The Grey Funnel Line
JOHN RHODES STURDY
HIS MAJESTY’S cruiser Midland had been marked off by her American refit yard as complete and ready for sea. She was a handsome job and the yard was proud of her. Looking at her now it was not easy to picture the cruiser as she had first appeared in the river nine months before: a 100-foot gash where a torpedo had found its mark and exploded magazines had nearly finished her—broken and battered and scarcely afloat.
Now her lines were slim again, and her guns new and of the most modern design. At the wardroom party, where Englishmen and Americans gathered to celebrate completion of the job, the soft-spoken Southerner who was the yard manager raised his glass and said: ‘T hope that you will remember us in
Norfolk for two things. One that we taught you to like Americans. And two that we helped to make your ship a fighting ship again.”
The Midland’s skipper, Captain Derek "Walker, wanted to agree with the yard manager. He wanted to say that Midland was a fighting ship, that he was taking her out to rejoin the fleet, and henceforth she was his to command to do battle. But he couldn’t.
Admiralty said, and Admiralty was law, that the cruiser was not to be considered a fighting unit. She was to be sailed by Captain Walker, temporarily in command, from Norfolk, Va., to a British port, where she was to be paid off, and later recommissioned with a new complement of officers and men.
Captain Walker was merely a “fill in,” and regarding that he had no illusions. He had pleaded and argued for a sea appointment. And this was it. To take a cruiser in passage from one port to another, and then—probably back to the beach.
“If I had a month,” he kept thinking. “If I had a month to work this crew into something.” But there was no month. And the crew didn’t care much about Midland or her glory, or her name that went back in a long line to Trafalgar. Most of them were passengers, including a number of Canadians, going to new ships on the other side, and there was no real interest in a vessel that was, plainly speaking, just a means of transportation.
The Americans were so kind, and these southern shipyard workers were proud of the ship. “I’d like to fight her for you too,” Captain Walker thought. “I’d like to come back some day and tell you what she had done, with your help.”
Two days later he received the signal that made him realize even more keenly his ship’s status.
Civilian passengers on a Navy ship! Like a blinkin’ passenger line, swore the Chief Gunner’s Mate . «. But that was before young Georgie went overboard
“George Anderson Clarke and William Reynolds will embark as passengers in H.M.S. Midland for the United Kingdom.”
Captain Walker had never heard of Clarke and Reynolds, but he knew from the wording of the signal that they were civilians. And he overheard Chief Gunner’s Mate Smith express it, for the buzz soon got around the ship: “Civilian passengers! This ain’t no ruddy Navy. This is the blinkin’ Grey Funnel Line, that’s what it is.”
Captain Walker winced. He winced because he knew it was true. And now, sitting in the cabin that would never be his home, he stared at the bulkhead and contemplated going back to England.
A knock on the door heralded the officer of the watch.
“The boat with the passengers is approaching, sir.”
Captain Walker nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He rose and took up his cap. Now he would greet his civilian guests as courtesy and the service decreed Going on deck he cast his eye over the ship as she lay
at anchor, and he wished suddenly and fiercely that he could own her—her nice lines, her stout hull, her guns.
On the quarter-deck, by the accommodation ladder, he found the commander, the duty lieutenant commander and the officer of the watch. He looked up at the sky, wondering about the weather and decided it would be good. Then he heard footsteps on the ladder and he put his fingers to the peak of his cap as the officers around him saluted.
Two small voices said: “Hello.”
He looked down. Standing minutely on the scrubbed deck, their hands clutching battered suitcases, and their eyes wide and smiling, were two little boys. They were dwarfed by the officers around them, they stood no higher than the quarter-deck rail, two fairheaded infants treading the sacred planks of the British Navy.
“Are you,” asked the captain, “the passengers?” The one with the blue eyes said: “Yes, sir, I’m
Georgie Clarke. And this is Billy Reynolds. I guess you’re the captain. How-do-you-do?”
The captain found himself shaking hands. His eyelashes barely flickered. He did not let his glance waver for a second as on the quarter-deck of His Majesty’s cruiser Midland he formally greeted George Clarke, eight, and Billy Reynolds, seven.
“Come along to my cabin,” he said.
