Terror on the Alert

By Robert W. Mackay

In 1962, the world was in the midst of the Cold War, a time of intense hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies. Although there was never full-scale combat, each side engaged in a much-publicized nuclear arms race, causing widespread fear of WWIII. Mackay recreates that frightening time from the perspective of a young Canadian naval lieutenant on a submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most terrifying periods of the Cold War, when the world teetered on the brink of annihilation.

Tension is felt from the first page when we meet Ted Hawkins as he is undergoing his last test to qualify as a submariner. He must complete a simulation exercise of escaping from a bottomed submarine, 100’ underwater. With nothing to help him to the surface but a life jacket, water pressure demands that the exercise be done correctly or his lungs could explode! Despite his naval experience, he is surprised by a momentary feeling of panic as he completes the exercise, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Currently on loan to the British Royal Navy since Canada does not yet have its own fleet of submarines, Ted is assigned to HMCS Alert to replace an injured officer. While descending the ladder into the sub, Ted is shocked when he is hit with a serious panic attack. Gasping for breath, and heart pounding, he realizes what his earlier episode should have warned him about—he has developed claustrophobia. When he realizes that his Executive Officer (XO) is a former rival who detests him, it is obvious that between his claustrophobia and the XO’s animosity, Ted must brace himself for a rough week ahead.

Despite his misgivings Ted looks forward to the week away, for the submarine experience and in hopes that some time apart from his wife might help alleviate current friction. A recent horrific accident (likely the cause of his claustrophobia) is a source of worry for Ted’s wife, who can see that it has had a profound effect on him. She is also unhappy in her role as navy wife, far from home, with almost nothing to occupy her. Ted seems oblivious to her boredom and loneliness and doesn’t seem to realize how much the accident has affected him. Understandable sources of discord, but instead of facing them, Ted naively hopes that a week apart will help solve their problems.

But Ted’s week at sea changes drastically on the second day out when the captain reveals their real orders. Instead of one week of exercises, Alert has been assigned to carry out a war patrol. The U.S. suspects the Russians of moving missiles to Cuba, and Alert’s orders are to proceed to waters off Gibraltar, and identify, report, and shadow any Soviet submarines they detect. Ted is stunned by this news:

Ted was amazed. Out of the blue, he and Alert were as close as they had ever come to seeing action. This is what they trained for, all those years of drills, exercises, simulations … Ted felt more vulnerable than ever, more aware of the sweating steel cocoon in which they sat, a nearly twenty-year-old Second World War-designed boat … panic rose from the pit of his stomach into his chest. His heart pounded. Sweat broke out on his forehead. (60-61) 

Ted struggles to maintain some sanity in his predicament. But Mackay’s descriptions of the sub—the feeling of confinement from the tiny rooms and the closeness of the berths, the smells of sweat, and oil from the engines—all contribute to an atmosphere that makes Ted’s claustrophobia very real. 

As the story progresses, Ted’s claustrophobia almost overwhelms him at times and complications arise with the XO as well, both conditions making it difficult for Ted to do his job. When they start to suspect that a Soviet sub is nearby, the tension skyrockets, and when there is a final confrontation with it, Ted must overcome all his obstacles and take over the ship if he and his crew are to have any chance of survival.

This was an exciting, suspenseful read, with some twists and turns that increased the interest and tension level. Added to that, we learn some fascinating information about how a submarine operates. Attaining neutral buoyancy by pumping water into and out of ballast tanks, is necessary to maintain a particular depth, whether 200’ or 60’ (60’ is periscope depth, when the crew can see what’s above the surface but remain fairly hidden). A submarine is quieter and safer underwater—above, it’s drafty and noisy and more vulnerable to collision by merchant vessels since its low profile and narrow fin make it harder to spot from the bridge of other ships. For the safety of the submarine, it’s important to “stay in the box,” a 70 x 30 mile zone in which the ship is authorized to operate and which moves at a pre-arranged speed along the ship’s route. If the ship falls out of this zone it could be vulnerable to mistaken identity and possible attack by friendly forces. Knowledge of some of the ship’s functions contributes to the reader’s understanding of the vulnerability it faces at all times, how complicated it is to operate and how difficult and dangerous some decisions can be. As a small example, in order to make up speed and stay in the box when they are falling out of it, the ship must surface, but this makes it vulnerable during a potentially dangerous time.

Drawing on his own experience as a former naval officer and submariner, Mackay creates authentic depictions of life at sea. The danger, the tension, the feeling of confinement, all seem very real. The atmosphere of fear from nuclear destruction during that time is also recreated vividly, bringing back memories of nightmares, bomb shelters, air raid sirens … As with Soldier of the Horse, his novel set in WWI, Mackay has brought to life a critical time in history as seen by one young man caught in the ugly mesh of war. His personal story gives us civilians a tiny glimpse of what being at war really means, and perhaps a greater appreciation for those who risk their lives on our behalf. Given the state of the world right now and the serious threats we are facing, Mackay’s books seem even more relevant than ever.

I am grateful to Touchwood Press for providing me with a copy of this book to review and look forward to finding out which period of history Mr. Mackay will explore next.

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