Mettle Dives Deep is the second of the Captain Mettle children’s adventure books by J.E. Macdonnell, writing as James Macnell. As it is the second book, no time is wasted introducing the characters, so the action begins from the get-go.
It opens with Admiral Sterne briefing Mettle on his next mission. Mettle and his crew – including the perpetually bored Crabby, and bosun’s mate Hooky Hogan – on board the Naval destroyer, Scorpion are now a ‘Special Services’ unit, which I guess is the navy’s equivalent of being some kind of naval spy squad. Their assignment is to track down a cadre of gunrunners who have being smuggling weapons to groups of terrorists in the Mediterranean. Nobody knows how the gunrunners are doing it, because the coast is being watched day and night. The Scorpion sails off at speed to unravel the mystery and capture those responsible.
This second outing plays a bit more like a naval adventure, than the first Mettle book, but that is not such a bad thing. By accident, Mettle and his crew stumble on the path of a midget submarine – the asdic equipment was conveniently being tested at the time. The story then reverts to a good old submarine hunting story, with the bad guys lying silently on the sea bed, hoping that the destroyer will move on believing they have lost the signal. Meanwhile, Mettle believes that the lost signal might be a trick, with the sub lying doggo at the bottom, so he has the engines cut, and everybody on board remain dead silent. I know it’s the type of thing that we have seen in just about every submarine movie ever made – particularly The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum. But it still reads rather well, and creates a bit of tension.
The choice by Macdonnell, to have the villains of the piece use a Japanese midget submarine is an interesting one. Midget submarines were used on numerous occasions in World War II, but as an Australian, the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour was no doubt, indelibly burnt into Macdonnell’s mind. While the actual attack, on Sydney is generally regarded as a failure, the psychological aspect of the attack can not be underplayed. Even as a boy, I was told tales of the day that Japanese subs snuck into Sydney and bombed Australia. They didn’t actually ‘bomb’ Australia. They fired torpedoes at ships in the harbour, but the event almost became an an urban myth, with the story and facts being greatly distorted with each telling… but such was the psychological power of the attack. I am sure it is still an event that resonates extremely strongly with older Australians. By choosing midgets submarines, for Australian readers, Macdonnell’s story certainly evokes the memory of the Japaneses attack, and he uses it to his advantage.
After waiting on the bottom for half an hour, the villains decide to start their engines and high tail it out of there. But Mettle is waiting, and has the Scorpion crew deliver a string of depth charges. The villains, and their sub full of guns and dynamite, which just may blow, head to the surface and surrender. The gunrunners are taken into custody. Of course, the submariners are just evil minions, and Mettle is after the big Kahuna – a man known as the ‘Squeaker’ due to his high pitched voice.
Mettle undertakes his own little mission where he takes the place of the gunrunners in the sub – accompanied by Hooky, and an fiery red-headed engineer know quite simply as ‘Engines’. Ultimately, Mettle Dives Deep is an adventure story, so as you’d expect it should have some of the trappings of a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book – and having laid the ground work, with having Mettle and his crew inside a midget sub, what do you think happens next? If you remember my review of the first Mettle book, you may recall that Hooky tangled with a shark – so sharks are out – so if you said a giant octopus, then give yourself top marks. You are absolutely correct.
Mettle and Hooky sail to Basra and meet the gunrunners, in the process getting into a gun fight and stealing a plane – just par for the course for the boys. As the links in the gunrunning chain are broken, Mettle and his team end up of the coast of Somaliland with the villains holed up on a boat in a coastal crater lake (had to get that volcano motif in there somehow!)
Mettle has twenty of his best men, all armed, don frogman outfits and storm the lake. While the climax to this book is pretty exciting, the actual final confrontation with the villainous ‘Squeaker’ is a bit of a let down. There’s not really a cathartic coup de gras, and as such the final pages flounder at little.
However, there is still a lot of fun to be found in this Captain Mettle adventure. As I mentioned above, it is more of a naval adventure than Captain Mettle V.C. with much of the action taking place either on the destroyer, Scorpion or on a captured miniature submarine. That’s not a bad thing, but I must admit, I would have liked to see Mettle carrying out more of his own brand of derring-do on land. But a small quibble. Next up, to close out the series is Captain Mettle at Woomera, which I predict, given the Australian based story, will be more land based.