Men and science versus the U-boat —A dramatic fiction story that will thrill you with its underlying reality
SHE HAS no name. The Navy calls her No. 33. What the enemy call her and her sisters I do not know; but I can guess what they think of her. Those of them with whom she has not yet had direct dealings must think of her with terror and dread; and those who have met her are not in a position to think at all. They are dead. As her Commander said, “Oh, yes. It’s pretty safe to say, once we get on the track of a sub, she’s our meat. Don’t think I’m boasting. You see, this ship was specially designed and built for her job. That makes it easy for us. If we see, or hear—specially hear—a sub, then all we’ve got to do is to keep her in sight, or hearing, and, bar flukes, we’re sure to get her in the end. Bound to.” “But how? Why?” I said. “I don’t see.” “Well, we’re sailing tonight,” said No. 33’s Commander, “and, with luck, you will see before we get home again. Now, this ship wasn’t built for passengers, so there's no spare cabin for you. You’ll have to doss down in the wardroom. This is the wardroom. Through here. Duck your tu'penny. This is my Number One. Langley, here’s somebody coming with us this trip to see what we do and how we do it. Look after him and see he doesn’t get into mischief.” The Commander vanished. Number One looked at me and I looked at him. He was a little, meek-looking man, with pale blue eyes and sandy hair. I repeat; he looked meek. Said he, “Sit down. Have a drink. No? Then, what can I do for you?” “It you could find time,” I said, “to show me over the boat and explain things before we sail, I should be very much obliged.” “This is a ship, not a boat," replied Number One. “From the look of you I hoped you were a sailor, but if you're only one of these journalists who don’t know a boat from a ship, it’s only going to be a waste of time explaining anything.” Here I judged it wise to present my letter of introduction. Number One read it with scorn in his eye. But when he came to the signature he said, “Oh, him ! Well, you should be all right if he vouches for you. What do you want to know?” “Tell me about this ship,” I answered. “Tell me all about her. And show me all over her. After that Fll try not to trouble you more than I can help.” “ I hanks,” said Number One, dryly. “You writing chaps call us the Silent Service; but this ship really is silent. She’s a noiseless ship. She was built to be silent. That’s why she’s got reciprocating engines instead of turbines or motors. She goes like a ghost up to twenty-seven knots and after that-—well, I'll admit there’s a slight hum when we press her beyond thirty. She begins to vibrate a bit then, but nothing rattles. Nothing’s allowed to. Yes. She’s quiet, all right. Listen !” He stamped his foot. hard, on the wardroom floor. His stampings made no sound. The floor was carpeted with, among other things, soft, thick rubber. She s like that all through,” Number One went on. 1 here s no bare steel decks here for the hands to go clumping about on. They’re all wood-sheathed and rubbercoated, even in the engine room.” “Why?” I asked. So that they can’t hear us,” answered Number One. And, when you’re listening, the less noise you make
yourself, the better you can hear them. Here! Come below and I’ll show you.”
He led me into the bowels of the ship, along soundproof alleyways and down noise-insulated ladders. lie opened a door. It looked as thick and solid as the door of a bank vault, but it swung ojien silkily at his touch.
“This,” said he, “is the Listening Rrxnn. The hands call it the ’Ear ’Ole. They would, of course.”
T_TE TURNED a switch (that switch did not click, let it
-*• be noted), and the dim, suffused light which resulted revealed a room with its walls decorated with dials, tubes, wires, gauges, and instruments and apparatus of strange shapes.
Said Number One, “There she is. This is where our dirty work’s done and these gadgets are what we do it with. You can't see much, but the light’s kept dim on jjurjxise. You can hear better when you can’t see, and you don’t need to see much when you’re on this job. What we do here is concentrate on listening. This is the ears of the ship —and her eyes, too.”
He held up a thing which looked to me like a giant padded helmet. “Hydroj>hone headpiece.” said he. “Same thing as a telejihone headj)hone - only more so. When you wear this you can’t hear anything, except what comes through your earphones. 1 said, anything. And the earphones are a bit sjx-cial t;x>. They amplify sound. Magnify it, d’you see? If you put this headphone on, and I dropjxxl a lumj) of coal overboard, you’d think someone had dropped a bomb. That’s if the main amplifier's tuned full on, of course.”
