The Cruel Sea
An Englishman who served as a Lieutenant Commander of the R. N. V. R. in command of escort vessels in the Second World War, NICHOLAS MONSARRAT writes in the great tradition of English seafarers. The narrative which follows is a condensation of one section of The Cruel Sea, a long novel about the men and ships that played a part in the Battle of the North Atlantic - the most protracted, the cruelest, and perhaps the most heroic battle of World War II. The Cruel Sea, the midsummer selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, is to be published by Knopf.
by NICHOLAS MONSARRAT
VICE-ADMIRAL Sir Vincent Murray-Forbes sat at his desk in the operations building overlooking Liverpool harbor. He was writing a report: it was one of hundreds of reports, on ships and men, that he was to write, month in and month out, until the end of the war. He did not know what lay in store for these ships or those men: it would not have made an atom of difference if he had been writing an epitaph on men due to be drowned tomorrow. He was concerned only with facts; and of these he had mustered a great many, during the past three weeks.
“H.M.S. Compass Rose,” he wrote, in an oldfashioned, somewhat laborious longhand, “completed her program of training on February 2, 1940, and may be regarded as having passed out satisfactorily. The ship has been well worked up, and is clean and generally efficient. Further attention should be given (a) to fire fighting, which was below the requisite standard of speed, and (b) to the drill for Abandon Ship, which did not go smoothly on the only occasion on which it was tested. But with these reservations, the organization of H.M.S. Compass Rase now meets the high standard necessary to a ship engaged in the exacting task of convoy escort.”
He consulted a batch of reports from his staff, “Gunnery,” he wrote, as a subheading, and underlined it. “The single four-inch gun which is the sole major armament of this class of ship will only be adequate if constant attention is given to gun drill and to ammunition supply. H.M.S. Compass Rose did well in her various gun-trials, and the nightshoot was successful, both as regards the handling of the ship and the actual firing. Anti-aircraft shooting, conducted with a towed streamer-target, was less successful: it is recommended that more provision be made for anti-aircraft gun-control, possibly by loud-speaker operated from the bridge.
“Asdics,” he went on, and underlined again. “On her arrival, H.M.S. Compass Rose was inadequately trained in this branch, and the Anti-Submarine Control Officer and the asdic ratings were clearly in need of intensive practice. When this had been provided, her efficiency improved rapidly, and she developed an effective anti-submarine team.
“ Depth-Charge Organization,” he wrote. “Only constant practice will bring the depth-charge crews up to the high standard of efficiency necessary in this branch. Time-tests of reloading and firing were generally disappointing, and it is emphasized that speed and accuracy may be vital here when the ship is in action.”
He added three short subheadings: “EngineRoom Branch: satisfactory.” “Telegraphy and Coding: adequate.” “Signal Branch: excellent.” Then he took a fresh sheet of paper.
“H.M.S. Compass Rose: Reports on Officers,” wrote the Admiral, and referred again to his notes. “Lieutenant-Commander George Eastwood Ericson, R.N.R.: Commanding Officer. This officer exhibited a high standard of seamanship, and showed himself expert at ship-handling. I judged him to be a conscientious and determined officer who, when he has gained more experience in this new class of ship, will extract everything possible out of his command. His relations with his subordinate officers appeared satisfactory, and it was clear that he inspired their confidence and would be followed by them without hesitation.
“Lieutenant James Bennet, R.A.N.V.R.: First Lieutenant and Anti-Submarine Control Officer,” wrote the Admiral. “This officer has a remarkable self-confidence, and with more experience and application his executive capacity may come to match it. He tends to rely too much on his junior officers implementing his orders (and in some cases issuing them themselves). In the initial stages there were serious flaws in the internal organization of H.M.S. Compass Rose, doubtless due to this officer’s inexperience. A downright, forceful personality who should make a good First Lieutenant when he learns to set an example of self-discipline.
Copyright 1951, by Nicholas Monsarrat
“Sub-Lieutenant Keith Laing Lockhart, R.N.V.R.: Gunnery and Navigation Officer,” wrote the Admiral. “I was impressed by this officer’s competence, in novel surroundings and in a position of responsibility, when backed by very little practical experience. His gun’s crews were well worked up, and he seemed to inspire confidence in the ratings in his division. He should develop into a good type of officer, very useful in a ship of this class. He should pay more attention to the regulations governing dress for officers when on duty.
“Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Perceval D’Ewes Ferraby, R.N.V.R.: Depth-Charge Control and Correspondence Officer,” wrote the Admiral. “This officer lacks both experience and self-confidence, and appeared hesitant in giving orders. There is no reason why he should not develop into a useful officer, but he must learn to trust his own judgment, and to give the ratings under his charge the impression that he knows what he wants from them. His department improved during the latter stages of H.M.S. Compass Rose’s course of training.”
The Admiral drew a thick line under his report, and blotted it neatly. Then he added, at the bottom: “Addressed, Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches: copies to Flag-Officer-in-Charge, Glasgow: Admiralty (C.W. Branch): H.M.S. Compass Rose.” Then he sat back, and rang for his secretary.
Ericson, at ease in his cabin, read his copy of this report with some satisfaction and a good deal of amusement. The Admiral had come well up to standard, by way of farewell: it was a perfect picture of Number One, despite the limits of official phraseology, and he liked especially the crack about Lockhart and “dress regulations” — Lockhart having mislaid his cap on one crucial occasion and greeted the Admiral with something between a wave and a bow. Then, as he folded the sheets of paper again, there was a knock on the door, and Leading Signalman Wells came in with a sealed envelope in his hand.
“Secret signal, sir,” said Wells, in not quite his normal inexpressive voice. “The signal boat just brought it aboard.”
Ericson ripped open the envelope, and read slowly and carefully. It was what he had been waiting for.
“Being in all respects ready for sea,” said the pink slif), “H.M.S. Compass Rose will sail to join convoy AK14, leasing Liverpool (Bar Light Vessel) at 1200A 6th February, 1940. Senior officer of escort is in H.M.S. Viperous. Acknowledge.”
Ericson read it through again. Then: —
“Take this down.” he said. “‘To Commander-inChief, Western Approaches, from Compass Rose. Your 0939 stroke four stroke two acknowledged.’ And send it off straight away.”
So they went to war.
THE war to which they went had hardly settled down, even in broad outline, to any recognizable pattern.
The liner Athenia had been torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of 128 lives, on September 3, the first day of the war: the first U-boat sinking, to offset this ruthless stroke, was on September 14. Thus, at the beginning, the pace was hot — forty ships were sunk during that first September, and two fine warships, Courageous and Rogal Oak, both went to the bottom before the turn of the year; but the pace did not last. The casualties had been mostly independent ships that happened to be at sea when war was declared: like the Athenia, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time; but with the growth of the convoy system this chance ill-fortune could be avoided, and ships and shipping companies were quick to see that any effort to remain in convoy, instead of straggling behind or charging proudly ahead of the pedestrian field, was worth while.
The U-boats were on the offensive — that was their role — but it was not a coördinated attack, nor even a very efficient one. Probably there were not more than a dozen of them at sea at any one time during this stage of the war, and so they hunted alone. They hung about off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and in the Bay of Biscay, on the lookout for stray ships that they could pick off at leisure: it was a series of individual forays — sometimes successful, sometimes a waste of time: the coördination and the control were to come later, and in the meantime the whole thing was unpredictable and rather amateurish. Britain was short of escorts, Germany was short of U-boats: the Atlantic was a very big ocean and, in winter weather, the finest hiding-place in the world. The danger was there, but the two sides were hardly engaged: the U-boats lurking always, but playing their luck instead of their skill. To join this untidy battle, Compass Rose sailed early in the year 1940.
Their first convoy was a bloodless skirmish, as were many others in that momentary lull; but it was a useful foretaste of what was to come, as well as a proving of the ship in weather worse than they had yet met.