And as he moved away, a boy on either side of him, he heard a man mutter hoarsely: “Blimey!”
The marine sentry in the captain’s lobby turned white in the face. And Captain Walker hurriedly ushered the boys into his cabin, shutting the door behind them. They took possession immediately, while he read a letter Georgie gave him; a letter with a Washington date line that explained the boys were travelling to the U. K. by arrangement with Admiralty —evacuee children sent out to America in 1940 and now going home.
He looked thoughtfully at the boys. He was remembering England in 1940—and then his thoughts were broken by a flood of questions shot at him:
“Do you think we’ll sink a sub? . . . This is a light cruiser, isn’t it? . . . Where do we eat? . . . Can you change American money? . . . Why is the fourth stripe on your arm so much brighter than the others? . . . Can we have some ginger ale? . . .”
Captain Walker floundered through the answers. He rang for the sentry and sent for Chief Gunner’s Mate Smith, while Georgie inspected the medal ribbons on his breast and asked more questions. This was inter-
rupted by a polite knock and the appearance of C.G.M. Smith.
“Smith,” said the captain, “these two young gentlemen are taking passage to England. They will sleep in my day cabin while we’re at sea. From now until we arrive at our destination they’ll be under your charge.” The ruddy-faced chief petty officer, who had served England in two wars, looked at his commanding officer, wanted to kill him, and said: “Aye, aye, sir.” “That’s all, Smith.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
C.G.M. Smith left the cabin with his two charges hanging onto his arms. For the first time in 30 years he was considering desertion. “The ruddy Grey Funnel Line!” he muttered under his breath.
A disguised voice from somewhere called: “Hello, Daddy Dumplings!”
He swung around, his big fists clenching. But whoever it was had the sense to keep out of sight.
Captain Walker sent for the commander.
“Are we,” he asked, as though quoting, “to all extents ready for sea?”
“We sail at three o’clock.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Er—what do you think?”
“Well, sir—it’s quite amazing.”
“Yes, quite amazing.”
At 1500 hours His Majesty’s' cruiser Midland, eight six-inch guns and smaller armament, under orders to proceed to the United Kingdom, weighed anchor and got under way.
THE boys were popular. They were popular even if they did consume all the ginger ale in the wardroom pantry. Even if the commander found a dead flying fish in his bunk and was badly scratched before he could get rid of the thing. And even if C.G.M. Smith was now known throughout the ship as “Daddy Dumplings.” Secretly he had developed a great affection for his charges.
They were popular. But their presence, nevertheless, only aggravated the indifference of the crew to Midland as a ship. She was not a fighting one—she was a “blinkin’ kindergarten.” And the gunnery officer went on the bridge and told Captain Walker about it.
“There’s no spirit,” he reported. “I suppose, after all, that you can’t expect men to take pride in a ship they’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks.”
“Logical,” said Captain Walker, “but rather impractical, don’t you think, in wartime?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll keep driving them, sir.”
Captain Walker kept his thoughts to himself. But he Vas a little tired. And then the commander came to him.
“There was a spot of trouble in the mpss decks this morning,” the commander said.
Captain Walker stared at the sea.
“I don’t suppose it was serious, sir. But we have a lot of Canadians aboard. They don’t see eye to eye with our men in some things, sir. This started as a joke and got rather rough.”
“Did you put a stop to it?”
“No, sir,” said the commander. “Georgie did.”
The Captain swung around. “Georgie? Who the devil is Georgie?”
The commander was smiling a little. “Georgie is one of our passengers, sir. And Georgie is something of a cosmopolite. He’s English, of course, but he’s been living in America. Georgie understands quite a bit about the people of the North American continent. And us. So he walked into the mess decks and he told the warring factions they were being silly, and they listened to him. I’ve always felt like being sick when someone mentioned a ‘happy ship’ but ours is a good deal happier than it was yesterday.”
“Tell Georgie I’d like to see him,” said Captain Walker.
The captain was in his sea cabin near the bridge when Georgie answered the summons. He was a fairhaired boy with a quick smile, and a voice that was strangely a mixture of English and American. He wore a deflated rubber life belt around his waist.
“Better blow that up,” Captain Walker said. “We’re at sea now, you know.”
Georgie did as he was told.
