Submarine in Action



APRIL 1941


THE early morning mists, which had been drifting about on the surface of the water like wisps of thin fleece, dissolved after the sun had risen as a red lantern lifted above the snowy hills. The shore was still enveloped in fog. The submarine lying alongside the parent ship cast off her wires and slid stern first into the centre of the harbor. Gradually objects ashore became visible — here a house, there a group of trees; color emerged faintly out of the drabness of the winter dawn.

The submarine, water churning under her after hydroplanes, was turning slowly in her own length on the surface. The lieutenant in command, preoccupied with the handling of his ship, had no eyes for the shore. He stood on the low hump of the conning tower with his hands deep in the pockets of his duffel coat, a blue woolen muffler wound round his throat, and a uniform cap, green with age, stuck anyhow on his head. The navigator and the signalman occupied the same small platform beside him; half a dozen men in white jerseys were moving about the hull engrossed in last-minute tasks.

‘Half speed ahead both engines,’ said the captain, and glanced for the first time at the shore on his port hand.

The navigator laid off a course to the entrance of the boom defense guarding the harbor. ‘We shall pass about half a mile away,’ he said. ‘Do you want to go any closer? There’s plenty of water.’

‘No,’ said the captain; ‘steady as you go.’ He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one, his eyes still on the land.

A few minutes later something white appeared at the window of a cottage by the shore. It waved slowly backwards and forwards. The captain pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it in answer. It wasn’t, he reflected, much fun being the wife of a submarine captain these days. He tried to remember how many times that reflection had passed through his mind in that spot. He had always come back, though. ‘So far,’ added an unbidden voice at the back of his consciousness.

The white object disappeared. That was their agreement. It was no use piling on the agony. He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket and looked away from the land.

‘The gate is open,’ said the navigator.

’opyright 1941, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass, All rights reserved.

He raised his binoculars and stared through them for a moment. ‘Our escort is waiting for us.’

‘Right,’ said the captain curtly. . . .

The captain of the escorting destroyer glanced across the gray tumbling seas to where his charge was showing dark through the wave crests. The light had gone, but low down in the sky to the westward the sullen clouds were reddened like the rusty bars of an extinct furnace. He turned to his yeoman of signals. ‘Make to her: “Propose to turn back now. Will you be all right?”’

The Aldis signal lamp blinked through the gathering dusk. The men on the destroyer’s bridge, muffled to the eyes against the bitter wind and drifting spray, watched the submarine as she lifted to each swell to glide like a swimming snake into the dark hollows brushed by the sunset with purple smears. The low hump of the conning tower, surmounted by the periscope shaft, seemed at times to be battling alone against the waves. In all that watery desolation under a darkling sky it suggested a lonely citadel. The men standing on it, their heads and shoulders silhouetted against the foam, acquired from their surroundings a symbolism, as if they were there only to exemplify an ideal of courage and daring.

The lieutenant in command of the submarine read the message. A smile touched the corners of his rather grim young mouth. The signalman beside him raised his portable lamp.

‘Yes, thank you,’ flickered back across the wave tops.

Again the destroyer’s lamp chattered. She had put her helm over and was turning in a wide arc away from the submarine, the wake showing white under the counter.

‘Good luck and good hunting, sir,’ reported the submarine’s signalman. His tone suggested that he knew his captain would be faintly bored by the accustomed valediction.

The latter grunted. ‘Make the usual,’ he said. ‘ But I don’t like all this damned flashing on the high seas.’

The signalman jerked the trigger of the lamp in a succession of rapid dots and dashes, spelling out: ‘The same to you. Thank you for your escort.’

For a while longer the destroyer wras visible, little more than a shadow appearing and disappearing across the shifting furrows of the waves, and then the gathering gloom obliterated her.

Beside the captain there were three other men on the submarine’s conningtower platform: the torpedo lieutenant, the signalman, and a lookout. They all had binoculars raised to their eyes and were watching different sectors of the sea, moving their heads slowly as the glass traveled through its arc and back again. They swayed easily to the lurch of the platform, and in their silence and the rhythm of their movements they resembled automatons, waxworks obeying a rather simple mechanical impulse.