He pointed to one of the queer instruments on the bulkhead. "That’s her,” he said, “our Main Amplifier. We call her the M. A. She’s a masterpiece. You can tune in on her—if you know how—and pick up the sound of a seagull landing on the water at two miles range. I’ve done it. When I was jxissing my Listening Course I sjxmt three months on amplifiers alone. Two weeks theory and ten practical. The whole course takes five months and, you can believe me, they do the thing properly. If you j)ass, you can call yourself a Listener, all right, all right. Yes. My final test, before they’d pass me, was to plot the distances, courses and varying bearings of a beetle, walking around on a table in a room two stories below me. Made me sweat; but I did it. And you’re only allowed an error of two degrees on bearings and one per cent on distance. But it wasn’t t(x> difficult, really. Not when you get used to it, and thanks to all this gear.”
I íe waved his hand around the room and twiddled a knob or two. “This bunch of tricks screens the particular sound you’re listening to—it tones down the other noises. This outfit here gives you the range, and this little chap’s the B.I.—the Bearing Indicator. It’s a jxxjr name for him, because lie doesn't just indicate; all his statements are accurate and precise. If there’s a sub working within hearing range, this instrument gives you its bearing to one degree. Which is good enough; it’s closer than any ship can steer.”
I said, “It’s g;xxl enough, all right. I understand, now, why you never lose track of anything you get on the trail of. But what I don’t understand is, how your instruments pick uj) the sound of a sub in the water.”
"Quite simple.” said Number One. “The microj)hone— the business end of this hydrophone, that is—sticks out from the bottom of the ship below water. The mike picks uj) the sounds that come through the water. And water’s the best conductor of sound there is, don’t forget. The sounds are transmitted, through the amplifier, which magnifies them, to these headphones. And when you twist the mike about, it shows you, through the B.I ., the bearing the sound’s coming from. The range finder gives you the distance off, and . . Well, then I phone the dope to the Skijjjxr on the bridge and we get to the sjx>t indicated as quick as we know how, and dump our depth charges on top of that sound, and the rest is . . . Er . . . Silence! Got it?”
“By Jove!" I exclaimed. “As simple as all that !”
“Not quite,” answered Number One. "The listener’s got to know what each sound is and what makes it. That needs practice and exjierience; but ... Well, we’ve had quite a lot.”
Number One t(x>k up the headphone. “Like to try it?” he asked. “I'll screen off everything except sounds from dead ahead of us. so’s not to muddle you. You tell me what you hear.”
He adjusted the helmet on my head. At first I heard nothing but the singing in my ears. 1 watched Number One twisting handles on the amplifier, and then 1 jumjxxl and tore off the headjihone, because somelxxly was slamming at my ears with a sledge hammer and firing at my brain with a machine gun.
Number One grinned and put on the headphone. Then he winced, and tore it off even more quickly than 1 had done. “Sorry !” he said. “That’s a joke we generally j)lay on greenhorns. I turned on full power to give you the benefit of any noises there were about, but I didn’t know that a motorboat was j)assing close ahead of us. That was her exhaust, and the noise of her propjeller. Nearly blew my head off! Serve me right. Hoist with my own petard,
all right ! You try again. I’ll keep her tuned low’. I won’t j)lay any tricks this time. At first you’ll hear raspy, swishing noises. That’s the sound of the tide running past us. I'll screen that out, and then you’ll hear what’s doing ahead of us.”
I said, “No. thanks. I’ve had enough. You’ve deafened me for life. And this place gives me the creeps. I'm going on deck.”
On deck. Number One showed me, among other things, the guns, the depth-charge-mortars and the depth charges. There seemed to be a lot of them. “We use torpedoes, too,” said Number One, “but these are the chaps we rely on chiefly.”
He jxitted the head of a big steel drum, lying in a chute filled with its twin brothers.
"All ready to dump overboard.” continued Number One. “The latest pattern. They're bung full of sudden death and you adjust this valve to make ’em explode at any depth required. And when they do exj)lode. all life ceases to exist within a radius of a quarter of a mile. I hear the U-boat chaj)s don’t like ’em.”
YX/HEN it was dark we went to sea. No. 33 steamed out of harbor as silent as a ghost with no lights showing. The wind was cold, the night was black, there was nothing to see, and I could not walk about the deck, because I kept tripjxng over legs and falling among recumbent gun crews, who cursed me. So I turned in on the w ardroom settee and
tried to sleep; but the settee was too short for comfort, and that was the first ship I had ever been in which did not rattle and creak when under way. Her unnatural silence oppressed me.
It was daylight when I became aw’are of the Commander. He held a slice of toast in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. He was grinning. “Morning,” said he. “How’s the guest? Slept well?”
I said, “No. Commander, I haven’t. It looks to me as if I’m in for a darned uncomfortable trip. How long’s it going to last?”
“Oh, until we make contact with Fritz. And as he seems to have made up his mind to leave us alone and tackle neutrals in the Baltic, it looks to me as though you’re in for a j)retty dull and boring six weeks.”
