Kleber’s Convoy was written by Antony Trew, a South African naval officer and author, who during the war served in the South African and Royal Navies. He had first hand experience of the Arctic Convoys on board HMS Walker. He stresses in his author’s note, however, that Kleber’s Convoy is entirely a work of fiction: the ships, characters, u-boats and aircraft are all invented, as is Convoy JW137, the subject of the story. Nevertheless, his familiarity with the subject matter certainly aids the realism of the predicament in which his protagonists find themselves.
It is a novel that highlights the madness and futility of war. The two main characters, Francis Redman and Johan Kleber were good friends before war broke out, and now they find themselves on opposing sides. It is 1944. Redman is Captain of HMS Vengeful, a destroyer forming part of Escort Group 57 which is to escort Convoy JW137 from Loch Ewe to Murmansk. Kleber is commander of U-0117, and he has concocted a bold plan to attack the unsuspecting convoy. He is a proven and well thought of U-boat Captain, commanding great respect from his crew. Neither Captain knows that the other will be among the enemy vessels, but when Redman receives an intercepted message that contains Kleber’s name he is faced with the chilling prospect of hunting and destroying his friend.
What is made abundantly clear is the massive mental strain that is placed on all those involved. The tension is evident from the very beginning.
The endless peril in which the crews find themselves, not just from the enemy but from the weather and cold is made very plain. The relentless monitoring for enemy activity coupled with the sleeplessness of the crew paints a picture of men under severe strain, unable to rest.
The hunt is an ongoing theme throughout. U-boat crews must find a balance between tracking the convoy and remaining undetected, and the author very effectively recreates the terror of the German crews who have heard the propellers of approaching destroyers and dived below a temperature layer to hide their position, all the while praying the depth charges don’t find them.
Inevitably there are many enemy encounters in the book in which u-boats and surface vessels are sunk.
The tension on Vengeful’s bridge was like that before a free-kick in the penalty area at a cup final. It was released with a sudden violence as sea, ships and air shook and trembled, great columns of water mushrooming skywards with a thunderous roar. It was as if the ocean-bed had erupted in a series of primeval explosions.
There is an interesting character comparison in this story between two U-boat Captains. While Hans Kleber fills his crew with confidence, Willi Schluss, commander of U-0153 is very much a reluctant leader.
Unfortunately, the crew of U-0153 sense that their commander has no stomach for a fight and sense that he is stalling, and while doing so he risks mutiny.
For those of us not familiar with life on board a Destroyer there is a great deal of description of every day tasks to help paint a picture of what the crews experienced in the Arctic waters:
Similarly, there are descriptions of the claustrophobic environments U-boat crews had to endure.
Insights are also given into the logic behind the various strategies adopted by both sides:
The author has also gone to great pains to explain the equipment used by the crew, the acronyms used to describe it, and its purpose, such as HF/DF (high frequency direction finding, known affectionately by the Royal Navy as huff-duff, which gave the bearings of ultra high-frequency radio transmissions made by U-boats.) All such terms are made clear.
Overall it is a sad tale of reluctant men forced into a conflict that by cruel chance sees former friends in a desperate battle on opposing sides. The author successfully invests the reader in each of the main characters, bringing them all together at the climactic ending, that again reinforces the message of the madness of war.