Preparing for my talk on 'William Golding and War' at the Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey last Thursday, I became increasingly intrigued by his experiences with U-boats. He was born in Newquay in 1911, at his mother's family's B&B, 47 Mount Wise, which is now the Blenheim Hotel. Several of his earliest memories are of sitting at its bay windows watching the shipping as it came in and out of harbour.
During the First World War, the U-boats caused havoc along the North Cornish coast, sinking coal ships and fishing vessels alike. Not far down the coast in Zennor, D. H. Lawrence was given three days to leave the county under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1917, on the off-chance that he and his German wife were signalling to the U-boats.
Golding's family kept him away from the gruesome sights of the harbour, but luckily he had the next best thing: an elder brother, Jose, who would report back with all the inappropriate details. Usually, the U-boat would surface next to its target, order the crew into the lifeboats, and only then sink the ship. On one occasion, the gentlemen's agreement had been broken. Jose had seen a lifeboat brought into port, full of blood and bullet-holes and 'bits of men'.
Golding himself believed that from his 'box seat' in the house he had seen a U-boat being sunk by 'three small naval vessels' which dropped their depth charges in turn, making the sea climb 'like a fist':
The surface of the sea was calm again. Smooth, slick mirrors enlarged themselves [...], ran together, became a ring of silvered water. A huge bubble burst on the surface, another and another. When they had disappeared, black blobs and speckles were floating in the ring. Presently the three little ships went away, follow my leader, and disappeared again round Trevose Head. (Areté, 2)
At the start of the Second World War, Golding joined the navy as a common seaman, and took the exam for promotion to officer. He did well enough to prompt Lord Cherwell's research establishment to give him the task of 'trying to invent things that would sink submarines'. Golding's involvement came to an end when he 'put a lot of detonators in [his] pocket and dropped a torch battery in with them and blew [himself] up'. After that, it seems that everyone agreed that perhaps he should do something else instead. Back in the navy, he served on the Atlantic convoys, helped to hunt the Bismarck, captained a rocket craft at the invasion of Walcheren, and provided naval support during the D-Day landings. He probably encountered U-boats in those years, too, but to find out for certain we will have to wait for John Carey's biography, due from Faber this September.