The sun was out as they sailed down into Liverpool Bay, on that fine February morning, to meet their convoy: it had pierced the early mist, melted the frost of their cold night passage, dried out their clothes with a cheerful warmth. Ericson knew the port well — he had lived there for ten years, and had sailed in and out of it scores of times: he looked for the familiar landmarks with an affectionate eagerness. As usual the first sight of land was the tall Blackpool Tower, away to the north; then the Bar Light Vessel, riding uneasily in the jumble of tide-ripped water that marked the entrance to the River Mersey; and then, faintly glimpsed in the mist and smoke upriver, the twin spires of the Liver Buildings, in the heart of the city. Somewhere there, in a little house on the Birkenhead side, Grace was undoubtedly knitting. . . . He had a moment’s pang that they should be so near to each other and yet be unable to meet; and then he forgot it altogether. Five miles ahead of them their ships were coming out; they were led by a destroyer — an old V. and W. Class, which must be Viperous — already giving them the “interrogative” on her signal lamp.
While Leading Signalman Wells was replying, first making Compass Rose’s number and then taking down a long signal about the organization of the convoy, Ericson studied the line of ships coming toward them. They were of all shapes and sizes: tankers, big freighters, small ships that would surely have been better off in the coasting trade than trying the hazards of an Atlantic passage. Some were deep-laden, some were in ballast and uncomfortably high out of the water: they steamed in single file from the narrow Mersey channel: their pendants flew bravely in the sunshine, they seemed almost glad to be putting to sea again. . . . That could hardly be true, thought Ericson with a smile, remembering the tearful good-byes, the hang-overs, the feeling of “Oh-God-here-we-go-again” that attended every sailing; but there was something about the file of ships — forty-six of them — that suggested a willingness to make the voyage, a tough confidence in the future.
Ferraby, hanging about at the back of the bridge (it was not his watch), was more stirred by the sight of those ships than he had ever been before. He liked everything about this convoy: he liked its air of purpose as it cracked on speed after the cautious passage down-channel: he liked individual ships — particularly the tough and shapely tankers: he liked the men on board who waved cheerfully to Compass Rose as she passed down the line towards the tail of the convoy. This sort of thing — this moment of significance and determination, this comradeship, this sea-brotherhood — was what he had had in mind when, at the training establishment, he volunteered for corvettes: there had been times when it had seemed impossible of attainment, when he was convinced that he was going to be fobbed off with a third-rate drama of pretense and frustration: now he knew that all his wishes were coming true.
Here were the ships, assembling for their long uncertain voyage: here was Compass Rose, appointed to guard them: here was Ferraby himself, a watchkeeping officer — or practically so — charged specifically with a share of that guardianship. His pale face flushed, his expression set in a new mold of determination, Ferraby surveyed the convoy with pride and a feeling of absolute proprietorship. Our ships, he thought: our cargoes, our men. . . . None would be surrendered, of this convoy or of any other, if it depended on any effort of his.
Ferraby was only twenty; his eyes were new, and took a good deal on trust. Other eyes — Ericson’s among them — were not new, and to them, it must: be admitted, the convoy was somewhat more impressive than the escort, which reflected perfectly the pinched circumstances of the Royal Navy at this stage. To shepherd these forty-six ships through waters that were potentially the most treacherous in the world, there had been provided one fifteen-yearold destroyer, of a class that, though valiantly manned and valiantly driven, was really far too slight and slender for the Atlantic weather: two corvettes—one a pre-war edition of crude design, the other Compass Rose; a trawler; and a rescue tug that already, in the sheltered waters of Liverpool Bay, was bouncing about like a pea on a drum. Five warships — four and a half would be nearer the truth to guard forty-six slow merchantmen was not a reassuring prospect. But there it was: the best that could be done.
THE first night with the convoy was a restless affair that gave them very little sleep. They were still organized on a two-watch basis — that is, the Captain and Ferraby alternated with Bennett and Lockhart, four hours on and four hours off. It was a trying arrangement at the best of times, hard on the endurance and the temper: even if they could fall asleep as soon as they came off watch, they had to wake and dress and climb up to the bridge again almost before they had turned over. But this was not the best of times, and Compass Rose was far from a restful place when they were off duty. The wind was rising, and the Irish Sea with it: the ship responded to the movement with a deplorable readiness, rolling and thumping as if she were being paid by the hour for her travail. In the noisy turmoil between-decks, sleep was barely possible, even to men already dog-tired.
There were other things. An aircraft, flying low over the convoy, brought them needlessly to action stations at two o’clock in the morning: one of their ships, straggling in the rear (where Compass Rose was stern escort), needed constant chivvying to keep it in touch with the main body. Their progress was dishearteningly slow: Chicken Rock Light, at the south end of the Isle of Man, was their mark for so long that at times it was difficult to believe that they would ever leave it behind and reach the open sea. The second day saw them make more tangible progress, northwest between Scotland and Northern Ireland; and nightfall gave them, as their last sight of land, the lovely rain-washed hills of the Mull of Kyntyre, and Islay away to the north. Then they turned due westward, to the teeth of the wind, and the deep-sea voyage had begun. As a final introduction to it, U-boats were reported in the area immediately ahead.
They never met those U-boats, which were doubtless thankful enough to stay submerged and escape the fury of the weather; for it was the weather that was the most violent enemy of all. For eight days they steamed straight into a westerly gale: five hundred miles at a grindingly slow pace, buffeting through a weight of wind that seemed to have a personal spite in every blow it dealt. The convoy was dispersed over more than fifty square miles: the escorts were out of touch most of the time: it was impossible to establish any sort of “convoy speed” because they were no longer a composite body, just a lot of ships making the best they could of the vile Atlantic weather. The big ships in the van slowed down till they had almost lost steerageway, and tried to preserve some sort of order: but the smaller ones still straggled away behind, virtually heavingto at the height of the gale and often having to steer many degrees off their true course, simply in order not to batter themselves to pieces. On the eighth day, Viperous, which had had a very bad time and had lost two men overboard, signaled: “Convoy disperse — proceed independently”; in the circumstances, the signal had an irony that they were scarcely in the mood to enjoy.
The escorts collected: Viperous with damage to her bridge superstructure, the old corvette minus one of her boats, Compass Rose intact but rolling villainously, the trawler riding well, the tug tossing about with a ludicrous, almost hysterical violence as she tried to keep pace with the rest. They had a rendezvous with the incoming convoy, and they found it - somehow: in that wilderness of wind and rain, with visibility hardly more than five hundred yards at any time, they found the single pinpoint in mid-Atlantic that brought them up with the ships they were waiting for. It was navigation of a very high order; it had been Viperous’s responsibility, and Ericson, with years of experience behind him, found himself watching Viperous’s bridge rolling through a sixty-degree are, and wondering, somewhere between amazement and deep admiration, how on earth her captain had managed it. Taking sights and fixing their position, under these conditions, was very nearly impossible: somehow it had been done, and done with the absolute accuracy of fleet maneuvers in calm weather.
They turned for home, with the new convoy of thirty-odd ships that, in the better weather to the westward, had managed to preserve a reasonable formation. But now, with the fierce wind behind them, it was more uncomfortable still; and another U-boat alarm involved “evasive routing" that took them many miles off their proper course and kept them nearly two days extra at sea. Aboard Compass Rose, conditions were indescribable. She rolled furiously, with a tireless malice allowing of no rest for anyone. Cooking was impossible, even had they not exhausted their fresh meat and vegetables many days previously: the staple diet was tea and corned beef, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for nearly a fortnight. Everything was wet through: some water had come down a ventilator and flooded the wardroom: forward, the mess-decks were a crowded hell of saturated clothes, spare gear washing about round their feet, food overturned — and all the time the noise, the groaning, slamming violence of a small ship fighting a monstrous sea. There seemed no end to it. Compass Rose, caught in a storm that could take hold of her bodily and shake her till the very rivets loosened: a storm that raged and screamed at her and never blew itself out until they were in the shelter of the land again: Compass Rose, adrift on this malignant ocean, seemed doomed to ride it forever.
BENNETT, disliking the experience they were all sharing, said so with honest persistence. He was now the most vocal of the wardroom, complaining with an ill-temper colored by a real uneasiness: the rotten ship, the lousy convoy, the bloody awful weather - these were the sinews of an unending dirge that was really grounded in fear. Like the others, he had never seen weather like this, or imagined it possible: he knew enough about ships to see that Compass Rose was going through a desperate ordeal, but not enough to realize that she was built to survive it, and would do so. He doubted their safety, and doubt was translated by a natural process into anger. He had made a fool of himself over working out their position, too — so much so that the Captain, taking the sextant from him, had said: “ Leave it, Number One — I’d rat her do it myself"; it had not helped matters.
