GENERAL ARTICLES

CORVETTE IN ACTION

Corvettes on patrol have bombs for breakfast. E-boats for tea and mines for supper... but they get those convoys through

LIEUT. NICHOLAS MONSARRAT, RNVR November 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

CORVETTE IN ACTION

Corvettes on patrol have bombs for breakfast. E-boats for tea and mines for supper... but they get those convoys through

LIEUT. NICHOLAS MONSARRAT, RNVR November 1 1943

THE FIRST time we were bombed in fog was an occasion not difficult to recall in detail.

It was early in the morning and visibility was, at the most, 50 yards. The convoy was going very slowly, nose to tail like cattle at dusk, with the possibility of having to anchor until the fog lifted; and all our attention was being given to navigation and to trying to sort out the different sirens, which seemed to be coming at us from all round the compass.

We felt our way along, sniffing the woolly blanket which enveloped the ship, hating every moment of that muffled progress; the puzzling sirens, the drifts of fog swirling past the bridge, the rawness of the air—all added to the feeling of helplessness which fog at sea brings. We had quite enough to think about, without any complications, and when one of the lookouts cocked his head sharply and sang out: “Sound of aircraft overhead, sir!” we found ourselves beginning to take a Joblike view of the situation.

The noise, quickly confirmed, grew louder. The aircraft seemed to be circling round just above our heads and there, a glimpse of blue sky among the curling wisps of vapor indicated that there was perfect visibility a little higher up. It was obvious that the fog was low-lying, not much more than a sea-level blanket, and that though we had not yet sighted the aircraft its pilot could probably see the mast of every ship in the convoy sticking out above the fog bank and could choose his target at leisure.

Lieut. Nicholas Monsarrat, RNVR, has served for more than two years on convoy duty in the North Atlantic and off the East Coast of England. Author of “H. M. Corvette.” a best seller of last year, his latest book is “East Coast Corvette.” to be published soon, and excerpts from which make up this article.

It is really extraordinary how naked you feel at such a moment—as if you were sleeping with your feet out of the window on a freezing night. The gun crews, piped to Action Stations, looked up hopefully but they might have been peering through frosted glass at a bird outside for all the good it did. Then, while they were still peering, things began to happen. The noise was suddenly very near. Through a gap overhead I had a second’s glimpse of the aircraft peeling off for its dive, another of it halfway down, and then a view, startlingly clear, of four bombs leaving the rack and starting toward us.

They fell wide but that’s not to say they didn’t touch our hearts. We got off a few rounds, but—like the bombs—they only scared the target and the plane was out of sight again in a matter of seconds. Of the various choice remarks passed on the incident I will quote only one, made by a signalman on the bridge who muttered: “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a stick of bombs end on, and lived to be called a liar.”

FROM far ahead of us the leading destroyer made the signal:

“E-boats now seem to be moving toward the stern of the convoy.”

That was our pigeon—and about time too. Starting with a dusk torpedo attack on the leading ships, it had been an eventful night in which everyone seemed to have been involved but us, and we hadn’t suffered the waiting gladly. Guns had flashed, star shell burst all round the sky, tracer bullets advertised a crowded meeting; but it had been outside our range and we had no excuse for interfering, our job that night being to cover the rear of the convoy. Now, with a bright chance of action, the ship woke up and clicked into place as one of the party.

The change from Defense Stations to First degree Action Stations meant that I had to leave the bridge and go aft to take over fire control of the smaller guns. I always find this change-over annoying. Up on the bridge they know everything and see it all happening, while aft on the quarter-deck news filters through in driblets or not at all, rumors fly around, guesswork reigns. Each time before leaving the bridge I ask them to be sure to tell me what’s going on. Each time they promise that they will and each time the heat of battle puts a Ministry of Information blight on the news. The ship might be ramming the Tirpitz for all one can tell aft—nothing gets through. Tonight was no exception, save that we had our own share of action handed to us on a plate and weren’t right out of the fun. Thus some of this account depends on the post mortem afterward when the bridge personnel, relaxing, found time to fill in some of the blanks and bring my record up to date.

