Sunday, 24 May 2015

Book Review: Gold From Crete - Forester

Plausible pulpy propaganda WWII action, inc. 'If Hitler Had Invaded England', from the author of the Hornblower Napoleonic naval novels.

Gold From Crete, which I bought very cheap in an old used Pan paperback edition (as pictured above) [1], is a very slight affair; nine short stories packed into just 190-odd pages. This is the first C S Forester I've read, and I was drawn to this book in particular because I'm fascinated by 'what if' scenarios regarding Operation Sealion [2], Hitler's mooted invasion plans for England. Apparently these stories were written while C S Forester was working in the US during the early years of the war, in a propaganda role, which explains the rather bombastic tone of patriotism. They weren't published in this collected form, however, until the early 1970s.

Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, AKA C S Forester.

Most of the nine very short stories - Gold From Crete, Dawn Attack, Depth Charge, Night Stalk, Intelligence and the Dumb Dutchman - are naval themed, which was Forester's preferred area of storytelling competence. There are three exceptions: Eagle Squadron is an air war story, concerning Spitfires vs. Messerchmitts; An Egg for the Major deals with tanks fighting against Italian forces in North Africa; and the final story is a more multifaceted piece on an imaginary invasion of England, which I'll address in a moment.

This is a rather odd little collection in some ways, as several of the stories seem related, inasmuch as the first five all feature a certain Capt. Crowe, engaged in various diverse nautical warfare scenarios aboard the HMS Apache, whilst the remainder of the stories are all unrelated standalone vignettes. The longest of these narratives is the final one, entitled If Hitler Had Invaded England. Like the piece that gives this collection it's title - and quite unlike the more cryptic/bizarre An Egg for the Major (this latter was perhaps the most fun to read) - this final tale does exactly 'what it says on the tin'.

The back of Paddy Griffith's head, as he briefs some of the operation Sealion 'kriegspielers' at Sandhurst, 1974.

I believe I once read somewhere that Forester based his Operation Sealion story on a wargame, or 'kriegspiel', played out at the Sandhurst officer training school after the war. Many wargamers will know of this legendary event, run by Paddy Griffiths, which was played out, in part, by genuine veteran officers of the Allied and Axis forces. 

I can't recall where I read of this connection, but I do know that both ended with a similar denouement. However, I believe that Forester's imagined account actually predates the Griffiths kriegspiel - it might've been written during the war? - and the 'novelisation' of the Sandhurst wargame was in fact done by Richard Cox. The latter can be seen (at the time of posting) here.

Anyway, in case you don't know the outcome of these imagined and reconstructed scenarios, I won't spoil it here. 

Whilst this is collection is certainly no literary masterpiece, the story of the Sea Lion invasion is a fascinating little imaginative experiment, and would remain such even if it had been based on the Sandhurst wargame. Whilst the brevity of the account means it's not enormously detailed, it's nevertheless clear Forester has researched his subject pretty well, resulting in a quite plausible sounding narrative. 

A British map of German plans for Operation Sealion.

Forester's literary skills - the narrative is peppered with imaginary news bulletins, and refers to imaginary versions of the kind of material (official records, memoirs, reference to post conflict battlefields) that flesh out real campaign narratives - turn his thought experiment into a story well enough written to sustain interest. But it is quite a short/slight affair. A fun quick read, it's whetted my appetite for more in depth treatments.

Before buying this, whilst reading about Forester generally, I felt quite tempted to start in on his Hornblower books, what with my particular interest in the Napoleonic era. But whilst these short stories were all very enjoyable enough to read, they were a bit too 'boys own action adventure' for me, peopled by rather dated stock stereotypes, and displaying a certain overly simplistic chest-beating patriotism I can't really relate to. 

Forester has German paratroopers landing successfully in his story.

A boat being converted for Operation Sealion. Forester follows the fate of such a vessel, inc. its cargo and commander in his narrative.

As alluded to above, this slant to the writing isn't so surprising in the light of C S Forester's role at the time, as a propaganda writer based in the US. But in more general stylistic terms, Forester's literary flavour reminded me of a slightly less exciting or accomplished Ian Fleming - fun but rather naff - the only major difference being that Forester's stories (as presented here, at any rate) are, despite the propaganda spin, somewhat more plausible than Fleming's 007 stuff. 

Whilst I won't be rushing into the Hornblower chronicles on the strength of reading these stories, I certainly would recommend Gold From Crete to anyone looking for wartime action and adventure of the pulpy throwaway variety - stirring fun for quiet afternoons! And if you're intrigued by alternative histories, then the piece on Hitler's invasion of England is certainly worth reading. 

A still - clearly reproduced from a printed source - from the Brownlow & Mollo film It Happened Here, a film I simply have to see (just ordered it!)


[1] I got my copy via the Amazon UK 'marketplace'.

[2] Much as I'm fascinated by ideas around France and/or Napoleon's plans to invade Britain in the late 1790s, early 1800s.


  1. Hi Seb, The Hornblower stories stand head and shoulders over the stories that appear in Gold From Crete - I hope you wont be put off reading them, as they are marvellously entertaining stories. Even Winston Churchill loved them!

    1. Thanks PW, I'll check them out. Funny you should mention Churchill, as I'm currently reading the section of his History of the English Speaking People entitled 'Napoleon'! Best, Seb

  2. Hi Seb,
    I share your interest in Seelowe - there are a number of factual books on the operation in my library but I recommend "Seelowe Nord" by Andy Johnson for a good page turner on the subject. I reviewed it on my blog a couple of years ago:

    I'd stick with CS Forester - he is a bit "Boys Own" compared to Patrick O'Brien but if you want some escapist fiction they are well worth a go.

    1. Hi, thanks for the feedback, and the recommendation. I'll check out the Andy Johnson book (and your review of it!). And yes, despite what I said above I imagine I'll be giving Forester's Hornblower books a go, at some point; as with you - I just had a little browse over your blog - reading is an addiction I have that stops me attacking the lead piles! Regards, Seb