Rudyard Kipling.

Sea Warfare online

. (page 1 of 8)
Online LibraryRudyard KiplingSea Warfare → online text (page 1 of 8)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Thierry Alberto, Jeannie Howse and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at












In Lowestoft a boat was laid,
Mark well what I do say!
And she was built for the herring trade,
But she has gone a-rovin', a-rovin', a-rovin',
The Lord knows where!

They gave her Government coal to burn,
And a Q.F. gun at bow and stern,
And sent her out a-rovin', etc.

Her skipper was mate of a bucko ship
Which always killed one man per trip,
So he is used to rovin', etc.

Her mate was skipper of a chapel in Wales,
And so he fights in topper and tails -
Religi-ous tho' rovin', etc.

Her engineer is fifty-eight,
So he's prepared to meet his fate,
Which ain't unlikely rovin', etc.

Her leading-stoker's seventeen,
So he don't know what the Judgments mean,
Unless he cops 'em rovin', etc.

Her cook was chef in the Lost Dogs' Home,
Mark well what I do say!
And I'm sorry for Fritz when they all come
A-rovin', a-rovin', a-roarin' and a-rovin',
Round the North Sea rovin',
The Lord knows where!



The Navy is very old and very wise. Much of her wisdom is on record
and available for reference; but more of it works in the unconscious
blood of those who serve her. She has a thousand years of experience,
and can find precedent or parallel for any situation that the force of
the weather or the malice of the King's enemies may bring about.

The main principles of sea-warfare hold good throughout all ages, and,
_so far as the Navy has been allowed to put out her strength_, these
principles have been applied over all the seas of the world. For
matters of detail the Navy, to whom all days are alike, has simply
returned to the practice and resurrected the spirit of old days.

In the late French wars, a merchant sailing out of a Channel port
might in a few hours find himself laid by the heels and under way for
a French prison. His Majesty's ships of the Line, and even the big
frigates, took little part in policing the waters for him, unless he
were in convoy. The sloops, cutters, gun-brigs, and local craft of all
kinds were supposed to look after that, while the Line was busy
elsewhere. So the merchants passed resolutions against the inadequate
protection afforded to the trade, and the narrow seas were full of
single-ship actions; mail-packets, West Country brigs, and fat East
Indiamen fighting, for their own hulls and cargo, anything that the
watchful French ports sent against them; the sloops and cutters
bearing a hand if they happened to be within reach.


It was a brutal age, ministered to by hard-fisted men, and we had put
it a hundred decent years behind us when - it all comes back again!
To-day there are no prisons for the crews of merchantmen, but they
can go to the bottom by mine and torpedo even more quickly than their
ancestors were run into Le Havre. The submarine takes the place of the
privateer; the Line, as in the old wars, is occupied, bombarding and
blockading, elsewhere, but the sea-borne traffic must continue, and
that is being looked after by the lineal descendants of the crews of
the long extinct cutters and sloops and gun-brigs. The hour struck,
and they reappeared, to the tune of fifty thousand odd men in more
than two thousand ships, of which I have seen a few hundred. Words of
command may have changed a little, the tools are certainly more
complex, but the spirit of the new crews who come to the old job is
utterly unchanged. It is the same fierce, hard-living, heavy-handed,
very cunning service out of which the Navy as we know it to-day was
born. It is called indifferently the Trawler and Auxiliary Fleet. It
is chiefly composed of fishermen, but it takes in every one who may
have maritime tastes - from retired admirals to the sons of the
sea-cook. It exists for the benefit of the traffic and the annoyance
of the enemy. Its doings are recorded by flags stuck into charts; its
casualties are buried in obscure corners of the newspapers. The Grand
Fleet knows it slightly; the restless light cruisers who chaperon it
from the background are more intimate; the destroyers working off
unlighted coasts over unmarked shoals come, as you might say, in
direct contact with it; the submarine alternately praises and - since
one periscope is very like another - curses its activities; but the
steady procession of traffic in home waters, liner and tramp, six
every sixty minutes, blesses it altogether.

