Just after the end of the war, “nuclear weapons” were seen as amazing wonder-weapons which could make battleships ‘melt and sink’ using ‘rays’ (as described in the last episode of The Yellow Sword, a Wizard serial from 1955-6). However, as time went on, people began to understand the real horrors of atomic warfare. In 1946, the New Yorker magazine ran a full-length article on the experiences of people in Hiroshima, which found it’s way to Britain as a Penguin not long afterwards.
In 1954, a Japanese fishing boat called Lucky Dragon no. 5 sailed too close to an atomic bomb test, causing the crew to develop severe radiation sickness. At the time, the American occupational government were trying to play down the effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs. Even back at home, US Marines were performing manuovres in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear blast, as part of the “Desert Rock” project.
Going into the late 50’s, the consequences of an actual nuclear war were filtering down into the boys’ story papers, and in 1958 Adventure began a serial called The Last Men Alive, about the crew of a nuclear-powered (though it did not carry ballistic missiles. “Atomic torpedoes” are mentioned, but these were probably supposed to be smaller-scale kiloton-sized weapons for use on fleets of enemy ships) submarine in 1996. The sub, called the Argos (interestingly never called HMS Argos… a subtle assumption that the monarchy would have been abolished by the nineties?), is on patrol in the South Atlantic, during World War 3. Her mission is to prevent “the enemy” from sailing around the Horn of Africa. We never find out exactly who “the enemy” are, but can assume it’s the Soviet Union, perhaps allied with China.
The war is already about six months old when the story begins, though so far nobody has used nuclear weapons. The sub has not received any messages for almost three weeks, so they decide to surface and have a look around, as soon as they reach the surface, alarms start to go off – the air is dangerously radioactive! It looks like a nuclear war has been fought, after all.
The captain, Lt. Cmdr Vince Bryant, decides to sail back to Britain and investigate. On the way, they stop at St Helena, finding everybody on the island dead – apparently they dropped dead whilst going about their everyday lives. The air is still alive with radiation, and the crew can only go outside in special suits. They visit the “telegraph office” (now the story shows it’s age!), and find that three weeks previously, enemy bombers managed to avoid Britain’s radar and fighter screens, and drop “Hydrogen-Cobalt bombs” on London and other cities. Britain retaliated, and these new, powerful bombs somehow caused a ‘chain reaction’, which ‘set the upper atmosphere on fire’ and spread a huge amount of powerful fallout around the entire globe in only a few hours (the one realistic part, the jet stream races around the world at hundreds of miles per hour).
The sub sails further north, past “French Senegal” and the “busy port of Dakar”, now also ‘bleached’ of all human and animal life. Of course, Senegal was long-since independent in the real 1996! The journey also takes them past a number of lifeless, drifting surface ships. It appears that only submarine crews, safe under the sea, have survived. Eventually the Argos reaches Britain. There too, the coast is lifeless, deserted and radioactive. They sail into the Thames (“cl0gged with ships”, as are many other major rivers into the traditional port cities – by the real 1996 the advent of containers had rapidly decreased the number of working docks in Britain), to find that London has taken a direct hit, the few buildings left standing are roofless, blackened ruins.
The Argos sails south again, down the channel and eventually finds a Cornish village called Trelorna, where some freak of the wind has keeping the fallout away. The people here are isolated and starving, but fortunately the Argos carries a large supply of food, and is able to give them at least one meal. The crew begin handing out tins to the women of the village, though a big man called Black Jack pushes his way to the front and snatches a can from an old lady. Fortunately Vince Bryant is a champion boxer, and soon has Jack on his back!
Other villagers are more friendly, namely Henry Penkevil, the headmaster of the village school, and Tom Couch, coxwain of the local lifeboat, and expert fisherman. The crew of the Argos come up with a plan to use electric shocks, generated from the hull, to “herd” fish into the safe bay, where they can be caught by the villagers. It will keep them going until they can start to grow crops on the small area of radiation-free farmland they can access.
Tom Couch comes out in the submarine (“A unique and terrifying experience, even in the year 1996”! – though Eagle and other publications were predicting huge passenger-and-cargo carrying submarines, unaffected by storms), which dives beneath the surface as soon as it gets beyond the headland – where the radioactive zone starts. They find a huge shoal of mackerel with the sonar, and begin to herd the fish towards Trelorna bay, using electric shocks generated on the surface of the sub (supposed to be a futuristic ‘silent sonar’). However, the fish attract something else – a sea monster bigger than the sub!
