Battle Cry may have been the very first book I read in this genre, but The Guns of Navarone was the first ever war movie I watched as a kid, and the book has always been a favourite of mine. It is the source of my love for fast paced, over the top thrillers with insane stunts and loads of explosions (and even when I am merely reading about them, my mind is a pretty fertile place to be in).
The author, Alistair MacLean fought in World War II, serving first in the Atlantic theater of operations followed by duty in the Far East against the Japanese. As such, a lot of his books come from people, places and events he has either been a part of or heard about from contemporaries. He himself has quite a past too.
He joined the Navy in 1941 at the age of 19 and served on warships escorting carrier groups. After being discharged in 1946, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow and studied English while working part time at the local post office and as a street sweeper. In 1953, he started working as a schoolteacher. MacLean had been writing short stories since his college days. One of his short stories won a competition in 1954, and caught the attention of the wife of an editor at Collins, the publishing company. The husband wife pair suggested MacLean start writing novels; he responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own experiences in the Navy. For a first-time writer the book did very well, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first six months of publication and millions more thereafter, allowing him to start writing full time.
The Guns of Navarone was his second book, published in 1957. Like its predecessor, it became a huge hit with the readers, selling four hundred thousand copies in its first six months of publication. It caught the attention of Hollywood due to the aforementioned pace, suspense and explosions, and went on to become a successful film adaptation as well. In 1990, the British Crime Writers Association listed it among the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
MacLean based the book around the fictional island of Navarone, but the basis of it was on the all too real island of Leros in the Aegean Sea. Leros’ fearsome artillery was a major factor in the Allied defeat during the Dodecanese Campaign in 1943 – the failed effort to capture Italian (later German) held islands in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. As in real life, the guns of Navarone posed a threat to trapped British troops and were jeopardizing an evacuation attempt, the destruction of which is the plot point of the book.
Right from the first chapter, MacLean plunges us into a fast paced, time bound adventure where surprisingly for a British author the main protagonists are not British (technically). The mission to blow up the guns is led by a New Zealander, the demolitions expert is an American, the muscle and brain combination described as their “insurance against failure” is a Greek, and only the engineer/radio operator and the sailor are British. The character cast also shows MacLean’s penchant for having protagonists with just the right skills required for just the mission at hand, but that adds to the flavour; we see people doing things that they are really good at with the ease that we can’t help but envy. There are other authors who show their heroes go through learning curves, but such things have no place in MacLean’s supersonic thrillers.
We are told of the plot in the first chapter itself, and that’s where the countdown timer starts off from. The task must be accomplished in days, and MacLean keeps reducing this time through a series of deliberate misinformation fed to the spying Germans and spells of ill-luck befalling the team until we are on the edge of our seats and counting off the mere minutes to disaster before the heroes pull it off against all odds. He doesn’t even give the team any time off between predicaments; they are thrust into another one before recovering from the earlier one. From navigating a rusty, leaky boat in a storm, to climbing up sheer cliff faces in pitch darkness in the same storm, to traversing through a ravine in a blizzard, to fighting off Germans, to getting captured and escaping, to finally carrying out their daring plan, there’s hardly a restful breath in between. Added to the mix are a healthy dose of helpful locals, spies, and the Germans on the island.
For a relatively new writer, MacLean not only gives us well developed protagonists but fleshes out the antagonists to the point where they feel like real people and not mere caricatures. Thus, we have Captain Skoda, the Commanding Officer tasked with finding and eliminating Mallory’s team, who is willing to go to any lengths to carry out the orders. At the same time, we have his Junior Officer, Lieutenant Turzig, who as a member of the German Mountain Troop Jaeger Kommandos is not only aware of Mallory’s pre-war fame as a mountaineer of note but is genuinely saddened by having to be his executioner, remarking to him, “Before the war, even during it, I would have been proud to have known you, glad to have met you. But not here, not now. Not any more. I wish to God they had sent someone else.” With characters like these, it is impossible not to relate to them, and to wonder as one does while reading what we would have done in similar situations.
For those who enjoy layered, complex storylines, the book may come across as very simple and straightforward. Its appeal lies in its immersive nature, its speed of execution, and descriptive style of the author. When he talks of the team inching their way up the unclimbable South Cliff, you find yourself clinging to miniscule handholds while Mallory guides you. When he tells you of the fear in Stevens’ mind that has paralyzed him into inaction since childhood, you are standing frozen next to him as the enemy draws closer.
In these and more visuals, MacLean sets himself apart as not just another thriller writer. At the heart of it however, is his tendency to throw you from one hair raising pan to the next fire before you even have time to cool off. The writer Algis Budrys describes his writing style perfectly as “hit ‘em with everything but the kitchen sink, then give ‘em the sink, and when they raise their heads, drop the plumber on ‘em!”
As a no holds barred non-stop thriller, The Guns of Navarone is one of those books that is perfect for a slow, rainy day when you feel like escaping into a world of adventure. Pick it up, and if you’ve read it already, let me know what you think about it!