“The enormity of what had transpired hit Ted. A dogfight at sea, with the enemy coming out worse for wear. Alert had opened fire on a Soviet bloc naval vessel, an out-and-out act of war. But the Soviet had fired first.”
– Excerpt, Terror on the Alert, by Robert W. Mackay
Two years ago, Robert W. Mackay wrote a novel set late in the First World War about a fictional cavalryman who was based on his father.
Mackay has now published his second military fiction, Terror on the Alert, and its subject is in some ways even closer to home.
Much of the activity takes place aboard the HMCS Alert, an Amphion-Class diesel submarine crewed by Canadians during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The story is set about five years before Mackay was a crew member of the same-class, non-fiction HMCS Alderney in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), in which he served from 1959 to 1972. Before he left the navy, Mackay also served on the newer Oberon-Class submarine, the HMCS Okanagan (photo at left, courtesy the Department of National Defense.)
Although Mackay didn’t fire off any torpedoes in anger during military service during the Cold-War, he was acutely aware of the hardships and technical issues that submariners have always gone through.
“Submarines are cranky machines,” says the 72-year-old South Surrey author.
Indeed, Ted Hawkins, the protagonist and third-in-command of the fictional Alert is inundated with breakdowns such as water leaks, unvented chlorine gas and a bent snort mast, which is damaged in rough waters. (Without that mast, the sub can’t run its diesel engines and recharge its batteries at periscope depth).
Hawkins also has marital issues, a bout of trauma-induced claustrophobia – the last thing a submariner needs – and an executive officer out for revenge.
“I wanted to give the hero lots of problems,” says Mackay, who adds that one naval officer who read the book told him that few naval officers haven’t met an exec who didn’t hate them at one point in their careers.
The author says he was careful to avoid technical errors, to appease the experts, but kept things simple enough for lay-readers.
Hawkins’ troubles include an incapacitated captain and a Soviet sub looking for a fight – and getting one.
It’s an adventure, as any story should be, but there’s also history in the fiction.
Few Canadians are aware that the RCN had its crews train on British submarines based out of Halifax – boats that were deployed in anti-Soviet naval surveillance during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For days, Soviet and Western navies taunted each other, with Soviet submariners reportedly given clearance to fire, which they never did.
Canadian crews were involved in the Atlantic activity at the time because there was collaboration between the RCN and the Royal Navy’s submarine arms in the early 1960s, before some older British submarines were transferred to Canada a few years later.
With full historical intention, Mackay also published Terror on the Alert on the 100th anniversary of the Canadian submarine story.
In August 1914, as the First World War began, B.C. Premier Sir Richard McBride paid for two just-built submarines in Seattle, and spirited them to Esquimalt Harbour just before the United States’ Neutrality Act kicked in. Two days later, the RCN took possessions of the CC1 and CC2, which became of Canada’s first two submarines.
Terror on the Alert ($16.95) is published by Touchwood Editions.