As one digs deeper into the records, one sees the various temperaments of men revealing themselves through all the formal wording. One commander may be an expert in torpedo-work, whose first care is how and where his shots went, and whether, under all circumstances of pace, light, and angle, the best had been achieved. Destroyers do not carry unlimited stocks of torpedoes. It rests with commanders whether they shall spend with a free hand at first or save for night-work ahead—risk a possible while he is yet afloat, or hang on coldly for a certainty. So in the old whaling days did the harponeer bring up or back off his boat till some shift of the great fish’s bulk gave him sure opening at the deep-seated life.
And then comes the question of private judgment. “I thought so-and-so would happen. Therefore, did thus and thus.” Things may or may not turn out as anticipated, but that is merely another of the million chances of the sea. Take a case in point. A flotilla of our destroyers sighted six (there had been eight the previous afternoon) German battleships of Kingly and Imperial caste very early in the morning of the 1st June, and duly attacked. At first our people ran parallel to the enemy, then, as far as one can make out, headed them and swept round sharp to the left, firing torpedoes from their port or left-hand tubes. Between them they hit a battleship, which went up in flame and débris. But one of the flotilla had not turned with the rest. She had anticipated that the attack would be made on another quarter, and, for certain technical reasons, she was not ready. When she was, she turned, and single-handed—the rest of the flotilla having finished and gone on—carried out two attacks on the five remaining battleships. She got one of them amidships, causing a terrific explosion and flame above the masthead, which signifies that the magazine has been touched off. She counted the battleships when the smoke had cleared, and there were but four of them. She herself was not hit, though shots fell close. She went her way, and, seeing nothing of her sisters, picked up another flotilla and stayed with it till the end. Do I make clear the maze of blind hazard and wary judgment in which our men of the sea must move?
Some of the original flotilla were chased and headed about by cruisers after their attack on the six battleships, and a single shell from battleship or cruiser reduced one of them to such a condition that she was brought home by her sub-lieutenant and a midshipman. Her captain, first lieutenant, gunner, torpedo coxswain, and both signal- men were either killed or wounded; the bridge, with charts, instruments, and signalling gear went; all torpedoes were expended; a gun was out of action, and the usual cordite fires developed. Luckily, the engines were workable. She escaped under cover of a smoke-screen, which is an unbearably filthy outpouring of the densest smoke, made by increasing the proportion of oil to air in the furnace-feed. It rolls forth from the funnels looking solid enough to sit upon, spreads in a searchlight-proof pat of impenetrable beastliness, and in still weather hangs for hours. But it saved that ship.
It is curious to note the subdued tone of a boy’s report when by some accident of slaughter he is raised to command. There are certain formalities which every ship must comply with on entering certain ports. No fully-striped commander would trouble to detail them any more than he would the aspect of his Club porter. The young ’un puts it all down, as who should say: “I rang the bell, wiped my feet on the mat, and asked if they were at home.” He is most careful of the port proprieties, and since he will be sub. again to-morrow, and all his equals will tell him exactly how he ought to have handled her, he almost apologises for the steps he took—deeds which ashore might be called cool or daring.
The Senior Service does not gush. There are certain formulae appropriate to every occasion. One of our destroyers, who was knocked out early in the day and lay helpless, was sighted by several of her companions. One of them reported her to the authorities, but, being busy at the time, said he did not think himself justified in hampering himself with a disabled ship in the middle of an action. It was not as if she was sinking either. She was only holed foreward and aft, with a bad hit in the engineroom, and her steering-gear knocked out. In this posture she cheered the passing ships, and set about repairing her hurts with good heart and a smiling countenance. She managed to get under some sort of way at midnight, and next day was taken in tow by a friend. She says officially, “his assistance was invaluable, as I had no oil left and met heavy weather.”
What actually happened was much less formal. Fleet destroyers, as a rule, do not worry about navigation. They take their orders from the flagship, and range out and return, on signal, like sheep-dogs whose fixed point is their shepherd. Consequently, when they break loose on their own they may fetch up rather doubtful of their whereabouts—as this injured one did. After she had been so kindly taken in tow, she inquired of her friend (“Message captain to captain”)—“Have you any notion where we are?” The friend replied, “I have not, but I will find out.” So the friend waited on the sun with the necessary implements, which luckily had not been smashed, and in due time made: “Our observed position at this hour is thus and thus.” The tow, irreverently, “Is it? ’Didn’t know you were a navigator.” The friend, with hauteur, “Yes; it’s rather a hobby of mine.” The tow, “Had no idea it was as bad as all that; but I’m afraid I’ll have to trust you this time. Go ahead, and be quick about it.” They reached a port, correctly enough, but to this hour the tow, having studied with the friend at a place called Dartmouth, insists that it was pure Joss.
