I read Cochrane's biography how much more colourful his real life was than, say, Hornblower or Jack Aubrey!

Constance - well worth looking out for, and I liked the unusual perspective too. I like seeing things from the opposite side.

Rick - yes, it sounds as if von Luckner might have ben part of the inspiration, doesn't it? Several of the German officers in the novel have harsh things to say about U-boats, which they regard as a dishonojrable form of warfare - which ties in exactly with your comment.

Bernita - it is, well worth a go.

Elizabeth - partly because Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea is a long-standing favourite of mine, and partly because of some email correspondence with Hazel-rah in which he recommended Douglas Reeman's novels. That was well over a year ago now, so I expect he has long since forgotten :-) It often takes me a while to get round to following up recommendations, but I'm usually glad that I did, and this is a case in point - I had seen Reeman's novels but never read them before. I shall be looking out for more, I think.

Tenthmedieval and Hazel-rah - that's the same story you're both describing, isn't it? How remarkable that it should be unsolved for 50 years!

Hazel-rah - what an amazing story about your grandfather! Thank you for recommending Douglas Reeman's novels to me, by the way - it took me a long time to act on it, but better late than never!

Annis said...

Carla, it occurs to me that it might be hard to get hold of Lowell Thomas' book now, as it was written not long after WW1. Lowell Thomas was an interesting guy himself- an adventurous journalist-type willing to go anywhere in search of a story. He spent time in the desert with T.E.Lawrence and pretty much created the "Lawrence of Arabia" legend.

Anyway, back to the point! There is a more recent book around about von Luckner and the "Seeadler" which might be easier to find.

Hazel-rah said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the Reeman book. It's somewhat old fashioned writing, but there's nothing wrong with that... Sometimes I think his German characters tend to be a bit Boy's Own dashing BECAUSE they are German, and there is therefore some need to make them more overtly heroic just to get past the fact they were on the other side.
I've noticed this in Jack Higgins' writing too. They all seem to have names like Steiner, Steiger, Hechler...
Actually... Reeman's 'With Blood And Iron' - which is a WWII U-boat story - has a character called Rudolph Steiger.
Perhaps the inference is that he is a descendant of Felix.
Not sure.
The Iron Pirate is another one of his 'German' novels, and is excellent. At least as I remember.

Rick said...

Hazel-rah - I think you're onto something with the Boy's Own element (though that was also still quite a standard element in those days). Humanizing the recent enemy was still a bit tricky in 1963. Reeman picks the easiest Germans to relate to, furthest from the wartime stereotype, because the story presumably has us in some way rooting for them.

Carla said...

Annis - Thanks very much, that's very helpful. Was Lowell Thomas the journalist who features in David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia? I have a very vivid mental image of the press journalist looking up at Lawrence after the massacre and saying, "You rotten man. I suppose I have to take your rotten bloody picture. For the rotten bloody newspapers."

Hazel-rah - that's an interesting comment, because it didn't strike me as being especially "Boy's Own" in style at all, which is one of the things I liked about it. Some of the German characters are idealistic, some are competent, some are pragmatists, some are out of their depth, one or two are absolute bastards. But The Last Raider does have this strong and rather bleak sense of the end of the line, so possibly it's an exception. I shall try some of his other novels and find out.
A curious point about the names. Felix von Steiger has a little son called Rudolph or Rudolf who is aged six in TheLast Raider -is he the right age to be the Rudolph Steiger in With Blood and Iron? A sort of hat-tip to the longstanding reader. He wouldn't be the only author to do this - Patrick Lassan in Bernard Cornwell's American Civil War series is obviously the son of Richard Sharpe and Lucille Lassan from the Sharpe series.

Rick - I wonder. I have an unsubstantiated feeling that for thoughtful people who have actually lived through war, especially on the front line, experience may tend to drive out the usual stereotypes. I think some of Reeman's other novels deal with U-boat crews, so he didn't confine himself entirely to the 'sympathetic' end of the spectrum. There are two sides to every war, and all that.

Annis said...

Carla, yes, Lowell Thomas was fictionalized in David Lean's film "Lawrence of Arabia" as American journalist Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy. When he heard this film was being produced, Thomas apparently offered to give producer Sam Spiegel a large amount of documentation about Lawrence to use for the film, but was rejected. Thomas enjoyed the film but was critical of its historical inaccuracies.

Carla said...

Annis - Many thanks. That sounds a fair description - great film (one of the few that I make a real effort to watch whenever it comes round on the telly), but beware of taking it as history!

Annis said...

While on the subject of Lawrence of Arabia, I recently read a book by Robert Ryan, called "Empire of Sand", a thriller/adventure which sees T.E.L. pitting his wits against his (real-life) counterpart, German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss, in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab tribes. This is entertainment, so don't expect any great in-depth analysis about Lawrence or how decisions made during WWI impacted on the Middle Eastern situation today, though the author does try to capture something of the enigmatic Lawrence's nature.

I did like the title though, very evocative , and a reminder of the ephemeral nature of nationalistic power and military might- c.f. hearts and minds?
Brings to mind Shelley's "Ozymandias".

One thing Robert Ryan mentioned which was interesting is that the copyright has gone off a lot of T.E. Lawrences' writing, including various letters, and that much of it is now available on this website.

Carla said...

Annis - Many thanks, and especially for the website link. I've been interested in Lawrence of Arabia ever since seeing David Lean's film, so I'll make an effort to look those up (when I have time).

Anonymous said...

I recommend Blaine Pardoe's The Cruise of the Sea Eagle: The Amazing True Story of Germany's Gentleman Pirate. It's about the SMS Seeadler the last fighting sailing ship, one of the WW1 commerce raiders.
The Germans also used such ships in WW2 to a small degree.