PIASECKI, torpedo man of the Polish destroyer working with the Western striking force, had been granted forty-eight hours leave. It was approved by the Captain (D) of the flotilla on compassionate grounds. Piasecki’s own captain had been at some pains to explain this, Piasecki not being very familiar with the phrase: indeed not entirely capable of comprehending it.
“Compassion,” explained his Captain. “That is pity.”
“Ah,” observed Piasecki enigmatically— saluted and proceeded on leave.
He had a friendor rather an acquaintance, who had just reached England. It had taken him nineteen months to get there from Poland, his route being necessarily circuitous and his method of travelling unostentatious. He wrote to Piasecki to say that he had news of his family which he did not care to commit to a letter.
Piasecki, who had had notidingsof hismotherand sisters since the war began, met his friend in a lodging house off the Tottenham Court Road where they talked at some length; at least the friend talked and Piasecki listened, interjecting a question occasionally, and while he listened his face seemed to lose all human semblance. The blood ebbed away from under the tan, giving the skin a greenish hue. The pupils of his eyes contracted to pin points. His lips were drawn back from his clenched teeth in a grin of feral ferocity. Thus motionless he listened to the end and then
announced abruptly that he was going back to his ship. They parted.
He was unfamiliar with London and made for the railway station by a series of omnibuses, one of which deposited him in Whitehall. The conductor gave him the number of the omnibus that would carry him to his destination, and he stood on the pavement waiting for it, watching the traffic lumber past him. Except that his color remained queer, his face had resumed its normal mask. He did not see the traffic or the passers by, and so was unaware that practically every woman glanced at him. He was not even thinking of his recent interview: he had trained himself, as far as it was humanly possible, not to think. His only concern was to get back to his ship, back to sea, back to the potential vengeance of his shining torpedoes; because therein lay the only hope left in life, the crowning mercy in the gift of God. He looked up and saw his omnibus coming toward him.
SOMEWHERE beneath his feet, so far beneath them that it was unassailable by bombs or mines or any form of explosive destruction, there was a room. It was lit from the ceiling by lamps arranged in such a way that their light fell directly upon the walls where maps of the seas of all the world stretched unbroken from the cornice to the floor. Filling the entire western wall was a chart embracing the North Sea and the Atlantic; it showed Labrador and Greenland, stretched across to the North Cape and swept south along the whole European seaboard to Gibraltar. It was dotted with tabbed pins, and each pin was a British warship.
There were three men standing in front of it, talking in low voices. One held a signal in his hand, another was jotting calculations on a pad. The third had his lips pursed up in the semblance of a whistle. He held his hands clasped behind his back, and every now and again he snapped a finger and thumb, making a little sharp sound in the stillness.
The door opened and a fourth man entered. He was tall and gaunt and the rings of tarnished gold on his sleeves filled them from cuff to elbow. He walked across to the vast chart, the others stepping aside to make room for him.
“At last!” he said, and the man who had been snapping his fingers gave a dry chuckle. “It’s a biggish haystack to find a needle in, though.” “About a million square miles,” said another. “And the visibility is bad,” murmured the gaunt man as if speaking to himself. “Which, of course, is what they were waiting for before they bolted.” “The mist hung so low the pilot had to come down to less than a hundred feet above the fiord,” said the man holding the signal: “they got through to me on the telephone just now from the base. He saw the whole length of the fiord : it was empty. He beat it at three hundred miles an hour.”
“What was the machine?” asked the man with his hands behind his back.
“Maryland reconnaissance. American built. Manned by our Navy—naval pilot and observer. They haven’t got back yet, of course.”
The gaunt man said nothing. He had the familiar sensation of being engrossed in a game of chess with
an opponent who at that moment was probably standing in a similar room in Berlin facing a similar map. The difference between the two maps lay chiefly in the number of pins sticking in it. The German had two, representing a battleship and a cruiser, and their precise position was unknown.
He stretched out a lean forefinger and placed it on a spot to the southward. “That’s where he’s making for.”
The others nodded. They had discussed that point and decided on it already.
“All right.” He turned to the shortest of the three. “How would you go?”
The man addressed traced an elliptical curve from the southern coast of Norway, round north of Iceland and then down the Atlantic. “Through our patrols,” he said, “whichever way he goes.”
“Ice?” queried the man with his hands behind his back.
“There’s plenty of room. It’s not bad yet.”
The man with the pencil and pad picked up a pin and stuck it in the chart.