It was a fine night, almost flat calm, with a glowing three-quarter moon making our camouflage nearly perfect and giving us just the visibility we wanted. But while we were waiting a signal came through: “Believed to be four or five E-boats operating.” Shortly after this there was some brisk gunfire to starboard and then another signal: “Two E-boats engaged and damaged.”

Said the Captain, morosely: “There’ll be none of them left by the time they get to us”—a depressing thought which for some reason they took pains to pass aft to me. The whole night now seemed to be in suspense. The ship moved forward very slowly, the lookouts stared out over the water, their binoculars moving in careful regulated arcs. Up near the head of the convoy another star shell, behind a cloud, gleamed like the sunset. We could still do nothing but wait for our chance.

Then, when we were beginning to doubt whether our luck was changing after all, we heard some shouting, coming faintly down wind toward us.

Sinister German Trick

NOW this was not unexpected since a ship had been sunk a little earlier and the picking up of survivors might have been left to us. The only odd thing was the location of the sound—a good way off the track of the convoy and in the opposite direction from where boats or men swimming would normally have drifted. That needed explaining and the explanation (or half of it) came up pretty soon for about a minute after the shouting was heard an E-boat was sighted crossing the track of the moon, about two miles away. And that was where the noise had been coming from.

“That’s odd,” said the Captain. “In fact, more than odd—almost sinister. We’ll stalk that monkey and see what he’s up to.”

By now the E-boat, having crossed the moon-track, was invisible again, but we had a rough idea of his course and we laid ours so as to converge at an acute angle. Fore and aft, we were ready to blaze away with all we’d got; and presently we saw him again, about a mile away. This time he seemed to be stopped, waiting. We weren’t going to disappoint him, either.

We turned toward him and the distance shortened. But now, as usual, the afterpart dropped back into its Cinderella role. Our alteration of course meant that we could no longer see him from aft and there ensued a maddening few minutes when we had no idea what was happening and had nothing to look at except a blank sea. Once again, we might have been ramming a pocket battleship . . .

Then the bridge, relenting, came through with the news we wanted: “First lieutenant from captain: He’s about half a mile off, dead ahead, and still stopped. In another minute I will turn to starboard so that your guns will bear. Open fire when I do.”

Nothing could be fairer than that. I crossed the quarter-deck and stood close by the gun aft, my hand touching the open-fire and check-fire gongs. At my side the gun crew, steel-helmeted, were crouching behind their gun shield, their fingers crooked round the laying and training wheels, their eyes peering out on the bearing where we knew the E-boat would appear. In the charged silence their breathing sounded forced and unnaturally loud. The moment had a freezing tension about it, and I felt my skin prickling as we waited, within a few seconds of action.

Close Shave

When the ship was about 100 yards off the shouting started again and this time we could distinguish the words quite easily. They were not what we were expecting, and they were not pleasant. Hoping for easy meat in the form of a rescue ship off its guard, that E-boat’s crew were calling out: “Help! Help! We’re English!”

By my side, the gunlayer drew in his breath.

“Swine!” he said softly. “Sinking one ship, and then using that to trap another—We’ll give you some help, all right.”

We began our promised turn to starboard—I felt the afterpart of the ship tremble as the wheel was put hard over. She heeled slightly and the stern swung round; and then the E-boat came into view—50 yards away, its engines stopped, half a dozen figures roughly silhouetted on the upper deck, and someone on board shouting in a cracked voice: “Rescue! English sailors!”

That last treacherous effort marked zero hour for both sides, and immediately afterward three things happened very quickly. The gun for’ard let fly with a tremendous crack, scoring a hit directly amidships on the waterline. All the guns aft loosed off, pouring stream after stream of tracer bullets right into the target and a lookout on the blind side suddenly yelled out above the din:

“Another E-boat to starboard!”

