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The Spider Web

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The Spider Web
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Author(s): P. I. X. (Theodore Douglas Hallam)
Date Published: 2009/09
Page Count: 188
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-783-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-784-4

War at sea—war in the air

This is an account of the early days, during the Great War, of the service that became the Fleet Air Arm. It did not take long after hostilities commenced for the Royal Navy to appreciate the potential of an 'air force' both as an eye in the sky and as an effective method of countering enemy surface vessels and most especially German submarine activity. Endurance, speed and surprise were the essential components of the sea-plane and flying boat war. Appearing suddenly out of the sun, a surface cruising U-Boat had little time to dive to safety before destruction rained down upon it. This book contains may gripping incidents of U-Boat hunting in the 'Spider Web', a great tract of the North Sea which was the Navy flyer's patrol area and battlefield. This was a hard war fraught with dangers from mechanical breakdowns, attacks from enemy aircraft, lethal weather and anti-aircraft fire among its many perils. A riveting account of the sea and early aviation warfare.

During May, beside bringing down the L 43, the War Flight sighted eight enemy submarines and bombed three.<br>
Morrish and Young, driven off their course by heavy rain-squalls and low clouds on the 9th, passed over an enemy submarine on the Schouen Bank, but as they did not know where they were at the time and could not identify it, they passed on, making the English coast near Dover. Two days later Gordon and Thompson presented one of our new two hundred and thirty pound bombs to a Fritz.<br>
On the same day Dickey and myself, when peacefully booming out to the North Hinder, ran into six winged Huns. Much to the disgust of Dickey, who wanted to eat ‘em alive, I dodged the enemy in the mist and carried out the patrol.<br>
But now our activities were curtailed and the War Flight came in for a tremendous straffing.<br>
A Senior Naval Officer from another area on a visit to the station asked to be taken out on patrol. He was boomed out on the Spider Web by Tiny, surprised a submarine on the surface, and dumped on it four one hundred pound bombs before it could submerge.<br>
The Naval Officer arrived back in the harbour safely and departed to his own place, well pleased.<br>
But that night the telephone bell rang and we were informed that one of the Harwich submarines, which was due, had not returned. Tiny’s hoodoo was apparently on the job again. He was sent for and carpeted, and straffed for taking out a Naval Officer from another area, and while doing so, bombing and sinking one of our own submarines.<br>
The War Flight was straffed and forbidden to search the Spider Web, and was given instead the task of flying up and down the shipping channel within smelling distance of the land. The pilots were tremendously bored.<br>
And then five days later the E boat came limping in between the guard-ships at the boom. She was damaged, but not damaged by bombs. She had not been anywhere near where the bombs had been dropped, but had found trouble while poking her inquisitive nose into some of Germany’s secret affairs.<br>
But for some days the flying-boats flopped up and down the shipping channel, seeing nothing and accomplished nothing, until June the 28th. Their release was celebrated by Mackenzie and Dickey bombing a Fritz from four hundred feet ten miles west of the North Hinder.<br><br>
********<br><br>
The U-C 1 pushed out from Zeebrugge harbour on July 23.<br>
She was dirty as to paint, rust streaks disfigured her sides, and she was not a pretty object to look at in the bright sunshine.<br>
But she was not really a wicked submarine, as she did not sink passenger liners or hospital ships with torpedoes or gun fire, but only laid mines, which is a legitimate act of war.<br>
She was a hundred and eleven feet long, and was the sole survivor, but one, of fifteen similar boats. She carried twelve mines in four vertical tubes forward of her conning-tower.<br>
Her Commander passed the North Hinder and pushed on towards England, running on the surface across our deep minefield. When in sight of the shipping channel he dived and worked his way right into the approaches to Harwich. He was a bit early, for it was still daylight, and he liked to lay his mines at high water, as this gave him a greater depth for diving.<br>
He loafed along at two knots, thirty feet under the surface, with his periscope twelve inches above water, keeping a sharp lookout for trouble. Presently he saw a fleet of minesweepers working in the distance, and creeping cautiously closer, observed that they were sweeping in an area between four bright-green buoys, marking off the corners of a large parallelogram. Consulting the chart supplied by his intelligence department, he saw that the trawlers were sweeping in the emergency war channel.<br>