Since this most Christian war includes laying mines in the fairways of
traffic, and since these mines may be laid at any time by German
submarines especially built for the work, or by neutral ships, all
fairways must be swept continuously day and night. When a nest of
mines is reported, traffic must be hung up or deviated till it is
cleared out. When traffic comes up Channel it must be examined for
contraband and other things; and the examining tugs lie out in a blaze
of lights to remind ships of this. Months ago, when the war was young,
the tugs did not know what to look for specially. Now they do. All
this mine-searching and reporting and sweeping, _plus_ the direction
and examination of the traffic, _plus_ the laying of our own
ever-shifting mine-fields, is part of the Trawler Fleet's work,
because the Navy-as-we-knew-it is busy elsewhere. And there is always
the enemy submarine with a price on her head, whom the Trawler Fleet
hunts and traps with zeal and joy. Add to this, that there are boats,
fishing for real fish, to be protected in their work at sea or chased
off dangerous areas whither, because they are strictly forbidden to
go, they naturally repair, and you will begin to get some idea of what
the Trawler and Auxiliary Fleet does.


Now, imagine the acreage of several dock-basins crammed, gunwale to
gunwale, with brown and umber and ochre and rust-red steam-trawlers,
tugs, harbour-boats, and yachts once clean and respectable, now dirty
and happy. Throw in fish-steamers, surprise-packets of unknown lines
and indescribable junks, sampans, lorchas, catamarans, and General
Service stink-pontoons filled with indescribable apparatus, manned by
men no dozen of whom seem to talk the same dialect or wear the same
clothes. The mustard-coloured jersey who is cleaning a six-pounder on
a Hull boat clips his words between his teeth and would be happier in
Gaelic. The whitish singlet and grey trousers held up by what is
obviously his soldier brother's spare regimental belt is pure
Lowestoft. The complete blue-serge-and-soot suit passing a wire down a
hatch is Glasgow as far as you can hear him, which is a fair distance,
because he wants something done to the other end of the wire, and the
flat-faced boy who should be attending to it hails from the remoter
Hebrides, and is looking at a girl on the dock-edge. The bow-legged
man in the ulster and green-worsted comforter is a warm Grimsby
skipper, worth several thousands. He and his crew, who are mostly his
own relations, keep themselves to themselves, and save their money.
The pirate with the red beard, barking over the rail at a friend with
gold earrings, comes from Skye. The friend is West Country. The
noticeably insignificant man with the soft and deprecating eye is
skipper and part-owner of the big slashing Iceland trawler on which he
droops like a flower. She is built to almost Western Ocean lines,
carries a little boat-deck aft with tremendous stanchions, has a nose
cocked high against ice and sweeping seas, and resembles a hawk-moth
at rest. The small, sniffing man is reported to be a "holy terror at


The child in the Pullman-car uniform just going ashore is a wireless
operator, aged nineteen. He is attached to a flagship at least 120
feet long, under an admiral aged twenty-five, who was, till the other
day, third mate of a North Atlantic tramp, but who now leads a
squadron of six trawlers to hunt submarines. The principle is simple
enough. Its application depends on circumstances and surroundings. One
class of German submarines meant for murder off the coasts may use a
winding and rabbit-like track between shoals where the choice of water
is limited. Their career is rarely long, but, while it lasts,
moderately exciting. Others, told off for deep-sea assassinations, are
attended to quite quietly and without any excitement at all. Others,
again, work the inside of the North Sea, making no distinction between
neutrals and Allied ships. These carry guns, and since their work
keeps them a good deal on the surface, the Trawler Fleet, as we know,
engages them there - the submarine firing, sinking, and rising again in
unexpected quarters; the trawler firing, dodging, and trying to ram.
The trawlers are strongly built, and can stand a great deal of
punishment. Yet again, other German submarines hang about the skirts
of fishing-fleets and fire into the brown of them. When the war was
young this gave splendidly "frightful" results, but for some reason or
other the game is not as popular as it used to be.

Lastly, there are German submarines who perish by ways so curious and
inexplicable that one could almost credit the whispered idea (it must
come from the Scotch skippers) that the ghosts of the women they
drowned pilot them to destruction. But what form these shadows
take - whether of "The Lusitania Ladies," or humbler stewardesses and
hospital nurses - and what lights or sounds the thing fancies it sees
or hears before it is blotted out, no man will ever know. The main
fact is that the work is being done. Whether it was necessary or
politic to re-awaken by violence every sporting instinct of a
sea-going people is a question which the enemy may have to consider
later on.