“Glad to be going home?” asked the captain.
“Yes, sir. I’m going to see my mother.” And he added, “I saw some pictures in your cabin down below. Is one of them your boy?”
“Is he in England?”
“Well—” And Captain Walker was glad that the officer of the watch entered at that moment. Young Derek hadn’t been as lucky as Georgie Clarke. That bombing had almost shattered the heart of Captain Derek Walker when it took his son.
He looked at the signal the officer gave him. Then he made marks on a chart lying on his desk.
“Looks like two packs of them will be crossing,” he said. “We’ll have to try and run through the gap before they join. Thirty knots.”
“Very good, sir.”
Georgie was suddenly all ears. “Packs?” he asked. “Gosh, do you mean U-boats?”
“Yes,” said Captain Walker.
“Are we going to attack them?” .
“No. Not if we can help it.”
“Well, this is a cruiser, Georgie. She’s not an antisubmarine vessel. We’ll be going very fast for a little while. So stay below, under cover.”
“Yes, sir. Gosh!” And Georgie left the sea cabin, greatly excited, but wondering a little about a warship that ran away from trouble.
“Drink your tea,” ordered Chief Gunner’s Mate Smith.
George and his friend Billy obediently gulped the hot liquid. But their eyes were wide and shining, and their hearts beat fast. When C.G.M. Smith was called away to do a job, Georgie said, “Gee, listen to the waves. We’re going lickety-split. I want to see.” “The captain told you to stay below,” cautioned Billy.
“But I got to see. I got to.”
THE first contact was reported to the bridge at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a single contact and Captain Walker said: “It may be a lone U-boat on her way to join the others. Increase the zigzag. Ask the engine room to give us all possible speed.”
The cruiser plunged her nose into the sea. She took water along the windward side, white and green, surging down her decks from the break of the forecastle to the quarter-deck, and she shuddered from the pound of her straining engines. When she heeled over on a zig she went half under, and the A-turret on the forecastle deck was drowned. The big guns dripped water, glistening, when she righted herself.
At 1615 the track of the torpedo was sighted off the port bow. With the seamanship that he had never forgotten, Captain Walker wheeled his ship. Saltsprayed eyes watched from the bridge, and breathless men waited as the big vessel took the helm and fell away from the murderous white track. The torpedo passed within ten feet of the cruiser’s stern.
Captain Walker grabbed the compass binnacle for support as the ship canted over. And suddenly a telephone on the bridge buzzed impatiently, and a seaman, answering it, called out:
“One of the boys, sir! He’s over the side-^-port side. The Clarke boy, sir.”
Captain Walker stared at the seaman for a second. In that second rapid thoughts came to his mind. Young Georgie Clarke in the water. His own dead son. The ship under him, the 400 men who were part of her. And the U-boat out there, manoeuvring.
How simple some things could be. A few brief orders. Stop the engines. Hard-a-port. Away lifeboat’s crew. He had learned that exercise as a midshipman. How simple to give those orders!
“Slip a Carley float,” he said. And that was all. The cruiser continued at 32 knots, full out on her zigzag course.
A report came to the bridge. “After port Carley float slipped, sir.”
Captain Walker looked over the port side. In the Continued on page 29
Continued from page 17
troubled sea a&tern of him he saw the bobbing raft. A figure clung to it.
“Find out who went over with the float,” he ordered.
The reply came back to him a moment later. “The Chief Gunner’s Mate, sir.”
The Captain sighed.
For almost an hour the cruiser played mouse to the U-boats’ cat. In that time she weaved across the face of the ocean, her wake boiling, her nose deep in the green waters. And then came the report:
The men on the bridge looked enquiringly at the captain. Far away on the rolling sea the Carley float had disappeared from sight. Men who were old sailors had watched it go, and felt sick.
“Continue the zigzag,” said Captain Walker. The men around him went on with their jobs. They could not see his eyes for he stared straight ahead.
What would the boy’s mother have said—could a mother ever understand that a man cannot gamble with one small life against 400?
The big cruiser took the seas in her teeth.
“Any new contacts?” asked Captain Walker later.
“No, sir. None at all.”
“Set a course for where you think the float may have drifted.”
“Very good, sir.”