‘I think a cup of tea, now that’s all over,’ said the captain. He glanced down the open hatch of the conning tower, up the shaft of which came the drone of the Diesel engines and a man’s voice singing, a bit out of tune, ‘If you were the only girl in the world.’

The torpedo lieutenant lowered his glasses and turned his face from the sea. Framed by the hood of his duffel coat, he looked at the moment like a grave and rather æsthetic young monk.

‘Will you keep her on the surface?’ he asked.

‘No. We’ll have it in comfort. I don’t like being on the surface in this light, anyway.’

‘I’ve got a pot of cherry jam,’ said the youthful monk. ‘My ma sent it to me. I’ve been saving it for this trip.’

The captain pressed a knob, and the harsh note of the Klaxon rang through the hull beneath their feet. The signalman and the lookout lowered themselves swiftly down the shaft, followed by the two officers. The captain paused for a swift glance round before descending; the roar of the Diesel engines ceased and was succeeded by the soft purr of the motors. Visibility had closed in on them to a few hundred yards; the broken seas rushed past, sluicing round the base of the conning tower, and vanished into the gloom in an endless tumult of retreat; the air was full of flying spindrift that was freezing on the jumping wires. The captain sprang down the aperture, pulling the hatch to behind him. It locked with a dull thud, and he slid down into the electric-lit control room where the first lieutenant was standing, his face turned expectantly towards him.

‘Sixty feet,’ he said, and began pulling off his frozen sou’wester and Balaclava as he watched the dials. The first lieutenant gave his orders crisply; the men at the flooding levers obeyed them in a swift sequence with the mechanical efficiency of long years of training. The first lieutenant had the engrossed air of an organist snatching at the stops of his instrument in the sudden prestissimo of a musical score. The gradual downward tilt of the floor plates ceased and reached the horizontal. The coxswain and second coxswain, seated at the wheels that controlled the hydroplanes at tail and nose, relaxed their pose of rigid concentration. The hissing ceased.

‘Sixty feet, sir!’ reported the second in command.

‘Right.’ The captain moved forward, slapping the icy mush off his gauntlets. ‘Let’s have some tea. Torps has got some cherry jam.’

‘ Fine,’ echoed the second in command. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he observed as he followed his captain to the tiny wardroom, ‘maybe I’ll grow a beard this trip.'

The lieutenant in command was watching something through the eyepiece of the periscope. Occasionally he swung it round in a circle, his feet shuffling on the floorplates as he revolved with it, but he always steadied it back on the same bearing.

He had sent, the crew to action stations some minutes earlier. The torpedo tubes’ crew were closed up in the rear of the tubes. The firing number sat with the levers in front of him, meditatively scratching the tip of his nose. They were shut off from the control room and the silent figure at the periscope by a number of compartments; there was nothing for them to do at the moment. The bow caps were open and the tubes flooded. When the moment came a red lamp would glow and the firing number would pull the lever below it. That was all.

They speculated in undertones about what the captain was watching. In some respects the chaps in the control room were better off, because sometimes the captain passed a remark. That gave them some idea of what was happening on the surface. In that respect the torpedo tubes’ crew were as blind as bats and as deaf as David’s sow. This they took for granted, accepting it as part of the normal routine of life.

‘To grow leeks properly,’said one of them, resuming a discussion interrupted by the flooding of the tubes, ‘you want to make a row of holes with a dibber. Then you drop a plant in each hole and pour a drop of water in. That’s all. My dad took prizes that way. He had a nice allotment. Five bob a year.’

‘I don’t fancy leeks much,’ said the man next to him. ‘Spring onions, yes. But not leeks.’

The firing number yawned, drew a handful of cotton waste out of his pocket and wiped the shining levers, as a headsman might put a final polish to his axe. Two of the crew nudged each other. Five days before they sailed, the firing number’s house had been demolished by a bomb. His wife was safe, but the child, a girl of five, was dead when they pulled her out of the debris. He had four days’ leave to bury her.