He should have done something about getting the mess cleared up in the fo’c’s’le, but he couldn’t be bothered. He should somehow have organized at least one hot meal a day, even if it were only warmed-up tinned beans; the galley fire was unusable, but with a little ingenuity it could have been done in the engine room. This, again, was more trouble than he was prepared to take. Instead, he sulked, and shirked, and secretly longed to be out of it.
Not much more of this for him, he decided: there were other ways of winning the war. . . . It was all so tiring, too: if he hadn’t been able to hand the watch over to Lockhart, and get forty winks now and again, he’d have been out on his feet.
Lockhart was desperately tired, and rather numbed, for nearly all that voyage. His thin wiry body was not built to withstand the cold: he was not yet accustomed to staying awake and alert when every nerve under his skin was crying out for sleep, and bitter cold and wakefulness were all that the present offered. Bennett might shirk his watch, spending most of it inside the asdic shelter: he himself could not do so. Four hours on, and four off, for seventeen days at a stretch - that was his share: and the hours on were an unending strain, trying his eyes and his tired body to the limit. And when he stumbled down the ladder at the end of his watch, there was little relief to be had: tea and corned beef in the shambles of the wardroom, with water washing about all over the place and the furniture lashed together in one corner, and then the effort to sleep, wedged in his bunk against the endless rolling of the ship, with the light left burning in case of an alarm, and the thought, nagging all the time, that he must gel up and face the wind and the sea again within a few hours. When he did face it again, and felt the gale whipping and tearing at his face and clothes, and Compass Rose lurching under his feet as if the world itself were drunk, it was with a body from which every instinct save a dumb endurance bad been drained.
There was one night he remembered especially, toward the end of the trip, when the wind had veered to the north and the gale was at its height. A gigantic sea was running at them from the beam: Compass Rose would rise to it as if she were going up in a lift, balance herself uneasily at its peak, and then fall away into the trough of the wave with a wicked sideways roll. Sometimes the next wave, towering up in its turn, would catch them as they lay there sluggishly, and beat down on them before they could rise. That was the moment when the heart quailed: when solid tons of water fell with a thunderous drumming on the bridge and the upper deck, and the spray flew over in clouds, wind-driven and cutting. The storm was indeed incredibly noisy: the water crashed and thudded against their side, the wind howled at them out of the blackness as if it had a conscious intention of terror. Round them was nothing but a waste of sea, a livid gray whipped up here and there to white foam; and then beyond it, like a threatening wall, the surrounding dark, the chaos and flurry of the night.
With Bennett dozing inside, Lockhart was clinging to the rail in one corner of the bridge, staring through misted binoculars at the single merchant ship on which he was keeping station. He was wet through, and cold to the bone: his feet inside the sodden sea boots squelched icily whenever be moved: from the pinched skin of his face t he water ran down, riming his eyes and lips with salt. He felt little resentment against Bennett, who should really be doing this job: he had a general disgust that someone nominally his senior should be content to evade responsibility at a moment like this, but he was really feeling too remote from personalities to care. For him, the world had resolved itself into a storm, and a small blur to leeward of Compass Rose: the blur was a ship that he must not lose, and so, for hour after hour, he nursed Compass Rose in her station, altering the engine revolutions, edging over when the blur faded, and away again when it loomed too large.
He was roused at one point from this tremendous concentration by someone nudging him, and he turned round to see a figure in the darkness beside him.
“Who is it?” he asked. It could hardly be Bennett.
“Coxswain, sir,”said a voice.
“Hallo, coxswain! Come to see the fun?”
“Just for a bit of air, sir.”
They both had to shout: the wind caught the words on their very lips and whipped them away into the night.
“I brought a mug of tea up, sir,”Tallow went on. And as Lockhart took it gratefully, he added: “It’s got a tot in it.”
Tea and rum. . . . When Lockhart bent down to shelter behind the rail, and took a sip, it ran through him like fire: it was the finest drink he had ever tasted. He was oddly moved that Tallow should have taken the trouble to make tea at two o’clock in the morning, add a tot of his own rum, and negotiate the difficult climb up to the bridge with it. He could not see Tallow’s face, but he divined a sympathy in his manner that was nearly as warming as the drink.
“Thanks, coxswain,”he said when he had finished it. “I needed that.”He raised his binoculars again, confirmed that Compass Rose was still in station, and relaxed slightly. “What’s it like below?”
“Terrible, sir. Couldn’t be worse. It’ll take us a week to get straight, after this lot.”
“Not much longer,”said Lockhart, though he did not feel that very acutely. “Two or three days, and we’ll be in shelter.”
“Can’t be soon enough for me, sir. Proper uproar, this is. A lot of the lads wish they’d joined the Army instead.”
They talked till the end of the watch, shouting at each other against the storm. Lockhart was glad of the company: it was a tiny spark of warmth and feeling in a furious and inhuman onslaught. They would need a lot of that, if the Atlantic were going to serve them like this in the future.
Physically, Ferraby was in a worse way than any of them. He had been acutely seasick during most of the voyage, but he never gave in to it: always, when it was time for him to go on watch, he would drag himself up the ladder, his face the color of a dirty handkerchief, and somehow last out the four hours on the bridge. Then he would stumble below again, and force himself to eat, and be sick once more, and lie down on his bunk, waiting for sleep to blot out the clamor of the storm, and his misery with it. Often sleep would not come, and he lay awake throughout his time off watch. Those were the worst moments of all, when doubt as to whether he could go on with this job pressed on his consciousness like a living weight of guilt.
Toward the end, the strain nearly proved too much for him. This was particularly so when he had to go on watch at night, after an hour or so of sleep snatched in the stuffy heaving cabin. He would get into his sea boots and duffle coat, listening to the sounds of the storm outside, and the thud of water hitting the side of the ship and the deck overhead. Then he climbed slowly up the ladder, tired beyond belief, fearing the wind and the misery waiting for him up on the bridge: watching the square of dark sky at the entrance above him, to see if the gale was passing. He was very weak, and without any will except to last out this watch, and the next one, and a few more until they made harbor. Once, ho stopped halfway up the ladder, and found himself crying.
He bore his ordeal alone, bravely: his set white face invited nothing save the kindness of ignoring it. He did not give in, because to fail to go on watch, to confess his defeat, would have been worse than any seasickness, any fatigue, any wind or rain or fury. There was no way out that was not shameful; and that was no way out.
THE Captain carried them all. For him, there was no fixed watch, no time set aside when he was free to relax and, if he could, to sleep. He had to control everything, to drive the whole ship himself: he had to act on signals, to fix their position, to keep his section of the convoy together, to use his seamanship to ease Compass Rose’s ordeal as much as possible. He was a tower of strength, holding everything together by sheer unrelenting guts. The sight of the tall tough figure hunched in one corner of the bridge now seemed essential to them all: they needed the tremendous reassurance of his presence, and so he gave it unstintingly, even though the hours without sleep mounted to a fantastic total.
He was tired — he could not remember ever having been so tired — but he knew that he was not loo tired: there were always reserves. . . . It was part of the job of being captain, the reverse side of the prestige and the respect and the saluting: the tiny ship, the inexperienced officers, the unbelievable weather— he had taken these on as well, and they would not defeat him. So he dealt with everything that came, assuming all cares out of an overflowing strength; he was a professional — the only one among amateurs who might in the future become considerable assets to him but at the moment were not very much help—and the professional job, at sea, was not without its rewarding pride. It had to be done, anyway: he was the man to do it, and there was no choice and no two answers.
They grew, almost, to love him, toward the end of the voyage: he was strong, calm, uncomplaining, and wonderfully dependable. This was the sort of captain to have: Compass Rose could have done with nothing less, and Compass Rase, butting her patient way homeward under the blows of the cruel sea, was lucky to have him.
No voyage can last forever, save for ships that are sunk: this voyage ran its course, and presently released them. There came an afternoon — the afternoon of the sixteenth day — when the horizon ahead was not level, but uneven: not the pale gray of the sky, but the darker shadow that was the land. The foothills of Scotland came up suddenly, beckoning them onward: their rolling lessened as they came under the lee of the northern coastline: presently, toward dusk, they were in shelter, and running down toward the home port that promised them rest and peace at last. It was difficult to realize that the worst was over, and that Compass Rose, on a steady keel, could become warm and dry again.
