William Charles Henry Wood.

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alongside a British trawler which was engaged in its regular fishing,
was quite unarmed, and had a crew of old men and young boys. The
Germans took all the fresh fish they wanted, sank the trawler, smashed
up her boats, and put the fishermen on the submarine's deck. Then they
slammed-to the hatch of the conning tower and sank very slowly, washing
the fishermen off. Then they rose again to laugh at them drowning. An
avenging destroyer came racing along and picked up the sole survivor.
But the German jokers, seeing it coming, had gone. No wonder the
seafaring British sometimes "saw red" to such a degree that they would
do anything to get in a blow! And sometimes they did get it in, when
the Germans least thought it was coming. When a skipper suddenly found
a German U-boat (_Unterseeboot_ or under-sea-boat) rising beside him,
just as his engine-room mechanic had come up with a hammer in his hand,
he called out, "look sharp and blind her!" Without a moment's
hesitation the mechanic jumped on her deck and smashed her periscope to
pieces, thus leaving her the blinded prey of gathering destroyers.

The Germans put their wits to work with hellish cunning. They wanted
to surround Great Britain with a sea of death so full of mines and
submarines that no ship could live. The mines were not placed at
random, but where they would either kill their victims best or make
them try another way where the lurking submarines could kill them. The
sea-roads into great ports like London and Liverpool converge, just as
railway tracks converge toward some great central junction. So
submarines lying in wait near these crowded waters had a great
advantage in the earlier part of the war, when people still believed
that the Germans would not sink unarmed merchantmen on purpose,
especially when women and children were known to be on board.

On the 7th of May, 1915, the _Lusitania_, from New York for Liverpool,
was rounding the south of Ireland, when the starboard (right-hand)
look-out in the crow's nest (away up the mast) called to his mate on
the port side, "Good God, Frank, here's a torpedo!" The next minute it
struck and exploded, fifteen feet under water, with a noise like the
slamming of a big heavy door. Another minute and a second torpedo
struck and exploded. Meanwhile the crew had dashed to their danger
posts and begun duties for which they had been carefully drilled,
though very few people ever thought the Germans would torpedo a
passenger steamer known to be full of women and children, carrying many
Americans, and completely unarmed. The ship at once took a list to
starboard (tilt to the right) so that the deck soon became as steep as
a railway embankment. This made it impossible to lower boats on the up
side, as they would have swung inboard, slithered across the steeply
sloping deck, and upset. The captain, cool and ready as British
captains always are, gave his orders from the up end of the bridge,
while the other officers were helping the passengers into the boats.
The sea soon came lapping over the down side of the deck, and people
began slipping into it. The full boats shoved off; but not half of
them on the down side were clear before the gigantic ship, with an
appalling plunge, sank head first. It all happened so quickly that
many had not been able to get on deck before this final plunge. They
must have been crushed by the hurtling of all loose gear when the ship
stood on her bows going down, then smothered and drowned, if not
smashed dead at the first. The captain stood on the bridge to the
last, went down with the ship, came up again among the wreckage, and
was saved after hours in the water. He will never forget the long,
piercing wail of despair from hundreds of victims as the gallant ship
went down.

This made it clear to all but those who did not want to understand that
Germany was going to defy the laws of the sea, at least as far as she
could without changing President Wilson's Government into an enemy. So
things went on, getting worse and worse, for another two years. The
British, French, and Italians had never prepared for a war like this.
They were ready to fight submarines that fought their own men-of-war,
as well as those that tried to sink transports carrying soldiers and
arms to the many different fronts. But who would have thought that
even the Germans would sink every merchantman without the least care
for the lives of the crew? The rest of the world thought the days of
pirates and cut-throats were over among all civilized nations. But the
Germans did not. So the Allies, the British especially, built more and
more destroyers to fight the German submarines. The Germans, of
course, built more and more submarines; and so the fight went on,
growing ever fiercer.