Oddly enough, at the moment he was thinking about his childhood: about a bit of waste ground where he played robbers with a boy called Ned Mawley. They used to lie in wait among the bramble bushes and hold up imaginary coaches. Ned had a pistol that made a bang when it fired, and a bull’s-eye lantern. He had a wooden sword and a fireman’s helmet. Ned wore an Indian feather headdress that his granny bought him at the Yuletide Bazaar. . . . He wondered what happened to Ned. Whether he married and had a kid and whether — and then the sick angry ache, which wasn’t in his heart and wasn’t properly in his stomach, but swamped all his being in a flood of misery, flowed back into his consciousness.

The gun’s crew and the ammunition supply party stood beneath the gun hatch round the open cavern of the magazine. Like the torpedo tubes’ crew, they were quite ignorant of what was afoot. All they knew was that at any moment the floor plates might tilt steeply upwards, the captain would shout, ‘Man the gun!’ and they would fling open the hatch above them, hurl themselves up on to the gun platform as the submarine plunged to the surface, slam a round into the breech, and let fly at whatever target they found there. Surface fights with the gun were usually fights to the death. If you were holed, you couldn’t dive again. You had to get in the first shot and hit with it.

The cook was dowm in the magazine. That was his job at action stations — handing up the projectiles to the man on the deck above him. He was a Frenchman. The crew were secretly rather proud of having a Free Frenchman to cook for them. For one thing, he was a first-rate cook, and for another they were the only boat with a Frenchie on board. His name was John Daw. At least they maintained he said it was when he joined up. Actually what he said was Gendorre.

He didn’t look like a Frenchie. He looked more like a Dane or a Swede. His father had been a Breton fisherman. Anyhow, he took to the submarine life like a duck to water, and he saved a drop of his daily tot of rum to pour into the rice pudding when he made one. This endeared him to his shipmates to an extraordinary degree.

John Daw sat in the magazine on a box of cartridges, nursing a projectile on his knees. He had a wife, but no children. Until the debacle he had regretted this; now he was glad. He did not know where his wife was. When General de Gaulle hoisted the banner of Free France he was in a ship at Havre. There was a debate among the crew, but John Daw took no part in it. His mind was already made up. He had private rather than political reasons for wishing to continue to fight Germans. He had no desire to discuss them, but they were good reasons.

At the moment he was thinking about a feather mattress in his apartment in Havre. It was a superb mattress. It was a stupendous affair. To go to bed was for him to tumble into a cloud. It was the kind of bed a heathen emperor would choose for his divertisement. And now for all he knew a dirty Boche was sleeping in it in his jack boots. A Boche. An accursed German. He spat, and then looked up quickly to see if anyone had observed him. They did not encourage one to spit in their submarines, these British. He stretched out his foot and rubbed it on the floor.

The only person who knew what was happening on the surface was the lieutenant in command. His brain, as he stared at what the periscope mirrored, was absorbed in intricate calculations. Every few moments the water, a green and effervescing opalescence, swirled over the periscope; then it cleared and he saw his objective for a moment. In those moments he had to estimate its course, speed, and range in relation to his own; he had to decide on his tactics, to forecast those of the enemy if they sighted the feather of his periscope. Occasionally he gave an order for an alteration of course. The enemy convoy he was stalking — six ships, screened by three destroyers — was zigzagging from port to starboard. The sun was behind the target, and, in the momentary glimpses he got, the glare on a wave top made observation difficult; moreover, it increased the danger of the enemy lookouts’ sighting the feather of his periscope. At any moment one of the destroyer escort might turn and come rushing towards him. The decision rested with him, and with him alone, how near he was justified in approaching before he fired: every minute increased the likelihood of hitting the target, and at the same time of his detection and destruction. There would come a moment when these two considerations would balance precisely one against the other. His conscience and his experience alone decided on that moment.