So the first convoy ended. It had been a shock — the more so because of the doubt, in the background, as to how they would fare in action with U-boats, if action were added to so startling an ordeal. But they did not think of this straight away: that night, tied up alongside the oiler after seventeen days of strain, they were all so utterly exhausted that a dead and dreamless sleep was all they were fit for.
As soon as they got in at the end of their first trip. Ericson applied for another officer to be appointed to the ship; it was clear that there was far too much work for a First Lieutenant and two subs to handle, leaving out of account the chance that accident or illness might make them more shorthanded still. He presented a good case, arguing the matter first with a faintly supercilious staff officer who seemed to think that corvettes were some kind of local defense vessel, and then incorporating his arguments in a formal submission to the Admiralty: it must have been an effective document, since their Lordships acted on it within three weeks. Sub-Lieutenant Morell, they said, was appointed to Compass Rose, “additional for watchkeeping duties”; SubLieutenant Morell would join them forthwith.
Morell arrived, fresh from the training establishment, accompanied by an astonishing amount of luggage: he was a very proper young man, so correct and so assured that it appeared fantastic for him to grace anything as crude as a corvette. In peacetime he was a junior barrister, a product of the other London that was so great a contrast to the Bohemian newspaper world Lockhart knew and worked in: Lockhart, indeed, could only imagine him in black coat and pin-stripe trousers, moving from his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn to a sedate lunch-party at the Savoy, or later, impeccably tail-coated, squiring the least impulsive of the season’s debutantes to Ciro’s or the Embassy. He was grave, slow-moving, and exceedingly courteous: in his brand-new and beautifully cut uniform he seemed far better suited to a diplomatic salon than to Compass Rose’s roughand-ready wardroom.
He and Bennett could hardly be expected to mix. They must have come into early collision, for the next afternoon, when work was over, Morell sought out Lockhart and asked him, with some formality, for guidance.
“The First Lieutenant used an expression which is novel to me,” he began. “I wish you’d explain what it means.”
“What was it?” asked Lockhart, with an equal gravity.
“He said — ah — ‘Don’t come the acid with me,’” Morell screwed up his eyes. “‘Come the acid’ . . . I must confess I have not heard that before.”
“What were you talking about?”
“We were discussing the best way of dismantling the firing-bar on the asdic set.” He paused. “That’s not too technical for you?”
“No,” said Lockhart. “But it may have been too technical for Bennett. He’s been trained in a rougher school.”
“That may well be the case. . . . So‘coming the acid’ . . .”
“It means that you probably corrected him without wrapping it up enough.”
Morell smiled: it was the first time Lockhart had seen him do so. “I could hardly have been more diplomatic.”
“You must have overdone it, then.”
The other man sighed. “How strange to meet Scylla and Charybdis in Atlantic waters. . . . Perhaps I should explain the allusion. There were—”
“Do not,” said Lockhart, with a fair approximation of Bennett’s accent, “come the acid with me.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Morell. “Now I understand.”
They both laughed. Lockhart was glad that Morell had joined them: he promised to enliven the wardroom, though with little intention of so doing, and the wardroom could do with all the enlivenment possible.
THE first few convoys followed the pattern of their initiation. They still worked with Viperous as leader of the group, which had been strengthened by Sorrel joining it: they were still, as a fighting escort, untried by the enemy. There were submarines about —other convoys kept running into them — but so far their luck had held: the log recorded no shot in anger, only a succession of comments on the weather. This, at least, continued to put Compass Rose to the test: whatever the season, it seemed that the Atlantic could never wholly abandon its mood of violence.
On the evening of their return from their first leave, Lockhart, Morell, and Ferraby were all in the wardroom when Bennett stumbled down the ladder and entered the room. He was undeniably drunk, and most of his trouser buttons were undone: the general effect was so unpleasant that it was difficult to include him in their company without exhibiting a strong reaction. For some moments he busied himself at the sideboard, while they watched him in silence; then he turned round, glass in hand, and focused his eyes on each of them in turn. “Well, well, well,” he said with foolish emphasis. “Good little boys, all back from leave at the proper time. How did you tear yourselves away?”
No one answered him.
The full glass slopped over his coat as he gestured drunkenly. “Matey lot of bastards, aren’t you?” He eyed Lockhart, who had stayed aboard as duty officer, with confused belligerence. “What’s been happening while I’ve been away?”
“Nothing at all.”
“I suppose you were slipping ashore the whole time.” He took an enormous gulp of whisky, coughed, and only just held on to it. His eyes moved unsteadily round to Morell and Ferraby. “And as for you married men—married — ” He lost the thread of what he was going to say, but unfortunately started again. “You had a wonderful time. Don’t tell me.”
“ It was very pleasant,” said Morell after a pause.
“I bet you left a bun in the oven, both of you,” said Bennett thickly. Then suddenly he turned a gray-green color, and lurched out of the room. They heard him stumbling up the ladder, and the clang of the lavatory door behind him.
Bennett complained of pain all the following afternoon: he went off to the naval hospital the same evening, and he did not return. When Ericson summoned Lockhart to his cabin next morning, he had on his desk two signals that did not go well together. One was their sailing orders, for four o’clock: the other was about Bennett.
“ The First Lieutenant won’t be back for some time, Lockhart,” Ericson began. “He’s got a suspected duodenal ulcer.”
“Oh,” said Lockhart. He wailed for the Captain to speak, knowing what he was going to say, almost fearing to hear it in case it should be less than he hoped.
Ericson was frowning at the two signals. “We sail this afternoon, and we’ll have to go without him. There’s no chance of getting a relief by then, either.” He looked up. “You’ll have to take over as Number One, and organize the watches on that basis.”
“Yes, sir,” said Lockhart. His heart, to his secret surprise, had raced for a moment, as if to mark a violent pleasure. First Lieutenant. ... It could be done, and it would have to be—he wouldn’t have another chance like this one for a very long time.
“I’ll help you with it,” Ericson went on. “You should be able to carry on until a relief arrives.”
“ I can carry on anyway.”
“Can you?” Ericson looked at him again. Lockhart had spoken with a kind of informal resolution that was a new thing in their relationship.
“All right,”said Ericson after a pause. “I’ll see. . . . Do your best this time, anyway.”
Lockhart walked out of the cabin with that precise determination.
The first convoy, with the new job to do, was a challenge, and Lockhart took it on happily. As far as watchkeeping was concerned, it gave him an easier run; he now had the morning watch, from four until eight, and in this early part of the summer that meant almost four hours of daylight watchkeeping, instead of the strain and difficulty of a totally dark middle watch. But there were many other things that went with his promotion, added responsibilities that must always be borne in mind: from the first afternoon, when after a final checkup with Tallow he reported Compass Rose “ready to proceed,” he was never clear of the routine interruptions that the proper execution of his job entailed, and never free of worry lest he had forgotten something. He did not mind, because he was professionally and personally interested, as well as immensely eager to make a success of it; but on that convoy, as on many others still to come, he worked harder than he ever had before. In essence, he had to present the Captain with a going concern, a smoothly run ship that would not fail him in any trial. He was strengthened by Ericson’s backing, which was strong and continuous, and pleased also by the reaction of Morell and Ferraby. They gave him a cheerful coöperation: freed from Bennett’s heavy-handed regime, and wanting above all to make a success of the substitution, they went out of their way to help him through the first uncertain period.
For they were free of Bennett; he faded away into a dilatory background of hospital boards and recurrent examinations, and they never saw him again. Lockhart’s promotion was confirmed, not without some misgivings, by Western Approaches Command; and the new officer who arrived to fill the gap, one Sub-Lieutenant Baker, was junior to Ferraby and, if his hesitant air was anything to go by, likely to remain so. The new team assembled and settled down, making of Compass Rose a different ship altogether. The wardroom was now a pleasant place where they could relax and feel at ease, without a morose and critical eye singling them out for comment; after six months of suspicion and the most oafish kind of tyranny, it made for a happy freedom that they did not want to abuse. The same feeling spread throughout the ship, filtering down to the lower deck, where Bennett’s crude methods had aroused the most resentment and the strongest reaction in terms of idling and shirking: the idea that Lockhart, though no fool, was a better man to work for produced, as it often does, more work and not less.