And Joss, which is luck, fortune, destiny, the irony of Fate or Nemesis, is the greatest of all the Battle-gods that move on the waters. As I will show you later, knowledge of gunnery and a delicate instinct for what is in the enemy’s minds may enable a destroyer to thread her way, slowing, speeding, and twisting between the heavy salvoes of opposing fleets. As the dank-smelling waterspouts rise and break, she judges where the next grove of them will sprout. If her judgment is correct, she may enter it in her report as a little feather in her cap. But it is Joss when the stray 12-inch shell, hurled by a giant at some giant ten miles away, falls on her from Heaven and wipes out her and her profound calculations. This was seen to happen to a Hun destroyer in mid-attack. While she was being laboriously dealt with by a 4-inch gun something immense took her, and—she was not.
Joss it is, too, when the cruiser’s 8-inch shot, that should have raked out your innards from the forward boiler to the ward-room stove, deflects miraculously, like a twig dragged through deep water, and, almost returning on its track, skips off unbursten and leaves you reprieved by the breadth of a nail from three deaths in one. Later, a single splinter, no more, may cut your oil-supply pipes as dreadfully and completely as a broken wind-screen in a collision cuts the surprised motorist’s throat. Then you must lie useless, fighting oil-fires while the precious fuel gutters away till you have to ask leave to escape while there are yet a few tons left. One ship who was once bled white by such a piece of Joss, suggested it would be better that oil-pipes should be led along certain lines which she sketched. As if that would make any difference to Joss when he wants to show what he can do!
Our sea-people, who have worked with him for a thousand wettish years, have acquired something of Joss’s large toleration and humour. He causes ships in thick weather, or under strain, to mistake friends for enemies. At such times, if your heart is full of highly organised hate, you strafe frightfully and efficiently till one of you perishes, and the survivor reports wonders which are duly wirelessed all over the world. But if you worship Joss, you reflect, you put two and two together in a casual insular way, and arrive—sometimes both parties arrive—at instinctive conclusions which avoid trouble.
Witness this tale. It does not concern the Jutland fight, but another little affair which took place a while ago in the North Sea. It was understood that a certain type of cruiser of ours would not be taking part in a certain show. Therefore, if anyone saw cruisers very like them he might blaze at them with a clear conscience, for they would be Hun-boats. And one of our destroyers thick weather as usual spied the silhouettes of cruisers exactly like our own stealing across the haze. Said the Commander to his Sub., with an inflection neither period, exclamation, nor interrogation-mark can render—“That—is—them.”
Said the Sub. in precisely the same tone—“That is them, sir.” “As my Sub.,” said the Commander, “your observation is strictly in accord with the traditions of the Service. Now, as man to man, what are they?” “We-el,” said the Sub., “since you put it that way I’m d——d if I’d fire.” And they didn’t, and they were quite right. The destroyer had been off on another job, and Joss had jammed the latest wireless orders to her at the last moment. But Joss had also put it into the hearts of the boys to save themselves and others.
I hold no brief for the Hun, but honestly I think he has not lied as much about the Jutland fight as people believe, and that when he protests he sank a ship, he did very completely sink a ship. I am the more confirmed in this belief by a still small voice among the Jutland reports, musing aloud over an account of an unaccountable outlying brawl witnessed by one of our destroyers. The voice suggests that what the destroyer saw was one German ship being sunk by another. Amen!
Our destroyers saw a good deal that night on the face of the waters. Some of them who were working in “areas of comparative calm” submit charts of their tangled courses, all studded with notes along the zigzag—something like this:—
8 P.M.—Heard explosion to the N.W. (A neat arrow-head points that way.) Half an inch farther along, a short change of course, and the word Hit explains the meaning of—“Sighted enemy cruiser engaged with destroyers.” Another twist follows. “9.30 P.M.—Passed wreckage. Engaged enemy destroyers port beam opposite courses.” A long straight line without incident, then a tangle, and—Picked up survivors of So-and-So. A stretch over to some ship that they were transferred to, a fresh departure, and another brush with “Single destroyer on parallel course. Hit. 0.7 A.M.—Passed bows enemy cruiser sticking up. 0.18.—Joined flotilla for attack on battleship squadron.” So it runs on—one little ship in a few short hours passing through more wonders of peril and accident than all the old fleets ever dreamed.
