AS I said, we will confine ourselves to something quite sane and simple which does not involve more than half-a-dozen different reports.
When the German fleet ran for home, on the night of May 31, it seems to have scattered—“starred,” I believe, is the word for the evolution—in a general sauve qui peut, while the Devil, livelily represented by our destroyers, took the hindmost. Our flotillas were strung out far and wide on this job. One man compared it to hounds hunting half a hundred separate foxes.
I take the adventures of several couples of destroyers who, on the night of May 31, were nosing along somewhere towards the Schleswig-Holstein coast, ready to chop any Hun-stuff coming back to earth by that particular road. The leader of one line was Gehenna, and the next two ships astern of her were Eblis and Shaitan, in the order given. There were others, of course, but with the exception of one Goblin they don’t come violently into this tale. There had been a good deal of promiscuous firing that evening, and actions were going on all, round. Towards midnight our destroyers were overtaken by several three- and four funnel German ships (cruisers they thought) hurrying home. At this stage of the game anybody might have been anybody—pursuer or pursued. The Germans took no chances, but switched on their searchlights and opened fire on Gehenna. Her acting sub-lieutenant reports: “A salvo hit us forward. I opened fire with the after-guns. A shell then struck us in a steam-pipe, and I could see nothing but steam. But both starboard torpedo-tubes were fired.”
Eblis, Gehenna’s next astern, at once fire a torpedo at the second ship in the German line, a four-funnelled cruiser, and hit her between the second funnel and the mainmast, when “she appeared to catch fire fore and aft simultaneously, heeled right over to starboard, and undoubtedly sank.” Eblis loosed off a second torpedo and turned aside to reload, firing at the same time to distract the enemy’s attention from Gehenna, who was now ablaze fore and aft. Gehenna’s acting sub-lieutenant (the only executive officer who survived) says that by the time the steam from the broken pipe cleared he found Gehenna stopped, nearly everybody amidships killed or wounded, the cartridge-boxes round the guns exploding one after the other as the fires took hold, and the enemy not to be seen. Three minutes or less did all that damage. Eblis had nearly finished reloading when a shot struck the davit that was swinging her last torpedo into the tube and wounded all hands concerned. Thereupon she dropped torpedo work, fired at an enemy searchlight which winked and went out, and was closing in to help Gehenna when the found herself under the noses of a couple of enemy cruisers. “The nearer one,” he says, “altered course to ram me apparently.” The Senior Service writes in curiously lawyer-like fashion, but there is no denying that they act quite directly. “I therefore put my helm hard aport and the two ships met and rammed each other, port bow to port bow.” There could have been no time to think and, for Eblis’s commander on the bridge, none to gather information But he had observant subordinates, and he writes and would humbly suggest that the words be made the ship’s motto for evermore—he writes, “Those aft noted” that the enemy cruiser had certain marks on her funnel and certain arrangements of derricks on each side which, quite apart from the evidence she left behind her, betrayed her class. Eblis and she met. Says Eblis “I consider I must have considerably damaged this cruiser, as 20 feet of her side plating was left in my foc’sle.” Twenty feet of ragged rivet-slinging steel, razoring and reaping about in the dark on a foc’sle that had collapsed like a concertina! It was very fair plating too. There were side-scuttle holes in it what we passengers would call portholes. But it might have been better, for Eblis reports sorrowfully, “by the thickness of the coats of paint (duly given in 32nds of the inch) she would not appear to have been a very new ship.”
New or old, the enemy had done her best. She had completely demolished Eblis’s bridge and searchlight platform, brought down the mast and the fore-funnel, ruined the whaler and the dinghy, split the foc’sle open above water from the stem to the galley which is abaft the bridge, and below water had opened it up from the stem to the second bulkhead. She had further ripped off Eblis’s skin-plating for an amazing number of yards on one side of her, and had fired a couple of large-calibre shells into Eblis at point-blank range, narrowly missing her vitals. Even so, Eblis is as impartial as a prize-court. She reports that the second shot, a trifle of eight inches, “may have been fired at a different time or just after colliding.” But the night was yet young, and “just after getting clear of this cruiser an enemy battle-cruiser grazed past our stern at high speed” and again the judgmatic mind—“I think she must have intended to ram us.” She was a large three-funnelled thing, her centre funnel shot away and “lights were flickering under her foc’sle as if she was on fire forward.” Fancy the vision of her, hurtling out of the dark, red-lighted from within, and fleeing on like a man with his throat cut!
[As an interlude, all enemy cruisers that night were not keen on ramming. They wanted to get home. A man know who was on another part of the drive saw a covey bolt through our destroyers; and had just settled himself for a shot at one of them when the night threw up a second bird coming down full speed on his other beam. He had bare time to jink between the two as they whizzed past. One switched on her searchlight and fired a whole salvo at him point blank. The heavy stuff went between his funnels. She must have sighted along her own beam of light, which was about a thousand yards.