Dawn off the Foreland - the young flood making
Jumbled and short and steep -
Black in the hollows and bright where it's breaking -
Awkward water to sweep.
"Mines reported in the fairway,
"Warn all traffic and detain.
"'Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain."

Noon off the Foreland - the first ebb making
Lumpy and strong in the bight.
Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking
And the jackdaws wild with fright!
"Mines located in the fairway,
"Boats now working up the chain,
"Sweepers - Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock and Golden Gain."

Dusk off the Foreland - the last light going
And the traffic crowding through,
And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing
Heading the whole review!
"Sweep completed in the fairway.
"No more mines remain.
"'Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain."



The Trawlers seem to look on mines as more or less fairplay. But with
the torpedo it is otherwise. A Yarmouth man lay on his hatch, his gear
neatly stowed away below, and told me that another Yarmouth boat had
"gone up," with all hands except one. "'Twas a submarine. Not a mine,"
said he. "They never gave our boys no chance. Na! She was a Yarmouth
boat - we knew 'em all. They never gave the boys no chance." He was a
submarine hunter, and he illustrated by means of matches placed at
various angles how the blindfold business is conducted. "And then," he
ended, "there's always what _he'll_ do. You've got to think that out
for yourself - while you're working above him - same as if 'twas fish."
I should not care to be hunted for the life in shallow waters by a man
who knows every bank and pothole of them, even if I had not killed his
friends the week before. Being nearly all fishermen they discuss their
work in terms of fish, and put in their leisure fishing overside, when
they sometimes pull up ghastly souvenirs. But they all want guns.
Those who have three-pounders clamour for sixes; sixes for twelves;
and the twelve-pound aristocracy dream of four-inchers on
anti-aircraft mountings for the benefit of roving Zeppelins. They will
all get them in time, and I fancy it will be long ere they give them
up. One West Country mate announced that "a gun is a handy thing to
have aboard - always." "But in peacetime?" I said. "Wouldn't it be in
the way?"

"We'm used to 'em now," was the smiling answer. "Niver go to sea again
without a gun - _I_ wouldn't - if I had my way. It keeps all hands

They talk about men in the Army who will never willingly go back to
civil life. What of the fishermen who have tasted something sharper
than salt water - and what of the young third and fourth mates who have
held independent commands for nine months past? One of them said to me
quite irrelevantly: "I used to be the animal that got up the trunks
for the women on baggage-days in the old Bodiam Castle," and he
mimicked their requests for "the large brown box," or "the black dress
basket," as a freed soul might scoff at his old life in the flesh.


My sponsor and chaperon in this Elizabethan world of
eighteenth-century seamen was an A.B. who had gone down in the
_Landrail_, assisted at the Heligoland fight, seen the _BlГјcher_ sink
and the bombs dropped on our boats when we tried to save the drowning
("Whereby," as he said, "those Germans died gottstrafin' their own
country because _we_ didn't wait to be strafed"), and has now found
more peaceful days in an Office ashore. He led me across many decks
from craft to craft to study the various appliances that they
specialise in. Almost our last was what a North Country trawler called
a "common sweeper," that is to say, a mine-sweeper. She was at tea in
her shirt-sleeves, and she protested loudly that there was "nothing in
sweeping." "'See that wire rope?" she said. "Well, it leads through
that lead to the ship which you're sweepin' _with_. She makes her end
fast and you make yourn. Then you sweep together at whichever depth
you've agreed upon between you, by means of that arrangement there
which regulates the depth. They give you a glass sort o' thing for
keepin' your distance from the other ship, but _that's_ not wanted if
you know each other. Well, then, you sweep, as the sayin' is. There's
nothin' _in_ it. You sweep till this wire rope fouls the bloomin'
mines. Then you go on till they appear on the surface, so to say, and
then you explodes them by means of shootin' at 'em with that rifle in
the galley there. There's nothin' in sweepin' more than that."

