The best novels about the reality of war at sea by writers who’ve survived it

Why am I passionate about this?

In a long international business career, I’ve survived military coups, a guerrilla war, storms at sea, life in mangrove swamps, tropical forest, offshore oil platforms, and boardrooms. My passion for nineteenth-century history, and my understanding of the cutting-edge technology of that time, have inspired the Dawlish Chronicles. The Royal Navy officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and Florence, the love of his life, are real people to me. The challenges they face are strongly linked to actual events both overseas and in Britain in the late 19th century and I know most of the settings from personal experience.

I wrote...

Britannia's Innocent

By Antoine Vanner,

Book cover of Britannia's Innocent

What is my book about?

This is the first novel of the ten-volume (so far) series of naval adventure set in the late Victorian Era. They follow the career of the Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish. In this book it’s 1864 and he’s hungry for promotion. Lacking family influence, he’s desperate to draw attention to his abilities—but Britain is at peace.  

Political folly has drawn Denmark into war with military superpowers Prussia and Austria. Civil war rages not only on American soil but also on the world’s oceans, as Confederate raiders ravage Union merchant shipping. A new raider, a powerful ironclad, is completing in a British shipyard but the Union government is pressing Britain to prevent her sailing. Is there an opportunity here for Denmark—and for Dawlish?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Cruel Sea

Antoine Vanner Why did I love this book?

Nicholas Monserrat was a freelance journalist before WW2. A Royal Navy volunteer reservist, he had extensive convoy-escort experience in the war and he ended in command of a frigate hunting U-Boats. This, Monserrat’s best novel, conveys the full horror of the Battle of the Atlantic. But it’s also a paean to fortitude—the dogged courage that carried ordinary men through cold, fatigue, constant danger, and intermittent terror, not just for months, but for years on end. The sense of realism, based on personal experience, is overwhelming. I read it first as a boy, and several times since, and I’ve always found it inspirational, a reminder never to yield to self-pity and to stick to a task, regardless of difficulty. It may be the best novel ever written about war at sea.

By Nicholas Monsarrat,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Cruel Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the author's own vivid experiences, The Cruel Sea is the nail-biting story of the crew of HMS Compass Rose, a corvette assigned to protect convoys in World War Two.

Darting back and forth across the icy North Atlantic, Compass Rose played a deadly cat and mouse game with packs of German U-boats lying in wait beneath the ocean waves.

Packed with tension and vivid descriptions of agonizing U-boat hunts, this tale of the most bitter and chilling campaign of the war tells of ordinary, heroic men who had to face a brutal menace which would strike without warning…

Book cover of Das Boot

Antoine Vanner Why did I love this book?

The inspiration for the classic movie of the name, this can be seen as the German counterpart of The Cruel Sea. The author was a war correspondent who went on U-Boat patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic. It’s chilling in its portrayal of the brutal realities of anti-convoy operations and the terror of attack from above. Most notable for me is its portrayal of the crew—not unlike those of the ships they’re attempting to sink. There may be dedicated Nazis among them but the majority are decent, courageous, men who see themselves as fighting for their county. The nightmare of being a good man serving a bad cause is an implicit, and disturbing, theme throughout.

By Lothar-Günther Buchheim,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Das Boot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Filled with almost unbearable tension and excitement, DAS BOOT is one of the best stories ever written about war, a supreme novel of the Second World War and an acclaimed film and TV drama.

It is autumn 1941 and a German U-boat commander and his crew set out on yet another hazardous patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic. Over the coming weeks they must brave the stormy waters of the Atlantic in their mission to seek out and destroy British supply ships. But the tide is beginning to turn against the Germans in the war for the North Atlantic.…

Book cover of HMS Ulysses

Antoine Vanner Why did I love this book?

MacLean served in the Royal Navy in WW2 on cruisers and destroyers in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, and Far East. This book, his first and best, conveys in stark detail the challenges of escorting a large convoy through the Arctic to supply the Soviet Union with war supplies. HMS Ulysses is a light cruiser whose crew has been pushed to the limit of endurance on previous such convoys and must now commence another. Relentless attacks by German air, surface, and submarine forces are complemented by storm, ice, merciless cold, and the crew’s unending fatigue. The convoy is decimated but it ploughs on towards a finale that I find still moving and inspirational six decades after first reading it. It’s a reminder of the power of the human spirit to endure against all odds and never yield. 