Ericson, observing the general improvement, was pleased with his experiment. He had gone to a good deal of trouble to get Lockhart’s appointment confirmed, in the face of a stubborn sort of disbelief ashore, and the trouble was worth while. Both he and Compass Rose had gained something that might be even more valuable in the near future.
WITH 1941 advancing, they were a year older, and so was the war; and the further it progressed the deeper they seemed to be involved in failure and setback.
The tide was now set and running strongly against all Allied shipping: over a full two thirds of the Atlantic the attackers had the initiative, and they held on to it and gave it ruthless force and effectiveness. It was like a dark stain spreading all over this huge sea: the area of safety diminished, the poisoned water, in which no ship could count on safety from hour to hour, seemed swiftly to infect a wider and wider circle. In the background, the big ships skirmished and occasionally came to blows: the Hipper, the Scharnhorst, and the Gneisenau emerged on raiding forays, the Hood was sunk by one prodigious shot at eleven miles’ range, and then, in a swift counterstroke, the destruction of the Bismarck squared the account. But these were dramatic surprises, highlights of a ponderous and intermittent warfare: plying to and fro ceaselessly, the convoys fought their longer and bloodier battle against a multiplying enemy.
The enemy was planning as well as multiplying. At last, the U-boats were coördinating their attack: they now hunted in packs, six or seven in a group, quartering a huge area of the convoy route and summoning their full strength as soon as a contact was obtained. They had the use of French, Norwegian, and Baltic ports, fully equipped for shelter and maintenance: they had long-range aircraft to spot and identify for them, they had numbers, they had training, they had better weapons, they had the spur of success. . . . The first concerted packattack sank ten out of twenty-two ships in one convoy: the monthly record of sinkings mounted — fifty-three in one month, fifty-seven in another. The U-boats gradually extended their operations further westward, until there was no longer, in midAtlantic, a safe dispersal-area for the convoys; neither from Britain, Canada, nor Iceland could complete air cover be provided, and the escorts themselves were limited in their endurance. So the stain spread, and the ships went down. There were countermeasures: patrolling aircraft extended their range, a number of merchant ships were provided with fighters launched by catapult, and the quality of the weapons in the escorts improved slowly: to mark this improvement, one month in the middle of 1941 saw seven U-boats sent to the bottom — the highest total of the war. But seven U-boats was not enough: there were still too many of them hunting and striking, and not enough escorts to screen the convoys: there was still a vast margin that could only be covered by luck and human endeavor, and neither of these could match the standard and the pace of the enemy, or stop t he slaughter.
Of this slaughter, CompassRose saw her full share. It was no longer a surprise when the alarm bell sounded, no longer a shock to see the derelict humanity that was hoisted over the side after a ship went down: it was no longer moving to watch the dying and bury the dead. They developed — they had to develop — a professional inhumanity toward their job, a lack of feeling which was the best guarantee of efficiency: time spent in contemplating this evil warfare was time wasted, and rage or pity was something that could only come between them and their work. Hardened to pain and destruction, taking it all for granted, they concentrated as best they could on fighting back and on saving men for one purpose only — so that they could be returned to the battle as soon as possible.
They did four more convoys, of the rough, nervous character that marked most convoys nowadays; and then, at high summer, they were given what they had been looking forward to for many months — a refit, with the long leave that went with it; the first long leave since Compass Rose was commissioned. They had all wanted that leave: many of them needed it badly: life on Atlantic convoys was a matter of slowly increasing strain, strain still mounting toward a crucial point that could not yet be foreseen, and it took its toll of men’s nerves and patience, as surely as of ships.
Not less than her crew, Compass Rose herself needed the respite. It was the first substantial break in service since she had left the Clyde, nearly two years before: apart from necessary minor repairs, designs had altered, weapons improved, and personnel increased, and there was a lot to be done to bring her up-to-date with the newest corvettes. She was due for an entirely new bridge, roomier and better protected, with the mast lucked away behind it in authentic Naval fashion: she could now have a properly equipped sick bay, new depthcharge rails and throwers, and a superior asdic set that would do everything except tell them the name of the opposing U-boat. The total list of alterations and additions was a substantial one; and Compass Rose, sinking back gratefully in the hands of the shipyard, turned her face from the sea and settled down to a six weeks’ course of rejuvenation.
THE smiling weather of that late summer helped them to settle down to seagoing again, after the relaxation of their refit, and they quickly made the transfer from land to seafaring. Clear of the dubious and emotional tie of land, they were once more part of an increased escort — two destroyers and five corvettes — charged with the care of twentyone deep-laden ships bound for Gibraltar. This was their real task, and they turned to it with the readiness of men who, knowing that the task was crucial, were never wholly convinced that the Navy could afford to let them take a holiday.
The treachery of perfect weather, the lure of the easy transition, were not long in the declaring.
It started with a single aircraft, possibly an old friend, a four-engined Focke-Wulf reconnaissance plane that closed the convoy from the eastward and then began to go round them in slow circles, well out of range of any gunfire they could put up. It had happened to them before, and there was little doubt of what the plane was doing — pinpointing the convoy, shadowing it, noting exactly its course and speed, and then reporting back to some central authority, as well as tipping off any U-boats that might be near by. The change this time lay in the fact that it was occurring so early in their voyage, and that, as they watched the plane circling and realized its mission, the sun was pouring down from a matchless sky onto a sea as smooth and as lovely as old glass, hardly disturbed at all by the company of ships that crossed it on their way southward.
“It’s too easy,”said Ericson broodingly, voicing their thoughts. “All it’s got to do is to fly round and round us, sending out some kind of homing signal, and every U-boat within a hundred miles just steers straight for us.”He eyed the sky, innocent and cloudless. “I wish it would blow up a bit. This sort of weather doesn’t give us a chance.”
There was nothing out of the ordinary that night , except a signal at eleven o’clock addressed by the Admiralty to their convoy. “There are indications of five U-boats in your area, with others joining,” it warned them, with generous scope, and left them to make the best they could of it. As soon as darkness fell the convoy changed its course from the one the aircraft had observed, going off at a sharp tangent in the hope of escaping the pursuit: perhaps it was successful, perhaps the U-boats were still out of range, for the five hours of darkness passed without incident, while on the radar screen the compact square of ships and the outlying fringe of escorts moved steadily forward, undisturbed, escaping notice. Viperous, making her routine dash round the convoy at first light, signaled “I think we fooled them” as she swept past Compass Rose. The steep wave of her wash had just started them rolling when they heard the drone of an aircraft, and the spy was with them again.
The first ship was torpedoed and set on fire at midday. She was a big tanker —all the twentyone ships in the convoy were of substantial size, many of them bound for Malta and the eastern Mediterranean: it was a hand-picked lot, a valuable prize well worth the pursuit and the harrying. And pursued and harried they were, without quarter: the swift destruction of that first ship marked the beginning of an eight-day battle that took steady toll of the convoy, thinning out the ships each night with horrible regularity.
They fought back, they did their best; but the odds against them were too high, the chinks in their armor impossible to safeguard against so many circling enemies.
“There are nine l -boats in your area,” said the Admiralty at dusk that night, as generous as ever; and the nine U-boats between them sank three ships, one of them in circumstances of special horror. She was known to be carrying about twenty Wrens, the first draft to be sent to Gibraltar: aboard Compass Rose they had watched the girls strolling about the deck, had waved to them as they passed, had been glad of their company even at long range. The ship that carried them was the last to be struck that night: she went down so swiftly that the flames which engulfed the whole of her afterpart hardly had time to take hold before they were quenched. The noise of that quenching was borne over the water toward Compass Rose; a savage hissing roar, indescribably cruel. “By God, it’s those poor kids!” exclaimed Ericson, jolted out of a calm he could not preserve at so horrible a moment. But there was nothing that they could do.
Two more ships went down the second night. Six ships were gone already: six ships in two days, and they still had a week to go before they were near the shelter of land. But now they had a stroke of luck: a succession of two dark nights that, combined with a violently evasive alteration of course, throw the pursuit off the scent. Though they were still on the alert, and the tension, particularly at night, was still there, for forty-eight hours they enjoyed a wonderful sense of respite: the convoy, now reduced to fifteen ships, cracked on speed, romping along toward the southern horizon and the promise of safety. Aboard Compass Rose, a cheerful optimism succeeded the sense of ordained misfortune that had begun to take hold. Hope grew: they might see harbor after all.