The first lieutenant stood watching him, thumbing the bristles of his incipient beard. A phrase he had once read — some politician had used it — passed through his mind: ‘the appalling loneliness of High Command.’ But there was no loneliness of command on land or sea, or in the air, equivalent to that of a submarine captain during an attack. All other leaders in war were fortified in their decisions by the presence of someone. It might be just one subordinate, it might be an army; but in any case that witness saw what he saw, formed independent judgments, remembered afterwards. No leader, no human being, was oblivious of this observation. It would act like a brake on a rash impulse, a spur to wavering courage. But the submarine captain was, in the secret places of his soul, the sole judge and jury of his actions, then and forever afterwards.


The firing number jerked back the lever. A brief vibration shook the submarine.

‘Down periscope. Port twenty-five!’

The hum of the motors was the only sound in the interior. The captain stood watching the minute hand creep round the dial of the clock. At dial, wheel, or lever the rest sat in an absorbed intensity, listening. The navigator bent over his plot with a pencil, recording the alteration of course. The minutes passed, leaden seconds overtaken by the quick thudding of their hearts. The first lieutenant reassured himself as to the progress of his beard. His forefinger made a monotonous grating sound that helped to drown the pulses drumming in his ears.

The submarine shuddered.

Instantly the tension relaxed. A murmur of voices was succeeded by the curt order ‘Up periscope.’ For a few seconds the captain stood crouched at the eyepiece and suddenly straightened, rapping out a succession of orders. The first lieutenant translated them into the minutiæ of flooding and trimming. The deck tilted steeply downwards, and after a while leveled up again. The motors had stopped; there was a profound silence. ‘We bagged the leading ship in the convoy,’ said the captain, his eye on the depth gauge. ‘But I think one of the destroyers saw the track of the torpedo. She turned at full speed towards us. Stand by for a depth charge.’

A concussion shook the hull as if it had been struck by a gigantic sledge hammer; it flung the speaker off his feet. Another succeeded it; and then another, still more violent, extinguished all the lights amid a tinkle of broken glass. The beam of an electric torch swept round the compartment, revealing successive forms of men standing at their posts, set faces staring out of Balaclavas, hands gripping a wheel or a lever, the captain bent over trying to reduce a dislocated thumb. The light passed on over the hull in search of leaks.

‘Fit spare lamp bulbs,’ said the first lieutenant’s quiet voice. The beam of his torch traveled over his captain again. ‘Are you all right, sir?’

‘Yes. I only sat on my thumb. Go forward and see if she’s all right. Is the pilot, there?’


‘Come here and give a haul on this thumb of mine.’

Another depth charge detonated over their heads. The air in the interior seemed to contract and expand again.

‘Not so bad that time. She can take it, lads. Don’t worry.’

The stoker who operated the mechanism that raised or lowered the periscope had nothing to do, because the submarine was far beneath periscope depth. In the dark soundings to which they had dived, the temperature was never much above freezing, and the interior of the submarine was as cold and clammy as the grave. Every man wore the maximum number of garments he could pull over himself, but even a duffel coat and lammie stockings could not keep warmth in their bodies. The stoker lay shivering on the floor plates beside his mechanism, watching the clock. To occupy their minds he and the man next to him had a succession of small bets on when the next depth charge would detonate. He tried to remember how many hours they had been lying submerged. The air had grown foul and heavy, and his head throbbed, but the hunt had moved off on a false trail; the explosions were growing fainter. Not but what they mightn’t turn round and come back again. But for the time being things weren’t so bad, except that his nose would bleed. Some of them didn’t mind depth charges, or pretended they didn’t — even went so far as to turn into their bunks and snore, or read a book. He pretended he didn’t mind, but he did. He minded like hell. He’d got no job, that was his trouble; but he had to stand by in case they suddenly went to periscope depth.