“Six weeks!” I cried.
“About that.” said the Commander, laughing. “Unless our fuel runs short before that. But it’s unlikely. You see, we’re just . . . huntin’. Patrolling, that is, at our most economical sjx;ed. We just wait, and look, and listen. Especially listen. It’s going to be dull for us and worse for you. I’m sorry. Don’t blame us. though. It’ud be different if Fritz was busy, but, after the first two weeks, he hasn’t been about much. I don’t think he liked w’hat we gave him.”
“What, exactly, did you give him?” I asked.
"Hell. Exactly. With trimmings.” the Commander answ-ered. “So Fritz went home—at least the survivors
did. And since then he’s stayed put. But I’ll say this. It's only my own idea, but it may cheer you. I think they’ll soon be at sea again. It's a matter of bolstering up prestige —and grim necessity.”
Thereafter, for interminable days, we steamed about the cold wet seas, looking for trouble which seemed sedulously to avoid us. I had expected a short trip, packed full with thrills. Instead I was being bored to death. I had nothing to do. Nothing happened. I suffered.
It was not so bad for the crew; they had their regular duties to attend to. They kept the ship going; but, chiefly, they watched and listened with unremitting vigilance. No. 33 had never less than ten pairs of eyes on lookout duty at any second of the night or day, while down in the Listening Room Number One and his satellites appeared to live, eat and sleep with headphones permanently clamped to their ears. Nothing happened on the face of the waters which was not seen, watched, and, if thought necessary, meticulously examined. No sound from beneath the sea escaped us, or was taken on trust. It was identified and confirmed. And our wireless staff attended to the ether.
On the eighth day, or the eight hundredth (I forget which), Number One took pity on me. I awoke from my after-lunch nap to find a Yeoman of Signals grinning at me. Said he, “Mr. Langley presents his compliments, sir. We re chasing a submerged sub. If you want to listen in, he says, you’d better play lively.”
I jumped up. I was excited. Who would not be? “At last! I cried. Holding my breath, I ran down to the Listening Room, where Number One winked at me and motioned to a spare headphone.
With my heart beating fast, I put the headphone on and listened. I heard, distinctly, a throbbing, rhythmic humming. I raised my eyebrows at Number One. He nodded. My heart leaped. “At last!” I hissed. “D’you think we’ll get her?”
Then Number One grinned. So did the, Yeoman of Signals. ‘ Hark to our fierce civilian!” said Number One. “What awful blood lust.”
The Yeoman’s grin widened and 1 perceived my leg was being pulled. I said, “Blast you, Number One! But I did hear something.”
“Yes. You heard a sub ten miles sou’west of us, proceeding east on her lawful occasions, full out on her twin Diesels,” he said. “She’s one of ours. The flagship informed us last night of her position, course and speed. Warned us not to go putting salt on her tail . . as if we couldn’t tell she was ours as s;xm as we heard her motors!”
Number One seemed. I thought, a trifle hurt with that flagship. I said, “Good! They evidently don't trust you. They show gocxJ judgment. Personally I never trust a man who perpetrates wicked jokes on the innocent and the godly.”
That was the one and only incident to break two weeks of deadly monotony. I count that period as the dullest, slowest fortnight I have been condemned to live through. And then, suddenly, without warning, so many things happened so quickly that I find myself in danger of forgetting the run of them.
TET ME SEE! It was a fine clear day, and warm, I remember. I was smoking my after-breakfast pipe in the lee of the fidley, when I saw our Sparks come flying out of the wireless room and sprint up the bridge ladder. This burst of speed surprised me, because Sparks weighed sixteen stone, and he had recently spent two full hours describing to me the uncomfortable and perilous symptoms induced on a weak heart by any hasty or unconsidered movement.
The next phenomenon was the sight of the heart’s owner emerging from the chartroom at the double and trying, apparently, to tear off both handles of the engine-room telegraph by their roots.
Judging all this to be a prelude to coming events, I looked at my watch. The time, let it be noted, was ten a.m., as near as makes no matter.
They must have been awake and on their toes in the engine room. for. hard on the heels of the telegraph’s unusual clamor, I felt our engines jump into full speed.
Then 1 saw No. 33 really begin to move for the first time since 1 came aboard her. 1 felt her throb and tremble. I saw, amazed, the modest bow-wave, to which our previous leisurely amblings had accustomed me. begin to spread and grow, until it built itself up into two rushing Niagaras, seething level with the fo'cas'le head.
1 climbed to the bridge. I knew I had no business up there, but 1 knew I had to find out what was happening, or burst.
