Survival in the Hold: The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.
The Raider Wolf by Roy Alexander
Angus & Robertson 1968, 177 pages, plus a map.
How many stories of bravery, survival and resourcefulness will never get told? How many have already been forgotten? This is one that is recorded, but it must stand for so many more.
The commerce raider Wolf left Germany on 30th November 1916. She returned 24th Feb, 1918, having sailed a distance equal to three times around the world and and sunk over 100 thousand tonnes of enemy shipping. It was a remarkable feat of seamanship, endurance, cunning and improvisation. This book tells that story, but, more remarkably, it does so from the point of view of one of the sailors interned aboard the Wolf. For the Wolf relied above all things on secrecy. So — what to do about the sailors from the defeated ships? If allowed free, Wolf’s existence and identification would be revealed. Kill them? Not Captain Nerger, a man of stern but human principles. So take them prisoner, keep them in the hold once allocated to mines … and take them, after a year at sea, to prison in Germany.
And for what, in the end? Always with war stories that is the question I cannot avoid. All the great and terrible qualities shown by both sides, and all for killing and destruction. It is a pity the myth of Glory is not yet disposed of.
Scurvy, death, madness. All these befell the prisoners. Yet though they were held under discipline, they were treated as men, not animals. But there is never an infinite supply of food…
The scenes below deck made me think of a Samuel Beckett novel, How It Is, with its endless crawling across an empty space, presumably simply because the alternative is stasis. At times I imagined a Lord of the Flies situation, or a kind of dissection of human behaviour under pressure like in If This is a Man. We have prisoners, bent on doing any little thing they can for the war effort, sneaking messages in bottles overboard, we have the captured ‘neutrals’ being given the chance to work for the German captain and being reviled by the prisoners — the opportunities for incident, for personal politics, and for bravery would make this a great setting for a novel. It has the dramatic unity of a curtailed space, limited resources, hierarchy, diverse sailors from multiple backgrounds being lumped together, people under pressure who simply cannot get out of each others’ way.
Anyone who likes war fiction or fact, or who likes the kind of stories that cut to the heart of what humans can do when pushed — both for good and ill — could get something out of this book. Great literature it is not (the prose is workmanlike and serviceable) but the story is remarkable, some of the characters are astonishing, and the setting is evoked effectively and with authority. If you see it, consider picking it up.
Under the sea.