Tales of the Trade, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 2

Business in the Sea of Marmara

THIS war is like an iceberg. We, the public, only see an eighth of it above water. The rest is out of sight and, as with the berg, one guesses its extent by great blocks that break off and shoot up to the surface from some underlying out-running spur a quarter of a mile away. So with this war sudden tales come to light which reveal unsuspected activities in unexpected quarters. One takes it for granted such things are always going on somewhere, but the actual emergence of the record is always astonishing.

Once upon a time, there were certain E type boats who worked the Sea of Marmara with thoroughness and humanity for the two, in English hands, are compatible. The road to their hunting-grounds was strewn with peril, the waters they inhabited were full of eyes that gave them no rest, and what they lost or expended in wear and tear of the chase could not made good till they had run the gauntlet to their base again. The full tale of their improvisations and “makee-does” will probably never come to light, though fragments can be picked up at intervals in the proper places as the men concerned come and go. The Admiralty gives only the bones, but those are not so dry, of the boat’s official story.

When E14, Commander E. Courtney-Boyle, went to her work in the Sea of Marmara, she, like her sister, “proceeded” on her gas-engine up the Dardanelles; and a gas-engine by night between steep cliffs has been described by the Lower-deck as a “full brass band in a railway cutting.” So a fort picked her up with a searchlight and missed her with artillery. She dived under the minefield that guarded the Straits, and when she rose at dawn in the narrowest part of the channel, which is about one mile and a half across, all the forts fired at her. The water, too, was thick with steamboat patrols, out of which E14 selected a Turkish gunboat and gave her a torpedo. She had just time to see the great column of water shoot as high as the gunboat’s mast when she had to dip again as “the men in a small steamboat were leaning over trying to catch hold of the top of my periscope.”

“Six Hours of Blind Death”

This sentence, which might have come out of a French exercise book, is all lieutenant-Commander Courtney-Boyle sees fit to tell, and that officer will never understand why one taxpayer at least demands his arrest after the war till he shall have given the full tale. Did he sight the shadowy underline of the small steamboat green through the deadlights? Or did she suddenly swim, into his vision from behind and obscure, without warning, his periscope with a single brown clutching hand? Was she alone, or one of a mob of splashing, shouting small craft? He may well have been too busy to note, for there were patrols all around him, a minefield of curious design and undefined area somewhere in front, and steam trawlers vigorously sweeping for him astern and ahead. And when E14 had burrowed and bumped and scraped through six hours of blind death, she found the Sea of Marmara crawling with craft, and was kept down almost continuously and grew hot and stuffy in consequence. Nor could she charge her batteries in peace, so at the end of another hectic, hunted day of starting them up and breaking off and diving — which is bad for the temper — she decided to quit those infested waters near the coast and charge up somewhere off the traffic routes.

This accomplished, after a long, hot run, which did the motors no good, she went back to her beat, where she picked up three destroyers convoying a couple of troopships. But it was a glassy calm and the destroyers “came for me.” She got off a long-range torpedo at one transport, and ducked before she could judge results. She apologises for this on the grounds that one of her periscopes had been damaged not, as one would expect, by the gentleman leaning out of the little steamboat, but by some casual shot — calibre not specified — the day before. “And so,” says E14, “I could not risk my remaining one being bent.” However, she heard a thud, and the depth-gauges — those great clock-hands on the white-faced circles —“flicked,” which is another sign of dreadful certainty down under. When she rose again she saw a destroyer convoying one burning transport to the nearest beach. That afternoon she met a sister-boat (now gone to Valhalla), who told her that she was almost out of torpedoes, and they arranged a rendezvous for next day, but “before we could communicate we had to dive, and did not see her again.” There must be many such meetings in the Trade, under all skies — boat rising beside boat at the point agreed upon for interchange of news and materials; the talk shouted aloud with the speakers’ eyes always on the horizon and all hands standing by to dive, even in the middle of a sentence.

Annoying Patrol Ships

E14 kept to her job, on the edge of the procession of traffic. Patrol vessels annoyed her to such an extent that “as I had not seen any transports lately I decided to sink a patrol-ship as they were always firing on me.” So she torpedoed a thing that looked like a mine-layer, and must have been something of that kidney, for it sank in less than a minute. A tramp-steamer lumbering across the dead flat sea was thoughtfully headed back to Constantinople by firing rifles ahead of her. “Under fire the whole day,” E14 observes philosophically. The nature of her work made this inevitable. She was all among the patrols, which kept her down a good deal and made her draw on her batteries, and when she rose to charge, watchers ashore burned oil-flares on the beach or made smokes among the hills according to the light. In either case there would be a general rush of patrolling craft of all kinds, from steam launches to gunboats. Nobody loves the Trade, though E14 did several things which made her popular. She let off a string of very surprised dhows (they were empty) in charge of a tug which promptly fled back to Constantinople; stopped a couple of steamers full of refugees, also bound for Constantinople, who were “very pleased at being allowed to proceed” instead of being lusitaniaed as they had expected. Another refugee-boat, fleeing from goodness knows what horror, she chased into Rodosto Harbour, where, though she could not see any troops, “they opened a heavy rifle fire on us, hitting the boat several times. So I went away and chased two more small tramps who returned towards Constantinople.”

