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   Chapter 7 SUB-MARINERS OF ENGLAND

The History of Caliph Vathek By William Beckford Characters: 24193

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


Before us rocked the minefields,

Behind us flew the planes.

The swift destroyers chased us

Down the long sea lanes,

The stealthy currents fought us,

And, everywhere we went,

Crept Death, a little finger's breadth,

Beside us on the scent.

Lined with forts that defied the bombardment of our largest naval guns; protected by minefields that taxed the resources of our most intrepid fleets of sweepers; endowed by nature with an opposing current against which our destroyers, during some of the winter storms, were only able to maintain their stations by steaming ten knots ahead, the Dardanelles, guarding the Sea of Marmora, might well have seemed secure against our submarines. How little they were really so, was, however, made clear by Mr. Asquith in his summary of their achievements up to the end of October, 1915-a couple of months before the evacuation of the Peninsula and our withdrawal from the campaign. Up to that time it appeared, that, between them, they had sunk or damaged two Turkish battleships, five gunboats, one torpedo-boat, eight transports, and no less than 197 supply-ships of all kinds-an amazing record in view of the geographical advantages that had been bestowed upon the defence.

Where all were heroes, in the best sense of the word, carrying their lives in their hands on each trip, and where the unsuccessful, in defining the obstacles that baffled them, contributed almost equally to the general results, it is a thankless task, though the only possible one, to select particular units for our purpose. Just as in the Baltic, however, the two outstanding figures were Commander Horton and Captain Cromie, so in the Dardanelles the names that naturally emerge are those of Lieutenant-Commander Holbrook, Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith, and Lieutenant Guy D'Oyly Hughes; and it is to the adventures of these officers, as typical of their service, that we must confine our attention.

It was on Sunday, December 13, 1914, that Lieutenant-Commander Norman Holbrook, in the submarine B11, first demonstrated to Turkey and the world that the Dardanelles were navigable for British submarines; and, as a pioneer feat, it probably remains unequalled by any individual enterprise of the war. Then about twenty-six, Lieutenant-Commander Holbrook had been in command of the B11 for a year, the submarine herself, one of an early type, being part of the Malta Flotilla, and, at the time of this exploit, already eight years old. Her speed above the surface was no more than 13 knots; and, when submerged, she could only travel 9-the mere navigation of the Dardanelles, under such circumstances, being in itself a remarkable achievement.

It was three o'clock in the morning that the B11 left her base for the entrance to the Dardanelles, and no Elizabethan captain ever put to sea on a more perilous undertaking than that which faced the crew, less than a score, of the B11 in that December darkness. They reached the entrance, however, unobserved, took their bearings with the current streaming past them, and then submerged to sixty feet, and began their blindfold journey toward the minefields. Here they had to rely entirely on their electric motors capable of about 190 horse-power; and so, for hour after hour, they felt their way beneath the five rows of mines that were known to be guarding the Straits, and, when at last they rose again, a little before noon, it was to find themselves bathed in broad daylight, and to discover to their delight, well within reach, the Turkish battleship Messudiyeh.

Still unnoticed, they submerged immediately, charged the firing-tank, flooded the torpedo-tube, and stood by to fire. Now was the critical moment-not of the journey, perhaps, but to demonstrate beyond question that it had been successfully accomplished. The B11 crept up again to within fifteen feet. There was a fraction of a pause, and the torpedo was launched. This meant her discovery, of course, and, had not the torpedo gone home, a second chance could hardly have been expected. But it was a good shot, followed by a loud explosion, and a cautious peep through the periscope showed the Messudiyeh, completely surprised, to be sinking by her stern.

Built by the Thames Iron Works Company in 1874, she was of no great value as a battleship; and, although she had been reconstructed in Genoa in 1902, and carried two 9.2-inch guns besides a secondary armament, she was not in any sense a serious opponent, and her maximum speed was but 16 knots. But she was one of the only three battleships in the Turkish Navy; she carried a crew of 600 and was guarding the minefields; and the moral effect of her loss in so dramatic a fashion was profound. But a few years before, and this journey of Lieutenant-Commander Holbrook's would have seemed but the vain imagining of a novelist. Now it was a fact, and a fact that could be repeated, as others of his colleagues were to demonstrate.

