Oh dear. Lapses into portentous prose throughout, and you can feel the schmaltz index rising in the final pages; it might almost be a Spielberg film. And this is not surprising, as Forester had worked in the film world and perhaps (I’m guessing here) hoped that this book could become a screenplay for a film in due course, adding to the many war movies churned out during and after the Second World War. In addition, the time was 1943, Forester was employed by the British Information Service, and in writing heartening publicity (aka propaganda) he was only doing his job.
And in fact the best parts of this book are those about people doing their jobs. Forester’s docudrama version of the second Battle of Sirte is interesting, but the heart of the book lies in describing what people were actually doing: who watched which switchboard, who sat in a dark tunnel with a torch and no idea what was going on, who had to feed 600 men in half an hour between actions, and how he did it, who had a custom-built chair while someone else sat on a home-made stool bolted to the deck (the answer is not what you might think).
The portraits of the characters are a little disappointing, at least to me. Forester had sailed as an observer on HMS Penelope for a time, but was never himself in the Navy in any capacity, though he was obviously deeply impressed by what he saw, and perhaps this led to false notes in his account. Or, of course, maybe I just don’t like being told what to think.
The finale, infested by virtual violins, exists to paper over the cracks, as in 1943 no-one could know the resolution of the greater narrative. Forester was not a bold enough writer to utter the challenge of simply leaving off. Pity.