The hunters and the hunted on the high seas of war
This interesting book—containing two book length accounts—views the same conflict—the U-Boat War during the First World War in the North Atlantic, North Sea and English Channel—from both sides. The first, The U-Boat Hunters was written by a professional journalist reporting for Colliers Magazine as he accompanied the United States destroyer force in the final year of the war. The second account, The Diary of a U-Boat Commander, is an interesting insight into the world of a Kreigsmarine officer on active service. It is a traumatic story of battle and mental and physical suffering illuminated by periods of tragic romance making it a classic naval memoir of the German Navy at war in the early 20th century.
Lively? Our destroyers are about 11½ times as long as they are wide; which does not mean that they cannot keep the sea. They can keep the sea. Put one of them stern-on to a 90-mile breeze and all the sea to go with it, give her 5 or 6 knots an hour head of steam, and she will stay there till the ocean is blown dry. But they are engined out of all proportion to their tonnage, with their great weight of machinery deep down; which means that they roll. Oh, but they do roll! Whoopo—down and back like that! Most any of them will make a complete roll inside of six seconds. Ours was a 5¼-second one. When she got to rolling right, she would snap a careless sailor overboard as quickly as you could snap a bug off the end of a whalebone cane. There is one over there which rolled 73 degrees—and came back. <BR>
Take one of them when she is hiking along at 20 knots, rolling from 45 to 50 degrees, and just about filling the whale-boat swinging to the skid deck davits as she rolls! See one dive and take a sea over her fo’c’s’le head and smash in her chart-house bulkhead maybe! Their outer skin is only three sixteenths of an inch thick. See that thin skin give to the sea like a lace fan to a breeze! Watch the deck crawl till sometimes the deck-plates buckle up into V-shaped ridges! See them with the seas sloshing up their low freeboard and over their narrow decks, so that men have to make use of a sort of trolley line to get about. A man is aft and has to go forward, say. He hooks onto a rope loop, the same hanging from a fore-and-aft taut steel line about seven feet above deck, and when her stern rises he lifts his feet and shoots and fetches up Bam!—up against the fo’c’s’le break. He is forward and wants to go aft—he hooks onto the loop, waits for her bow to rise, lets himself go and there he is—back to her skid deck.<BR>
That sounds like rough work. Sometimes it gets rougher than that, and then you hear of the wireless operator who was held in his radio shack for forty hours. He got pretty hungry, but he preferred the hunger to coming out and being washed overboard.<BR>
But let a machinist’s mate tell you in his own way of the night he was standing a fire-room watch—this with all due respect to the chart-house bulkhead, the trolley line, the buckling decks, and the radio operator who was confined—this night he was on watch in the fire-room. Was it rough? He thought so. When he looked down at his feet, there were the fire-room deck-plates folding in and out like a concertina.<BR>
Destroyer crews do not loaf overmuch around deck. They can’t. They live below decks mostly, strapped in when it is rough to a stretch of canvas laced to four pieces of iron pipe, set on an angle down against the ship’s sides, and called a bunk. Even strapped in so they are sometimes, when she has a good streak on, hove out into the passageways. It was a young doctor of the flotilla who said that, except for their broken arms and legs, his ship’s crew were disgustingly healthy.<BR>
Our officers over there volunteer for this service, and for every one who went, there were a dozen who wanted to go. And there is a lot of difference between men who go to a duty because they are ordered to go, and men who go because they want to go. These officers and men—there is no beating them, except by blowing them off the face of the waters. And even then they are not always beaten. One of our destroyers was cut down one night by collision. (With so many ships being crowded into a small steaming area, collisions are sure to happen.) All hands had to take to the rafts in a hurry. It was about two in the morning, one of those summer nights in the North when the light comes early. They watched her going under. Her deck settled level with the sea, and as it did so a young irrepressible one sang out: “What do you say, fellows, to having a race around the old girl before she flops under?” Away they started, four or five gangs of them, paddling their life rafts with their hands around the sinking ship at two in the morning.<BR>
The Fair Island Channel is an English death-trap; it stinks with death. By cursed luck we arrived there just as the English were trying one of their new devices, and it is the devil. Exactly what the system is, I don’t quite know, and I hope never again to have to investigate it.<BR>
For forty-seven, hours we have been hunted like a rat, and now, with the pressure hull leaking in three places, and the boat half full of chlorine, we are struggling back on the surface, practically incapable of diving at least for more than ten minutes at a time. Even on the surface, with all the fans working, one must wear a gas mask to penetrate the fore compartment. Oh! these English, what devils they are!