“How did you feel?” I asked.
“I was rather sick. It was my best chance a that night, and I had to miss it or be cut in two.”
“What happened to the cruisers?”
“Oh, they went on, and I heard ’em being attended to by some of our fellows. They didn’t know what they were doing, or they couldn’t have missed me sitting, the way they did.”]
After all that Eblis picked herself up, and discovered that she was still alive, with a dog’s chance of getting to port. But she did not bank on it. That grand slam had wrecked the bridge, pinning the commander under the wreckage. By the time he had extricated himself he “considered it advisable to throw overboard the steel chest and dispatch-box of confidential and secret books.” These are never allowed to fall into strange hands, and their proper disposal is the last step but one in the ritual of the burial service of His Majesty’s ships at sea. Gehenna, afire and sinking, out somewhere in the dark, was going through it on her own account. This is her Acting Sub-Lieutenant’s report: “The confidential books were got up. The First Lieutenant gave the order ‘Every man aft,’ and the confidential books were thrown overboard. The ship soon afterwards heeled over to starboard and the bows went under. The First Lieutenant gave the order: ‘Everybody for themselves.’ The ship sank in about a minute, the stern going straight up into the air.”
But it was not written in the Book of Fate that stripped and battered Ebbs should die that night as Gehenna died. After the burial of the books it was found that the several fires on her were manageable, that she “was not making water aft of the damage,” which meant two-thirds of her were, more or less, in commission, and, best of all, that three boilers were usable in spite of the cruiser’s shells. So she “shaped course and speed to make the least water and the most progress towards land.” On the way back the wind shifted eight points without warning—it was this shift, if you remember, that so embarrassed Cripple and Paralytic on their homeward crawl—and, what with one thing and another, Eblis was unable to make port till the scandalously late hour of noon on June 2, “the mutual ramming having occurred about 11.40 P.M. on May 31.” She says, this time without any legal reservation whatever, “I cannot speak too highly of the courage, discipline, and devotion of the officers and ship’s company.”
Her recommendations are a Compendium of Godly Deeds for the Use of Mariners. They cover pretty much all that man may be expected to do. There was, as there always is, a first lieutenant who, while his commander was being extricate from the bridge wreckage, took charge of affairs and steered the ship first from the engine-room, or what remained of it, and later from aft, and otherwise manœuvred as requisite, among doubtful bulkheads. In his leisure he, “improvised means of signalling,” and if there be not one joyous story behind that smooth sentence I am a Hun!
They all improvised like the masters of craft they were. The chief engine-room artificer, after he had helped to put out fires, improvised stops to the gaps which were left by the carrying away of the forward funnel and mast. He got and kept up steam “to a much higher point than would have appeared at all possible,” and when the sea rose, as it always does if you are in trouble, he “improvised pumping and drainage arrangements, thus allowing the ship to steam at a good speed on the whole.” There could not have been more than 40 feet of hole.
The surgeon—a probationer—performed an amputation single-handed in the wreckage by the bridge, and by his “wonderful skill, resource, and unceasing care and devotion undoubtedly saved the lives of the many seriously wounded men.” That no horror might be lacking, there was “a short circuit among the bridge wreckage for a considerable time.” The searchlight and wireless were tangled up together, and the electricity leaked into everything.
There were also three wise men who save the ship whose names must not be forgotten. They were Chief Engine-room Artificer Lee, Stoker Petty Officer Gardiner, and Stoker Elvins. When the funnel carried away it was touch and go whether the foremost boiler would not explode. These three “put on respirators and kept the fans going till all fumes, etc., were cleared away.” To each man, you will observe, his own particular Hell which he entered of his own particular initiative.
Lastly, there were the two remaining Quartermasters—mutinous dogs, both of ’em—one wounded in the right hand and the other in the left, who took the wheel between them all the way home, thus improvising one complete Navy-pattern Quartermaster, and “refused to be relieved during the whole thirty-six hours before the ship returned to port.” So Eblis passes out of the picture with “never a moan or complaint from a single wounded man, and in spite of the rough weather of June 1st they all remained cheery.” They had one Hun cruiser, torpedoed, to their credit, and strong evidence abroad that they had knocked the end out of another.
But Gehenna went down, and those of her crew who remained hung on to the rafts that destroyers carry till they were picked up about the dawn by Shaitan, third in the line, who, at that hour, was in no shape to give much help. Here is Shaitan’s tale. She saw the unknown cruisers overtake the flotilla, saw their leader switch on searchlights and open fire as she drew abreast of Gehenna, and at once fired a torpedo at the third German ship. Shaitan could not see Eblis, her next ahead, for, as we know, Eblis after firing her torpedoes had hauled off to reload. When the enemy switched his searchlights off Shaitan hauled out too. It is not wholesome for destroyers to keep on the same course within a thousand yards of big enemy cruisers.