"And if you hit a mine?" I asked.

"You go up - but you hadn't ought to hit em', if you're careful. The
thing is to get hold of the first mine all right, and then you go on
to the next, and so on, in a way o' speakin'."

"And you can fish, too, 'tween times," said a voice from the next
boat. A man leaned over and returned a borrowed mug. They talked about
fishing - notably that once they caught some red mullet, which the
"common sweeper" and his neighbour both agreed was "not natural in
those waters." As for mere sweeping, it bored them profoundly to talk
about it. I only learned later as part of the natural history of
mines, that if you rake the tri-nitro-toluol by hand out of a German
mine you develop eruptions and skin-poisoning. But on the authority of
two experts, there is nothing in sweeping. Nothing whatever!


Now imagine, not a pistol-shot from these crowded quays, a little
Office hung round with charts that are pencilled and noted over
various shoals and soundings. There is a movable list of the boats at
work, with quaint and domestic names. Outside the window lies the
packed harbour - outside that again the line of traffic up and down - a
stately cinema-show of six ships to the hour. For the moment the film
sticks. A boat - probably a "common sweeper" - reports an obstruction in
a traffic lane a few miles away. She has found and exploded one mine.
The Office heard the dull boom of it before the wireless report came
in. In all likelihood there is a nest of them there. It is possible
that a submarine may have got in last night between certain shoals and
laid them out. The shoals are being shepherded in case she is hidden
anywhere, but the boundaries of the newly discovered mine-area must be
fixed and the traffic deviated. There is a tramp outside with tugs in
attendance. She has hit something and is leaking badly. Where shall
she go? The Office gives her her destination - the harbour is too full
for her to settle down here. She swings off between the faithful tugs.
Down coast some one asks by wireless if they shall hold up their
traffic. It is exactly like a signaller "offering" a train to the next
block. "Yes," the Office replies. "Wait a while. If it's what we
think, there will be a little delay. If it isn't what we think, there
will be a little longer delay." Meantime, sweepers are nosing round
the suspected area - "looking for cuckoos' eggs," as a voice suggests;
and a patrol-boat lathers her way down coast to catch and stop
anything that may be on the move, for skippers are sometimes rather
careless. Words begin to drop out of the air into the chart-hung
Office. "Six and a half cables south, fifteen east" of something or
other. "Mark it well, and tell them to work up from there," is the
order. "Another mine exploded!" "Yes, and we heard that too," says
the Office. "What about the submarine?" "_Elizabeth Huggins_ reports...."

_Elizabeth's_ scandal must be fairly high flavoured, for a
torpedo-boat of immoral aspect slings herself out of harbour and
hastens to share it. If _Elizabeth_ has not spoken the truth, there
may be words between the parties. For the present a pencilled
suggestion seems to cover the case, together with a demand, as far as
one can make out, for "more common sweepers." They will be forthcoming
very shortly. Those at work have got the run of the mines now, and are
busily howking them up. A trawler-skipper wishes to speak to the
Office. "They" have ordered him out, but his boiler, most of it, is on
the quay at the present time, and "ye'll remember, it's the same wi'
my foremast an' port rigging, sir." The Office does not precisely
remember, but if boiler and foremast are on the quay the rest of the
ship had better stay alongside. The skipper falls away relieved. (He
scraped a tramp a few nights ago in a bit of a sea.) There is a little
mutter of gun-fire somewhere across the grey water where a fleet is
at work. A monitor as broad as she is long comes back from wherever
the trouble is, slips through the harbour mouth, all wreathed with
signals, is received by two motherly lighters, and, to all appearance,
goes to sleep between them. The Office does not even look up; for that
is not in their department. They have found a trawler to replace the
boilerless one. Her name is slid into the rack. The immoral
torpedo-boat flounces back to her moorings. Evidently what _Elizabeth
Huggins_ said was not evidence. The messages and replies begin again
as the day closes.