I whipped round. A hundred yards away on our beam was a second E-boat, bow on to us, in a perfect position to run a torpedo. For continuing to cover his proper arc instead of being drawn to the excitement of the main action, that lookout deserved a medal.

They must have seen the newcomer from the bridge at the same moment, for immediately the telegraph clanged and the ship seemed to gather herself up and leap forward as we went to Full Ahead. We passed the E-boat we had hit, still motionless and silent. There was no answering fire, no one trying out his English and she seemed to be settling by the stern. Then a grey-white cloud of artificial smoke, made by the second E-boat, drifted down wind between us and she was quickly lost to view.

There ensued a crowded and confused three minutes of the sort easier to indicate by asterisks than to describe in detail. There were at least two other E-boats in the vicinity and they began to make high-speed smoke rings round us with considerable skill. Our guns kept blazing away, the arcs of tracer fanning out at odd glimpses here and there or at the sound of engines; and throughout it all everyone on board was coughing and spluttering at the effects of the chemical smoke. Then we came under fire ourselves. A spatter of machine-gun bullets hit the upper works, and the repair parties aft ducked for cover as the noise rang out and the chips of metal began to fly. We could see the tracer coming toward us and we fired back on the same bearing. The targets were hidden in the smoke but certainly they were there, playing a grown-up brand of tip-and-run with us as the ball.

Dodging Bullets

It was at this point that a tracer bullet went between my legs. I saw it coming toward me, getting bigger and bigger. I should like to say that 1 then turned round and watched it going away again, getting smaller and smaller. But to claim that amount of detachment wouldn’t be true. I did not follow its course beyond the point where, with a businesslike hum, it disappeared between my knees—a piece of calculated terrorism which discouraged further observation as far as I was concerned.

Then suddenly we were alone in the middle of drifting smoke, with no sound anywhere near us. The players had dispersed without settling the score. We began a circular sweep looking for the first E-boat and meantime clearing up ready for the next round, if there should be one. Aft, the gun’s crews were bringing up more ammunition and counting empties and when this had been seen to and we were ready to open up again, I looked round for signs of damage. There was very little in spite of the noise and the activity of the past quarter of an hour. One of the bullets had gone down a ventilator cowling and (it was said) chased one of the stokers all round the engine-room; but the only actual casualty was a steward who, having no business to be on the upper deck at all, had stuck his head out to see the fun and had been nicked on the forehead just above one eye. He was all right, though indignant in a general way.

We never found that E-boat, nor any trace of it. Judging by the way she had been hit, we didn’t really expect to. But she was officially credited to us by a scrupulous Admiralty, which was the next best thing to collecting the bits ourselves. And as you know, the credit was duly endorsed on the after-gunlayer’s shield for all to see and for him to tell the tale about.

The destroyer which had been torpedoed and sunk during the night was an old friend. We had heard the explosion from a long way off and it was a relief, after the ensuing action and alarm, to be detailed to leave the convoy and look for survivors.

To us, knowing some of the men in the water on that bitterly cold night, this seemed the most important thing we could do, but it needed doing quickly if any good was to come of it. The strong tide meant that the survivors would be widely scattered, the speed of the ship’s sinking made it unlikely that any boats had been launched, and the extreme cold would not let them last long in the water.

It was very dark and the smell of oil fuel was the first indication we had that we were near them—that, and a single dim light which was burning on an empty Carley raft. Making sure that the latter was empty wasted a lot of time—precious time, each minute of which might be snuffing out another life. But presently, taking a wide sweep round the oil patch, we heard distant shouting and altered course toward it, as near as we could judge; and after a couple of minutes one of the lookouts made out a tiny black smudge in the sea ahead. This was an old routine with nearly three years nagging familiarity behind it. As we closed the speck I looked at it through my binoculars, trying to distinguish its outline and see if it was worth salvaging.

“Two men,” I said, as soon as we were close enough. “And they’re alive all right—waving. But I can’t see a raft or anything. In fact,” I hesitated, “they seem to be standing in the water.”