She picked up a destroyer of another division, Goblin, who for the moment had not been caught by the enemy’s searchlights and had profited by this decent obscurity to fire a torpedo at the hindmost of the cruisers. Almost as Shaitan took station behind Goblin the latter was lighted up by a large ship and heavily fired at. The enemy fled, but she left Goblin out of control, with a grisly list of casualties, and her helm jammed. Goblin swerved, returned, and swerved again; Shaitan astern tried to clear her, and the two fell aboard each other, Goblin’s bows deep in Shaitan’s fore-bridge. While they hung thus, locked, an unknown destroyer rammed Shaitan aft, cutting off several feet of her stern an leaving her rudder jammed hard over. As complete a mess as the Personal Devil himself could have devised., and all due to the merest accident of a few panicky salvoes. Presently the two ships worked clear in a smother of steam and oil, and went their several ways. Quite a while after she had parted from Shaitan, Goblin discovered several of Shaitan’s people, some of them wounded, on her own foc’sle, where they had been pitched by the collision. Goblin, working her way homeward on such boilers as remained, carried on a one-gun fight at a few cables’ distance with some enemy destroyers, who, not knowing what state she was in, sheered off after a few rounds. Shaitan, holed forward and opened up aft, came across the survivors from Gehenna clinging to their raft, and took them aboard. Then some of our destroyers—they were thick on the sea that night—tried to tow her stern-first, for Goblin had cut her up badly forward. But, since Shaitan lacked any stern, and her rudder was jammed hard across where the stern should have been, the hawsers parted, and, after leave asked of lawful authority, across all that waste of waters, they sank Shaitan by gun-fire, having first taken all the proper steps about the confidential books. Yet Shaitan had had her little crumb of comfort ere the end. While she lay crippled she saw quite close to her a German cruiser that was trailing homeward in the dawn gradually heel over and sink.
This completes my version of the various accounts of the four destroyers directly concerned for a few hours, on one minute section of one wing of our battle. Other ships witnessed other aspects of the agony and duly noted them as they went about their business. One of our battleships, for instance, made out by the glare of burning Gehenna that the supposed cruiser that Eblis torpedoed was German battleship of a certain class. So Gehenna did not die in vain, and we may take it that the discovery did not unduly depress Eblis’s wounded in hospital.
The rest of the flotilla that the four destroyers belonged to had their own adventures later. One of them, chasing or being chased, saw Goblin out of control just before Goblin and Shaitan locked, and narrowly escaped adding herself to that triple collision. Another loosed a couple of torpedoes at the enemy ships who were attacking Gehenna, which, perhaps, accounts for the anxiety of the enemy to break away from that hornets’ nest as soon as possible. Half a dozen or so of them ran into four German battleships, which they set about torpedoing at ranges varying from half a mile to a mile and a half. It was asking for trouble and they got it; but they got in return at least one big ship, and the same observant battleship of ours who identified Eblis’s bird reported three satisfactory explosions in half an hour, followed by a glare that lit up all the sky. One of the flotilla, closing on what she thought was the smoke of a sister in difficulties, found herself well in among the four battleships. “It was too late to get away,” she says, so she attacked, fired her torpedo, was caught up in the glare of a couple of searchlights, and pounded to pieces in five minutes, not even her rafts being left. She went down with her colours flying, having fought to the last available gun.
Another destroyer who had borne a hand in Gehenna’s trouble had her try at the four battleships and got in a torpedo at 800 yards. She saw it explode and the ship take a heavy list. “Then I was chased,” which is not surprising. She picked up a friend who could only do 20 knots. They sighted several Hun destroyers who fled from them; then dropped on to four Hun destroyers all together, who made great parade of commencing action, but soon afterwards “thought better of it, and turned away.” So you see, in that flotilla alone there was every variety of fight, from the ordered attacks of squadrons under control, to single ship affairs, every turn of which depended on the second’s decision of the men concerned; endurance to the hopeless end; bluff and cunning; reckless advance and red-hot flight; clear vision and as much of blank bewilderment as the Senior Service permits its children to indulge in. That is not much. When a destroyer who has been dodging enemy torpedoes and gun-fire in the dark realises about midnight that she is “following a strange British flotilla, having lost sight of my own,” she “decides to remain with them,” and shares their fortunes and whatever language is going.
If lost hounds could speak when they cast up next day, after an unchecked night among the wild life of the dark, they would talk much as our destroyers do.