The war for the British life-line of the English Channel
Throughout history the English Channel has both preserved Britain and been its most vulnerable border. This short span of sea was dominated by the Royal Navy for over 150 years before the outbreak of the Great War. A new war—the first major conflict of the technological age—brought new dangers and challenges. A constant traffic of men and materials crossed the Channel to serve and supply the armies locked in a death struggle on the continent and this vital artery had to remain open and effective at all times to ensure victory and survival. Enemy submarines, surface flotillas and batteries of artillery remained dangerously close at hand, and well defended ports and harbours provided a continual threat to allied traffic and forces. This is the story of a fierce naval war fought in a narrow sea-way by one who experienced it. It is a story of naval battles and daring raids, of the bombing arm of the emergent air force and of the submarine service at its most daring. Above all it is a riveting story of human courage and endurance that will fascinate every student of the First World War.
Under the vivid constellation of star-shells the Huns, with which this structure was crowded, could be seen talking excitedly to each other, laughing and gesticulating. Apparently they were under the delusion that she had lost her course whilst seeking to enter the harbour, and was now groping blindly along the outside of the Mole trying to discover some way of repairing her error by getting through it and attacking the shipping inside. As to what she really aimed at obviously they had not the slightest inkling.<br>
Seeing her making for the viaduct the Huns assumed that she meant trying to pass through the piling which supported it. “When she attempts that she will stick fast, then we can run down the ladders and capture boat and crew too,” they told each other, congratulating themselves upon the ease with which they would secure the lot. And it was because they felt so sure of picking her up as a gift in this way that they left off firing at her. Little did the Huns know what the apparently lost sheep would do to them.<br>
Their mistake afforded the submarine just the opportunity her crew were seeking. When about half a mile distant from the viaduct they got a clear view of it and of the point they were to strike. Turning the boat’s head on towards this Lieutenant Sandford steered her direct for the place, the situation of which he knew, as where she should hit to attain her objective most effectively had been arranged beforehand. After a rapid survey of the position, Lieutenant Sandford determined to make sure at all costs and to avoid anything that involved the slightest risk of failure.<br>
At full speed he drove the submarine straight at the viaduct, into the understructure of which she crashed, burying her forepart in the timbers to a depth of forty feet, until her conning-tower came flat against the piling and thus brought her to a standstill. At this moment no man aboard her gave a thought to anything beyond the work in hand, though it seemed less likely than ever that any would survive the completion of it. The Huns who had been watching the approach of the submarine now started clambering down the ladders, all gleefully eager to seize the boat and her crew.<br>
But the big surprise was on the point of being sprung upon the enemy. Having got their craft just where they wanted to place her—she was put under the viaduct at exactly the prearranged spot—Lieutenant Sandford and his comrades hastened their task. After starting the fuses they lowered a small dinghy which they carried for the purpose, clambered into it, and began to pull away when quite assured that the fuses would do their part effectively.<br>
So that her crew might have a chance of getting clear quickly a powerful motor had been fitted in the dinghy supplied to the submarine. This motor was so much too powerful for the tiny boat that when running it shook her seams open. Consequently, a strong motor- pump was also placed in her. And to this fortuitous circumstance the complement of the submarine owe their lives. After they jumped into the dinghy and started the motor, they found this to be useless for propulsion as the screw had fouled something and broken off when the dinghy was being dropped into the water. No other course was left them but to get out the oars, and they did so.<br>
Heavy fire now assailed them again from the viaduct. The enemy, seeing their attempt to escape, gave vent to angry cries and renewed their rifle volleys, supplementing these by streams of bullets from machine-guns and pom-poms, being fully determined that the crew should not get away. But the crew were of another mind. Determined to escape if they in any way could, they fought heroically for liberty in the face of most adverse conditions. Overweighted as she was with machinery, their dinghy at best would have pulled very sluggishly. Added to other handicaps a strong current kept sweeping them back towards the viaduct almost as rapidly as they rowed away from it—and they struggled desperately to put as much distance between themselves and it as possible, for they knew the danger of what was about to happen, if the enemy did not.<br>
Very soon their boat became riddled with pom-pom bullets and made water so fast that she would have sunk and drowned all her occupants if the motor-pump had not been set going. This kept the inrushing water low enough for the dinghy to remain afloat. Still the bullets rained upon her. First, Lieutenant Sandford fell with a wound in his thigh and one hand smashed. Next Hamer, the coxswain, and Stoker Bendall were shot down. The three unwounded men plied the oars as vigorously as they could, but matters were looking very grave for them when the submarine went up with an appalling roar.<br>
At the moment of the explosion the dinghy was only about two hundred yards from her, and onlookers thought that the tiny boat and its occupants must surely be “whiffed into nothingness” by the force of the terrific upheaval. Great was the relief when the tumbling water subsided and they were seen amidst the smoke still bending sturdily to their oars. But by the shock all gunfire had been checked for the time being and the enemy had suffered severely. As the fuses ignited the submarine’s cargo there occurred one of the greatest explosions ever known on the sea.