Tales of the Trade, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 3

Ravages and Repairs

BEFORE we pick up the further adventures of H.M. Submarine E14 and her partner E11, here is what you might call a cutting-out affair in the Sea of Marmara which E12 (Lieutenant-Commander K. M. Bruce) put through quite on the old lines.

E12’s main motors gave trouble from the first, and she seems to have been a cripple for most of that trip. She sighted two small steamers, one towing two, and the other three, sailing vessels making seven keels in all. She stopped the first steamer, noticed she carried a lot of stores, and, moreover, that her crew — she had no boats — were all on deck in life-belts. Not seeing any gun, E12 ran up alongside and told the first lieutenant to board. The steamer then threw a bomb at E12, which struck, but luckily did not explode, and opened fire on the boarding-party with rifles and a concealed 1-in. gun. E12 answered with her six-pounder, and also with rifles. The two sailing ships in tow, very properly, tried to foul E12’s propellers and “also opened fire with rifles.”

It was as Orientally mixed a fight as a man could wish: The first lieutenant and the boarding-party engaged on the steamer, E12 foul of the steamer, and being fouled by the sailing ships; the six-pounder methodically perforating the steamer from bow to tern; the steamer’s 1-in. gun and the rifles from the sailing ships raking everything and everybody else; E12’s coxswain on the conning-tower passing up ammunition; and E12’s one workable motor developing “slight defects” at, of course, the moment when power to manœuvre was vital.

The account is almost as difficult to disentangle as the actual mess must have been. At any rate, the six-pounder caused an explosion in the steamer’s ammunition, where by the steamer sank in a quarter of an hour, giving time — and a hot time it must have been — for E12 to get clear of her and to sink the two sailing ships. She then chased the second steamer, who slipped her three tows and ran for the shore. E12 knocked her about a good deal with gun-fire as she fled, saw her drive on the beach well alight, and then, since the beach opened fire with a gun at 1500 yards, went away to retinker her motors and write up her log. She approved of her first lieutenant’s behaviour “under very trying circumstances” (this probably refers to the explosion of the amunition by the six-pounder which, doubtless, jarred the boarding-party) and of the cox who acted as ammunition-hoist; and of the gun’s crew, who “all did very well” under rifle and small-gun fire “at a range of about ten yards.” But she never says what she really said about her motors.

A Brawl at a Pier

Now we will take E14 on various work, either alone or as flagship of a squadron composed of herself and Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith’s boat, E11. Hers was a busy midsummer, and she came to be intimate with all sort of craft — such as the two-funnelled gunboat off Sar Kioi, who “fired at us, and missed as usual”; hospital ships going back and forth unmolested to Constantinople; “the gunboat which fired at me on Sunday,” and other old friends, afloat and ashore.

When the crew of the Turkish brigantine full of stores got into their boats by request, and then “all stood up and cursed us,” E14 did not lose her temper, even though it was too rough to lie alongside the abandoned ship. She told Acting Lieutenant R. W. Lawrence, of the Royal Naval Reserve, to swim off to her, which he did, and after a “cursory search”— Who can be expected to Sherlock Holmes for hours with nothing on? — set fire to her “with the aid of her own matches and paraffin oil.”

Then E14 had a brawl with a steamer with a yellow funnel, blue top and black band, lying at a pier among dhows. The shore took a hand in the game with small guns and rifles, and, as E14 manœuvred about the roadstead “as requisite” there was a sudden unaccountable explosion which strained her very badly. “I think,” she muses, “I must have caught the moorings of a mine with my tail as I was turning, and exploded it. It is possible that it might have been a big shell bursting over us, but I think this unlikely, as we were 30 feet at the time.” She is always a philosophical boat, anxious to arrive at the reason of facts, and when the game is against her she admits it freely.