“Stop both!” said the Captain. The telegraphs rang down and were answered. “I’ll go right up to them,” he went on. “We don’t want to waste time lowering a boat if we can help it.” Then he raised his binoculars again for a long look. “You’re right, Number One,” he agreed. “They are in a funny position. They’re either wearing their lifebelts round their knees or doing the Indian Rope Trick.”

Bravery of Special Quality

But there was another, surprise explanation, and it was the men themselves who gave it us, with admirable presence of mind. For while we were still 30 yards off, creeping slowly toward them with the way almost off the ship, one of them called out in a voice strident with cold but still forceful:

“Don’t come any closer, sir! We’re standing on the stern of the ship.”

That seemed to me to be bravery of a very special quality. Those two men had been standing up to their waists in icy water for over two hours. They were perched on the stern of a destroyer which was balanced vertically with its bows on the bottom but which might at any moment sink altogether. They saw rescue close at hand, the promise of survival from what must have seemed a miserable and hopeless position, and yet the first thing they thought about was the danger to us if we came too close to them. Men such as these were worth rescuing 10 times over.

We laid off to a safe distance, lowered the motor boat, and picked them up—a signalman and a stoker, both cold to the bone, their legs nearly paralyzed. They could not have lasted very much longer even if the sunk ship had kept its position. I talked to them while they were warming through again in the galley but they knew very little of what had happened. Both had been out on the upper deck when the ship went down, had swum around in darkness for a bit and then suddenly grounded on the miraculous haven where we found them. They had not seen anyone else for a long time, though earlier on there had been a Carley raft nearby with about 20 men on it. They did not think any boats had been lowered—there had not been time.

I left them in the warmth of the galley—their blue pinched legs and still chattering teeth a reminder of peril—and went back onto the bridge. There had been no developments during the quarter of an hour I had been away. Nothing more had been sighted, though they had heard some men shouting for a bit, too weakly or too far away to gauge the direction. There had been silence now for quite a long time . . . “Depressing about that,” remarked the Captain suddenly. “You know so exactly the sort of men who are in the water.” That was in all our minds, I think—that not very far away, but out of effective reach, a virtual duplicate of our own ship’s company, with the same trustworthy hands and humorists and rogues, was perishing man by man.

It was now getting toward dawn and we had been sweeping round the patch of oil in widening circles, as far as we could judge them, for four hours without any result. When daylight came we would probably see the Carley raft, but that might be too late to save the people on it. This was something which did not need impressing on the lookouts; probably every seaman in the ship kept a perfect watch for the rest of that night. But whatever their degree of concentration, it was no use. When dawn came up we were still only two hands to the good, not much better than failure and a wretched answer to our hopes of earlier on.

Unforgettable Picture

Then, at full daylight, we finally sighted the raft and made for it at speed. This must have been the main direction of the tidal set for on the way we passed successive little groups of bodies, all lifeless, washing about in the oily sea among oddments of wreckage. Sometimes a lolling head jerked to the lift of the swell, giving an illusion of life, raising hopes which died at a second glance. This was the crew we had been looking for but it seemed that we had spent too long in the search—we and they had both been defeated, by time and the sea.

There remained the raft—an unforgettable picture as, in the fresh sunlight of a lovely morning, we drew near it. Upright on it sat a handful of black-faced, oil-soaked men, surrounded by prone figures, sprawling in the lazy attitude of the dead. One man, who raised a feeble arm in greeting as we came alongside, had a shipmate’s head pillowed in his lap, his hand resting on the staring face with a cherishing touch which told the night’s story in a single gesture. Another, whose filthy face split into a grin as we reached down for him, must have been in agony from his shattered leg. Of the others, some stared up at the ship as at a miracle; one might have been singing but, heard close to, was in fact groaning softly; all were in an extremity of cold.