After a cat-and-mouse chase, Argos is able to fire off two “rocket torpedoes”, which curiously only have a thousand-yard range (surely traditional propellor-powered torpedoes can go for miles?). These hit the monster and it’s huge body goes floating to the surface. Is it a radioactive mutation? Nope! The story is more scientifically ‘accurate’ than that. It’s described as a creature from very deep in the sea, which has been attracted to the surface by the ‘turmoil’ of the nuclear war. As the crew watch it float, they notice bubbles coming from it. Suddenly it bursts open and sinks, as it lives in the deep sea, it’s body is under tremendous pressure. This pressure was held in by an exoskeleton, which the torpedoes broke open.
The crew can now get back to herding fish, and successfully drive them into the town, for now, the population have something to keep them alive! The schoolteacher has been surveying the boundaries of the radioactivity in more detail, now that he has protective gear from the submarine. He tells Bryant there is a store of seed potatoes in a deep vault at St. Austell, and if people in protective clothing could drive there, they could bring them back and start to grow them. The crew set off, finding many crashed, or just stalled, cars, with dead drivers – people fleeing the cities who were caught out by the intense fallout. They reach St. Austell, described as “centre of the china-clay industry”. People in the 50’s couldn’t possibly have foreseen how quickly and completely British industry would be destroyed.
The crew soon find the seed potato vault, and open it. There they are attacked by a madman! He has been shut in there for 5 weeks, living on potatoes and condensation, and not knowing what had happened to the outside world. Rather conveniently, another protective suit and airtight cases for transporting the potatoes come to hand, and they all make their way back to Trelorna, where something else crops up – confused, meaningless messages in Morse are being transmitted from some elderly wireless set!
On the way to find the source of these signals, they spot another sea monster through the periscope. This one has six huge legs, black scales and snail-like antennae. It was originally intended to walk around at the bottom of deep-sea canyons, but was drawn to the surface by the nuclear explosions. When it tried to walk on land, the radiation killed it.
The Argos carries on into St. Ives, where they find some minesweepers, an oil tanker and a couple of “tramp steamers”. Of course, by the real 1996 I doubt St. Ives had any industrial port facilities at all. But then again in the real 1996 the country hadn’t been at war for 6 months! They soon discover the morse code is coming from the oil tanker, and after breaking in, find a kid called Tommy Clarke alive below decks. He was shut in the deepest part of the habitable area of the ship, having been planning on stowing away for a ‘life at sea’ (hah, imagine a real British kid of 1996 doing that!). The rest of the crew had tried to make it home when the air raid warnings sounded, and had been killed. Tommy had food, water and power from the ship’s small generator (which had a whole tanker’s worth of fuel to run on!), so was able to survive.
With Tommy rescued, the Argos turns back, only now one of the artificers, called Dorsey, leads a minor mutiny. He and some other want ‘shore leave’ in St. Ives, even though they’d have to have it in cumbersome radiation suits. The Captain guesses they really want to loot beer from the pubs, and challenges Dorsey to a fight. Bryant wins, and the Argos continues with her mission, on the way back to Trelorna some whales are driven into the harbour and captured. Also they witness the detonation of a nuclear mine(!) which broke it’s moorings in a storm, drifted against the coast and detonated, incinerating many square miles and releasing even more fallout – good thing that didn’t drift into the harbour!
With a supply of food, and also whale-oil for fuel, secured, the survivors start to wonder if anybody else has survived the war. They reason that atomic research facilities and nuclear power stations (accurate prediction of the future! We only had one nuclear power station in the 50’s, and that was a small one, with production of material for nuclear weapons it’s main priority.) will have ‘safe rooms’ with radiation shielding, where there might be survivors.
Argos sets off once more, spotting a still-working lighthouse – which means it must still be manned (the story shows it’s age once again). Two of the men in the lighthouse have been killed by fallout, but the third is “naturally immune”, though he still has some radiation burns, and has gone mad. Bryant has to call on his boxing skills once more, and the mission proceeds. They also come across a drifting American aircraft carrier – sent to help Britain repel enemy bombers, but it didn’t get there in time. No doubt in a real nuclear World War 3 Britain would just be classed as an American aircraft carrier, but one crewed by foreigners, so it’s okay for the Americans to leave if it’s in danger of being ‘sunk’.