1 pushed an enquiring, but most apologetic nose around the chartroom d;x>r. 1 expected to find all the brains of the ship in there, in hectic consultation. I expected to he told to get out in a hurry. Instead 1 saw our Commander smiling at a chart. I íe was whistling “The Turkish Patrol” in time with the syncopated beat of our engines. 1 íe looked up and grinned.
“Come in.” said he. “Just pickl'd up an S O S. A tanker. The Spitsen Court. Rum name to give a ship, what? She’s torpedoed and sinking. She gave her |x>sition, though.” 1 le dabbed with a finger at a pencilled cross upon the chart. “Here she is . . or was. Sunk by now, or wireless out of commission, because there hasn’t been another peep out of her.”
I gazed at the chart. My heart sank. That pencilled cross was obviously beyond our reach, hundreds of miles away, out in the Atlantic. 1 said, "G;xl help her crew, then; for we can’t.”
“Oh, they’re all right, if they t;x>k to their boats,” answered the Commander. “Someone ought to pick ’em up all right. I hope so, anyway. If we have to stop and pick them up it means half an hour lost, at the very least, and it spoils our chance, by that much, of tackling Fritz.”
“The U-boat!” I cried. “Surely you're not hoping to get her? She must be a couple of hundred miles away. A;k1 you can bet she won’t hang alx>ut there and wait for us. By the time we get there . . Well, talk about a needle in a haystack. We haven’t a hope.”
“If you’ve quite finished telling me about my job.” said the Commander, “perhaps you'll let me state that I confidently expect to rendezvous with Fritz about the dinner hour. Yes. That’s taken you aback, but I'm not pulling your leg. if that’s what's worrying you. This is a pukka show. It's what you came to see. Shall I proceed?”
I apologized, quickly and very humbly. “Can do,” said the Commander. “You see this chart. At ten a.m., when we picked up the S O S, our position was here, and the sub was there, or about. The distance between the two positions was 110 miles. It sounds a lot. but we’ve been shortening it at the rate of thirty-five knots, and we'll be doing that a bit faster still when the Chief gets busy in the engine room.”
Thirty-five knots! No. 33's unsuspected speed made me whistle. “But even so.” I said, “one hundred and forty miles is the deuce of a distance. And when we do get there . . . Well, that U-boat is just a tiny speck, lost underneath all that water.”
“Not such a speck as you seem to think.” The Commander chuckled. "Don't forget we can hear her. We can hear her motors seventy miles away. That turns your lost speck into a circle 140 miles in diameter. And the centre of Continued on page 45
— Continued from page 9—Starts on page 7 —
that circle is telling us all the time, ‘Here I am.’ And the nearer we get to it the louder it shouts. Bar flukes, we can't miss her. D’you get it?”
I said. “My lord !” for I was beginning to see. I was even beginning to feel sorry for the U-boat.
At 11.30 a.m., which, mark you, was one and a half hours only after we received that S O S, sent from 140 miles away, we stopped the engines for a minute, to give Number One at the hydrophone a better chance to listen.
“We’ve steamed fifty-three knots since ten o’clock,” said the Commander. “That puts us, now, eighty-seven miles from where Fritz sank the Spitsea Court. It’s a long shot, but she may have been heading away from the . . . er . . . the scene of the crime, toward us. She can do over fifteen knots on the surface, so she may be twenty-two to twenty-five miles nearer to us than we think. That would put her only some sixty miles distant—perhaps. And we could hear her seventy miles away.”
r"PHERE was a loud-speaker telephone in the chartroom, connected to the Listening Room. From that instrument there came, at this precise moment, the voice of Number One. “Listener to Commander. Sound of enemy twin Diesels, sir. Faint, but distinctly recognizable, sixtyfive miles distant, seven degrees on starboard bow.”
“Can do. Number One.” Our Commander’s voice had a rasp in it I had not heard before. “Sixty-five miles. Seven starboard.” He stepped out to the bridge and gave rapid orders, then moved to a navy phone, connecting the bridge to the masthead lookout. “Keep your eyes open, aloft. You should sight an enemy submarine dead ahead in sixty minutes.” He turned to the officer of the watch. “Mr. Bowyer, pipe the hands to dinner. Action stations at twelve-o-one-five.”
He returned to the chartroom. The navigator was there, making diagrams on a sheet of squared paper. I made myself small in a corner, because I had a feeling that passengers in there just then might be unpopular. But I need not have bothered.
“Got her taped?” asked the Commander.
“Yes, sir,” answered the navigator. “If
she doesn’t alter her course or speed, she’ll • be in sight from the masthead at twelve-oone-seven, two degrees on the starboard bow. She’s on a slightly diverging line of approach.”
