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David Black
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
I have high hopes for this series, having received the first 3 books and finished them off in fairly short order. The ‘high concept’ is fairly simple - the author, David Black, has created a fictional Royal Naval hero, Harry Gilmour, but instead of the increasingly crowded RN of the Nelson era, Gilmour is a Royal Naval Volunteer Reservist who joins up at the start of the Second World War. After a brief and miserable stint on a capital surface ship, where as a ‘wavy navy’ part timer, Sub-Lieutenant Gilmour is up against a hostile regular big-ship mafia in the Wardroom, Harry finds himself heading to HMS DOLPHIN to join the Submarine Service. Harry has the character and sea-sense to thrive in boats, as he grew up around yachts on the banks of the Clyde, and he finds that he takes to ‘the trade’ and his fellow regular submariners accept him pretty readily.

This series really landed for me, because it works on many levels. Firstly, Black is excellent at describing the RN of 1940 - recovering from the decline and neglect of the ‘locust years’ and peacetime routines, carrying hundreds of years of tradition, but always looking for a battle while trying to lean forward into the latest war and adapt as fast as it can. The range of characters rings true, from utter buffoons as one would encounter in a ‘Sharpe’ novel, to more pragmatic and forward-looking types. Most of them are drawn sympathetically, and I was reminded of that other great sea story, ‘The Cruel Sea,’ as Black has the great Nicholas Monsarrat’s skill in portraying ordinary people doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. He weaves in seamlessly real figures from the war, such as Admiral Max Horton and Captain ‘Shrimp’ Simpson, and their speaking parts ring true. There are villains, of course, and Gilmour’s nemesis is an awful specimen of humanity, the ‘Bonny Boy,’ a senior submarine staff officer with murderous levels of ambition. Harry is party to the shameful truth behind the Bonny Boy’s self-enhanced reputation, and so he is a marked man. There need to be sequels for many reasons, but the Bonny Boy finally getting his is one of the most important!

Secondly, he evokes the wartime Royal Navy submarine service, the unloved runt of the RN litter, but now strategically vital to the war effort, with unerring accuracy. If there are errors and omissions in his research, this ex-submariner failed to notice them. His picture of life on wartime diesel boats is grim, detailed and authentic, and he is able to get inside the heads of the men who were there, to unpick the atmospherics and unspoken ‘mood music’ of a tightly-knit submarine crew.

Thirdly, he sets up an enormously detailed background picture of wartime life. Readers who know their wartime history will appreciate how real events and people pop up as fictional counterparts. Readers who don’t will get a fantastically readable introduction to the subject.

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5/5 Mushroomheads. Harry Gilmour has real potential to become the Richard Sharpe of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. He is a sympathetic, utterly believable hero operating in an immensely detailed and accurate world, but Black’s skill as a writer means that the story carries the reader through without burying them in the detail. Accurate, readable, populated as it is with believable characters, this series adds another Tier 1 Personality to the network of great military heroes, and, best of all, he’s a submariner.
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