It was up-hill work for the British to guard thousands of ships over
millions of miles against the hidden foe, who sometimes struck without
being seen at all. A ship is a small thing on millions of square
miles. A slinking submarine is very much lower and harder to see on
the surface. A periscope is far harder still. The ordinary periscope
is simply a tube, a few inches in diameter, with a mirror in the upper
end reflecting the outside view on the corresponding mirror at the
lower end, where the captain watches his chance for a shot. No wonder
the Germans got on well for so long. It was over two years before
British merchantmen were armed. There was a shortage of guns; and the
neutral American Government would not allow any armed merchantmen into
their ports, though many and many a life was lost because a vessel was
unarmed. But, bit by bit, the merchantmen were forced to arm or die
like sheep before the German wolves; and once they had a gun they soon
learnt how to use it.

One gun over the stern was all that most ships had. It was mounted
astern because the best chance of escape was to turn away and go full
speed, zig-zagging every which way as you went, firing at the chasing
submarine; This made vessels harder for submarines to hit, not only on
account of the zig-zags, but because the ship, going the same way as
the torpedo, made fast and short shots harder to get; also because the
backwash of the screw helped to put torpedoes off their course; and
finally because the target was itself firing back at the submarine.
Even so, however, it was often touch-and-go; and very few people ever
enjoyed the fun of being fired at as much as that little Canadian girl
of six, who, seeing a torpedo shimmering past the ship's side, called
out, "Oh, Mummy, look at the pretty fish!" Once a fast torpedo was hit
and exploded by a shell from the vessel its submarine was chasing. But
this was a perfect fluke.

More to the point was the readiness of the merchantman _Valeria_ and of
Commander Stockwell's destroyer to turn happy accidents to the best
account on the spur of the moment. The _Valeria_ bumped over a rising
submarine at three o 'clock one summer morning off the coast of
Ireland. Instantly all hands ran to "action stations," when the gunner
saw, to his delight, that the periscope had been broken off and so the
submarine was blind. His first shot hit the hull. His second was a
miss. But his third struck the base of the conning tower; on which the
submarine sank, nothing but bubbles and oil remaining to mark the spot
where she went down. Stockwell's adventure was rather different. He
had marked a submarine slinking round in the early dawn, and, knowing
the spot the Germans liked best outside of Liverpool, watched his
chance over it. Suddenly he felt his destroyer being lifted up, tilted
over, and slid aside. The "sub" had risen right under it! Swinging
clear in a moment he let go a depth charge; and the sea-quake that
followed had plenty of signs to show that the "sub" had gone down.

1917 was the great year of submarine war: the Germans straining every
nerve to kill off all the ships that went to or from the Allied ports,
the Allies trying their best to kill off all the submarines. The
Mediterranean was bad, the North Atlantic was worse, the west coasts of
the British Islands worst of all. The American Navy came in and did
splendid service off the south coast of Ireland, in the Bay of Biscay,
and along the North Atlantic seaways between French and British and
American ports. More and more destroyers were put into service, aided
by "chasers" - very much smaller vessels with only one gun and a few
men, but so cheap and easily built that they could be turned out in
swarms to help in worrying the submarines to death. The "scooters" and
"Porte's babies," as we saw in Chapter XXIV, were, however, even better
than these swarming "chasers."

The enormous steel nets were also used more than ever. You can fancy
what they were like by thinking of a gigantic fishing-net many miles
long, with armed steamers instead of floats. In the entrances to some
harbours there were sea-gates made by swinging open a bit of the net by
means of its steamers to let traffic go through, and then swinging it
back again. The mine-fields were made bigger than ever; it was then
that the vast one, mostly laid by the Americans, was begun from the
Orkneys to Norway. Mines were also laid by British submarines and by
daring fast surface mine-layers round Heligoland and other places off
the German coast. In this way the waters in which submarines could
work were made narrower and narrower and were better and better guarded.

