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  • Nautical Book Review: The Cruel Coast, by William Gage

    Posted by David Foster on July 12th, 2014 (All posts by )

    The Cruel Coast by William Gage

    —-

    In an early morning in May 1944, the German submarine U-234 is cruising on the surface in heavy fog.  The bored lookouts are startled fully awake by the sight of a British corvette heading directly for them at full speed, 4-inch gun crashing and 20-millimeter cannon hammering.  The corvette rams the submarine about 30 feet from the bow, hitting hard and doing major damage.

    The submarine manages to disengage from its British pursuer and find temporary safety in the fog, only because the corvette also has suffered from serious damage.  But the effects of the ramming make it impossible for U-234 to submerge, and Captain Ludtke knows that his expected lifetime on the surface, in an Atlantic dominated by Allied air and naval forces, is quite short.  He resolves to put in at sparsely-populated Spanish Island, off the coast of Ireland, and attempt to repair his U-boat.

    To the people of Spanish Island, U-234′s arrival is like the appearance of a spaceship. The inhabitants are mostly fishermen, all living without much in the way of luxuries or possessions, isolated from the mainland except for the weekly visits of an old steamer, the Kerry Queen.  Ireland is of course neutral in the Second World War, but the people of Spanish have an inherited anger against Britain and hence have pro-German inclinations, carried over from the First World War without much thought.  The only person on Spanish who has a real sense of the issues in the present war is Nora Berkeley, a college graduate who lived for several years on the island after becoming orphaned as a child. She is now on Spanish to visit her grandmother, Lady Maud.  Nora loves the people of Spanish and feels protective toward them;  she does not like the Nazis and does not like submarine warfare—”How can they be honorable, and torpedo defenseless merchant ships?”

    U-234′s captain is Gerhard Ludtke.  He is a very successful submarine commander, holder of the Iron Cross, and his greatest ambition is to add the Oak Leaves…the ultimate award for military valor and success…to this decoration. Ludtke’s father surrendered a battleship to Bolshevik mutineers in the chaotic days following the end of WWI, and Ludtke’s own life has been largely driven by a strong need to redeem this strongly-felt disgrace.

    The submarine’s First Officer is Kurt Riegel—a devout Nazi, and with the kind of personality one might expect of such an individual–Riegel is arrogant, dramatic, quick to cast blame on others when anything goes wrong. The Engineering Officer, Peter Hoffman, is a very different sort of individual–quiet, with a “shy, tilted smile.” Once a violinist and an avid skier, Hoffman was deeply affected by the death of his wife Erika, who was killed in an air raid.  His considerable capacity for loyalty and devotion is now directed toward the crew of U-234;  indeed, his sense of responsibility toward the submarine’s crew parallels Nora Berkeley’s feelings toward the people of Spanish Island.

    Most of the people on Spanish are initially enthusiastic about the submarine’s presence and eagerly volunteer to help with the necessary repair work.  But Peter Hoffman quickly determines that submerged operation will only be possible if they can procure certain electrical parts which are by no means available on the island.  Captain Ludtke initially considers radioing for a Luftwaffe air drop, but realizes that any transmission would probably be intercepted and triangulated by the British.  He resolves to send Hoffman to the mainland by fishing boat to buy or steal the necessary equipment, with two strong islanders to do the rowing and Nora Berkeley as a guide.  Ludtke overcomes Nora’s objections by telling her that if the sub doesn’t get repaired quickly he may be unable to control his men, and some of the island women are likely to be raped… moreover, he warns, if the sub is still there when the Kerry Queen arrives on her weekly trip, he will blow the steamer out of the water.

    Hoffman and Nora Berkeley and the two islanders make their way to the mainland without incident, with Nora harboring a secret intent to slip away and notify the police about the sub’s presence in Irish waters.  They borrow a car and begin a tour of electrical distributors and power stations, with Peter looking for circuit breakers and battery acid that he can acquire and Nora looking for an opportunity to get away and go for the police.

    But as they become acquainted, talking among other things about music and  their childhoods (“Things did not seem to have been greatly different at Wassenburg Akademie and the St Brigid Convent School”), a strong mutual attraction grows up between Nora and Peter.  Nora now has a three-way dilemma: Keep harm from coming to the people of Spanish, keep U-234 from returning to the fight, and keep Peter Hoffman alive until the end of the war.

    The author has done a good job in portraying the two closed worlds of the islanders and the submariners and in building the action of the story around the collision of these worlds.  This book would have made…still could make…an excellent movie, with lots of opportunities for good visuals and good acting.

    Long out of print, but a fair number of used copies are available.

     

    4 Responses to “Nautical Book Review: The Cruel Coast, by William Gage”

    1. dearieme Says:

      “pro-German inclinations, carried over from the First World War”: there was no conscription in Ireland in the First World War, but there were plenty of Irish volunteers, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

    2. David Foster Says:

      Dearieme…perhaps not stated very well…I didn’t mean to suggest that anti-British and pro-German attitudes were *caused* by the First World War; clearly, anti-British attitudes long predated the war. It seems likely that any enemy of the British would have gained significant Irish sympathy, as of course the French did much earlier.

      The point I was trying to make is that allying with the Kaiser’s Germany, in order to further the cause of Irish independence, was an entirely different proposition, morally speaking, from allying with the Third Reich. (Irish independence having already been established, of course, but I think the same argument would have been valid even if it had not been.)

    3. Texan99 Says:

      Just picked up a copy for $2.50 at Amazon.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Tex…I’ll be interested to hear how you like it.