Transports, of course, were fair game, and in spite of the necessity she was under of not risking her remaining eye, E14 got a big one in a night of wind and made another hurriedly beach itself, which then opened fire on her, assisted by the local population. “Returned fire and proceeded,” says E14. The diversion of returning fire is one much appreciated by the lower-deck as furnishing a pleasant break in what otherwise might be a monotonous and odoriferous task. There is no drill laid down for this evolution, but etiquette and custom prescribe that on going up the hatch you shall not too energetically prod the next man ahead with the muzzle of your rifle. Likewise, when descending in quick time before the hatch closes, you are requested not to jump directly on the head of the next below. Otherwise you act “as requisite” on your own initiative.

When she had used up all her torpedoes E14 prepared to go home by the way she had come — there was no other — and was chased towards Gallipoli by a mixed pack composed of a gunboat, a torpedo-boat, and a tug. “They shepherded me to Gallipoli, one each side of me and one astern, evidently expecting me to be caught by the nets there.” She walked very delicately for the next eight hours or so, all down the Straits, underrunning the strong tides, ducking down when the fire from the forts got too hot, verifying her position and the position of the minefield, but always taking notes of every ship in sight, till towards teatime she saw our Navy off the entrance and “rose to the surface abeam of a French battleship who gave us a rousing cheer.” She had been away, as nearly as possible, three weeks, and a kind destroyer escorted her to the base, where we will leave her for the moment while we consider the performance of E11 (Lieutenant-Commander . E. Nasmith) in the same waters at about the same season.

E11 “proceeded” in the usual way, to the usual accompaniments of hostile destroyers, up the Straits, and meets the usual difficulties about charging-up when she gets through. Her wireless naturally takes this opportunity to give trouble, and E11 is left, deaf and dumb, somewhere in the middle of the Sea of Marmara, diving to avoid hostile destroyers in the intervals of trying to come at the fault in her aerial. (Yet it is noteworthy that the language of the Trade, though technical, is no more emphatic or incandescent than that of top-side ships.)

Then she goes towards Constantinople, finds a Turkish torpedo-gunboat off the port, sinks her, has her periscope smashed by a six-pounder, retires, fits a new top on the periscope, and at 10.30 A.M. — they must have needed it — pipes “All hands to bathe.” Much refreshed, she gets her wireless linked up at last, and is able to tell the authorities where she is and what she is after.

Mr. Silas Q. Swing

At this point — it was off Rodosto — enter a small steamer which does not halt when requested, and so is fired at with “several rounds” from a rife. The crew, on being told to abandon her, tumble into their boats with such haste that they capsize two out of three. “Fortunately,” says E11, “they are able to pick up everybody.” You can imagine to yourself the confusion alongside, the raffle of odds and ends floating out of the boats, and the general parti-coloured hurrah’s-nest all over the bright broken water. What you cannot imagine is this: “An American gentleman then appeared on the upper deck who informed us that his name was Silas Q. Swing, of the Chicago Sun, and that he was pleased to make our acquaintance. He then informed us that the steamer was proceeding to Chanak and he wasn’t sure if there were any stores aboard.” If anything could astonish the Trade at this late date, one would almost fancy that the apparition of Silas Swing (“very happy to meet you, gentlemen”) might have started a rivet or two on E11’s placid skin. But she never even quivered. She kept a lieutenant of the name of D’Oyley Hughes, an expert in demolition parties; and he went aboard the tramp and reported any quantity of stores — a six-inch gun, for instance, lashed across the top of the forehatch (Silas Q. Swing must have been an unobservant journalist), a six-inch gun-mounting in the forehold, pedestals for twelve-pounders thrown in as dunnage, the afterhold full of six-inch projectiles, and a scattering of other commodities. They put the demolition charge well in among the six-inch stuff, and she took it all to the bottom in a few minutes, after being touched off.