“There he is, as far as I can estimate it, at this moment.”
“I think you’re right about his course,” said the gaunt man, “and I think we’re right about his destination. So let us make a few dispositions . .
He leaned forward, peering through horn-rimmed spectacles.
“What convoys are there in his track?”
They talked for a while; a duty captain jotted notes on a signal pad.
“What submarines are available? . . . Right. Ask the Admiral (S) to put some along this line and some . . . here.” The gaunt man’s fingernail made a little grating sound on the surface of the paper. “As a precaution. Now the striking force . . .that flotilla will get into the kill if she gets as far south as that. It’s time they had some fresh blood. A night attack ...”
“The flotilla’s one short,” said the man with the signal—“No—as you were. I’m sorry, Sir. It’s been reinforced by a Polish destroyer.”
They stood in silent contemplation of the chart for a moment longer. “That’s all we can do for the present,” said the gaunt man.
Far above their heads Londoners, exhorted by slogans on hoardings to do many things, passed about their affairs, bought papers, made rendezvous with girls; traffic streamed in rivers between tall houses and barricades of barbed wire. Pigeons fluttered about soldiers in battledress who fed them out of paper bags, and over it all brooded the statue of Nelson.
THE Commander in Chief pressed a button on his desk marked “Flag Lieutenant.”
He smiled at the young man who appeared on the threshold, signal pad in hand.
“Didn’t he say at lunch that he was going fishing?” The Admiral rose and walked to the port, indicating with a nod a man-of-war at anchor in the foreground.
“Yes, sir. But he can get back in three quarters of an hour. He’s got a midshipman waiting in with a boat—”
“Very well. I’ve got something bigger than a
trout for him to catch. Make to the Vice-Admiral: ‘Put into execution Operation Z.’ Er—” he paused took a few reflective strides across his cabin and halted. “That’s all. And before God, it’s a bib full.”
A quarter of an hour later the midshipman sitting on a hillock which commanded a view of the harbor, rose to his feet, thrust a pair of binoculars into their leather case and began scrambling through the heather toward a shoulder of the hill.
He knew this would happen : everybody had been bullying the Captain to go ashore—that was common knowledge in the gunroom because lie hadn’t set foot on the beach for months, and at last the Captain said he would go.
The Captain had talked to him in the boat coming ashore, practically like an equal. He said: “The Commander as good as told me 1 was getting egg bound and I’d better have a run ashore. What d’you know about that eh?”
The midshipman, six months out of Dartmouth, decided that the prospect of a run ashore, now that it was about to be realized, had made his Captain a bit lightheaded.
He muttered shyly that he thought it was a jollygood show, and thought it sounded idiotic.
“A good show, yes. But I told the Commander I was certain that directly I set foot ashore something would happen. I could see he thought that was the way egg-bound captains talked.”
The midshipman ventured a polite smile, regretfully deciding that even if he repeated this man-toman conversation when he got back to the gunroom, nobody would believe him.
“Well, I’m going to fish a stream on the other side of the hill over there. I used to fish it in the last war and I haven’t seen it since. Anyhow you will take your glasses ashore and watch the ship. If she hoists the recall, hop over the brow of the hill and give me a shout. And once I’m out of sight you’re not to take your eyes off the ship. Understand?”
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
He watched the ship for an hour and sure enough, up went the recall. Egg bound (whatever that might mean) or not, the Captain was right. Captains as he knew them usually were.
Panting, he reached the brow of the hill and looked down into a shallow glen; at the bottom of it a stream came out of the distance, winding through the peat and boulders like a silver ribbon. He saw his Captain standing knee-deep in the water with his back to him, absorbed in his sport. Plover tumbled about in the sky, filling the glen with sad sweet music.
“Hi!” he shouted with all the strength of his lungs. “Hi!”
Did one shout “Hi!” to one’s Captain? It sounded slightly disrespectful and not awfully, nautical. He substituted “Ahoy!”—a scream like the bleat of a sheep. An eider duck slipped off her nest on a peat Tiag, flew a short distance and dropped into the heather. “Ahoy!” The Captain took no notice. The wailing plover and the sound of the river deafened him to all other sounds.
The midshipman began to run again, bounding down the hillside on the wings of youth and wild
One of Britain's most noted naval writers dramatizes the human story behind the sinking of the enemy’s greatest warship
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excitement. A browsing ewe with a pair of lambs stared at him for a moment and precipitately bolted. On he went, leaping from one tussock to another, fell sprawling into a marshy bit, picked himself up and came at last within earshot.