But more and more submarines were launched, and they still sneaked out
to sea along the Dutch and Norwegian coasts where the Navy could not
stop them because they used to slink through "territorial waters," that
is, within three miles of the coast, where the sea belonged to the
nearest country, just the same as the land. The Navy, however, had
lines of patrols always on the watch from the Orkneys to the Shetlands,
on to Iceland, over to Norway, and north to the Arctic ice. The narrow
waters of the English Channel were watched by the famous Dover Patrol
under Sir Roger Keyes. From Folkestone to Cap Griz Nez in France there
was an unbroken line of the strongest searchlights on vessels anchored
to ride out the biggest gales. Seven miles west was another line.
Between were hundreds of patrol boats always ready, night or day, to
fire at anything on the surface or to drop depth charges on anything
that dived. A depth charge is a sort of mine that can be set to go off
at a certain depth, say thirty to sixty feet down, when it makes a
sea-quake that knocks the submarine out of gear and sinks it, even if
it does not actually hit it. Besides all these guards on the surface
there were nets and mines underneath. That is why the British army in
France never had its line of communication with England cut for one
single day all through the war.

Now and then the Germans tried a destroyer raid from their ports on the
Belgian coast, or even from their own coast; for they would sneak
through Dutch waters within the three-mile limit as well as through the
Danish or Norwegian. They played a game of tip-and-run, their gunners
firing at any surface craft they saw (for they knew no Germans could be
anywhere but underneath) and their captains streaking back home at the
first sign of the British Navy. On the night of the 20th of April,
1917, they were racing back, after sinking some small craft, when an
avenging flotilla of British destroyers began to overhaul them. Seeing
that one of the Germans might escape in the dark, the _Broke_ (named
after Captain Broke of the _Shannon_ in the War of 1812) turned and
rammed her amidships. The Germans fought well, swarming aboard the
_Broke_ and fighting hand to hand, as in the days of boarding. But
Midshipman Giles stood up to the first of them, who was soon killed by
a bluejacket's cutlass; and then, after a tremendous tussle with swords
and pistols and anything else that was handy, every German was either
driven overboard or killed on the spot, except two that surrendered.

A year later (on St. George's Day) the _Vindictive_ led the famous raid
on Zeebrugge under Captain Carpenter, V.C. The idea was to destroy the
principal German base in Belgium from which aircraft and submarines
were always starting. For weeks beforehand the crews that had
volunteered to go on this desperate adventure were carefully trained in
secret. The plan was to block the mouth of the Bruges Canal, by
sinking three vessels filled with concrete, while the _Vindictive_
smashed up the batteries on the mole (long solid wharf) guarding the
entrance, and an old submarine, loaded like a gigantic torpedo, blew up
the supports for the bridge that connected the mole with the land.
Twice the little expedition sailed and had to put back because the wind
had shifted; for the smoke screen would not hide the block ships,
unless the wind had just the proper slant. At last it started for the
real thing; a great night of aircraft going ahead to bomb the defences
and a squadron of monitors staying some miles astern to pour in shells
at the same time. The crash of air bombs and the thudding of the
distant monitors were quite familiar sounds to the German garrison,
whose "archies" (anti-aircraft guns) barked hoarsely back, while the
bigger guns roared at where they thought the monitors might be.
(Monitors are slow, strong, heavy, and very "bargy" craft, useful only
as platforms for big guns against land defences.)

Suddenly, to the Germans' wild astonishment, Zeebrugge harbour was full
of a smoke screen, of concrete-loaded block-ships, and of darting motor
boats; while the old cruiser _Vindictive_ made straight for the mole.
Instantly the monitors and aircraft were left alone, while every German
gun that could be brought to bear was turned on to this new and far
more dangerous enemy at hand. But the British won through. The three
block-ships were sunk. The submarine used as a torpedo blew up the
bridge joining the mole to the land; and the smoke screen worked fairly
well. Still, the tornado of German shells was almost more than flesh
and blood could stand. Meanwhile the old _Vindictive_ ran alongside
the mole and dropped her eighteen special gangways bang against it. In
a moment her forlorn hope - her whole crew was one great forlorn
hope - swarmed on to the mole, over the splintering gangways, while her
guns roared defiance at the huge German batteries. The ground swell
made the _Vindictive_ roll and racked her breaking gangways terribly.
The storm of German shells and the hail of machine-gun bullets seemed
almost to be sweeping everything before them. An officer awaiting his
turn on deck asked, "What are all those men lying down for?" and was
answered, "All dead, Sir"; killed before they had started. Several
gangways were smashed to pieces, the men on them falling between the
_Vindictive_ and the mole. The Germans on the mole fired furiously to
keep the storming party back. But, with an eager courage no Viking
could have beaten, and with a trained skill no Viking could have
equalled, every seaman and Marine in that heroic party who was not
killed or disabled pressed on till the flaming battery was silenced.
Then the survivors swarmed back with all the wounded they could find,
climbed over the few broken gangways still holding together, and turned
to the work of getting clear. At last the _Vindictive_, though a mere
mangled wreck, got off and limped home victorious with all that was
left of the equally daring flotilla of small craft.

