This week, Ricochet’s own Seawriter takes us on a journey through the dark days of the Battle of the Atlantic, in C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd. Forester was a particular favorite of mine through junior high and high school, and I read all the “Horatio Hornblower” books in order–an odd choice for a growing girl, I’ll admit, but one heartily encouraged by my Dad, who also introduced me to Sherlock Holmes–and that in fourth grade when I was recovering from whooping cough. Another of Forester’s books, The African Queen, speaks more to my heart though, and was made into a movie which, although it deviates from the plot of the novel in several key elements is, to my mind, equally excellent, starting with its pitch-perfect casting of Humphrey Bogart as the drunken sailor Charlie Allnutt, and Katharine Hepburn as the starchy, uptight missionary Rose Sayer. Its script, co-written by John Huston, James Agee and others, contains what I think is one of the finest (and truest) exchanges in any movie ever, taking place after Rose has emptied all of Charlies gin bottles into the river, and the poor man is in extremis and hurting:
Charlie Allnut: Uh, how’s the Book, Miss? [no answer] Well, not that I ain’t read it. That is to say, my poor old Mum used to read me stories out of it. [no answer] How’s about reading it out loud? [silence] I could sure do with a little spiritual comfort, myself. [Yelling at her] And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh? What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in a while. It’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
A marvelous film. Based on a lovely book.
But today, we travel back with Seawriter to the cold, dangerous North Atlantic in the winter of 1942, and to the story of C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd.
C. S. Forester was one of the most popular authors of the middle twentieth century. He died in 1966. Best known for his Horatio Hornblower novels, he wrote many other books, including mysteries and many other sea stories.
“The Good Shepherd,” by C. S. Forester, was one of those other sea novels. Originally published in 1955, it was adapted into the movie “Greyhound” by Tom Hanks. Released in 2020, the movie led several publishers, including the Naval Institute Press, to republish the book.
“The Good Shepherd,” set in World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, recounts 52 hours of a 1942 winter crossing of the Atlantic by a slow convoy. It was the worst part of the Battle of the Atlantic. The escort is inadequate; German U-boats numerous.
The story unfolds from the bridge of the US destroyer Keeling. It is told through the eyes of its captain, Commander George Krause. Although Krause has been in the Navy nearly 20 years, this is Krause’s first wartime command, and likely his first completely independent command. Due to his seniority, he is in command of the convoy and its escort. The escort’s group’s other captains have vastly more experience in combat.
Krause must shepherd the convoy through the Atlantic’s Black Pit, where no air cover is possible. He has only five ships in the escort: his own Keeling, a Polish destroyer, two corvettes (one British and one Canadian), and a rescue ship. Between the convoy and Britain are over a dozen U-boats.
The story has plenty of action, fighting the U-boats. Like much combat fiction written about World War II in the decade following the war, the story is competently told. What lifts the book above the run-of-the-mill combat adventure is Forester’s main character, Commander Krause.
Krause, an ordinary and perhaps mediocre officer, is competent, unimaginative, and plodding. His limitations led to his marriage collapsing. His career to date has been undistinguished. He has been passed over for promotion twice. Had the war not occurred he would be on his way to retirement as a Lieutenant Commander.
Deeply religious, Krause draws strategy more from Ephesians and the Psalms than Mahan or Sun Tzu. This was quaint when Forester wrote the book and hopelessly out-of-step today. Forester shows how an ordinary man rises above his limitations to meet an extraordinary situation. This is what makes “The Good Shepherd” worth reading, even, perhaps especially, today.
“The Good Shepherd,” by C. S. Forester, Naval Institute Press, 2020, 280 pages $34.95 (hardcover)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com