Meanwhile the alarm had been given. The batteries on either side had opened fire and shells were beginning to plunge in all directions; and the B11 modestly sought concealment. With torpedo-boats quartering the surface, she dropped into darkness again, and then, for a horrible moment or two, it seemed that her end had come. At a depth of thirty feet there came an ominous shock; for ten minutes, she grated along a bed of shingle; but her good luck held, and she slid at last undamaged into the deep channel that she had been looking for. So the return journey began; the five rows of mines were once more successfully passed; at a depth of sixty feet, she drew level with Cape Helles, and then, after nine hours below, she came to the surface again. Thus ended a voyage hitherto unequalled in the submarine records of any navy, and one that secured for Lieutenant-Commander Holbrook the first Victoria Cross awarded to a naval officer since the beginning of the war.

Lieutenant-Commander Holbrook was a pioneer and his vessel was a comparatively old one, but scarcely less thrilling and, from the purely material standpoint, considerably more fruitful, was the voyage undertaken, about six months later, by Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith in the E11. Leaving Imbros at three o'clock one summer morning, he set out for the Dardanelles, dived at daybreak, and pushed his way, as Holbrook had done, beneath the defences of the Narrows. Emerging on the other side of these, he rose to the surface and saw a couple of battleships within range. By this time, however, the standard of vigilance above the Narrows had been very considerably raised; and, before E11 could discharge any of her torpedoes, her presence was discovered, and the ships escaped.

They opened fire as they did so, thus giving the general alarm, and the E11 accordingly submerged for the rest of the afternoon, not showing her periscope again till dusk, when she apparently had the sea to herself. She then proceeded, in naval phrase, into the Sea of Marmora at her leisure, but for a few days was unable to get in touch with any enemy craft. Not satisfied with this, she then made her way to the neighbourhood of Constantinople, where, on Sunday morning, she sighted and sank a big Turkish gunboat. This vessel went down in five minutes, but must have contained a gunner of some merit, since, before disappearing, she opened fire and with her second shot hit the E11's periscope.

This was soon repaired, however, and the next day she sighted a steamer and told her to stop. An officer and two men were sent aboard her, where they found a 6-inch gun, numerous gun-mountings, and some 15-inch ammunition; and accordingly, after the crew had taken to the boats, this vessel was also sent to the bottom. Hardly had she vanished when another steamer was sighted and, refusing to stop, chased into harbour, where she was torpedoed in the very act of making herself safe alongside a pier. A little later, yet a third vessel was seen and also chased to the shore; and then there ensued one of the strangest little actions that had been fought during the course of the war. For, at that moment, a body of Turkish cavalry came galloping up to defend the ship, and opened fire on the submarine, just as a boarding-party was about to leave her. For a few minutes, a duel followed between the E11 and the horsemen on shore, some of the latter being dropped from their saddles before the submarine dived and torpedoed the ship.

Monday had been a busy day, but on Tuesday Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith decided to enter Constantinople. In this he was successful, and, having made the harbour, torpedoed and sank a transport loaded with troops, exploding a second torpedo upon the shore, and creating a very considerable local panic. From Tuesday to Friday time passed uneventfully, but, on Friday morning, a convoy was sighted, consisting of five transports escorted by destroyers. Selecting the first and biggest, this was torpedoed, sinking in less than three minutes, the others escaping, and the E11 successfully evading the destroyers. Three more of these transports, as well as a supply-ship, were sunk a day or two afterward, and, a few days later, yet another transport was torpedoed, and a last one, on the way home, was sunk just before entering the Narrows.

With a round dozen vessels to her credit, the E11 then dived beneath the minefields, and might well have been thought to have had sufficient adventures for one small vessel in a single trip. But there was another in store for her that might readily have been her last for, when she came to the surface again that evening, it was to discover a mine, like a piece of seaweed, hanging over her bows and caressing her side. It was a perilous moment, but, in the words of one of her crew, the mine was "chucked" off as speedily as possible, and the E11 safely received into the waiting arms of her escort. For this voyage Lieutenant-Commander Nasmith also received the Victoria Cross, and every member of his crew the Distinguished Service Medal.