There was nondescript craft of a few hundred tons, who “at a distance did not look very warlike,” but when chased suddenly played a couple of six-pounders and “got off two dozen rounds at us before we were under. Some of them were only about 20 yards off.” And when a wily steamer, after sidling along the shore, lay up in front of a town she became “indistinguishable from the houses,” and so was safe because we do not löwestrafe open towns.

Sailing dhows full of grain bad to be destroyed. At one rendezvous, while waiting for E11, E14 dealt with three such cases and then “towed the crews inshore and gave them biscuits, beef, and rum and water, as they were rather wet.” Passenger steamers were allowed to proceed, because they were “full of people of both sexes,” which is an unkultured way of doing business.

Here is another instance of our insular type of mind. An empty dhow is passed which E14 was going to leave alone, but it occurs to her that the boat looks “rather deserted,” and she fancies she sees two heads in the water. So she goes back half a mile, picks up a couple of badly exhausted men, frightened out of their wits, gives them food and drink, and puts them aboard their property. Crews that jump overboard have to be picked up, even if, as happened in one case, there are twenty of them and one of them is a German bank manager taking a quantity of money to the Chanak Bank. Hospital ships are carefully looked over as they come and go, and are left to their own devices; but they are rather a nuisance because they force E14 and others to dive for them when engaged in stalking warrantable game. There were a good many hospital ships, and as far as we can make out they all played fair. E11 boarded one and “reported everything satisfactory.”

Strange Messmates

A layman cannot tell from the reports which of the duties demanded the most work — whether the continuous clearing out of transports, dhows, and sailing ships, sailing generally found close to the well-gunned and attentive beach, or the equally continuous attacks on armed vessels of every kind. Whatever else might be going going on there was always the problem how to arrange for the crews of sunk ships. If a dhow has no small boats, and you cannot find one handy, you have to take the crew aboard, where they are horribly in the way, and add to the oppressiveness of the atmosphere — like “the nine people, including two very old men,” whom E14 made honorary members of her mess for several hours till she could put them ashore after dark. Oddly enough she “could not get anything out of them.” Imagine nine bewildered Moslems suddenly decanted into the reeking clamorous bowels of a fabric obviously built by Shaitan himself, and surrounded by — but our people are people of the Book and not dog-eating Kaffirs, and I will wager a great deal that that little company went ashore in better heart and stomach than when they were passed down the conning-tower hatch.

Then there were queer amphibious battles with troops who had to be shelled as they marched towards Gallipoli along the coast roads. E14 went out with E11 on this job, early one morning, each boat taking her chosen section of landscape. Thrice E14 rose to fire, thinking she saw the dust of feet, but “each time it turned out to be bullocks.” When the shelling was ended “I think the troops marching along that road must have been delayed and a good many killed.” The Turks got up a fieldgun in the course of the afternoon — your true believer never hurries — which outranged both boats, and they left accordingly.

The next day she changed billets with, E11, who had the luck to pick up and put down a battleship close to Gallipoli. It turned out to be the Barbarossa. Meantime E14 got a 5000-ton supply ship, and later had to burn a sailing ship loaded with 200 bales of leaf and cut tobacco — Turkish tobacco! Small wonder that E11 “came alongside that afternoon and remained for an hour”— probably making cigarettes.

Refitting Under Difficulties

Then E14 went back to her base. She had a hellish time among the Dardanelles nets; was, of course, fired at by the forts, just missed a torpedo from the beach, scraped a mine, and when she had time to take stock found electric mine-wires twisted round her propellers and all her hull scraped and scored with wire marks. But that, again, was only in the day’s work. The point she insisted upon was that she had been for seventy days in the Sea of Marmara with no securer base for refit than the centre of the same, and during all that while she had not had “any engine-room defect which has not been put right by the engine-room staff of the boat.” The commander and the third officer went sick for a while; the first lieutenant got gastro-enteritis and was in bed (if you could see that bed!) “for the remainder of our stay in the Sea of Marmara,” but “this boat has never been out of running order.” The credit is ascribed to “the excellence of my chief engine-room artificer, James Hollier Hague, O.N. 227715,” whose name is duly submitted to the authorities “for your consideration for advancement to the rank of warrant officer.”

