The Last Raider

Douglas Reeman

Hutchinson, 1963. ISBN 009-180-114-1

The Last Raider is set on board a German commerce raider, the Vulkan, in the last year of the First World War. All the major characters are fictional.

In 1918, as the First World War in the trenches of France and Flanders grinds destructively on with no end in sight, the Imperial German Navy decides to resurrect a now little-used form of naval warfare, the commerce raider, in an attempt to disrupt enemy shipping. Disguised as a neutral merchant ship, the Vulkan departs from Kiel dockyard with a scratch crew and her new captain, the famed "Tiger of the Seas" Felix von Steiger. Her mission is to intercept, capture and destroy enemy merchant ships, maintaining her neutral disguise until the victim has been lured within gunnery range and hauling up the German flag only at the moment of attack. It is a strategy perilously close to piracy, and one that will earn the Vulkan and her crew few friends. Alone on the high seas, with no support vessel and no friendly port within a thousand miles, the Vulkan's dangerous and lonely mission will take a heavy toll on the ship, the crew and most especially the captain.

The commerce raider as described in the novel seems to me to be reminiscent of the Napoleonic system of prize-taking or the sixteenth-century privateers. I had no idea that it was still in use during the First World War. As described in the novel, the convoy system was beginning to come into use, which meant that isolated merchant ships were less common and thus the commerce raider's task was becoming much more difficult and much more dangerous. At one point a character refers to the Vulkan as "a scavenger", supplies are a constant problem, and several times the captain expresses dissatisfaction with the mission's achievements. There is a strong sense that this is the last gasp of a dying breed, and that the commerce raider's days are drawing to a close - which I guess reflects the novel's title.

For me, the novel's strength is its authentic atmosphere. Not only in the details that recreate the claustrophobic misery of life in a crowded warship, but also in a brooding feeling of bleakness and near-despair that reminds me of some of the First World War poets. It manages to convey a sense of the futility of war - particularly this war, which no-one can remember the reason for and which seems as if it can never end - combined with the absolute necessity for the men involved to do their duty. This in turn raises disturbing questions about honour, decency and integrity, which the contrasting characters have to confront in different ways. How does an honourable man keep his self-respect when he is engaged in a sort of state-approved and state-directed piracy? If a passenger ship is about to transmit a radio message that will bring enemy warships to destroy his ship, how can he balance his moral obligations to the civilian sailors and passengers aboard against his obligation to preserve the lives of his own crew?

The characters are clear individuals with their own hopes, fears, ambitions, hang-ups and principles, and the tensions between these contrasting people fill the novel with conflict on many levels. The disruptive presence of a captured British woman, a passenger from a torpedoed ship, serves to heighten the tensions further. The captain, von Steiger, is inevitably the central character, if only because his actions and decisions will determine the fate of all the rest and they know it. But he does not dominate the novel, and many of the secondary characters and the sub-plots associated with them take centre-stage from time to time.

The Vulkan's journey takes her from the storm-lashed North Atlantic to the sunny Brazilian coast, and provides a wide variety of adventures and naval problems along the way, from an encounter with an iceberg north of Iceland to the practical difficulties of coaling at sea. The combat scenes range from ship battles to hand-to-hand fighting, and are brutal without being excessively graphic. No doubt reflecting its date of publication, I don't think there's a single expletive in the book.

The prose is clear and readable throughout. If there was much in the way of nautical jargon I never noticed it, so it must be sufficiently clear that a non-expert can understand what's going on purely from context. Much of the dialogue seemed rather stilted and this took me a while to get used to - I wonder if it is intended to represent formal German or is just the author's style?

Unfortunately there is no historical note, so I have no way of knowing how much of the novel is rooted in fact. Which is a little disappointing, because now I am curious as to whether ships like the Vulkan existed, whether they were used by both sides, how important a role they played and whether 1918 was indeed their last gasp (as the novel seems to show) before they were replaced by the submarine warfare famous in World War II.

Action-packed naval adventure with an unusual setting and a splendid atmosphere of realism.