The Captain turned his head. His nine-foot split-cane rod was arched in a semi-circle: he was playing a fish.
The midshipman halted on the shingle, pink faced and breathless.
“Sir! The recall’s hoisted !”
The Captain looked back at the swirl of a heavy fish in the teacolored water, remorselessly tightening the strain till the cast snapped and the rod straightened. He came floundering ashore.
“That was a two-pounder. Another small item on Mr. Hitler’s slop chit. Come on, we’ve got to run —here take the landing net ...”
They reached the boat at length. The midshipman sprang to the wheel, the engine opened out with a roar: the water splayed out under the bow.
The Captain wiped his face with a large silk bandanna handkerchief.
“My son,” he observed, “there’s a moral in this you’d do well to remember. D’you know what it is?”
“Captains are always right.”
He’d thought as much.
ORTH of the Azores the Gulf Stream divides into two branches The Northerly flow, which is called the North Atlantic Drift, cleaves again somewhere between the British Isles and Iceland. The Northern fork encircles Iceland, meeting the cold current flowing down the coast of Greenland from the polar seas in what is known as the Denmark Strait.
The juncture of these two currents, the cold and the warm, results in almost perpetual fogs, snow flurries and hail storms; as these combine to furnish a natural curtain against detection, German raiders making for the Atlantic are apt to choose the Denmark Strait as the door into the Atlantic.
The lookout at the masthead of the northernmost British cruiser on patrol in the Denmark Strait had been warned by the officer of the watch to keep his eyes skinned, when he reported on the compass platform for his trick, on his way up the swaying jacob’s ladder to the crow’s-nest.
The officer of the watch might have saved his breath, because apart from the fact that every officer and man onboard knew what they were searching for, the masthead lookouts (there were four of them, working in one-hour tricks) had a private sweepstake among themselves. It started at a quid a nob, because they hadn’t anything to spend their money on anyway. Then as excitement grew to fever pitch with the passing of the hours, and all the issues dependent on sighting the German battleship and cruiser were realized, Shorty Mathews said to Hell and make it a month’s pay, coming down from the crow’s-nest
to the mess and thawing the icicles from his eyebrows.
Finality in the matter was reached with difficulty because there was always one absent from the mess deck at his post, and the member of the syndicate setting off for the crow’s-nest was increasingly in favor of raising the stakes. But they finally settled on five pounds each, because the man who actually sighted the enemy would some day find himself on leave, faced with enormous commitments in the way of celebrating his achievement in his home town. You could do something in that line with twenty pounds.
Evan John Evans had the first hour of the first watch. He relieved one Smiler Andrews, who looked glum as a mute at a burial; he made room with difficulty on the swaying platform and handed over the binoculars in silence.
“Down on the mess deck the chief quartermaster was saying,” announced Evan John, “that if we are going to sight the blighters we should sight them this watch, whatever. Reckoning it, he was, with a black lead on a bit of paper.”
Smiler wiped the back of his gauntlet across as much of his face as was visible in the frame of his balaclava helmet and duffle hood.
“Sight ’em !” he grumbled. “Who’s going to sight anything in this.” He shook the half-frozen slush off his shoulders and made preparations to descend.
Evan John slipped the strap of the glasses over his head and wrinkled his nose, peering through the sleet that slashed at them out of the north.
“It’s bad,” he agreed. “Indeed to goodness it’s bad. But you never know up in these old latitudes. The weather's that foxy: one minute you can’t see your hand before your face and then p’raps the wind will shift a bit and there’s a crack you can see through for miles and next minute it’ll shut like a knife, and you’ll be as blind, look you, as an old bat.”
All his life Evan Johns had minded sheep among the Welsh hills, helping his father who had been a shepherd on a big mountain farm. Then the war came and he walked thirty miles across the moun ains, took the train to Swansea and joined the Navy. He brought with him three of his qualifications as a sheep minder: an eye like a hawk, a knowledge of weather and a head for heights. He carried them to the crow’s-nest of the cruiser on patrol in the Denmark Strait.
Smiler commenced his laborious descent of the jacob’s ladder and vanished from sight. Evan John, gripping the edge of the weather screen, swaying backwards and forwards through space like the weight on an inverted pendulum, settled down to his watch. Glancing down through the driving scud he could see the men on the compass platform far beneath him—the Captain and Navigator, the Officer of the Watch and the Yeoman of Signals, muffled and hooded and foreshortened so that they looked to him rather like sheep huddled in a pen.