SO IT was for two days and two nights; and then the aircraft, casting wide circles in the clear dawn sky, found them again. Rose, the young signalman, heard it first: a stirring in the upper air, a faint purring whisper that meant discovery. He looked round him swiftly, his head cocked on one side: he called out, “Aircraft, sir — somewhere. . . .” and Ferraby and Baker, who had the forenoon watch, came to the alert in the same swift nervous movement. The throbbing grew, and achieved a definite direction — somewhere on their port beam, away from the convoy and toward the distant Spanish coast. “Captain, sir!” called Baker down the voicepipe. “Sound of aircraft ” But Ericson was already mounting the bridge ladder, brought up from his sea-cabin by the hated noise. He looked round him, narrowing his eyes against the bright day, and then: “There it is!” he exclaimed suddenly, and pointed. On their beam, emerging from the pearly morning mist that lay low on the horizon all round them, was the plane, the spying eye of the enemy.
They all stared at it, every man on the bridge, bound together by the same feeling of anger and hatred. It was so unfair. . . . U-boats they could deal with — or at least the odds were more level: with a bit of luck in the weather, and the normal skill of sailors, the convoy could feint and twist and turn and hope to escape their pursuit. But this predatory messenger from another sphere, destroying the tactical pattern, eating into any distance they contrived to put between themselves and the enemy — this betrayer could never be balked. They felt, as they watched the aircraft, a helpless sense of nakedness, an ineffectual rage: clearly, it was all going to happen again, in spite of their care and watchfulness, in spite of their best endeavors, and all because a handful of young men in an aircraft could spun half an ocean in a few hours and come plummeting down upon their slower prey.
Swiftly the aircraft must have done its work, and the U-boats could not have been far away; within twelve hours, back they came, and that night cost the convoy two more ships out of the dwindling fleet. The hunt was up once more, the pack exultant, the savage rhythm returning and quickening. . . . They did their best: the escorts counterattacked, the convoy altered course and increased its speed: all to no purpose. The sixth day dawned, the sixth night came: punctually at midnight the alarm bells sounded and the first distress-rocket soared up into the night sky, telling of a ship mortally hit and calling for help. She burned for a long time, that ship, reddening the water, lifting sluggishly with the swell, becoming at last a flickering oily pyre that the convoy slowly left astern. Then there was a pause of more than two hours, while they remained alert at action stations and the convoy slid southward under a black moonless sky; and then, far out on the seaward horizon, five miles away from them, there was a sudden return of violence. A brilliant orange flash split the darkness, died down, flared up again, and then guttered away to nothing. Clearly it was another ship hit — but this time, for them, it was much more than a ship; for this time, this time it was Sorrel.
They all knew it must be Sorrel, because at that distance it could not be any other ship, and also because of an earlier signal they had relayed to her from Viperous. “In case of an attack tonight,” said the signal, “Sorrel will proceed five miles astern and to seaward of the convoy, and create a diversion by dropping depth charges, firing rockets, etc. This may draw the main attack away from the convoy.” They had seen the rockets earlier that night, and disregarded them: they only meant that Sorrel, busy in a corner, was doing her stuff according to plan. . . . Probably that plan had been effective, if the last two hours’ lull was anything to go by: certainly it had, from one point of view, been an ideal exercise, diverting at least one attack from its proper mark. But, in the process, someone had to suffer: it had not canceled the stalking approach, it did not stop the torpedo being fired: Sorrel became the mark, in default of a richer prize, meeting her lonely end in the outer ring of darkness beyond the convoy.
Poor Sorrel, poor sister-corvette. . . . Up on the bridge of Compass Rose, the men who had known her best of all were now the mourners, standing separated from each other by the blackness of night but bound by the same shock, the same incredulous sorrow. How could it have happened to Sorrel, to an escort like themselves. . . . Immediately he saw the explosion, Ericson had rung down to the wireless office. “Viperous from Compass Rose,” he dictated. “Sorrel torpedoed in her diversion position. May I leave and search for survivors?” Then: “Code that up,” he snapped to the telegraphist who was taking down the message. “Quick as you can. Send it by R/T.” Then, the message sent, they waited, silent in the darkness of the bridge, eying the dim bulk of the nearest ship, occasionally turning back to where Sorrel had been struck. No one said a word: there were no words for this. There were only thoughts, and not many of those.
The bell of the wireless office rang sharply, breaking the silence, and Leading Signalman Wells, who was standing by the voice-pipe, bent down to it.
“Bridge!” he said, and listened for a moment. Then he straightened up, and called to the Captain across the gray width of the bridge. “Answer from Viperous, sir. . . . ‘Do not leave convoy until daylight.’”
There was silence again, a sickened, appalled silence. Ericson set his teeth. He might have guessed. . . . It was the right answer, of course, from the cold technical angle: Viperous simply could not afford to take another escort from the screen, and send her off on a nonessential job. It was the right answer, but by Christ it was a hard one! . . . Back there in the lonely darkness, ten miles and more away by now, men were dying, men of a special sort: people they knew well, sailors like themselves; and they were to be left to die, or, at best, their rescue was to be delayed for a period that must cost many lives. Sorrel’s sinking had come as an extraordinary shock to them all: she was the first escort that had ever been lost out of their group, and she was, of all the ones that could have gone, their own chummy-ship, the ship they had tied up alongside after countless convoys, for two years on end: manned by their friends, men they played tombola with or met in pubs ashore: men they could always beat at football. . . . For Sorrel to be torpedoed was bad enough; but to leave her crew to sink or swim in the darkness was the most cruel stroke of all.
“Daylight,” said Morell suddenly, breaking the oppressive silence on the bridge. “Two more hours to wait.”
Ericson found himself answering “Yes” — not to Morell’s words, but to what he had meant. It was a cold night. With two hours to wait, and then the time it would take them to run back to where Sorrel had gone down, there would be very few men left to pick up.
There were in fact fifteen — fifteen out of a ship’s company of ninety.
They found them without much difficulty, toward the end of the morning watch, sighting the two specks which were Carley rafts across three miles or more of flat unruffled sea. However familiar this crude seascape had become to them, it was especially moving to come upon it again now: to approach the loaded rafts and the clusters of oily bodies washing about among Sorrel’s wreckage: to see, here and there in this filthy aftermath, their own uniforms, their own badges and caps, almost their own mirrored faces. . . . The men on the rafts were stiff and cold and soaked with oil, but as Compass Rose approached, one of them waved with wild energy, foolishly greeting a rescuer not more than twenty yards away from him. Some of the men were clearly dead, from cold or exhaustion, even though they had gained the safety of the rafts: they lay with their heads on other men’s knees, cherished and warmed until death and perhaps for hours beyond it. Ericson, looking through his binoculars at the ragged handful that remained, caught sight of the gray face of Sorrel’s captain, Ramsay, his friend for many years. Ramsay was holding a body in his arms, a young sailor ugly and pitiful in death, the head thrown back, the mouth hanging open. But the living face above the dead one was hardly less pitiful. The whole story — the lost ship, the lost crew, the pain and exhaustion of the last six hours — all these were in Ramsay’s face as he sat, holding the dead body, waiting for rescue.
It was a true captain’s face, a captain in defeat who mourned his ship, and bore alone the monstrous burden of its loss.
BY NOON of the seventh day, the tally of ships remaining was eleven — eleven out of the original twenty-one; behind them were ten good merchantships sunk, and countless men drowned, and one of the escorts lost as well. It was horrible to think of the hundreds of miles of sea that lay in their wake, strewn with the oil and the wreckage and the corpses they were leaving behind them: it was like some revolting paper-chase, with the convoy laying a trail from an enormous suppurating satchel of blood and treasure. But some of it—the Wrens, and Sorrel —did not bear thinking about at all.