In years to come naval experts will collate all those diagrams, and furiously argue over them. A lot of the destroyer work was inevitably as mixed as bombing down a trench, as the scuffle of a polo match, or as the hot heaving heart of a football scrum. It is difficult to realise when one considers the size of the sea, that it is that very size and absence of boundary which helps the confusion. To give an idea, here is a letter (it has been quoted before, believe, but it is good enough to repeat many times), from a nineteen-year-old child to his friend aged seventeen (and minus one leg), in a hospital:
“I’m so awfully sorry you weren’t in it. It was rather terrible, but a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but, by Jove, it isn’t a thing one wants to make a habit of.
“I must say it is very different from what I expected. I expected to be excited, but was not a bit. It’s hard to express what we did feel like, but you know the sort of feeling one has when one goes in to bat at cricket, and rather a lot depends upon your doing well, and you are waiting for the first ball. Well, it’s very much the same as that. Do you know what I mean? A sort of tense feeling, not quite knowing what to expect. One does not feel the slightest bit frightened, and the idea that there’s a chance of you and your ship being scuppered does not enter one’s head. There are too many other things to think about.”
Follows the usual “No ship like our ship” talkee, and a note of where she was at the time.
“Then they ordered us to attack, so we bustled off full bore. Being navigator, also having control of all the guns, I was on the bridge all the time, and remained for twelve hours without leaving it at all. When we got fairly close sighted a good-looking Hun destroyer, which I thought I’d like to strafe. You know, it’s awful fun to know that you can blaze off at a real ship, and do as much damage as you like. Well, I’d just got their range on the guns, and we’d just fired one round, when some more of our destroyers coming from the opposite direction got between us and the enemy and completely blanketed us, so we had to stop, which was rather rot. Shortly afterwards they recalled us, so we bustled back again. How any destroyer got out of it is perfectly wonderful.
“Literally there were hundreds of progs (shells falling) all round us, from a 15-inch to a 4-inch, and you know what a big splash a 15-inch bursting in the water does make. We got washed through by the spray. Just as we were getting back, a whole salvo of big shells fell just in front of us and short of our big ships. The skipper and I did rapid calculations as to how long it would take them to reload, fire again, time of flight, etc., as we had to go right through the spot. We came to the conclusion that, as they were short a bit, they would probably go up a bit, and (they?) didn’t, but luckily they altered deflection, and the next fell right astern of us. Anyhow, we managed to come out of that row without the ship or a man on board being touched.
“It’s extraordinary the amount of knocking about the big ships can stand. One saw them hit, and they seemed to be one mass of flame and smoke, and you think they’re gone, but when the smoke clears away they are apparently none the worse and still firing away. But to see a ship blow up is a terrible and wonderful sight; an enormous volume of flame and smoke almost 200 feet high and great pieces of metal, etc., blown sky-high, and then when the smoke clears not a sign of the ship. We saw one other extraordinary sight. Of course, you know the North Sea is very shallow. We came across Hun cruiser absolutely on end, his stern on the bottom and his bow sticking up about 30 feet in the water; and a little farther on a destroyer in precisely the same position.
“I couldn’t be certain, but I rather think I saw your old ship crashing along and blazing away, but, I expect you have heard from some of your pals. But the night was far and away the worse time of all. It was pitch dark, and, of course, absolutely no lights, and the firing seems so much more at night, as you could see the flashes lighting up the sky, and it seemed to make much more noise, and you could see ships on fire and blowing up. Of course we showed absolutely no lights. One expected to be surprised any moment, and eventually we were. We suddenly found ourselves within 1000 yards of two or three big Hun cruisers. They switched on their searchlights and started firing like nothing on earth. Then they put their searchlights on us, but for some extraordinary reason did not fire on us. As, of course, we were going full speed we lost them in a moment, but I must say, that I, and I think everybody else, thought that that was the end, but one does not feel afraid or panicky. I think I felt rather cooler then than at any other time. I asked lots of people afterwards what they felt like, and they all said the same thing. It all happens in a few seconds; one hasn’t time to think; but never in all my life have I been so thankful to see daylight again—and don’t think ever want to see another night like that—it’s such an awful strain. One does not notice it at the time, but it’s the reaction afterwards.
“I never noticed I was tired till I got back to harbour, and then we all turned in and absolutely slept like logs. We were seventy-two hours with little or no sleep. The skipper was perfectly wonderful. He never left the bridge for a minute for twenty-four hours, and was on the bridge or in the chart-house the whole time we were out (the chart-house is an airy dog-kennel that opens off the bridge) and I’ve never seen anybody so cool and unruffled. He stood there smoking his pipe as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
“One quite forgot all about time. I was relieved at 4 A.M., and on looking at my watch found I had been up there nearly twelve hours, and then discovered I was rather hungry. The skipper and I had some cheese and biscuits, ham sandwiches, and water on the bridge, and then I went down and brewed some cocoa and ship’s biscuit.”