Zeebrugge was the bigger base on the Belgian coast. But Ostend
remained; and both were connected by canals with Bruges, which stood
several miles inland. The whole formed a triple base shaped like the
letter V, with Bruges at the bottom, Zeebrugge (sea-Bruges) to the
right, and Ostend to the left. To close only Zeebrugge was to leave
the back door open. So Ostend was raided, and smashed later on, the
old _Vindictive_, now past her fighting days, being sunk full of
concrete. From all that remained of her still above water the
hero-king, Albert, was cheered into Ostend after the Armistice by the
Belgian Boy Scouts, as he steamed past with Sir Roger Keyes to land,
with his heroine-queen, on the soil so long fouled by German pirates.

These raids spoilt German chances from the nearest ports to Britain.
But they did not stop the submarine campaign; and there was still
plenty of work for camouflage, convoys, and "Q" ships.

Camouflage at sea is a very different thing from camouflage on land.
On land camouflage is meant to make one thing look like something else
or to hide it altogether. But no kind of camouflage will hide a ship.
Nor is there any point in making a boat look like anything else; for
everybody knows that ships are the only things at sea. Camouflage
afloat was therefore meant to confuse the submarine commander's aim by
deceiving his eye as to his target's speed and course. By painting
cunning arrangements of stripes and splashes of different colours a
ship's course and speed could be so disguised that the torpedoist was
puzzled in getting his sights on her and in working out the range and
speed. If an old-fashioned sailor could have suddenly been dropped on
to the deck of a transport in the midst of a convoy of camouflaged
ships he would have thought all their helmsmen were drunk or stark,
staring mad; for they would have seemed to be steering every which way
at large and not one on any proper course at all.

When this was added to their other troubles the submarines thought
twice before risking an attack on a convoy of ships guarded by
cruisers, as well as by destroyers ahead and on both sides, zig-zagging
about on the hunt for submarines, much as a good sporting dog quarters
likely ground for game. A "mothering" cruiser would keep station
astern, where she could have her weather eye on every one. In narrow
waters like the English Channel there would also be an airship
overhead, a little in advance, with seaplanes on the flanks. These
aircraft could spot a submarine almost a hundred feet down in fair
weather, just as seabirds spot fish. If a submarine did show up, it
was kept in sight till the destroyers charged near enough to ram,
shell, or torpedo it on the surface, or sea-quake it to death with a
depth bomb if submerged. Three hundred and seven ships brought wheat
from different parts of America to Britain, France, and Italy under
special convoy in the summer of 1918, and only one was lost.

"Q" ships, those ships of mystery and such strange romance as former
navies never dreamt of, were meant to lure the German devils to their
doom. One Q ship was a dirty old collier so well disguised as a common
tramp (steamer belonging to no regular line) that she completely took
in a British cruiser, whose boarding officer was intensely surprised to
find her skipper was one of his own former shipmates. After five
months of thrashing to and fro in the wintry North Atlantic a torpedo
sped across her bows and she knew her chance had come. Instantly her
alarm signals, quietly given, brought all hands to action stations,
some in deck-houses, others in hen-coops, but each with his finger on
the trigger or his hand on a ready spare shell. Presently the
submarine broke surface and fired a shot across the Q ship's bow. On
this the well-trained crew ran about in panic, while the captain
screeched at them and waved his arms about like mad. Then the
submarine came up within three cables (ten to the nautical mile of 2000
yards); whereupon the captain blew his whistle, just as Drake did long
ago, the Navy's White Ensign fluttered up to the masthead, the
hen-coops and deck-houses fell flat, and a hurricane of shells and
Maxim bullets knocked the "sub" out in three minutes' firing.

