Today is the birthday (1899) of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, better known by his pen name Cecil Scott “C. S.” Forester, an English novelist who rose to fame with tales of naval warfare. His most notable works were the 12-book Horatio Hornblower series, depicting a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars, and The African Queen (1935; filmed in 1951 by John Huston). I was an avid fan of Hornblower as a young teenager, scouring book shops for the more obscure volumes and short stories. I then hit on his less well known works such as The Gun, The General, and The Ship. Although Forster’s writing style is very straightforward, his analysis of the psyche of men at war is piercing.
Forester was born in Cairo and, after a family breakup when he was very young, he moved with his mother to London, where he was educated at Alleyn’s School and Dulwich College, south London. He began to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital, London, but left without completing his degree. He had always worn glasses and been thin, so in trying to enlist in the army, he failed his physical and was told there was not a chance that he would be accepted, even though he was of good height and somewhat athletic. Around 1921, after leaving Guy’s, he began writing seriously using his pen name.
During World War II, Forester moved to the United States where he worked for the British Information Service and wrote propaganda to encourage the US to join the Allies. He eventually settled in Berkeley, California. While living in Washington, D.C., he met a young British intelligence officer named Roald Dahl, whose experiences in the RAF he had heard of, and encouraged him to write about them. Dahl considered this a key moment in his life and credits Forester with turning him into a writer.
Forester wrote many novels, but he is best known for the 12-book Horatio Hornblower series, depicting a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. He began the series with Hornblower as a senior captain in the first novel, The Happy Return, published in 1937. The last completed Hornblower novel was published in 1962. With demand for more stories, Forester filled in Hornblower’s back story as a midshipman, lieutenant, and commander, as well as continuing onward with him as a commodore and then admiral. Hornblower’s fictional feats were based on real events, but Forester wrote the body of the works carefully to avoid entanglements with real world history, so Hornblower is always off on another mission when a great naval victory occurs during the Napoleonic Wars. This is a contrast to the writer Patrick O’Brian, who began a series in the same historic era in 1969, who put his Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey in the midst of some real victories, or watching others as a prisoner of war.
Other novels include The African Queen (1935) and The General (1936); Peninsular War novels in Death to the French (published in the United States as Rifleman Dodd) and The Gun (filmed as The Pride and the Passion in 1957); and seafaring stories that did not involve Hornblower, such as Brown on Resolution (1929); The Captain from Connecticut (1941); The Ship (1943) and Hunting the Bismarck (1959), which was used as the basis of the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck!. Several of his works were filmed, most notably the 1951 film, The African Queen, directed by John Huston. Forester is also credited as story writer for several movies not based on his published fiction, including Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942).
In my opinion The Ship is one of the most amazing and engaging depictions of World War II naval warfare. Ostensibly it is nothing more than a description of a brief engagement between Royal Navy and German ships, lasting a few hours. But it teases the action apart in the most minute detail, each chapter focusing on the actions of a single crew member and all that is going through his head as he performs a simple task. For me it is an absolute masterpiece. The General, in turn, is a brilliant analysis of the outmoded ways of thinking and bull-headed stupidity of the high command in World War I. Forester perfectly captures the essence of war without idealizing or romanticizing it.
He wrote several volumes of short stories set during World War II. Those in The Nightmare (1954) were based on events in Nazi Germany, ending at the Nuremberg Trials. Stories in The Man in the Yellow Raft (1969) followed the career of the destroyer USS Boon, while many of those in Gold from Crete (1971) followed the destroyer HMS Apache. The last of the stories in the latter book – “If Hitler had invaded England” – offers an imagined sequence of events starting with Hitler’s attempt to implement Operation Sea Lion, and culminating in the early military defeat of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941. His non-fiction seafaring works include The Age of Fighting Sail (1956), an account of the sea battles between Great Britain and the United States in the War of 1812.
In addition to his novels of seafaring life, Forester also published two crime novels, Payment Deferred (1926), and Plain Murder (1930), and two children’s books. One, Poo-Poo and the Dragons (1942), was created as a series of stories told to his younger son George to encourage him to finish his meals. George had mild food allergies that kept him feeling unwell, and he needed encouragement to eat. The second, The Barbary Pirates (1953), is a children’s history of early 19th-century pirates.
I first saw the movie, The African Queen, without realizing it was a Forester novel as a teen. Later I saw the book and bought it. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book except for the ending. In the book, the African Queen sinks in a sudden storm, and Rose and Allnutt have to swim for safety,having failed in their mission to sink the Königin Luise. The two lovers are separated in the storm, but both are captured by the Germans the next day. They are brought before the captain of the Königin Luise to be tried as spies. Both refuse to say how they came to the lake, but the captain sees “African Queen” written on Rose’s life jacket and deduces that they must be the mechanic and the missionary’s sister from the mysteriously missing launch. He decides it would be uncivilized to execute them, so he flies a flag of truce and delivers them to the British naval commander, who dismissively sends them to separate tents under guard while he takes his newly arrived reinforcements out to sink the Königin Luise. Having succeeded in this, he sends Rose and Allnutt to the coast to speak to the British Consul, where he advises Allnutt to enlist in the British Army. Rose and Allnutt agree that when they reach the coast they will ask the Consul to marry them. The story ends with the narrator’s comment that “Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”
If you know the movie you’ll know that the ending is slightly different but the outcome is essentially the same. Bogart could not do a Cockney accent so Allnutt had to be changed to a Canadian, which loses some of the class tension between him and Rose.
Forester mentions big dinners aboard ship in the Hornblower books –usually captains’ councils with their admiral who lays on a lavish spread. In Lieutenant Hornblower towards the end of the book, Hornblower ends up missing one such dinner at anchor in the West Indies, but when he returns the host tells him there may still be some pepper pot left over. West Indian pepper pot is an old favorite of mine. So here it is.
West Indian Pepper Pot
2 tbsp vegetable oil
500g stewing steak cut in small chunks
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 sprigs thyme
8 allspice berries
2 bay leaves
1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
400g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2in cubes
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced
400g butternut squash, peeled and diced
300g mushrooms (black, if possible)
1 400g tin of butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 pints beef stock
1 400ml can of coconut milk
200g fresh spinach
salt and pepper to taste
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
In a large casserole pan, over a medium flame, add some oil and sauté the beef until lightly browned.
Add the onion, garlic, thyme, allspice, bay leaves and Scotch bonnet and cook for around 3-4 minutes until fragrant.
Add the sweet potato, carrots, squash and mushrooms, stir in, and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat with the lid on.
Reduce the flame to low, add the butterbeans, stock and coconut milk and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the dumplings by creating a dough with the flour, water, salt and pepper and thyme. Roll the mixture into a long, thin sausage. Then cut and form 12-15 small cigar shapes, using up all the dough.
Drop the spinach into the soup, followed by the dumplings and cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Season to taste.