Humph! went a depth charge. A long way off. Not so much a noise as a jolt. ' That’s tenpence — let’s see — one and fourpence to me and ninepence to you,’ said his neighbor on Z tank flooding lever. ‘That’s — let’s see . . . it’s a job to reckon figures with your head spinning — eight — no, sevenpence you owe —’

‘Don’t talk so much,’ said the torpedo lieutenant. ‘Save the oxygen for breathing.’

There was a distant clink of metal against metal. The engineers were repairing a leaking gland, and one had dropped a spanner on the hull plating.

The first lieutenant tiptoed aft into the engine room. ‘Chief, don’t let them make a noise. A hydrophone could easily pick up that infernal racket just now.'

The engineer lieutenant’s face appeared at an aperture in the floor plates. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry, Number One. But you come and try to work on the leaks in these conditions. We’re soaked through; half of them have got cramp in the belly and their hands are so cold they can’t hold a spanner.’

‘It’ll be dark in another half-hour. Then we’ll surface and give her a blow through and get something hot to drink. Is the leak bad?’

‘Not so bad that I can’t stop it.’

The speaker’s head disappeared abruptly beneath the floor plates like an exhausted jack-in-the-box.

Where he stood, the first lieutenant could see his reflection in a bit of burnished metal. He did not consciously contemplate himself as in a mirror. He had looked up and caught sight of an unfamiliar bearded face reflected on the surface of the metal. For a moment he wondered who it was, and then he realized that it was himself. He felt an absurd complacency, as if in some way this really very impressive beard was the fruit of some unusual quality in himself. Then he realized that only time was responsible, the slow inevitable passing of the days — that and nothing more. And today was the last day of the patrol. In five minutes they would call the captain and, if it was dark enough, go to the surface and set a course for home. And he was blowed if he would shave his beard off when they reached the base, like most of them did. He’d wait and see what the reactions were. Some girls —

‘Number One — just a second . . .’ The second officer, the torpedo lieutenant, was on watch at the periscope. ‘Just have a squint . . .’ He moved aside, surrendering the eyepiece. ‘Is it or isn’t it? Right in the path of the moon.’

The first lieutenant was nuzzling the rubber pads, motionless as a pointer on a scent. He moved the handles very slightly.

‘Stop the motors!’ he said suddenly. ‘Call the captain! Action stations!’

The lieutenant in command was in his cabin, lying fully dressed on his bunk. He was dreaming about an orchard. His wife, standing on a ladder, was handing down apples to him as she picked them, and his arms were full of them. One threatened to overbalance and fall to the ground, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the sunlight in her hair, catching a curl of gold as it came through the leaves.

‘Don’t drop them,’ she said; ‘they bruise so.’

‘I can’t take any more,’ he protested. ‘It hurts my thumb.’

He awoke instantly as the alarm sounded, and slung his booted legs over the edge of the bunk to see the torpedo lieutenant standing in the doorway.

‘There’s an enemy submarine in the path of the moon. It’s a sitter, sir.’ He vanished again.

As a rule, when at the periscope during an attack, the captain said nothing, except to give the necessary orders; but now he developed an unexpected loquacity. ‘Golly! It’s one of the big ones. . . . It’s sitting pretty—port five. . . . Steady as you go.’

The excitement spread through the weary crew and filled the boat with an electrical tension. The firing number sat gripping the lever, watching the disk from under his heavy brows. The rest of the tubes’ crew grinned at each other and rubbed their hands, but his face was expressionless, inscrutable.

‘Right in the path of the moon,’ exulted one of the gun’s crew. He bent down and looked into the mouth of the open magazine, where John Daw sat nursing a projectile. ‘D’you hear that, Johnnie? There’s an enemy submarine sitting in the track of the moon and the captain’s drawn a bead on her.’

