This Leonaur volume brings together two excellent works on submarine warfare during the First World War in a single good value edition. Wheeler’s work provides an interesting and varied overview of the allied effort to overcome the U-Boat threat, including details of the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend. It deals with submarines in action in the various theatres of the war from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Submarine v submarine operations and depth charging are described and anecdotes of submarine actions throughout the conflict feature prominently. Domville-Fife’s book perfectly partners Wheeler’s work by providing detailed descriptions of the submarines of six warring nations, together with technical details of torpedoes and mines. The torpedo boat, mine laying and mine-sweeping fleets plus other anti-submarine tactics are also covered in some detail.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
One of the most effective antidotes for the submarine menace when the approximate whereabouts of the enemy is known is the depth charge, already mentioned more than once in these pages. Outwardly it resembles nothing more murderous than a cylindrical drum such as is used for storing paraffin oil. There the likeness ends. Inwardly it is filled with high explosive, and fitted with a fuse that can be set to detonate at any desired depth. Given a reasonable amount of luck, the surprise packet when thrown overboard blows up in the track of the enemy. Very often it strikes a death-blow, sometimes it does such extensive damage that it is only with extreme difficulty that the injured craft can crawl back to port, and occasionally the enemy escapes with nothing worse than a nasty jar. The effect naturally depends on the distance separating the charge from the target.
Some time since a young friend of mine who is an engineer officer on a certain armed auxiliary was asked if he would volunteer to take charge of the engine-room of a minesweeper. “Their man” was in sick bay, and as mine-laying U-boats had become increasingly active in the vicinity, it was highly desirable that operations should be resumed with the least possible delay. As his own ship was not due to sail for several days, he assured the skipper that he would be delighted to render any possible service. Incidentally he looked forward to what he termed “a bit of sport.”
It was abominably rough outside the sheltered seclusion of the harbour, and he was beginning to think that ‘a willing horse’ is a synonym for a fool, when a terrific crash made the ship quake, flung him in anything but a gentle manner against the nearest handrail, and nearly burst his ear-drums. Our friend glued his eyes to the indicator, expecting it to swing round to ‘Astern’ or ‘Stop.’ The hand remained motionless. He comforted himself with the reflection that if the bow was blown to bits or the vessel sent sky-high it was none of his business. It was not his duty to interfere with the navigation of the ship, which was certainly ploughing her way through the short and choppy seas as though nothing untoward had happened.
Presently the skipper’s burly form appeared at the casemate.
“What on earth was that?” asked the engineer.
“Only a depth charge exploding a couple of miles away,” was the answer. “There’s lots of oil hereabouts.”
Unfortunately the Allies were not the sole possessors of the prescription for these quick-acting pills. Depth charges ‘made in Germany’ were sometimes dropped in the tracks of British submarines. A certain commander, who also knows what it is to face the ugly muzzles of 6-in. guns spitting flame when a submarine is cruising awash, confesses to a preference for the latter weapon. This is the reason why:
He came near the surface at an awkward moment. No sooner had he fixed his eyes to the periscope than he discovered that enemy torpedo-boats—not one but many—were in the immediate neighbourhood. Their movements showed them to be perfectly well aware of his presence. His orders were terse. Any hesitation in translating them into action would have meant disaster. The boat began to descend, nose foremost. She continued travelling in that direction even when it was a matter of urgent importance to maintain an even keel. Something had jammed, and jammed badly. Then there was a terrific report, followed by a concussion that did more than merely shake the submarine.
Some of the crew were knocked down. No need to ask if there had been a seaquake. Everybody knew right enough what had happened, and fully realized that the shock was probably only the prelude to further episodes of a similar kind. Rivets, bolts, and plates held good—so did the beastly jam. The submarine just dived to the bottom. There the officer let her remain without any attempt to repair the trouble. Like Brer Rabbit, he believed there were occasions when it is supreme wisdom to ‘lie low’ and do nothing. This was one of them. There was no immediate haste. He appeared to be waiting for something.
The ‘something’ came three minutes later, accompanied by a deafening bang that made rich, warm blood run cold. Another depth charge had been hurled overboard. It made the submarine rock, but a careful investigation of every nook and cranny made it evident that she had not so much as sprung a leak. British shipbuilders are the finest in the world when they like, and they had liked when putting together this underwater craft. With those on board the Norah Creina the commander could say, “God bless every man that swung a mallet on that tiny and strong hull! It was not for wages only that they laboured, but to save men’s lives.”
Evidently the enemy was not quite satisfied that he had killed his prey. There was nothing on which to base a report of death. Surmise is not certainty; it withholds proof. The Germans got out their sweeps and began fishing. The imprisoned men could hear the cable scraping along their boat, and thanked God when it ceased. The wire rope got entangled in nothing. That was a big mercy.
A third depth charge was heard and felt to explode, nearer this time, but still without doing serious injury. The torpedo-boats dropped no more ground-bait after that. The submarine was “missing, believed killed.” The Germans were not fond of remaining in one spot for any considerable time. When the victim was dead or mortally wounded, there was no need to attend the funeral. There were always the grey police of the patrol to be reckoned with.
Down below the crew of the “missing, believed killed” were straightening things out and wondering if they were to receive further attention from above. Two, four, six, eight hours passed, daylight with them. Little likelihood of the hunters being about now. Then the submarine, according to the official report, “proceeded to her base.”