The Argos carries on to the Mersey, finding Liverpool has taken a direct hit and has been entirely flattened. They sail to the other side of the river, get a lorry and start to drive towards a nuclear power station at a place called Werton. Before they get there, they find a car coming the other way! A few scientists from the power station have survived, but had run out of food and were going to search for more, using their own anti-radiation suits. One of them, Professor Woodley, has been working on a compound which neutralises radioactive fallout, but it’s still early days. The scientists are taken back to Trelorna and begin to work with the farmers on growing potatoes successfully in the irradiated soil.
The scientists need more information, so the Argos sets off to Plymouth to find some books. The town has not been hit by a nuclear bomb, though is as lifeless as everywhere else. They go to the library and start to fetch a load of scientific books, suddenly they hear the recall signal from the Argos – three shots of the deck gun! The story showing it’s age again – why would a nuclear submarine, able to submerge for months at a time, and with the ‘chivalry’ of the First World War long dead – need a deck gun? Even HMS Dreadnought, out first nuclear sub which entered service in 1959, didn’t have one. Anyway, the shore party race back to the dock, and find Argos has disappeared! The dingy which had been tied to the outside of the hull is floating freely – obviously she has crash dived in a great hurry.
One of the crew suddenly spots a submarine entering the harbour – but she is of a strange design, and has X7 painted on her conning tower – an enemy! The shore party get under cover, and watch as an enemy shore party enter the town and look around. Bryant knows something of “the enemy’s language”, and overhears them saying that the situation in Britain is “the same as at home”. They then console themselves with the fact that “the scientists who created these infernal bombs are dead” and go back to hunting for fish. The party from the Argos keep out of sight, they only have one revolver between them, and the war is not officially over. The enemy captain – Commander Stok – orders his men back on board, and they sail off. The Argos reappears, and they set off back to Trelorna, this time with the crew at action stations!
Later, Argos is trying to navigate a horde of eels into Trelorna bay, but it is proving difficult – they have to chase them around the Scilly Isles several times. Just as they get into the channel, a huge blast of sound scatters the eels. It’s the X7! She hasn’t detected the Argos – she was instead trying to direct the eels with sound, rather than electric shocks. The Argos goes into stealth mode, and watches as the X7 battles another sea monster. The X7 fires two torpedoes at the monster, and Argos has to dash out of the way, in case either of them misses. The Argos is mentioned as travelling at 50-60 knots underwater, by contrast the Royal Navy’s Daring-class destroyers of the 1950’s could only do 30 knots on the surface (and our nuclear “fleet submarines” which were in service in the 1990’s, could do about the same underwater). One of the X7’s shots kills the monster, and she goes back to directing shoals of fish using sound waves, followed by the Argos.
Eventually X7 gets close to the Somme river, which is at low tide. Bryant orders the Argos to overtake the shoal of fish, and steer them into the estuary using electric shocks. With this done, the X7 races to follow, and jams herself in a mud bank. Bryant then calls X7 on the “undersea telephone” (at least there’s no “imagiser”, I suppose), and reveals the existence of the British crew. The X7’s immediate response is a pair of torpedoes!
Bryant moves Argos into a position immediately above X7 and waits. Eventually Captain Stok agrees to a truce – the politicians who started the war are all dead, and it’s up to the two crews to work together for the future of the human race. X7 has been herding fish for two similarly-stranded colonies of people “a thousand miles away” on the other side of the North Sea. Assuming the enemy is the Soviet Union, these colonies could be in Poland or along the Soviet shore in the Baltic. Or, if this was happening in the actual 1996, there could be Russian survivors in Kaliningrad.
Argos prepars to take the X7 in tow, when another sea monster appears on the radar. It is heading towards the shoal of fish, which still swarm around the X7 in confusion. Argos disengages and fights the monster, Bryant has to be careful about when he fires the torpedoes, as the explosions might damage the X7. After a short battle, the monster is blown up, and X7 is successfully bought to the surface and towed to Trelorna.
The people of Trelorna are wary at first – they are the last British people alive, and any trickery by the enemy might result in the entire country being wiped out. But when they hear that there’s other desperate colonies of people just clinging to life, they accept the truce as real. Soon the X7’s crew are meeting the locals, and playing a football game, despite the language barrier.
Bryant, Captain Stok and some others are invited to Professor Woodley’s house, where he shows them some formerly-radioactive soil he has treated with his powder. It’s now completely inert, and safe to grow crops in. Henry Penkevil, who has his own gieger counter (with the threat of nuclear war, maybe headmasters would be issued with them – the balloon could go up at any time!), reports that the area of radiation-free land around the village appears to be slowly growing, too. Bryant looks forward to a future where these three small colonies of people will be able to rebuild human society, together and in peace.