“Can do !” said the Commander. “Come on, passenger! We’ve only got three quarters of an hour for lunch. That’s one of the horrors of war; it plays Old Harry with one’s meal hours.”
I ate no lunch. With the ship rushing into action I was far too excited to eat. But I wish to put it on record that I watched our Commander lunch that day on a plate of pea soup, two helpings of mutton curry, four sardines on toast, and an orange. At 12.12 he was beginning on another orange and I said, “Excuse me, sir,” and went on deck, because I could not stand the sight of that man’s imperturbability any longer. On deck I saw that his ship, like him, was preparing herself for business. The hands were at their stations and our forward guns were reared on end and moving tentatively from side to side, for all the world as if sniffing for something.
I remember a Corporal of Marines observing: “If I was you, sir, I wouldn’t stand just there, because, d’you see, when we shoot off our little bundook, she’ll blow your head off, like.”
I looked behind me into the gaping mouth of one of our midship mortars, and I moved away from there.
I remember the resonant hail from the man at the foremast head. “Submarine, hull down, sir. Fine on the starboard bow.”
“Ay ! Ay !” That was the Commander.
Our forward guns fired, all at once. They startled me out of my wits. They shook me to my marrow. They shattered my eardrums. So I thought. It was not as bad as that, though, for I remember counting four salvos and clenching my teeth in expectation of the fifth—which did not come.
I saw the gunnery lieutenant lean out from his control station above the bridge, to remark in a conversational tone, “Submerged, sir. Dead ahead. Range 16,(XX). Looked like a crash dive. I don’t think we got her.”
Then Number One’s voice, enormously
! magnified by the bridge loud-speaker, took up the tale.
“She’s switched over from Diesels to batteries, sir. and submerged.”
The Commander sjxtke into the telephone. “Ay! Ay !” lie said, again. “Carry ¡ on, Number One, and con me over her.”
“Very good, sir,” answered the loudj speaker, and the politeness of its tone ' under the circumstances made me want to i giggle. “Range eight miles,” it continued, j It was silent for a minute. Its silence was maddening. Then it went on, “We’re ! on . . . Steady as she goes . . . She's fine i on our jxtrt how. Just right, sir. We ought to meet on converging courses.” (Another maddening pause.) “Range six . . . She’s reduced speed, sir . Going dead slow now, by the sound of her . . . Steer to jxirt, one . . . Steady. Steady as she goes . . . We’ll meet on present courses . . . Her hearing's steady . . . Range five . . . Range four . . . Range three.” (Oh, those maddening pauses!) “Range two and a half. We ought to cross her course about two hundred yards ahead of her. sir. at this rate . . . Range two. Same bearing . . . She sounds deep . . . She is deep, sir
. . Range one and a half . . . Range one mile . . . Range three quarters. She’s stopped! I can’t hear her, sir. She’s stopped her engines. She’s heard us.”
"pROM that time onward, it was the XCommander’s fight. The submarine had taken refuge in her last resource; she had submerged and hidden herself in silence. She, therefore, left our Commander, in effect, stone deaf and stone blind. Thus it became a matter of sound judgment and quick intuition to locate her. The Commander took hold.
He took no chances. When the ship had covered a scant half mile, he pressed a buzzer—and Mo. 33 began to rain depth charges. She dropped them from her stern chutes. She fired them, broadcast, from her amidship mortars. The charges sank, like stones, to their allotted depth, and there exploded.
The concussion of a depth charge, exploding under water, is terrific. Mad giants, it seemed, slogged furiously with immense sledge hammers at the deck beneath my feet. My skull seemed to crack under the impact of those awful vibrations.
We blasted a zigzag lane of destruction along the U-boat's underwater course. We were turning to repeat the process when I saw the submarine break surface in the middle of our volcanic and tortured wake. She emerged stern first, suddenly and abruptly—a thing flung up, spewed out by the angry sea. She hung there on end; her pointed after-part poised in the air, like a steeple.
I have a memory of our navigator busily taking snapshots. To play with a camera, under those circumstances, seemed to me an occupation insanely flippant.
Then our guns began to fire. That close target was unmissable. I saw it riddled and torn. I saw daylight through jagged holes. Then, very suddenly, the thing sank, as if plucked down by a mighty hand hidden beneath the sea.
Our ship lay stopped and silent. Her Commander stood on his bridge, looking at the dirty patch of oil-smeared water that marked his enemies’ grave. For a while he too was silent. Presently he addressed, to the dead, an oration.
"Poor beggars!” he said. "They hadn’t an earthly !”
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