His eye travelled beyond them,
j beyond the guns reaching blindly j from the superimposed turrets, along j the curved lines of the forecastle that I streamed with water, to where they ; met at the stem, rising and dipping j into a troubled sea that was half 1 veiled by flying sleet. He crinkled up his eyes in an effort to estimate the visibility beyond the spray that i came thrashing over the forecastle i rails: two hundred, maybe three hundred yards; he slewed his head round from ahead to the starboard beam, and it was the same shifting curtain that trailed its skirt across the sea, whitening it in myriads of tiny spurts which merged into the grey nothingness enveloping them.
He curved his palm in its clumsy gauntlet over his eyes to shield them, and stared into the wind: and then the wind dodged his hand: he raised both his hands. Either they had altered course or the wind had shifted a fraction. The stinging lash of the sleet subsided; he saw the waves more distinctly. Travelling in endless grey cohorts they carried his vision with them in a widening arc extending every minute. The squall had passed and he raised his glasses to sweep the low-lying haze, bracing his shoulder against the mast; a rift in the clouds to the westward allowed fugitive gleams of sun to touch the water for a moment before the fog swept them away.
A little sound like a hiss came between his teeth. For an instant he thought he saw . . .
The pendulum swung him through its dizzy curve and he lost it.
He swore in Welsh, a word like the spit of a wildcat, and got the glasses to bear on the same quarter again. He reckoned to see through a mist farther than most men, but with these glasses you could very near see through a wall . . . grand glasses.
Again he made the hissing noise. There! A shadow in the mist . . . An iceberg? . . . No it was too dark. And another smaller . . . They
swept out of his vision. He spat and stamped his foot, waiting for the roll. His heart was beating till it shook him so that he had difficulty in keeping the glasses steady.
Ah! No doubt about it this time — He leaned toward the voice pipe, pressing the knob of the buzzer.
“Compass platform,” said a detached voice out of the bell-mouthed pipe.
“Object red two 0, Sir, two objects indeed they are . . . ”
Again he raised his glasses, crouched above the voice pipe. They had vanished.
Down below on the compass platform the huddled sheep were all facing the same way, glasses and telescopes raised. The guns swung round onto the bearing he had given,
; lifting their muzzles and mouthing at ! the mist.
Then it parted, rolling back before a chilly draught off the ice fields, and there were renewed gleams of sunlight obliterated next instant by a blinding orange flash and a roar as the foremost guns opened fire. The cruiser heeled, obedient to her helm. The mist closed again.
THE Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist in the cruiser’s transmission room slapped a code signal ! on the desk before the operator.
“Here you are,” he said. “Chop-
chop! Admiralty repeated Commander in Chief; Coastal Command, Royal Air Force. Off she goes—”
The ship shuddered to a salvo fired as he spoke.
The Operator flickered at the sending key. He did not look like an instrument of Destiny. He was a
pleasant-faced young man who
anointed his hair with a perfumed sticky substance which he bought in the canteen. It was called ShinoKreme and there was a picture on the bottle of a young chap whose shining hair was being amiably caressed by a young lady. The
young chap’s face wore a complacent expression. Shino-Kreme made him irresistible and he knew it. The
Operator thought that if he got into the way of using it on patrol in the Denmark Strait, by the time he found himself on leave in Portsmouth he’d just walk away with all there was going.
Hundreds of miles to the South East the Flagship answered him. It was Cecil Lavory acknowledging the call ; he knew his touch on the sending key. They lived in the same road. He clicked out the fateful message, and the vibrations undulated through space, decreeing in spasmodic dots and dashes the death of thousands of men, influencing countless lives yet unborn and history not yet written; it was intercepted by battleships and battle cruisers, by escorts of ocean convoys, by aircraft carriers and passed to low-flying planes quartering the grey seas.
The Operator lifted his finger from the sending key, initialled the signal and stuck it on a file. Then he lifted the earphones, stroked his sleek head, and replaced them. “I’d say we’ve got ’em cold—eh, Chief? What’s going on topside?”
“We’re shadowing them,” said the Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist. “It’s tricky in this visibility. If we get too far we lose touch and if we get too near we’re liable to buy a 15-inch salvo. But the Commander in Chief and the Fleet know where they are now. They’re after them. We’ll see some fun before we’re much older.