“If it’s not sighted within an hour, or there is any report of contact with U-boats, abandon the search.”
“Very good, sir.”
Captain Walker walked off the bridge. The men there looked after him. There was hardened and considered admiration in their eyes. It is a fighting man who makes a fighting ship.
IT WAS just before dusk when the officer of the watch came to his sea cabin and reported that the float had been sighted. Captain Walker looked up from a book he had been reading. “Thank you,” he said.
He stood on the main deck, amidships by the torpedo tubes, when the cruiser stopped and made a lee for the bobbing grey raft. Half the ship’s company stood behind him. A tiny figure and a large one lay in the wet centre of the float. Without waiting for an order a seaman dived from the deck of the Midland with a line and swam to the raft. He was the man who climbed back to the deck with a small limp figure in his arms.
“Give him to me,” said Captain Walker, and took the boy from the seaman. Young Georgie’s eyes were half-closed. He started to cough.
Two men supported Chief Gunner’s Mate Smith as he struggled over the side, his clothes dripping with water, his face white and his mouth open.
“Thank you,” said the Captain to Smith.
He glanced toward the bridge. An officer raised his arm and suddenly the Midland’s engines started to turn over and she was under way again.
Georgie coughed water out of his lungs.
“He was half-drowned when I got to him,” C.G.M. Smith said thickly.
“Are you all right, old man?” the captain said, his face close to the small fair head.
“Sure,” the boy gasped.
The captain turned and faced his crew. His uniform dripped water and there was a puddle around his feet. He
held Georgie tightly in his arms. For a moment his eyes ran along the faces of the men, and then he smiled a little and walked forward in the direction of the sick bay.
CHIEF Gunner’s Mate Smith reported to his fellow chiefs in the mess: “The little beggar’s top line
again. ‘D’you know,’ he says to me, ‘the captain should never have gone back for me,’ he says. T know,’ says he, ‘that ships in wartime don’t pick up people that get lost over the side!’ ”
And at the wardroom table the gunnery officer sipped coffee and said: “Fact is, I don’t know who gets the credit, the Old Man or the boy. But this ship isn’t the same since yesterday. I’d take her out and fight her with my crew now, any time. They’ve got spirit. They’ve got a pride in the ship. Seems a shame that we’re going in.”
And the commander reported to Captain Walker: “Some of the men are asking if they can stay with the ship, sir. I—I rather think they’re under the impression that you’ll be remaining in command.”
Captain Walker did not say anything.
“We have a good crew,” said the commander.
Captain Walker nodded. And now he said: “Muster the hands. Tell them that Midland is to be paid off and recommissioned with a new complement.”
But the message was never passed. On the morning of the next day a low grey frigate came within signalling distance and flashed:
“Have been instructed to take off two passengers for U. K.”
Every off-duty man aboard ship gathered on the deck of the cruiser to say good-by to Georgie Clarke and Billy Reynolds. With their battered suitcases in their hands they awaited the frigate’s motor launch, and they edged very close to the Chief Gunner’s Mate, who suddenly looked lost.
The motor launch came alongside. “Where’s the captain?” Georgie asked. “We want to say good-by to the captain.”
He came down the deck. He was holding a flimsy piece of paper in one hand. With the other he shook hands with the two boys.
“God bless you,” he said, with a smile, and he saluted as they went over the side, down the ladder to the waiting launch.
He saluted again as the boat got under way, the two small figures standing in the stern sheets and waving.
And then he turned slowly, facing the crew. He looked deep into their eyes and what he read there satisfied him and made him confident. They were the Midland’s crew.
So he passed the piece of paper to the commander. And the commander read the words: “Emergency X,” and
looked up swiftly at Captain Walker. “This signal—” he began.
“It came a couple of minutes ago. And it means we don’t go in for a while. We’re joining the fleet—to fight, I hope.”
“Congratulations, sir,” said the commander.
Captain Walker smiled. He looked across the water to the launch that was edging in toward the frigate’s side. He raised his hand and waved.
An hour later the commander mustered the crew and told them the news. Midland was joining the fleet for operational purposes. And the crew cheered.
From his position on the bridge Captain Walker heard the cheering. And silently he drank again the toast made by the shipyard manager back in Norfolk, Va.