It was not a one-sided battle, with repeated hammer-strokes on the one hand and a futile dodging on the other, but it was not much belter than that, in the way it was working out; there were too many U-boats in contact with them, not enough escorts, not enough speed or maneuverability in the convoy to give it a level chance. They had fought back all that they could. Compass Rose had dropped more than forty depth charges on her various counterattacks, some of which should have done some damage: the other escorts had put up a lively display of energy: Viperous herself, after one accurate attack, had sufficient evidence in the way of oil and wreckage to claim a U-boat destroyed. But as far as the over-all picture was concerned, all this was simply a feeble beating of the air: with so many U-boats in their area, miracles were necessary to escape the appalling trap the convoy had run into, and no miracles came their way. There was no chance of winning, and no way of retreat; all they could do was to close their ranks, make the best speed they could, and sweat it out to the end.
Compass Rose had never been so crowded, so crammed with survivors. It was lucky, indeed, that they had the new sick bay and the sick-berth attendant to deal with their wounded and exhausted passengers. But apart from the number of people requiring attention, they had collected a huge additional complement of rescued men — far outnumbering, indeed, their own crew. There were fourteen Merchant Navy officers in the wardroom, including three ship’s captains: there were 121 others — seamen, firemen, cooks, Lascars, Chinese - thronging the upper deck by day, and at night crowding into the mess-decks to eat and sleep and wait for the next dawn. During the dark hours, indeed, the scene in the darkened fo’c’s’le was barely deseribable. Under the shaded yellow lamp was a scene from the Inferno, a nightmare of tension and confusion and discomfort and pain.
The place was crammed to the dcckhead: men stood or sat or knelt or lay in every available space: they crouched under the tables, they wedged themselves in corners, they stretched out on top of the broad ventilating shafts. There were men being seasick, men crying out in their sleep, men wolfing food, men hugging their bits of possessions and staring at nothing: wounded men groaning, apparently fit men laughing uneasily at nothing, brave men who could still summon a smile and a straight answer. It was impossible to pick one’s way from one end of the fo’c’s’le to the other, as Lockhart did each night when he made the rounds, without being shocked and appalled and saddened by this slum corner of the war; and yet somehow one could he heartened also, and cheered by an impression of patience and endurance, and made to feel proud. . . . Individuals, here and there, might have been pushed close to defeat or panic; but the gross crowding, the rags, the oil, the bandages, the smell of men in adversity, were still not enough to defeat the whole company. They were all sailors there, not to be overwhelmed even by this sudden and sustained nightmare: they were being mucked about, it was true, but it would have to be a lot worse than this before they would change their minds about the sea.
The seventh night, all that the circling pack of U-boats could account for was one ship, the smallest ship in the convoy. She was hit astern, and she went down slowly: out of her whole company the only casually was a single Lascar seaman who jumped (as he thought) into the sea with a wild cry and landed head first in one of the lifeboats. In the midst of the wholesale slaughter, this comedy exit had just the right touch of fantasy about it to make it seem really funny. . . . But even so, this ship was the eleventh to be lost, out of the original twenty-one: it put them over the halfway mark, establishing a new and atrocious record in U-boat successes. And the next night, the eighth and last of the battle, when they were within three hundred miles of Gibraltar, made up for any apparent slackening in the rate of destruction.
Three more ships, that last night cost, and one of them — yet another loaded tanker to be torpedoed and set on fire—was the special concern of Compass Rose, It was she who was nearest when the ship was struck, and she circled round as the oil, cascading and spouting from the tanker’s open side, took fire and spread over the surface of the water like a flaming carpet in a pitch-black room. Silhouetted against this roaring backcloth, which soon rose to fifty feet in the air, Compass Rose must have been visible for miles around: even in swift movement she made a perfect target, and Ericson, trying to decide whether to stop and pick up survivors, or whether the risk would not be justified, could visualize clearly what they would look like when stationary against this wall of flame. Compass Rose, with her crew and her painfully collected shipload of survivors, would be a sitting mark from ten miles away. . . . But they had been detailed as rescue ship: there were men in the water, there were boats from the tanker already lowered and pulling away from the tower of flame: there was a job to be done, a work of mercy, if the risk were acceptable— if it were worth hazarding two hundred lives in order to gain fifty more, if prudence could be stretched to include humanity.
He was Ericson’s decision alone. It was a captain’s moment, a pure test of nerve: it was, once again, the reality that lay behind the saluting and the graded discipline and the two and a half stripes on the sleeve. While Ericson, silent on the bridge, considered the chances, there was not a man in the ship who would have changed places wiih him.
The order, when it came, was swift and decisive.
“Stop engines, sir. . . . Engines stopped, wheel amidships, sir.”
“Sir?" said Lockhart.
“Stand by to get those survivors inboard. We won’t lower a boat — they’ll have to swim or row towards us. God knows they can see us easily enough. Use a megaphone to hurry them up.”
“ Aye, aye, sir.”
As Lockhart turned to leave the bridge, the Captain added, almost conversationally: “We don’t want to waste any time, Number One.”
All over the ship a prickling silence fell, as Compass Rose slowly came to a stop and waited, rolling gently, lit by the glare from the fire. From the bridge, every detail of the upper deck could be picked out: there was no flickering in this huge illumination, simply a steady glow that threw a black shadow on the sea behind them, that showed them naked to the enemy, that endowed the white faces turned toward it with a photographic brilliance. Waiting aft among his depth-charge crews, while the flames roared and three boats crept toward them, and faint shouting and bobbing lights here and there on the water indicated a valiant swimmer making for safety, Ferraby was conscious only of a terrorstricken impatience. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” he thought, almost aloud, “let us give this up, let us get moving again. . . .” Twenty feet away from him in the port waist, Lockhart was coolly directing the preliminaries to the work of rescue— rigging a sling for the wounded men, securing the scrambling nets that hung over the side, by which men in the water could pull themselves up. Ferraby watched him, not with admiration or envy but with a futile hatred. “Damn you,” he thought, once more almost saying the words out loud. “How can you be like that, why don’t you feel like me — or if you do, why don’t you show it ?” He turned away from the brisk figures and the glowing heat of the flames, his eyes traversing the arch of black sky overhead, a sky blotched and streaked by smoke and whirling sparks; he looked behind him, at the outer darkness that the fire could not pierce, the place where the submarines must be lying and watching them. No submarine within fifty miles could miss this beacon, no submarine within five could resist chancing a torpedo, no submarine within two could fail to hit the silhouetted target, the stationary prey. It was wicked to stop like this, just for a lot of damned Merchant Navy roughs. . . .
A boat drew alongside, bumping and scraping: Lockhart called out, “Hook on forrard!” There were sounds of scrambling: an anonymous voice, foreign, slightly breathless, said, “God bless you for stopping!” The work of collection began.
It did not take long, save in their own minds; but coming toward the end of the long continued ordeal of the voyage, when there was no man in the ship who was not near to exhaustion, those minutes spent motionless in the limelight had a creeping and paralytic tension. It seemed impossible for them to take such a reckless chance and not be punished for it; there was, in the war at sea, a certain limiting factor to bravery, and beyond that, fate stood waiting with a ferocious rebuke. “If we don’t buy it this time,”said Wainwright, the torpedoman, standing by his depth charges and staring at the flames, “Jerry doesn’t deserve to win the war.” It did seem, indeed, that if Sorrel could be hit when she was zigzagging at fourteen knots, there wouldn’t be much trouble with Compass Rose; and as the minutes passed, while they collected three boatloads of survivors and a handful of swimmers, and the huge circle of fire gave its steady illumination, they seemed to be getting deeper and deeper into a situation from which they would never be able to retreat. The men who had work to do were lucky: the men who simply waited, like Ericson on the bridge or the stokers below the waterline, knew, in those few agonizing minutes, the meaning of fear.
It never happened: that was the miracle of that night. Perhaps some U-boat fired and missed, perhaps those within range, content with their success, had submerged for safety’s sake and broken off the attack; at any rate, Compass Rose was allowed her extraordinary hazard, without having to settle the bill. When there were no more men to pick up, she got under way again: the returning pulse of her engine, heard and fell throughout the ship, came like some incredible last-minute respite, astonishing them all. But the pulse strengthened and quickened, in triumphant chorus, and she drew away from the flames and the smell of oil with her extra load of survivors snatched from the very mouth of danger, and her flaunting gesture unchallenged. They had taken the chance, and it had come off.
ANOTHER ship, on the opposite wing, went down at four o’clock, just before dawn; and then, as daylight strengthened and the rags of the convoy drew together again, they witnessed the last cruel item of the voyage.