The duty Captain in the Whitehall maproom walked up to the chart of the North Atlantic and stuck a pin in it at a point to the North of Iceland. Then he stepped back a pace, and stood looking at it, his head a little on one side, softly whistling a tune.
The midshipman who was six months out of Dartmouth College, was on the compass platform at the moment of sighting Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship, and could you beat that?
He was there because the Captain’s doggie had gone sick the day before and the Captain, when consulted about his taste in the matter of doggies, had said: “Let me have that chap who fetched me from fishing. He thinks I’m a bit weak in the intellect but he can run, and I want somebody who is nippy on his feet.”
So there he was, without a very clear idea of what was happening all round him, but tremendously excited and proud, framing sentences in his mind of his letter home directly after the action, when he hadn’t a doubt
that the enemy would be lying at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The trouble was he could not see much that was going on. He had to be careful not to get in anybody’s way, and the compass platform had been designed for people who were normally taller than he was. Occasionally by standing on tiptoe he caught a distant glimpse of the battle-cruiser flagship, but of the enemy he could see nothing. There were muffled roars that shook the ship, but whether they were their own guns or the enemy shells striking them, he didn’t know. Acrid fumes and cordite smoke made his eyes water. He listened to the ceaseless reports and orders rattling all round him like hail against a window pane. “Range decreasing a thousand yards a minute, Sir,” he heard the Navigator say . . . “That hit her ... I think she’s on fire amidships.”
He craned and could see nothing. He could bear it no longer. Beside him was the lookout platform; he stepped out onto it. Ahead of him the battle cruiser was firing her foremost guns. A fire burned amidships, enveloping funnels and mast in clouds of smoke) and as he stared the fire changed into what looked momentarily like the eruption of a volcano; the smoke spread in a gigantic mushroom that swallowed the entire ship.
Appalled, incredulous, not entirely comprehending what he had seen, he bolted back to the compass platform. The Captain was shouting orders for an alteration of course.
“She’s gone!” he heard someone say, and then their own guns broke out again.
“Where’s that—” the Captain turned. “Where’ve you been? I thought you’d been killed. Stand where you are and don’t budge unless I tell you.”
He saluted. There was even a possibility of being killed. Until that moment it had never entered hishead. That would have to go into his letter.
“That salvo hit, Sir—she’s turning away,” shouted the Chief Yeoman, the glass to his eye.
He could see nothing. If he moved a few feet to starboard he would be able to see, but the Captain had told him not to budge. He stood fast.
A shell passed through the plating to starboard and burst outside on the port lookout platform. The force of the explosion knocked him head over heels. He rose to his feet dazed but unhurt, and saw the hole through which the shell had passed. If he had moved . . .
The Captain was right again.
MATROSE Franz Seidel sat on the edge of the locker in the foremost 38-cm. shellroom of the German battleship, trying to remember what day of the week it was. He asked Kleinbach, who worked the lever that lifted the 2,000 lb. projectile after he, Franz, had clamped on the grab.
Kleinbach leaned against the after bulkhead with his arms folded in an attitude of patient endurance that, except when he was operating the hydraulic machinery, never changed. “It is Sunday,” he said.
There was a third man in the compartment, Otto Bauer, who worked the rammer that drove the shells through the flash-proof aper-
ture into the hoist. He had contrived to crush one of his fingers during a loading operation and sat nursing it, clumsily bandaged, against his chest. Franz appealed to him. *
Bauer shook his head; he didn’t know. He didn’t care much, because he had lost a good deal of blood and none of them were skilled at first aid.
“Then we have been here four days,” said Franz quietly.
“Why worry?” asked Kleinbach. “What does it matter? Do you mean you do not like to be locked up in an armored compartment beneath the water line for four days. You have food and water. What more do you wish for?”
“I would like to know what is happening,” said Franz.
Their only means of communication was by the aperture through which the shells passed. By opening that a little, although it was forbidden, they could speak to the men in the next compartment, the corditehandling room. These got the news shouted down the cage shaft from the turret’s crew, who in their turn were told by the officer of the turret what was going on as far as he could see through his periscope. In this way they knew they had sunk a British battle cruiser. That was early the previous morning. Franz shouted “Heil!” with the rest of them but he was secretly a little puzzled. He did not know the British had any capital ships left. He had been told repeatedly that the unterseeboten and the Luftwaffe had between them sunk them all, and the Germany ruled the seas. The amount of ammunition they had expended puzzled him too, but he did not like to say too much. With Kleinbach, one had to be careful. One occupant of each watertight compartment was specially selected: he was responsible for morale. The watertight armored doors to each compartment had been locked when they left Norway, so that nobody could enter or leave the compartment and imperil the ship, which when all watertight doors were closed was unsinkable. It was one of Kleinbach’s duties to reassure his companions on this point from time to time.
