Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses, an improbable debut novel 60 years ago for the world’s greatest action thriller writer

Where Eagles DareHMS Ulysses was the highly acclaimed debut novel by the Scottish author, Alistair MacLean, based upon his experiences in the Royal Navy and the dangerous Arctic convoys of the Second World War. Yet the book very nearly didn’t happen. A publisher had to persuade a reluctant MacLean to write it after he’d won a local short story competition. 

Alistair Maclean’s writing career went on to be, quite frankly, monumental. He remained in the best seller lists right up to his death in 1987. He was responsible for some of the greatest novels of the 1950s and 60s, many of which made it to the big screen, including The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and Golden Rendezvous.

Alistair MacLean

Alistair Stuart MacLean was born on 28 April 1922 in Glasgow, the third of four sons of a Church of Scotland minister, and he learnt English as a second language, his first being Gaelic. In 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and served as a Leading Torpedo Operator on HMS Royalist. His active service took him to the Mediterranean and the Far East, as well as on two perilous Arctic convoys. It was this experience that sits behind his compelling 1955 book, HMS Ulysses. MacLean left the Royal Navy in 1946, when he attended the University of Glasgow to study English. He graduated in 1953 and became a popular school teacher in Rutherglen.

It was while at university that he began writing short stories and in 1954 won a local newspaper competition with his maritime story Dileas. An employee of the publisher Collins read the story in the newspaper and managed to track down MacLean. After some persuading he agreed to write a novel and twelve weeks later delivered HMS Ulysses. The book received unprecedented pre-sales and earned MacLean enough to buy his first house.

MacLean drank heavily and struggled with alcoholism. He died in Munich on 2 February 1987. His success meant that he spent much of his life living as a tax exile in Switzerland. He is buried just a few yards away from the actor Richard Burton in Céligny, near Geneva. They were near neighbours and although Burton starred in the highly successful Where Eagles Dare, they were not close friends.

Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood - Where Eagles Dare

HMS Ulysses tells the story of a Royal Navy light cruiser of the same name, which is among the fastest ships in the world. The ship serves on the Arctic convoys and her crew is pushed above and beyond the normal limits of human endurance, leading to a mutiny. Ulysses sets sail once again, this time as an escort for the convoy FR-77, heading for Murmansk.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLeanThe convoy is based upon the tragic real-life convoy, PQ-17, which in July 1942 suffered enormous losses when 24 of its 35 merchant ships were sunk during a series of German attacks that lasted for a week.

The crew of HMS Ulysses are battered by a fierce Arctic storm, German ships, U-Boats and aircraft. The convoy is slowly whittled down from 32 to five ships. The Ulysess, battle worn and with all her guns out of action, is sunk as she attempts to ram a German cruiser. The resonances with real-life are significant, the British G-class destroyer HMS Glowworm and HMS Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser, both sacrificed themselves engaging larger opponents in the Second World War.

HMS Ulysses received good notices when it was published, staying at or near the top of best seller lists for some considerable time. Some reviewers put the book in the same class as Nicholas Monsarrat’s outstanding novel, The Cruel Sea.

A film version of HMS Ulysses has often been talked about, most prominently by the Rank Organisation, who announced their intention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, but unfortunately the company later withdrew from filmmaking and the project was shelved. However, a radio drama version was produced by BBC Radio 4 and broadcast on 14 June 1997, with Sir Derek Jacobi as Captain Vallery and Sir Donald Sinden as Admiral Starr.

The Guns of Navarone - Cast

Despite the success of HMS Ulysses, MacLean, concerned that it may be a flash in the pan, stayed on as a school teacher.

He wrote his second novel, The Guns of Navarone in his spare time. It was published in 1957 and was an immediate international bestseller. With its success Alistair MacLean established himself as one of the world’s greatest thriller writers and finally had the courage to give up his teaching job.