By Alistair MacLean,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked HMS Ulysses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The novel that launched the astonishing career of one of the 20th century's greatest writers of action and suspense - an acclaimed classic of heroism and the sea in World War II.

Constant patrols have pushed the crew of the HMS Ulysses beyond the limits of endurance. And now they must be put to sea again, to escort a vital supply convoy heading for Murmansk.

As they head deep into the frozen waters they are faced not only with the fierce arctic weather, but a swarm of airborne attacks, German ships, then the feared U-boats, all hellbent on destroying the…

Book cover of HMS Saracen

Antoine Vanner Why did I love this book?

I met Douglas Reeman only once but I owe him a debt since he inspired me on that occasion to start writing seriously. He served as a Royal Navy officer in WW2 and saw extensive service in destroyers and motor torpedo boats. He survived a sinking, during which he was injured, and was wounded again off Normandy. He wrote many novels about war at sea—those of WW1 and WW2 under his own name, and as “Alexander Kent” about the Age of Fighting Sail. They’re all splendidly exciting reads in which fortitude, duty, and loyalty—to one’s ship, crew, and country—and the brutal realities of war are portrayed with a great feel of realism. He claimed HMS Saracen as his favourite—and, when read, it’s easy to see why!

By Douglas Reeman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked HMS Saracen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Malta 1941. To most people HMS Saracen is just an ugly, obsolete ship with an equally ugly recent history: her last commander is due for court-martial after shelling the troops he was sent to protect. But to Captain Richard Chesnaye she brings back memories-memories of the First World War when he and the old monitor went through the Gallipoli campaign together. It seems that captain and ship are both past their best. But as the war enters a new phase, Chesnaye senses the possibility of a fresh, significant role-for him and the Saracen.

Book cover of Mr. Midshipman Easy

Antoine Vanner Why did I love this book?

Marryat is known as the “Father or Naval Fiction” who established a genre that still flourishes. In 1806, at fourteen, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman. In the next nine years he saw service—and battle—against the French and American navies, at one stage under the command of the legendary frigate captain Thomas Cochrane. Marryat retired as a captain in 1830 to devote himself to writing. This novel is based on his own early years in the navy. It’s light in tone and very readable but there’s no sentimentality when he deals with losses and injury. One suspects that it reflects the gallows' humour that carried the navy through those long years. I’ve always loved it!

By Frederick Marryat,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mr. Midshipman Easy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) is a novel by Frederick Marryat. Inspired by the author's experience as a captain in the Royal Navy, Mr. Midshipman Easy is a tale of bravery, foolishness, and the manifold reasons for men to take to the high seas. Frequently funny, often profound, Marryat's novel is an underappreciated classic of nineteenth century fiction that has been adapted twice for British cinema.

"'Then, father, all I have to say is, that I swear by the rights of man I will not go back to school, and that I will go to sea. Who and what is to…

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Book cover of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

Nev March Author Of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author History lover Scriptwriter Reader Nature lover

Nev's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

An entertaining mystery on a 1894 trans-Atlantic steamship with an varied array of suspects, and a detective who must solve his case in six days to prevent international conflict.

Retired from the British Indian army, Captain Jim is taking his wife Diana to Liverpool from New York, when their pleasant cruise turns deadly. Just hours after meeting him, a foreign diplomat is brutally murdered onboard their ship. Captain Jim must find the killer before they dock in six days, or there could be war! Aboard the beleaguered luxury liner are a thousand suspects, but no witnesses to the locked-cabin crime.

Fortunately, his wife Diana knows her way around first-class accommodations and Gilded Age society. But something has been troubling her, too, something she won’t tell him. Together, using tricks gleaned from their favorite fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jim, and Diana must learn why one man’s life came to a murderous end.

By Nev March,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spanish Diplomat's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Spanish Diplomat's Secret, award-winning author Nev March explores the vivid nineteenth-century world of the transatlantic voyage, one passenger’s secret at a time.

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his wife Lady Diana Framji are embarking to England in the summer of 1894. Jim is hopeful the cruise will help Diana open up to him. Something is troubling her, and Jim is concerned.

On their first evening, Jim meets an intriguing Spaniard, a fellow soldier with whom he finds an instant kinship. But within twenty-four hours, Don Juan Nepomuceno is murdered, his body discovered shortly after he asks rather urgently to…

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