The Big Hunt by J. E. Macdonnell: A review
The Big Hunt by J.E.Macdonnell
Horwitz, 1978, 126 pages
J.E.Macdonnell Classic #99
This is Macdonnell’s fictionalised story of the sinking of the Bismarck. It is really rather good.
Macdonnell lets himself intrude into the story — there is a point where he basically says, “Look, as a bloke who spent years as a gunnery officer, and many long nights closed up inside a gun turret, let me tell you what it was almost certainly like for these guys.” And despite the purple prose and the manufactured dialogue (Macdonnell invents key conversations between key figures, like the German Admiral and Bismarck’s Captain), it all has a pleasant ring of veracity. Macdonnell fought at sea in a range of ships, including cruisers. He saw battle. But he also takes the time to look at the official reports. Where messages are known, where words and actions are documented, the book sticks to the facts.
The book could be charged with glamourising the conflict. The deaths are kept at a distance, the hardware is rather celebrated (I cannot count how many times he mentions the calibres of guns, the ranges and weights of the shells).
The sequence where he likens the gunner who sends the shell that was destined to take out Hood (and 1500 men) to the bomb aimer who nuked Hiroshima is novel but unconvincing.
The participants (on both sides) are painted sympathetically, though he notes the reports back in Germany (and even to the ship’s own crew) that relentlessly overstate Bismarck‘s successes. He makes no editorial comment, but this is clearly in contrast to the essentially truthful reports amongst the Allies. Germans are thorough, a little unimaginative, and mired in a culture that cannot communicate without propaganda, it seems.
The crashing water and plummeting shells and the invisible fingers of radar groping through the darkness to find a fearsome enemy; all are evoked well. The book successfully puts us on the ships yet keeps us in touch with the bird’s-eye view.
A map would have been handy, but the pulpy, budget paperback series does not permit it. Were I to read it again, I’d grab a map off the interweb — for example this one.
Given Bismarck‘s fame, it is surprising the title does not use it as a selling point.