Book Review By Frances S: Some years ago, browsing in a local charity shop, I bought a framed strip cartoon. It featured ‘Amateur Archie’, vaguely remembered from old copies of the Sheffield Telegraph. Archie, drawn by ‘Harris’, was a cheerful tryer, ready to have a crack at any sport, usually to the discomfiture of the experts. My cartoon has him hiding contentedly with the fox after falling off his horse during a hunt. Back home, I realised that the little strip, in its old and damaged Boots the Chemist frame, appeared to be an original ink drawing. Later, in an early foray onto the internet (remember Ask Jeeves?), I learned that ‘Harris’, was John Harris, a prolific and successful novelist as well as an artist and journalist. Eventually, I found a second-hand copy of The Sea Shall Not Have Them, in a Companion Book Club edition published after the very successful 1954 film of the same name. To my shame, the book, copiously illustrated with black and white ‘stills’ from the film, stayed on my ‘to read’ shelf for years. However, I turned to it as my ‘naval fiction’ choice during the Covid-19 library lockdown, stretching our usual time boundary slightly beyond 1950.
Ernest John Harris (1916 – 1991) came from Rotherham where his parents kept a pub. Young John attended Rotherham Grammar School, then worked as a reporter, first for the Rotherham Advertiser and later for the Sheffield Telegraph.
During WW2 it is said that Harris served with two forces and two navies, including a period in the RAF as a corporal attached to the South African Air Force. After the war he returned to the Sheffield Telegraph as a political and comedy cartoonist, creating the ‘Calamity Kids’ as well as Amateur Archie. Following the success of The Sea Shall Not Have Them he moved to West Sussex and became a full-time author, writing under his own name and also as Mark Hebden and Max Hennessy. His daughter, Juliet, also became a writer, continuing the Pel detective series created by ‘Mark Hebden’.
The flyleaf of my copy of The Sea Shall Not Have Them explains that the title was the motto of Air Sea Rescue High Speed Launch Flotillas. The ‘Marine Craft Section’ of the RAF had been established in 1918, initially to provide back-up for flying boats but later developing a rescue service which became the largest in the world. During WW2, 13,269 lives were saved from the sea by Air Sea Rescue crews, often under gunfire and in treacherous weather conditions. Of these, 8,604 were aircrew.
The Sea Shall Not Have Them opens towards the end (in Europe) of WW2, in a wintry Suffolk aerodrome. Ground crew and airmen are anxiously awaiting the return of an overdue Hudson aircraft with three crew and a VIP passenger, an Air Commodore who is carrying key intelligence information. When it appears that the aircraft may have come down in the North Sea, an urgent search and rescue operation swings into action. With an imminent storm soon to prevent any flying, hope rests on the Air Sea Rescue Service.
Meanwhile, the Hudson has indeed been shot down. The men aboard, one seriously injured, scramble into their dinghy before the aircraft sinks. They are carried dangerously close to the Belgian coast, amongst sea mines and within reach of German shore batteries.
The scene shifts to one of the high-speed rescue launches, focussing on young Aircraftman Herbert Milliken, fresh from his training as a medical orderly. At only 18, his previous seagoing experience was limited to ‘a trip or two to Flamborough lighthouse on his holidays in Bridlington’. Cold, seasick and miserable he is humiliated by the more experienced crew members. They each have their own preoccupations, which gradually emerge as the launch waits for rendezvous orders in the rolling seas.
Just before orders are received to find and rescue the Hudson survivors, there are ominous hints that the engine room NCO, distracted by personal problems, has failed to carry out crucial maintenance. This is one of a series of not very subtle plot pointers, a nod perhaps to Harris’s alter ego as a detective story writer. We learn, for instance, that the base Commander has been putting off curbing an older subordinate, a distinguished WW1 veteran who is now merely officious and on the brink of making some dire mistakes.
From now on the story alternates in ‘real time’ between the dinghy and the rescue launch, with regular glimpses of operations at the base. We learn more about the men crowded together in the dinghy as they try to stay alive, about the launch crew as they hunt for them, and about the men and women directing and monitoring operations from Suffolk. Harris describes the heaving sea and its effect on the boats and their crews so vividly – surely from his own experience – that I felt genuinely queasy myself!
Other vessels with a part to play include a sister rescue launch, seen very much as a rival by ‘our’ crew, a Royal Naval Walrus seaplane and two US aircraft, all deployed to help with the search. At one point the men in the dinghy are elated to hear and see the Walrus, then despair when the seaplane crew fails to spot them. But the Walrus does find another dinghy; before ditching in the sea the Hudson shot down their attacker, a German fighter plane, and the first survivor saved from the sea is the wounded German pilot. Then the Walrus itself becomes stranded at sea and our launch has to divert to tow it. Further perils include temporary engine failure, and attacks by German guns, the launch’s escape hampered by a dangerous sandbank and a falling tide.
Given that the novel and the film were hugely popular so soon after the war, I was anticipating a successful rescue mission; neither was it a surprise to find amongst the crews some ‘WW2 fiction’ stereotypes. No matter: Harris is an accomplished story teller who skilfully and sympathetically brings his characters to life as, one by one, often using grim humour, he reveals their histories, fears, hopes and interactions. The Sea Shall Not Have Them is successful both as a gripping thriller and as a tribute to the Air Sea Rescue Services.
Frances Soar, 10 Aug 2020