Return now to the inner harbour. At twilight there was a stir among
the packed craft like the separation of dried tea-leaves in water. The
swing-bridge across the basin shut against us. A boat shot out of the
jam, took the narrow exit at a fair seven knots and rounded in the
outer harbour with all the pomp of a flagship, which was exactly what
she was. Others followed, breaking away from every quarter in silence.
Boat after boat fell into line - gear stowed away, spars and buoys in
order on their clean decks, guns cast loose and ready, wheel-house
windows darkened, and everything in order for a day or a week or a
month out. There was no word anywhere. The interrupted foot-traffic
stared at them as they slid past below. A woman beside me waved her
hand to a man on one of them, and I saw his face light as he waved
back. The boat where they had demonstrated for me with matches was the
last. Her skipper hadn't thought it worth while to tell me that he was
going that evening. Then the line straightened up and stood out to

"You never said this was going to happen," I said reproachfully to my

"No more I did," said he. "It's the night-patrol going out. Fact is,
I'm so used to the bloomin' evolution that it never struck me to
mention it as you might say."

Next morning I was at service in a man-of-war, and even as we came to
the prayer that the Navy might "be a safeguard to such as pass upon
the sea on their lawful occasions," I saw the long procession of
traffic resuming up and down the Channel - six ships to the hour. It
has been hung up for a bit, they said.

Farewell and adieu to you, Greenwich ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies ashore!
For we've received orders to work to the eastward
Where we hope in a short time to strafe 'em some more.

We'll duck and we'll dive like little tin turtles,
We'll duck and we'll dive underneath the North Seas,
Until we strike something that doesn't expect us,
From here to Cuxhaven it's go as you please!

The first thing we did was to dock in a mine-field,
Which isn't a place where repairs should be done;
And there we lay doggo in twelve-fathom water
With tri-nitro-toluol hogging our run.

The next thing we did, we rose under a Zeppelin,
With his shiny big belly half blocking the sky.
But what in the - Heavens can you do with six-pounders?
So we fired what we had and we bade him good-bye.



The chief business of the Trawler Fleet is to attend to the traffic.
The submarine in her sphere attends to the enemy. Like the destroyer,
the submarine has created its own type of officer and man - with
language and traditions apart from the rest of the Service, and yet at
heart unchangingly of the Service. Their business is to run monstrous
risks from earth, air, and water, in what, to be of any use, must be
the coldest of cold blood.

The commander's is more a one-man job, as the crew's is more
team-work, than any other employment afloat. That is why the relations
between submarine officers and men are what they are. They play
hourly for each other's lives with Death the Umpire always at their
elbow on tiptoe to give them "out."

There is a stretch of water, once dear to amateur yachtsmen, now given
over to scouts, submarines, destroyers, and, of course, contingents of
trawlers. We were waiting the return of some boats which were due to
report. A couple surged up the still harbour in the afternoon light
and tied up beside their sisters. There climbed out of them three or
four high-booted, sunken-eyed pirates clad in sweaters, under jackets
that a stoker of the last generation would have disowned. This was
their first chance to compare notes at close hand. Together they
lamented the loss of a Zeppelin - "a perfect mug of a Zepp," who had
come down very low and offered one of them a sitting shot. "But what
_can_ you do with our guns? I gave him what I had, and then he started

"I know he did," another said. "I heard him. That's what brought me
down to you. I thought he had you that last time."

"No, I was forty foot under when he hove out the big un. What happened
to _you_?"

"My steering-gear jammed just after I went down, and I had to go round
in circles till I got it straightened out. But _wasn't_ he a mug!"

"Was he the brute with the patch on his port side?" a sister-boat

"No! This fellow had just been hatched. He was almost sitting on the
water, heaving bombs over."

"And my blasted steering-gear went and chose _then_ to go wrong," the
other commander mourned. "I thought his last little egg was going to
get me!"

Half an hour later, I was formally introduced to three or four quite
strange, quite immaculate officers, freshly shaved, and a little tired
about the eyes, whom I thought I had met before.


Meantime (it was on the hour of evening drinks) one of the boats was
still unaccounted for. No one talked of her. They rather discussed
motor-cars and Admiralty constructors, but - it felt like that queer
twilight watch at the front when the homing aeroplanes drop in.
Presently a signaller entered. "V 42 outside, sir; wants to know which

1 3 4 5 6 7 8

Online LibraryRudyard KiplingSea Warfare → online text (page 1 of 8)