The minesweepers were working in pairs, travelling abreast and some distance apart. Each trawler towed a kite at the end of a wire cable. The heavy wooden kite was V-shaped and sank under the surface to the required depth when towed. Between the two kites was a wire rope. It had chains attached to it, so that it dragged on the bottom, and rollers, so that it would not foul. In the bight of the wire was a serrated portion. The idea was to catch the mooring cable of any mine on the wire and saw it in two on the serrations. The mine would then rise to the surface and could be destroyed by rifle fire. <br>
The Commander of U-C 1 told his second in command that these preparations clearly meant that the Harwich Light Forces were going to take a burst out to sea, and that he intended to lay a line of mines across their path.<br>
At dusk the trawlers packed up and boiled off for home at top speed. The German Commander watching them said: “It is easy to see that they are burning Government coal.”<br>
Just before high tide the U-C 1 entered the parallelogram inside the four green buoys, still under water. She was a third of the way across when a sharp order was given, a lever was pulled, and a mine left one of the tubes.<br>
The complete mine consisted of two parts, the warhead and the sinker.<br>
As it left the submarine it slowly sank to the bottom and rested on its sinker, for in the warhead was an air chamber which kept it right end up.<br>
A slow spring, automatically released when the mine left the tube, began to move a lever, and at the end of five minutes it pulled back a catch and released the warhead from the sinker.<br>
The air chamber in the warhead caused it to rise. As it rose it unwound the mooring cable from a reel in the sinker. It rose to within eight feet of the surface and then stopped. A hydrostatic valve had operated a catch which stopped the reel unwinding. The valve could be set to hold the warhead at any depth under the surface required.<br>
The pull of the warhead on the mooring cable closed an electric switch, and the mine was ready for business.<br>
In accordance with The Hague Convention a switch was fitted to the mine, which would open, rendering it harmless, if the warhead broke away from the cable; but it had been carefully put out of action before the mine had been put in its tube.<br>
The Commander of the U-C 1 crossed the parallelogram and laid all his mines at close intervals. His work finished, he slipped off toward the open sea, thinking with satisfaction of his row of mines with their ugly warty heads swaying to the tide below the surface of the water.<br>
He pictured the Harwich flotilla coming out in line ahead, a light cruiser leading, her four hundred and thirty-six feet of slim grey length driven through the water by her forty-thousand horse power. He thought of her 3-inch protective plating, but this he knew only went two and a half feet below her waterline. He gloated over her armament two 6-inch guns, six 4-inch guns, and one 4-inch high angle anti-aircraft gun all useless when pitted against his mines.<br>
He saw her in his mind’s eye touch a mine. It rolled along her side. The soft metal protruding horns were bent. The glass tubes inside them were broken. The liquid in the tubes fell into cups in which were two solid elements of an electric battery. A current was generated. The exploder was detonated, and the charge of high explosive went off with a chattering crash.<br>
But all that would happen tomorrow. He was well pleased with himself as he slipped along.<br>
How could he know that the emergency war-channel had been shifted, that the four green buoys had been laid there for his special benefit, that the minesweeping was a bluff, and that his successor to the job of minelayer-in-extraordinary to the Harwich Light Forces would in his turn discover the green buoys, blunder into the mines intended for the light cruiser, and so depart this life.<br>
Next morning he brought his boat to the surface this side of the North Hinder, and started for home. There was a light mist, no wind, and everything appeared ormolu.<br>
But behind him at Felixstowe Commander Porte, who was back on the station for a short time, had determined to lead out a patrol of five flying-boats a greater number than had ever been out together. It strained the resources of the War Flight, but five machines were finally shoved down the slipway into the water. Commander Porte was leading in F 2 C, his latest experimental boat, piloted by Queenie Cooper, the test pilot.<br>
The five boats fluttered around in the water, each getting into its correct position in the formation, and then, at the signal from the leading machine, all had their engines opened out at the same time.<br>
They boiled down the harbour, leaving five white streaks behind them, got into the air and pushed off for the Spider Web. Many times later on flights of an equal number of boats were got away easily, but this was the first time, and a sigh of relief and admiration went up from all hands on the slipway. It was a fine sight.<br>
The formation passed the Ship wash, passed the North Hinder, and then, at ten minutes to eleven o’clock, the Commander of U-C 1 tried to dive.<br>
He was too late.<br>
Ginger Newton and Trumble dropped two two-hundred and thirty-five bombs on him from five hundred feet. Commander Porte and Queenie dropped two similar bombs. Cuckney and Clayton dropped one bomb. And the other two boats stood by ready.<br>
But the career of U-C 1 was ended.