“Simultaneously with the sinking of the vessel,” the E11 goes on, “smoke was observed to the eastward.” It was a steamer who had seen the explosion and was running for Rodosto. E11 chased her till she tied up to Rodosto pier, and then torpedoed her where she lay — a heavily laden store-ship piled high with packing-cases. The water was shallow here, and though E11 bumped along the bottom, which does not make for steadiness of aim, she was forced to show a good deal of her only periscope, and had it dented, but not damaged by rifle-fire from the beach. As he moved out of Rodosto Bay she saw a paddle-boat loaded with barbed wire, which stopped on the hail, but “as we ranged alongside her, attempts to ram us, but failed owing to our superior speed.” Then she ran for the beach “very skilfully,” keeping her stern to E11 till she drove ashore beneath some cliffs. The demolition-squad were just getting to work when “a party of horsemen appeared on the cliffs above and opened a hot fire on the conning tower.” E11 got out, but owing to the shoal water it was some time before she could get under enough to fire a torpedo. The stern of a stranded paddle-boat is no great target and the thing exploded on the beach. Then she “recharged batteries and proceeded slowly on the surface towards Constantinople.” All this between the ordinary office hours of 10 A.M. and 4 P.M.

Her next day’s work opens, as no pallid writer of fiction dare begin, thus: “Having dived unobserved into Constantinople, observed, etc.” Her observations were rather hampered by cross-tides, mud, and currents, as well as the vagaries of one of her own torpedoes which turned upside down and ran about promiscuously. It hit something at last, and so did another shot that she fired, but the waters by Constantinople Arsenal are not healthy to linger in after one has scared up the whole sea-front, so “turned to go out.” Matters were a little better below, and E11 in her perilous passage might have been a lady of the harem tied up in a sack and thrown into the Bosporus. She grounded heavily; she bounced up 30 feet, was headed down again by a manœuvre easier to shudder over than to describe, and when she came to rest on the bottom found herself being swivelled right round the compass. They watched the compass with much interest. “It was concluded, therefore, that the vessel (E11 is one of the few who speaks of herself as a ‘vessel’ as well as a ‘boat’) was resting on the shoal under the Leander Tower, and was being turned round by the current.” So they corrected her, started the motors, and “bumped. gently down into 85 feet of water” with no more knowledge than the lady in the sack where the next bump would land them.

The Preening Perch

And the following day was spent “resting in the centre of the Sea of Marmara.” That was their favourite preening perch between operations, because it gave them a chance to tidy the boat and bathe, and they were a cleanly people both in their methods and their persons. When they boarded a craft and found nothing of consequence they “parted with many expressions of good will,” and E11 “had a good wash.” She gives her reasons at length; for going in and out of Constantinople and the Straits is all in the day’s work, but going dirty, you understand, is serious. She had “of late noticed the atmosphere, in the boat becoming very oppressive, the reason doubtless being that there was a quantity of dirty linen aboard, and also the scarcity of fresh water necessitated a limit being placed on the frequency of personal washing.” Hence the centre of the Sea of Marmara; all hands playing overside and as much laundry work as time and the Service allowed. One of the reasons, by the way, why we shall be good friends with the Turk again is that he has many of our ideas about decency.

In due time E11 went back to her base. She had discovered a way of using unspent torpedoes twice over, which surprised the enemy, and she had as nearly as possible been cut down by a ship which she thought was running away from her. Instead of which (she made the discovery at three thousand yards, both craft all out) the stranger steamed straight at her. “The enemy then witnessed a somewhat spectacular dive at full speed from the surface to 20 feet in as many seconds. He then really did turn tail and was seen no more.” Going through the Straits she observed an empty troopship at anchor, but reserved her torpedoes in the hope of picking up some battleships lower down. Not finding these in the Narrows, she nosed her way back and sank the trooper, “afterwards continuing journey down the Straits.” Off Kilid Bahr something happened; she got out of trim and had to be fully flooded before she could be brought to her required depth. It might have been whirlpools under water, or — other things. (They tell a story of a boat which once went mad in these very waters, and for no reason ascertainable from within plunged to depths that contractors do not allow for; rocketed up again like a swordfish, and would doubtless have so continued till she died, had not something she had fouled dropped off and let her recover her composure.)

An hour later: “Heard a noise similar to grounding. Knowing this to be impossible in the water in which the boat then was, I came up to 20 feet to investigate, and observed a large mine preceding the periscope at a distance of about 20 feet, which was apparently hung up by its moorings to the port hydroplane.” Hydroplanes are the fins at bow and stern which regulate a submarine’s diving. A mine weighs anything from hundredweights to half-tons. Sometimes it explodes if you merely think about it; at others you can batter it like an empty sardine-tin and it submits meekly; but at no time is it meant to wear on a hydroplane. They dared not come up to unhitch it, “owing to the batteries ashore,” so they pushed the dim shape ahead of them till they got outside Kum Kale. They then went full astern, and emptied the after tanks, which brought the bows down, and in this posture rose to the surface, when “the rush of water from the screws together with the sternway gathered allowed the mine to fall clear of the vessel.”

Now a fool, said Dr. Johnson, would have tried to describe that.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38