Hellfire Corner, by Alaric Bond
Alaric Bond is one of the best — if not the best — of the novelists of the Nelson-and-Napoleon era. His Fighting Sail series is right up there with Horatio Hornblower’s C.S. Forester books, with equally exciting battle scenes, and without those tiresome, introspective, self-doubting musings that led to one reviewer famously calling Hornblower “the Hamlet of the quarterdeck.”
Accordingly, it was a bit of a surprise when Bond suddenly switched to a different era, a different kind of boat, and a very different set of heroes. Hellfire Corner is set in Dover, England, during the height of the Second World War. The town certainly merited being given the same nickname as the title. As Bond describes succinctly and tellingly, the citizens had to hunker down more than most, being battered by long-range guns from the French coast, as well as by regular blitzing from German bombers.
The different kind of boat is a totally new one to me, a craft that sounds not too much different from a weekender’s plywood launch, except that it is powered by a set of extremely powerful engines, and armed with a set of cannon. Both guns and engines are described in detail, with obvious relish: this is a book that will be greatly enjoyed by blokes who rode motorbikes in their youth, and took old bangers of cars apart to make them go faster and better. For myself, I was satisfied that these gunboats were very fast, and could hammer the enemy very well. The problem was that they were also very vulnerable, liable to explode into a floating pile of splinters with one unlucky hit.
This means that the very different heroes were heroic indeed. The men were incredibly brave, with amazing spirit. Bond has always been good at describing the lower deck tars in his Nelson-era books, and the same talent is applied most convincingly to the volunteers who manned these craft. It was this, for me, that made this book a page-turner.