Here is what happened:<BR>
Fair Island was away on our port beam when we sighted a large English trawler, which I suspected of being a patrol. To be on the safe side, I dived and proceeded at twenty metres for about an hour.<BR>
At 5 p.m. (approximately) I came up to periscope depth to have a look round, but quickly dived again as I discovered a trawler, steering on the same course as myself, about a thousand metres astern of me. This was the more disconcerting, as in the short time at my disposal it seemed to me that she was remarkably similar to the craft I had seen in the afternoon, and yet this hardly seemed likely, as I did not think she could have sighted me then.<BR>
On diving, I altered course ninety degrees, and proceeded for half an hour at full speed, then altered another ninety degrees, in the same direction as the previous alteration, and diving to thirty metres I proceeded at dead slow. By midnight I had been diving so much that I decided to get a charge on the batteries before dawn; I also wanted to be up at 1 a.m. to make my position report.<BR>
I surfaced after a good look round through the right periscope, which, as usual, revealed nothing. I had hardly got on the bridge, when a flash of flame stabbed the night on the starboard beam and a shell moaned just overhead.<BR>
I crash-dived at once, but could not get under before the enemy fired a second shot at us, which fortunately missed us. As we dived I ordered the helm hard a starboard, to counteract the expected depth-charge attack. We must have been a hundred and fifty metres from the first charge and a little below it, five others followed in rapid succession, but were further away, and we suffered no damage beyond a couple of broken lights. The situation was now extremely unpleasant. I did not dare venture to the surface, and thus missed my 1 a.m. signal from Headquarters. I wanted a charge badly, and so proceeded at the lowest possible speed. At regular intervals our enemy dropped one depth-charge somewhere astern of us, but these reports always seemed the same distance away.<BR>
At dawn I very cautiously came up to periscope depth, and had a look. To my consternation I discovered our relentless pursuer about 1,500 metres away on the port quarter. In some extraordinary manner he had tracked us during the night.
I dived and altered course through ninety degrees to south.<BR>
At 9 a.m. a tremendous explosion shook the boat from stem to stern, smashing several lights, and giving her a big inclination up by the bow.<BR>
As I was only at twenty metres I feared the boat would break surface, and our enemy was evidently very nearly right over us. I at once ordered hard to dive, and went down to the great depth of ninety-five metres.<BR>
A series of shattering explosions somewhere above us showed that we were marked down, and we were only saved from destruction by our great depth, the English charges being set apparently to about thirty metres.<BR>
At noon the situation was critical in the extreme. My battery density was down to 1,150, the few lamps that I had burning were glowing with a faint, dull red appearance, which eloquently told of the falling voltage and the dying struggles of the battery.<BR>
The motors with all fields out were just going round. The faces of the crew, pallid with exhaustion, seemed of an ivory whiteness in the dusky gloom of the boat, which never resembled a gigantic and fantastically ornamental coffin so closely as she did at that time.<BR>
The air was fetid. I struck a match; it went out in my fingers. The slightest effort was an agony. I bent down to take off my sea-boots, and cold sweat dropped off my forehead, and my pulse rose with a kind of jerk to a rapid beating, like a hammer.
I left one sea-boot on.<BR>
At 1 p.m. a deputation of the crew came aft, and in whispered voices implored me to surface the boat and make a last effort on the surface. A muffled report, as our implacable enemy dropped a depth-charge somewhere astern of us, added point to the conversation, and showed me that our appearance on the surface could have but one end.<BR>
At 3 p.m. the second coxswain, who was working the hydroplanes, fell off his stool in a dead faint.<BR>
At 3.30 p.m. the supreme crisis was reached: two more men fainted, and I realized that if I did not surface at once I might find the crew incapable of starting the Diesels.<BR>
At the order “Surface,” a feeble cheer came from the men.<BR>
We surfaced, and I dragged myself-up to the conning tower. Luckily we started the Diesels with ease, and in a few minutes gusts of beautiful air were circulating through the boat.