We set to work as carefully as we could, putting into our handling of them the overflow of compassion which the past night and the present sight of them called forth. All the time that we were lifting them inboard a Spitfire flew round and round the ship, close to the water, as guard, spectator, and mourner, all in one. And it was a moment that bit into the memory—the few upright figures in the raft, the ungainly dead, the aircraft circling us continually, the lovely sunlight that could warm so few. We had to rig a tackle for the dead men. Their bodies dangled like hung criminals as they were hoisted up, their heads fell forward and sideways and forward again in a cycle of supreme ugliness. The hands detailed for the job had faces of stone as they worked the tackle. These men were themselves.

We collected many bodies all through that morning. They were laid out on the quarter-deck, their clothes smothered in oil but with the familiar badges—the leading seaman’s anchor, the signalman’s crossed flags — showing here and there. It was the sight of these last, perhaps, which brought home to us with piercing clarity that they were fellow sailors who had met their death, who were now (in that most explicit and final of phrases) marked “Discharged Dead” on the books. I remember the Chief looking down at one of them and muttering: “Three badges—that’s 13 years in the Service, at least—and now this...”

It summed up the continuity of the Navy, its sense of oneness, its family pride. It was the deep feeling of a mourner who mourned, not a brother but a part of himself—the same feeling which prompts the messmates of a dead man to bid generously for all the oddments of his kit when it is disposed of. Ten shillings for a cap ribbon, 15 shillings for an old clasp knife—it is the measure of their comradeship, which includes his wife and family.

Frustrated Search

Since many of the destroyer’s crew were still unaccounted for, and it was believed that at least two other rafts had got clear of the ship, we intended to carry on with the search. Up on the bridge I let the ship idle along at dead slow, circling the nearest buoy, while down below in the chart-house the Captain and the Navigator pored over charts and tide tables, trying to work out exactly where the remainder of the crew might have drifted to since their ship was sunk. Presently our signal asking permission to continue looking for survivors was answered and we began a series of careful sweeps to cover the probable area.

That day was a memorable exercise in frustration. We crossed and recrossed the hunting ground, we took every conceivable care and precaution, but all to no purpose. Nothing was sighted save odd bits of wreckage, and not very much of that. It was maddening. The men were there, life was ebbing from them, and (it seemed) only our stupidity prevented us from rescuing them. The thought could not be put aside. We were conscious all the time of a closing gap, conscious of the race between the cold, the margin of human endurance, the hours of daylight remaining and the square miles we had to cover. And there was one other potent item to be allowed for, in this account. The weather was growing worse with every watch and by evening it was getting to the point where men adrift for so long could hardly be alive. They were there still, in the rising sea and the bleak dusk; there we would have to leave them and as this fact sharpened and established itself, hope foundered on it, rage grew, sadness and pity deepened.

At nightfall we turned for home. In the wardroom, off watch, I talked with the two surviving officers. It was difficult not to feel guilty at the enjoyment of warmth and shelter and when I told them that we were giving up and leaving the search area, I felt a rat. What they felt, I did not care to conjecture. One of them said: “Well, you certainly did your best for us,” but the remark was a cover for feeling, not an expression of it. As the revolutions mounted on the way home, the rags of satisfaction at our efforts blew away and were left astern with the rest.

One of the survivors, talking as men talk when they would rather keep silent, but cannot, said: “I’d heard before that after you’ve spent a bit of time in the water, you just don’t care whether you live or die. I didn’t think that could ever be true in my case as I’ve got a wife back home and two children just growing up. But it is true. After a bit you’re too cold and tired to care what you’re leaving behind you; all you want is to fall asleep and cut the whole thing. That’s the most dangerous part about being in the drink—however much you’ve got to live for, if it’s cold and miserable enough, you just don’t want to live any longer.”

We entered harbor well after dark, going dead slow ahead, picking our way among the shipping and the buoys with deliberate precision. Lowering the whaler and hooking onto the buoy, by the light of a shaded torch, was a complicated exercise on which it was a relief to concentrate. But everyone on board was very quiet: today, on that particular job, we had failed.