Seventy days of every conceivable sort of risk, within and without, in a boat which is all engine-room, except where she is sick-bay; twelve thousand miles covered since last overhaul and “never out of running order”— thanks to Mr. Hague. Such artists as he are the kind of engine-room artificers that commanders intrigue to get hold of — each for his own boat — and when the tales are told in the Trade, their names, like Abou Ben Adhem’s, lead all the rest.

I do not know the exact line of demarcation between engine-room and gunnery repairs, but I imagine it is faint and fluid. E11, for example, while she was helping E14 to shell a beached steamer, smashed half her gun-mounting, “the gun-layer being thrown overboard, and the gun nearly following him.” However, the mischief was repaired in the next twenty-four hours, which, considering the very limited deck space of a submarine, means that all hands must have been moderately busy. One hopes that they had not to dive often during the job.

But worse is to come. E2 (Commander D. Stocks) carried an externally mounted gun which, while she was diving up the Dardanelles on business, got hung up in the wires and stays of a net. She saw them through the conning-tower scuttles at a depth of 80 ft. — one wire hawser round the gun, another round the conning-tower, and so on. There was a continuous crackling of small explosions overhead which she thought were charges aimed at her by the guard-boats who watch the nets. She considered her position for a while, backed, got up steam, barged ahead, and shore through the whole affair in one wild surge. Imagine the roof of a navigable cottage after it has snapped telegraph lines with its chimney, and you will get a small idea of what happens to the hull of a submarine when she uses her gun to break wire hawsers with.

Trouble With a Gun

E2 was a wet, strained, and uncomfortable boat for the rest of her cruise. She sank steamers, burned dhows; was worried by torpedo-boats and hunted by Hun planes; hit bottom freely and frequently; silenced forts that fired at her from lonely beaches; warned villages who might have joined in the game that they bad better keep to farming; shelled railway lines and stations; would have shelled a pier, but found there was a hospital built at one end of it, “so could not bombard”; came upon dhows crowded with “female refugees” which she “allowed to proceed,” and was presented with fowls in return; but through it all her chief preoccupation was that racked and strained gun and mounting. When there was nothing else doing she reports sourly that she “worked on gun.” As a philosopher of the lower deck put it: “’Tisn’t what you blanky do that matters, it’s what you blanky have to do.” In other words, worry, not work, kills.

E2’s gun did its best to knock the heart out of them all. She had to shift the wretched thing twice; once because the bolts that held it down were smashed (the wire hawser must have pretty well pulled it off its seat), and again because the hull beneath it leaked on pressure. She went down to make sure of it. But she drilled and tapped an adjusted, till in a short time the gun worked again and killed steamers as it should. Meanwhile, the whole boat leaked. All the plates under the old gun-position forward leaked; she leaked aft through damaged hydroplane guards, and on her way home they had to keep the water down by hand pumps while she was diving through the nets. Where she did not leak outside she leaked internally, tank leaking into tank, so that the petrol got into the main freshwater supply and the men had to be put on allowance. The last pint was served out when she was in the narrowest part of the Narrows, a place where one’s mouth may well go dry of a sudden.

Here for the moment the records end. I have been at some pains not to pick and choose among them. So far from doctoring or heightening any of the incidents, have rather understated them; but hope have made it clear that through all the haste and fury of these multiplied actions, when life and death and destruction turns on the twitch of a finger, not one life of any non-combatant was wittingly taken. They were carefully picked up or picked out, taken below, transferred to boats, and despatched or personally conducted in the intervals of business to the safe, unexploding beach. Sometimes they part from their chaperones “with many expressions of good will,” at others they seem greatly relieved and rather surprised at not being knocked on the head after the custom of their Allies. But the boats with a hundred things on their minds no more take credit for their humanity than their commanders explain the feats for which they won their respective decorations.

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