Lagging behind with some engine defect a third ship was hit, and began to settle down on her way to the bottom. She sank slowly, but owing to bad organization, or the villainous list the torpedoing gave her, no boats got away; for her crew, it was a time for swimming, for jumping into the water and striking out away from the fatal downward suction, and trusting to luck. Compass Rose, dropping back to come to her aid, circled round as the ship began to disappear; and then, as she dipped below the level of the sea and the swirling ripples began to spread outward from a central point that was no longer there, Ericson turned his ship’s bows towards the center of disaster, and the bobbing heads that dotted the surface of the water. But it was not to be a straightforward rescue; for just as he was opening his mouth to give the order for lowering a boat, the asdic set picked up a contact, an undersea echo so crisp and well-defined that it could only be a U-boat.
Lockhart, at his action station in the asdic compartment, felt his heart miss a beat as he heard that echo. At last. . . . He called through the open window: “Echo bearing two-two-five - moving left!" and bent over the asdic set in acute concent ration. Ericson increased the revolutions again, and turned away from the indicated bearing, meaning to increase the range: if they were to drop depth charges, they would need a longer run-in to get up speed. In his turn, he called out: “What’s it look like, Number One?" and Lockhart, hearing the harsh pinging noise and watching the mark on the recording set, said: “Submarine, sir - can’t be anything else.”He continued to call out the bearing and the range of the contact: Ericson prepared to take the ship in, at attacking speed, and to drop a pattern of depth charges on the way; and then, as Compass Rose turned inward towards the target, gathering speed for the onslaught, they all noticed something that had escaped their attention before. The place where the U-boat lay, the point where they must drop their charges, was alive with swimming survivors.
The Captain drew in his breath sharply at the sight. There were about forty men in the water, concentrated in a small space; if he went ahead with the attack he must, for certain, kill them all. He knew well enough, as did everyone on board, the effect of depth charges exploding under water — the splitting crash that made the sea jump and boil and spout skyward, the aftermath of torn seaweed and dead fish that always littered the surface after the explosion. Now there were men instead of fish and seaweed, men swimming toward him in confidence and hope. . . . And yet the U-boat was there, one of the pack that had been harassing and bleeding them for days on end, the destroying menace that must have priority, because of what it might do to other ships and other convoys in the future: he could hear the echo on the relay loud-speaker, he acknowledged Lockhart’s developed judgment where the asdic set was concerned. As the seconds sped by and the range closed, he fought against his doubts, and against the softening instinct of mercy; the book said, “Attack at all costs,”and this was a page out of the book, and the men swimming in the water did not matter at all, when it was a question of bringing one of the killers to account.
But for a few moments longer he tried to gain support and confidence for what he had to do.
“What’s it look like now, Number One?”
“The same, sir — solid echo — exactly the right size — must be a U-boat.”
“ Is it moving?”
“There are some men in the water, just about there.”
There was no answer. The range decreased as Compass Rose ran in: they were now within six hundred yards of the swimmers and the U-boat, the fatal coincidence that had to be ignored.
“What’s it look like now?” Ericson repeated.
“Just the same — seems to be stationary — it’s the strongest contact we’ve ever had.”
“There are some chaps in the water.”
“Well, there’s a U-boat just underneath them.”
“All right, then,”thought Ericson, with a new unlooked-for access of brutality to help him. “All right, we’ll go for the U-boat. . . .” With no more hesitation he gave the order: “Attacking — stand by!" to the depth-charge positions aft; and having made this sickening choice he swept in to the attack with a deadened mind, intent only on one kind of kill, pretending there was no other.
Many of the men in the water waved wildly as they saw what was happening: some of them screamed, some threw themselves out of the ship’s path and thrashed furiously in the hope of reaching safety: others, slower-witted or nearer to exhaustion, still thought that Compass Rose was speeding to their rescue, and continued to wave and smile almost to their last moment. . . . The ship came in like an avenging angel, cleaving the very center of the knot of swimmers: the amazement and horror on their faces was reflected aboard Compass Rose, where many of the crew, particularly among the depth-charge parties aft, could not believe what they were being called upon to do. Only two men did not share this horror: Ericson, who had shut and battened down his mind except to a single thought - the U-boat they must kill: and Ferraby, whose privilege it was to drop the depth charges. “Serve you bloody well right!" thought Ferraby as Compass Rose swept in among the swimmers, catching some of them in her screw, while the firing-bell sounded and the charges rolled over the stern or were rocketed outward from the throwers. “Serve you right - you nearly killed us last night, making us stop next door to that fire — now it’s our turn.”
There was a deadly pause, while for a few moments the men aboard Compass Rose and the men left behind in her wake stared at each other, in pity and fear and a kind of basic disbelief; and then with a huge hammer-crack the depth charges exploded.
Mercifully the details were hidden in the flurry and roar of the explosion; and the men must all have died instantly, shocked out of life by the tremendous pressure of the sea thrown up upon their bodies. But one freak item of the horror impressed itself on the memory. As the tormented water leaped upward in a solid gray cloud, the single figure of a man was tossed high on the very plume of the fountain, a puppet figure of whirling arms and legs seeming to make, in death, wild gestures of anger and reproach. It appeared to hang on a long time in the air, cursing them all, before falling back into the boiling sea.
When they ran back to the explosion area, with the asdic silent and the contact not regained, it was as if to some aquarium where poisoned water had killed every living thing. Men floated high on the surface like dead goldfish in a film blood. Most of them were disintegrated, or pulped out of human shape. But half a dozen of them, who must have been on the edge of the explosion, had come to a tidier end; split open from chin to crotch, they had been as neatly gutted as any herring. Some sea gulls were already busy on the scene, screaming with excitement and delight. Nothing else stirred.
No one looked at Ericson as they left that place: if they had done so, they might have been shocked by his expression and his extraordinary pallor. Now deep in self-torture, and appalled by what he had done, he had already decided that there had been no U-boat there in the first place: the contact was probably the torpedoed ship, sliding slowly to the bottom, or the disturbed water of her sinking. Either way, the slaughter he had inflicted was something extra, a large, entirely British-made contribution to the success of the voyage.
By the time they were past the Straits, and had smelled the burnt smell of Africa blowing across from Ceuta, and had shaped a course for Gibraltar harbor, they were all far off balance.
It had gone on too long, it had failed too horribly, it had cost too much. They had been at action stations for virtually eight days on end, missing hours of sleep, making do with scratch meals of cocoa and corned-beef sandwiches, living all the time under recurrent anxieties that often reached a desperate tension. There had hardly been a moment of the voyage when they could forget the danger that lay in wait for them and the days of strain that stretched ahead, and relax and find peace. They had been hungry and dirty and tired, from one sunrise to the next: they had lived in a ship crammed and disorganized by nearly three times her normal complement. Through it all, they had had to preserve an alertness and a keyed-up efficiency, hard enough to maintain even in normal circumstances.
The deadly part was that it had all been in vain, it had all been wasted: there could have been no more futile expense of endurance and nervous energy. Besides Sorrel, which was in a special category of disaster, they had lost fourteen ships out of the original txventy-one— two thirds of the entire convoy, wiped out by a series of pack-attacks so adroit and so ferocious that countermeasures had been quite futile. That was the most wretched element of the voyage—the inescapable sense of futility, the conviction that there were always more U-boats than escorts and that the U-boats could strike, and strike home, practically as they willed.
The escorts, and Compass Rose among them, seemed to have been beating the air all the time: they could do nothing save count the convoy’s losses at each dawn, and make, sometimes, a vain display of force which vanished like a trickle of water swallowed by an enormous sea. In the end, they had all sickened of the slaughter, and of the battle too.
To offset the mortal bleeding of the convoy, by far the worst of this or any other war, Viperous had sunk one U-boat: a second had probably been destroyed; and Compass Rose herself had collected 175 survivors — nearly twice the number of her own crew. But this seemed nothing much when set alongside the total loss of lives: it seemed nothing much when measured against the men they had depth-charged and killed, instead of saving; it seemed nothing much when shadowed by the stricken figure of Sorrel’s captain, wordless and brooding at the back of their bridge as Compass Rose slid into the shelter of Gibraltar harbor, under the huge Rock that dwarfed and mocked the tiny defeated ships below.