There was another matter Franz would have liked to discuss. About midnight there had been violent firing from the anti-aircraft batteries and two heavy explosions which shook the ship from bow to stern. And then speed had been reduced. His ear had grown so accustomed to the vibration of the propellers aft that he could tell at once.
Word had reached them that they had been attacked by torpedo bombers from a British aircraft carrier. That puzzled him because all the British aircraft carriers had been sunk; Kleinbach confirmed this. “In any case,” he said, “the ship is unsinkable.” No mention was made of any hits or of a reduction of speed.
Kleinbach produced some biscuit and tinned sausage and a tin of vitamin tablets. The air was close and foetid and the idea of food nauseated Franz.
“Eat,” said Kleinbach, handing him his portion. “And while you eat think of the starving British.”
Franz thought of the starving British but even that did not stimulate his appetite.
“I wonder where we are,” he said
I rather plaintively, “and where we ; are going.”
“The Admiral has his orders from the Fuehrer,” said Kleinbach. “Why should he communicate them to a matrone? In any case the ship is unsinkable!”
Bauer leaned back against a projectile and closed his eyes. His face was deathly pale. “Therefore I cannot go to the sick bay to have my finger dressed. I must stop here even if I die. Heil Hitler!”
“Heil Hitler!” echoed Kleinbach. He put a vitamin tablet in his mouth. It tasted of slightly musty hay.
PIASECKI, leading torpedo man of the Polish destroyer attached to the striking force of British destroyers, was aware of an unfamiliar emotion. It was something approaching happiness.
He stood in the break of the forecastle smoking and contemplating the vast Atlantic surges that travelled past them, foam crested, to the uneasy horizon. The ship rolled heavily and waves swept over the upper deck deluging the torpedo tubes with swirling water. Far away on the beam he could see one of their sister destroyers as she lifted on the slope of a grey back, flinging the spray back over her forecastle and bridge. Beyond her again there were other destroyers, but they were hidden in the spume lifted off the wave crests by the rising gale.
It was Monday evening. For days they had intercepted wireless messages giving them glimpses of the running fight from the Denmark Strait to the latitude of Lands End. The Captain had told them everything that was happening: there was on board a mutual trust and brotherliness so cemented by a common hatred that it was like a holy thing. They only existed to one end, as if they were priests in an order under irrevocable vows: except that they had made no vows; such a thing was unnecessary.
The aircraft carrier they had! sighted on the horizon a little earlier had given them the enemy’s position. ¡ Two battleships, with the Commander in Chief in command and shadowing cruisers were close at her heels, a battle cruiser and cruiser force was coming up from the southward; the destroyer on the wing of the line had sighted one of their cruisers after supper and reported them. The net cast by the British Commander in Chief was closing in inexorably on the fugitive battleship, crippled by naval torpedobombing-aircraft, but still dangerous and desperate.
Piasecki, in his oilskin and sea boots, standing by the galley door smoking, was reminded of the boar hunts of his youth in the Carpathian forests. The hounds would encircle the quarry, holding him at bay with foam and slaver on his tusks, until the hunters with their guns came up. And then it was the end. Sometimes ! j a dog would run in and rashly try 1 i to grapple the beast, but their teeth i were no match for tusks that slashed and ripped.
He communicated this imagery to j Floryan the cook who was cleaning up the galley for the night.
“We destroyers are the hounds, you understand, and the German is the boar. Presently we shall sight
him, and it is our task to hold him at bay for the hunters. If we sight him before dark we shall all shadow him and when it is dark we shall deliver a torpedo attack. Then in the morning if he is still afloat the battleships will come up and finish him off.”
“The battleships are the hunters?” asked Floryan. He had escaped from a concentration camp: apart from culinary matters he had to have things explained to him rather carefully, because he had been tortured quite a bit.
“That’s right,” confirmed Piasecki. “They are the ones with the big guns.”
The alarm rattlers sounded as he spoke followed by the pipe—“Stand fast torpedo-tubes’ crew.”