John Daw nodded in the gloom of the compartment. ‘Si, si. I understand — au clair de la luue. In France we ‘ave a song. Listen — I sing it.’ And in a cracked falsetto he began: —

Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot,
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour êcrire un —’

The shock of the torpedo leaving the tube interrupted the singer. The firing number released the lever, folded his hands in his lap like a child in a Sundayschool class, and sat quite motionless, his head bent a little in an attitude of listening. The long wait for the detonation of the torpedo was, as far as he was concerned, the worst part of any trip. The suspense was worse than depthcharging, especially at the end of a patrol when one was a bit tired for want of sleep and fresh air and daylight. A drop of perspiration fell from his brow on to his folded hands. In the utter stillness a man standing behind him sighed deeply. If they missed that shot, he would, he thought, cry like a woman. It would be a disappointment beyond all human endurance.

The hull quivered as if a shudder had run through her entire structure. They could hear the captain’s voice, wild with excitement, shouting orders aft. ‘We’ve got her,’ said an exultant voice behind him. A heavy hand smote him on the back. ‘We’ve got her, boy, we’ve got her!’ The bows tilted steeply upwards.

The lieutenant in command rushed for the conning tower and began to climb the perpendicular ladder. There was no time to get rid of the accumulated pressure of air through the vents. A glance at the pressure indicator told him that the rush of air, when he flung open the hatch, would be strong enough to blow him through it. ‘Hold on to me,’ he shouted back at the signalman at his heels. The man obeyed, clinging to his captain’s knees with all his weight. The captain flung open the hatch, and the rush of liberated air blew his binoculars vertically above his head.

‘All right,’ he gasped. The signalman released him and he climbed out into the moonlight. It was a calm night; what wind there was came to his nostrils laden with the reek of oil fuel. He shouted down a course and speed, steering up wind.

‘Oh, my word!’ exclaimed the navigator as he joined him. They sniffed in unison.

‘Can you smell it?’ asked the captain.

‘Smell it! I should say so. And look!’ He pointed across the waves, tipped with silver by the moon. A dark patch of oil was visible ahead, extinguishing the sheen of light. They circled it, staring through glasses in search of wreckage.

‘It looked to me like a mine layer,’ said the captain. ‘I fancy we touched off their mines. It was a hell of an explosion. I don’t think we’ll waste time hanging round in this light. We’ll beat it.’

‘Aye, aye, sir.’ The navigator awaited the orders for course and speed.

The captain seemed to emerge from a momentary reverie.

‘Home, James!’ he said.

John Daw was making a rice pudding. It would be the last dinner of the trip and he meant it to be a success. Properly there should be cream and the peel of lemons and kirsch. He had none of these ingredients. He had condensed milk and he had rum. Oh, what a drink, this rum of the British Navy! Better than cognac, better than absinthe. A beverage for heroes. Formidable! It fortified a man like a great hate. And, since he nourished a great hatred in his heart, he was able to spare some of his rum for the rice pudding. He measured it out of a little flat bottle into the condensed milk, beating it up with a fork. In any case it was right that he should give some of his rum to his comrades. Had they not torpedoed a German supply ship and a submarine? That put something on the credit side of an account nothing could ever balance. A supply ship and a submarine. Not much, but something. Many lives, no doubt, but not enough.

Sometimes, because they were the two in all the crew who had most cause to hate the Germans, he cooked a little private mess for supper and took it along to the tall torpedoman with the unhappy eyes. He told him, moreover, what he had told nobody else — the reason for his hate.

The tall man ate the supper and nodded, and said nothing. That was the British way, not always comprehensible to the French; but to a Breton sailor, more so.

A man passing the galley put his head in and sniffed. He had shaved and washed and smelt of soap. ‘How are we lookin’ up, Johnnie?’

‘Me, I am fine. I make a rice pudding. Wiz rum — you can smell. And I sing you a song. Listen. ‘ And, beating time with the fork, he began: —

' Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot . . .'

Up on the conning-tower platform the captain smiled as the words drifted up the shaft. They were through the gate in the boom defense. Through his glasses he could see the depot ship and the shore and a cottage with a leafless orchard behind.

‘We can go closer inshore if you like, sir,’ observed the navigator. ‘There’s plenty of water.’

The captain made a little negative movement of the head. The improvised splint made his bandaged thumb stick up vertically, as he held the binoculars to his eyes. ‘No, steady as you go.’