Particularly during WW II, on the Allied side, authors wrote books about the men who had been arbitrarily collected into a military unit, or to serve in one ship or plane, men with diverse pasts but now a common destiny tied to the fortunes of their unit, and with some degree of commonality in their desire to fight the war. Forester's The Ship was his contribution to this genre. When night bombing was Britain's prime contribution to the assault against Germany proper, her authors wrote about their crews. Pathfinders (author forgotten) told about the crew of a night bomber whose special task was to find the target in the dark and delineate it with incendiaries so those less trained would have an area to aim at. (Two of my cousins and my youngest uncle served, two as pilots and one as navigator, all in Bomber Command.)
Most Secret is Nevil Shute's contribution to this genre, telling of the time when Britain was all alone against Germany after the fall of France. Genevieve is a tiny warship, actually a converted French fishing vessel, manned by four British officers and a small crew of Free French ex-fishermen, armed only with a flame-thrower and small arms. Their task is as much psychological as military: to infiltrate the French fishing fleet still operating off the Atlantic coast of Brittany, surprise and burn out at least one of the escorting German motorgunboats, and provide small arms and ammunition to the budding Resistance movement, to demonstrate that someday the Germans will be beaten back out of France.
The four who lead the crew are military amateurs among whom rank is relative unimportant. One was born an Englishman, raised in France but with a British boarding-school education, and therefore not quite at home in either nation, the chief engineer of a French cement factory. Disgusted and horrified by the German oppression, although the Germans buy all the cement that the factory can produce, Charles Simon has made his way to England, bringing with him information about both the German's concrete airfield runways and coastal defences and about the state of anger among the Bretons. He has become enrolled as an army engineer who makes occasional spying trips back to France, and who knows the German brutalities at first hand. The technical officer of the ship, Michael Rhodes, is an introverted former chemical engineer who designed and built the naval flamethrower as a larger and more deadly improvement on those developed by the army, using fuel he modified to be somewhat like the later napalm. The war has cost him all those he held dear, first his Labrador retriever and then his pet rabbit, killed in an air raid. The ranking naval officer is Oliver Boden, before the war a young, newly married, well-off, amateur yachtsman, whose pregnant wife, his first love from childhood on, has been horribly burned to death, trapped beneath the wreckage of a house bombed in the London Blitz. The older maritime expertise is provided by John Colvin, an ex-English, now American, seaman with a master's ticket and ribbons from WW I, who has knocked around the world in curious maritime occupations, once experiencing a flamethrowing fight between gangster boats while rum running during America's prohibition, and who has left wives in various ports but who still has a curious attachment to the one he left in San Francisco to join the war.
These interesting characters are skilled and competent. In particular, the shy, introverted former chemical engineer who designed and built the flamethrower is also the ship's gunner. Fire and fear of fire is the background of the novel, even for Charles Simon. Cement is made with fire (Shute didn't bring this out), and Simon has met a priest, taking over the position of one who had been shot by the Germans, who prophecies that the fire of God will overtake those who committed these brutalities. The first surprise works, burning out without a survivor a German motorgunboat that has come alongside to inspect them. They sneak into the French fishing harbor and burn out two more at the pier before escaping. But that luck cannot last and they are surprised by a destroyer, which, after being much burned forward, finishes Genevieve with one shell from her aft gun. The officer whose wife had been incinerated is last seen lying on a bit of floating wreckage, shooting his submachine gun at the destroyer's searchlight. As for the others, they survive to go through their versions of Hell before the end.
Books such as this were written in part to demonstrate that the democracies' war effort was powered by ordinary people who saw their duty, and many of them were just cardboard characters. Nevil Shute's artistic skill has made his characters into real people, and has provided the motivations that are necessary for the successful employment of such a horrible but limited weapon. I presume that when Shute wrote this novel he had no accurate, if any, information about the gas chambers and ovens of the German death camps, information which did not surface until the spring of 1945. For us, who know of these things, Genevieve's secret weapon is a presentiment of what became history.
Copyright © 1997 by John Forester Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.