Piasecki was free to climb up to the signal bridge and see what was going on. Floryan accompanied him. Jones, one of the English signalmen they carried, was hauling at the halyards that carried a string of bunting bellying and snapping in the gale, to the masthead.
“Enemy in sight,” he shouted at them. He took a turn with the halyards round a cleat. “I’ve had that bent on since dawn ready to hoist. There she is, Cookie, see? Look at the big so and so lifting above the horizon—wait till we lift on this wave: there she is—take a look at that lot, Cookie boy.”
The English signalmen had adopted Floryan as if he were a ship’s pet; a pigeon that had struggled on board with a damaged wing would have made much the same appeal to their sympathy and affection.
Piasecki gripped the handrail and stared in the direction of the signalman was pointing. He saw the monstrous bulk lift out of the haze like a distant headland. Through the engine-room uptakes he heard the gongs clanging and the ship vibrated as she increased speed. The flying spray deluged them.
“Now!” he muttered. “We are going to attack!” He looked aft under the brim of his shrapnel helmet at the seas sweeping over his torpedo tubes, at the confused white tumult of the wake astern. In this sea the tubes were out of action. The Flotilla meant to attack with its guns four-inch against fifteen-inch. The battleship spat yellow flashes. The destroyer heeled over as the Captain altered course. Dusk was gathering. The salvo of fifteen-inch shells pitched away on the port quarter tearing the ocean into great spouts of foam. The destroyer answered with a salvo that shook her like a sob of rage. Piasecki, watching a signal lamp blinking out of the dusk far away to starboard, heard the thud of the cylinders and the clang of the breech mechanism as they reloaded. He glanced up at the compass platform where the lamp was clattering an acknowledgment. The funnels began to vomit black smoke, under cover of which they dropped back in the gathering darkness into their shadowing positions, waiting for the night to loose the keys of death and of hell.
Shortly after midnight the flotilla made their torpedo attack, closing in the darkness to three-thousand-
yards range. In the wild tumult of the gale the destroyers drove their onslaught from both sides through a furious barrage of bursting shell, finding their target by the flashes from the guns.
As they swung away under cover of their smoke screen they saw the battleship slowly turn two complete circles and lie stopped, belching flames, the waves breaking against j her towering sides as against a cliff.
THE GERMAN Admiral and his j Flag Captain faced each other in the dim candle light which burned in j the lower conning tower.
“Can we still make a signal?” asked the former.
“I think so. The—” The roar of gunfire came to their ears muffled by armor. “The Flag Lieutenant is dead. But I will send someone—” “Quite short. I wish to say—”
He passed his hand over his face wearily. “I wish to say: ‘Ship
unmanoeuvrable. We are fighting to the last shell.’ ” He paused.
“Is that all, Sir?”
“ ‘Long live the Fuehrer.’ ”
Their eyes met. The Captain’s eyebrows lifted imperceptibly.
“Yes. That is gratitude because he did not order me to scuttle her. Better to die like this than as Langsdorf did.” He spoke almost inaudibly. “This is a man’s end . . .
It has been a great fight . . . and I am tired ...”
TUESDAY, in the dawn, they gathered to the kill.
Battleships to the northward passing through the veil of a rain squall opened fire with their main armament and were ringed by the waterspouts of an answering salvo. An outpost cruiser closing from the south punched an entire salvo into her armored vitals. Tons of high-explosive armor-piercing shells beat her into silence, and the destroyers that had been hovering outside the battle of giants, drew nearer to rescue ‘ survivors.
Listing «lightly, under a pall of smoke and licking flames, with colors ¡ flying, she still moved blindly through the waves, yawing helplessly. What lives remained in her trickled in streams of dazed humanity over the stern into-the sea. The | battleships ceased firing, and the ; cruiser closed to deliver the final coup de grâce with her torpedoes.
The German battleship rolled | slowly over on her beam ends; then turned turtle and with a last ponderj ous upward heave of the bows was engulfed by the Atlantic.
Jones lent Piasecki his telescope j so that he could watch the end, which ; he himself had no wish to see; when j it came the Pole closed the glass with a snap and handed it back.
“T’ank you,” he said politely.
Jones glanced at his face and looked away quickly, as if from something terrible.
Piasecki was smiling.
Author’s note — Although this narrative follows the broad outline of the pursuit and sinking of the Bismarck no attempt has been made to ensure historical accuracy. The characters are fictional and their j actions, words, and thoughts, imaginary. j