The Peripatetic Reviewer
PURSUIT by Ludovic Kennedy Viking, $10.00
For those who man ships, great and small, and for all who relish a valorous epic, this narrative of the early triumph, the tracking down, the crippling and death of Germany’s super-battleship, the Bismarck, will have priority over any other book this summer.. The Bismarck “was a unique combination of grace and power”: one sixth of a mile long, 120 feet wide, equipped with eight fifteen-inch guns, with thirteen-inch armor of specially hardened steel, and manned by a crew of 2000. She sank Britain’s pride, “the mighty Hood,” on May 24, 1941, in an action lasting twenty-one minutes, and to bring her to bay required the global strength of the British Navy—eight battleships and battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, eleven cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, six submarines, and over three hundred air sorties. The pursuit lasted eight days; it covered an immense area of ocean; and in seamanship, in costly misjudgments, in heroism and aftereffect it is a story that ranks with Trafalgar, Jutland, and Coral Sea. The author was a participant, serving on one of Vian’s famous destroyers, and as with his father, who went down when Ins ship, the Rawalpindi, was sunk by a German cruiser, the Navy was his pride. But this is not a partisan book; by drawing so evenly from German and British sources, Mr. Kennedy has produced a record that for its truth and intimacy cannot be bettered.
“On land I am a hero,” Hitler once said, “but at sea I am a coward.” He left things to his admirals, and the German Navy, according to the author, was little infected by Nazi ideas: but except in the Uboats they lacked experience and initiative. When Admiral Liitjens prepared the Bismarck for a raiding force into the Atlantic, he had to rely on a young crew, few of whom had seen any previous action; his advantages were that his cryptographers had broken the British code and that he could refuel from secretly placed tankers at sea. Yet he sailed 200 tons of oil short of capacity, and like Spanish admirals in the Armada, he had private misgivings leading to indecision about his breakthrough.
At the Battle of Jutland three British battle cruisers had been destroyed at long range by German shells which plunged through the lightly protected decks and exploded inside. Thereafter British ships had had their armor strengthened, but not the Hood, whose decks were still vulnerable. As the big ships closed on each other. Vice Admiral Holland, a gunnery specialist, should have placed the new Prince of Wales ahead of the Hood so that the better-protected ship would draw the Bismarck’s fire. But he took no such precaution and paid for the mistake with his life and the lives of fourteen hundred others.
Bad weather and high seas favored the Bismarck after her initial victory, and she might have made the safety of the French coast except for two things: she was short of oil and was constantly under attack by Swordfish, torpedo planes launched from the Ark Royal, whose stern in the gale was “rising and falling the height of a large house.” One brave, lucky hit jammed the Bismarck’s rudder, and from then on she lost speed and direction. Mr. Kennedy’s narration is interspersed with terse profiles of the men in action, and what they said under stress is memorable. When the Bismarck was surrounded, motionless, a sitting duck for shells that weighed a ton, a British officer, George Whalley, said, “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.” It is the compassion that one remembers at the close of this epic.
The battleship today is obsolete, and there will never again be such a pursuit, yet as the author puts it, “Those of us who lived with, and in, those strange, lovely, vast mysterious creatures, remember them with pride; are proud too to have been at sea in their company in the week that Hood and Bismarck sailed to glory and disaster.”
HARD SCRABBLE by John Graves Knopf, $6.95
John Graves is a native Texan who has seen the world as a Marine in World War II, as a part-time teacher, and as a writer of short stories (one of the best appeared in The Atlantic) and of the quite lovely book Goodbye to a River, which showed his affinity for land and water. When he came back to Texas, he bought a ranch of four hundred acres of former grasslands and rolling country that was once part of the Comanches’ empire, and here he accepted the challenge that life could be restored to the land which cotton and stock raising had worn to the verge of “economic extinction.” He named his place “Hard Scrabble.” His book is a rumination tinctured with his love of history, his inquisitiveness about his neighbors, and his shrewd knowledge of the natural world. This is limestone country, and in his fortyninth summer, he begins building with his own hands a fieldstone cabin, “walls of rough-squared slabs laid flat . . . gray or cream or white. . . . The gables of stone also, and the whole thing rustic without any artful rusticity.” He also builds a sixty-by-forty-six-foot barn, and while so doing contemplates on the tracks of great saurians “imprinted in seashore mud a hundred million or so years ago.” White Bluff Creek helps to make his place fertile, and in time he raises most of what the family eats. There is a birding area where he can enjoy the vermilion flycatchers and golden-cheeked warblers. He observes the inhabitants of the creek as it changes from the spring flood to summer drought; he is an intelligent beekeeper, has a respect for rattlesnakes and copperheads, and speculates about the Indians, and the early white settlers who used his land in “that old extractive hostile way,” before they moved on.
Texans are loquacious, and Graves tells his stories with good humor. But I wish that he had given us the economics of his venture, where he got the money and how much.
TINKER, TAILOR. SOLDIER, SPY by John le Carré Knopf, $7.95
At the end of World War II the victors were left with highly developed departments of Military Intelligence for whom spying would soon acquire fresh impetus with the search for nuclear secrets. In the United States the OSS was converted into the CIA; in London, according to this racy novel, MI5 was termed, facetiously, “The Circus,” and its Russian counterpart “The Centre.” But with the deflation of Britain’s power, “The Circus” lost prestige in Whitehall. The director died in disgrace, and his aides, including the cryptic, able deputy, George Smiley, were fired. It is at this point that John le Carré’s story begins. The younger men now in control have regained authority thanks to some spectacular documents captured from the Soviet Union, but suspicion accumulates that a double agent is involved, “a mole” boring from the top who has been supplying Moscow with more value than he was giving London. He had to be an Englishman, and he had to be detected. Such is the background of this exciting, highly professional novel of espionage.
To spy on the spy, the veteran George Smiley is recalled from retirement. His many years in the underground had made him wary, swift, and shrewd in his judgment of men: they have ruined his marriage, sharpened his memory, and left him with the stamina of a steel trap. With subtle characterizations and flickering humor, John le Carre lights up this world of deceit in which agents are bought or blown, this private army of lamplighters, scalp-hunters, and hoods who come into public view only when they defect. The reader follows the footsteps, the casual briefings, the long night watches, and the dangerous confrontations of George Smiley with increasing sympathy for this clever man who has been estranged from so much that is decent, yet remains a patriot. That spying has a demoralizing effect on those who do it accounts for the occasional tawdry passages.
The “mole” was a graduate of Eton and Oxford, and it was his despair at Britain’s future coupled with his jealous dislike of Americans that turned him to treason. One wonders if this was the motivation of Guy Burgess, also of Eton and Oxford, and his fellow defectors, “Kim” Philby and Donald Maclean, when they sold out to Russia.