But, as the war went on, still better Q dodges had to be invented. One
day an old Q tramp, loaded chock-a-block with light-weight lumber,
quietly let herself be torpedoed, just giving the wheel a knowing touch
to take the torpedo well abaft the engine-room, where it would do least
harm. The "panic-party" then left the ship quite crewless so far as
anybody outside of her could see. But the "sub" was taking no risks
that day. She circled the Q, almost grazing her, but keeping fifteen
feet under. The Q captain, only ten yards off, was sorely tempted to
fire. But shells striking water play queer tricks. So he held his
fire; though the quarterdeck was awash instead of nearly twenty feet
clear, and the ship's lucky black cat, blown overboard by the
explosion, swam straight on to it out of the sea. Then the sub came
up, little more than a cable's length away; and the Q captain at last
sent a wireless call for help in case he should sink too soon. When
the conning tower rose clear the German commander opened the hatch and
smiled at his work. He was still cautious; for his gun crew began to
appear. But the Q caught him; knocking his head off with the very
first shot, and riddling the whole sub in no time.

The same Q captain, Gordon Campbell, V.C., went out again in another Q
ship which was also disguised as a tramp. When a submarine attacked
her she zig-zagged away in wild alarm, firing only her one
merchantman's gun, and slowing down so as to get overhauled. Knowing
the sub would catch his message Campbell wirelessed "Help! Come quick!
Submarine chasing and shelling." Presently the Q stopped, done up, and
the "panic-party" left her to her fate. This fate really did seem, and
might have been, certain; for she was on fire from the shelling and her
after magazine blew up with terrible force, killing the stern gun's
crew and blowing the gun overboard. Moreover, the jar of this
explosion set off the alarm; so down came all disguises and out came
the guns. But Campbell, still determined to kill off that sub,
wirelessed in the secret code to keep all vessels off the horizon, lest
the sub should get scared and run away. Meanwhile she was diving, not
liking the explosions; and she presently sent a torpedo straight home.
Then the second "panic-party" left; and the Q ship lay wallowing in the
trough of the sea, with two holes in her side, a big fire blazing, and
ammunition boxes blowing up every few minutes. For nearly an hour the
sub hovered round, a good distance off, and ended by rising astern to
shell this obstinate Q ship to death. But even then the dauntless Q
men still aboard never gave a sign of life. The wounded lay in their
agonizing pain without making a sound, and stiff as soldiers at
_Attention!_ The rest stood by their guns and torpedoes, ready for
anything. In the meantime another dangerous fire was blazing, more
ammunition was blowing up, and the engulfing sea was creeping ever near
and nearer yet. At last the submarine, quite satisfied, ceased firing.
Then she closed, and Campbell fired two torpedoes, but missed with
both. After this he wirelessed for help. But when British and
American destroyers came tearing up they found him, cool as ever,
arranging for a third "panic-party" to jump overboard and leave him
alone with three men to try one more shot with the only gun left free
by the fire. He failed this time. But two of his men earnt the V.C.
as well as any men have ever earnt it; and his gallant Q herself went
down with colours flying.

The news soon passed round the underworld of "sub-dom"; and the Germans
swore they would never be caught again. So when another sub chased and
shelled an old tub of a sailing ship her commander took good care to
make sure he had not caught another Q. First and second panic parties,
or what he thought were panic parties, did not satisfy him. But at
last, when he had seen the ship's papers and had counted the crew, he
laughed at his own mistake and came close alongside, ordering the boats
away in spite of the skipper's entreaties to be allowed to go back and
get his wife, who was crying her eyes out on deck with her baby in her
arms. When the boats rowed off the poor woman went mad, rushing about
wildly, with piercing shrieks, and finally, just as the German was
coming on board, throwing her baby straight into his conning tower.
What the Germans thought of this will never be known; for the baby was
made of rubber filled with high explosive, and it blew the sub to




As Jutland broke the spirit of the Germans who fought on the surface so
minefields, netting, convoys, patrolling, and Q boats broke the spirit
of those who fought in submarines. Drake's Sea-Dogs would take their
chance of coming home alive when the insurance on their ships used to

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Online LibraryWilliam Charles Henry WoodFlag and Fleet → online text (page 18 of 19)