This was a great record, but it was closely pressed by many of her colleagues, notably the E14; and we find her in the Sea of Marmora again in August doing her best to sustain it. This time her voyage was made conspicuous by an extraordinarily daring journey on the part of her second in command, Lieutenant D'Oyly Hughes, who had already been decorated for his services in the earlier raid just recorded. His object was, if possible, to destroy a viaduct over which passed the Ismid Railway, skirting the coast; and, with this in view, on the night of August 21st, he left the submarine, about sixty yards from the shore. In readiness for his attempt, a raft had been prepared, on which were carefully packed his charge of explosives, his clothes, a revolver, a sharpened bayonet, an electric torch, and a whistle.

Dropping into the water, he pushed this before him, and swam warily to the shore, but found himself unable, at his first point of landing, to scale the cliffs that were here very precipitous. Accordingly he pushed out his raft again, and swam along the coast until a more promising ascent revealed itself, where he dressed, loaded himself with his charge, and, after a very steep climb, reached the top of the cliffs. Half an hour later, making his way inland, he came upon the line of the railway, and then, carrying his charge, began to creep quietly along it in the direction of the viaduct.

This he did for about a quarter of a mile, when he suddenly heard voices ahead of him, and presently saw three men sitting by the side of the railway, talking together loudly, and evidently quite oblivious of him. Crouching in the darkness, he watched them for some little time, and then decided to leave his heavy charge where it was, and, after having made a wide detour inland, inspect the viaduct and see how it was guarded.

Having marked the spot, therefore, where he had concealed his charge, he struck away from the railway into the unknown country beyond, and here he very nearly came to disaster, owing to an unlucky stumble into a small f

armyard. The poultry scuttered about calling, but happily without rousing the family, from whose undisturbed dreams it would surely be true to say that nothing could have been remoter than the vision of a British naval lieutenant, cursing under his breath, in the middle of their fowl-run. He was soon well away from this, and not very long afterward was within three hundred yards of the viaduct, where it soon became clear that there was very little prospect of his being able to secrete and fire his charge. At the end of it nearest to him, he could see a bright fire burning and the figures of several men moving to and fro, while the panting of an engine could be heard through the night, either on the viaduct itself or just beyond it.

There was nothing for it, therefore, but to make his way back to the place where he had hidden his explosive, and to find as suitable a spot in which to discharge it as the circumstances would allow. After a further search, he discovered a low brickwork support, carrying the line over a small hollow, and it was beneath this that he finally decided to place and explode his charge. Unfortunately the three men, whom he had first seen, were still sitting chatting by the line, and the spot selected was no more than one hundred and fifty yards away from them.

There was no other place, however, where so much damage could be done, and muffling up the fuse pistol with a rag, he discharged it. But the night was so still and the men were so near that for them to hear the report had been inevitable. Instantly they were on their feet and running down the line, and there was nothing for it but to take to his heels, the three men following at the top of their speed, a couple of revolver shots failing to check them. They too fired, but ineffectively, and the chase went on for about a mile, Lieutenant D'Oyly Hughes deciding that it was impossible to try and return the way he had come, and making down the line till he came to a place where it ran out beside the sea.

Just as he reached this, he had the satisfaction of hearing a loud explosion in the darkness behind him, some of the debris falling into the water, nearly half a mile away, close to the waiting submarine. But there was not a moment to be lost, and, fully dressed, Lieutenant D'Oyly Hughes plunged from the shore and swam as fast as he could for about a quarter of a mile straight out to sea. There he blew his whistle, but was unheard by the watchers on the submarine, this latter being behind a bend in the cliffs. Lieutenant D'Oyly Hughes therefore swam back to the shore again, and, after having rested for a few moments, decided that there was no other course open to him than to swim round this bend. Day was already nearing, and, time being imperative, he threw away his pistol, bayonet, and electric torch; and it was not until he had rounded the last point that his whistle was heard by the watchers on the E11. But others had heard it, too, and, from the top of the cliffs above him, there began to float down shouts and the reports of rifle shots. Owing to a trick of the morning mist, too, the emerging submarine appeared to him at first to be three separate rowing-boats-the bow, the conning-tower, and the gun being responsible for this illusion. Once again, therefore, he took to the shore with the intention of hiding under the cliffs, when, after climbing out of the water, he saw his mistake and shouted and signalled to his comrades. Eventually he was picked up by them forty yards out, almost on the point of exhaustion, and having swum, after no mean exertions ashore, nearly a mile in his clothes.

While the British submarines and their officers and crews were thus making themselves at home in the Sea of Marmora, a campaign as daring had already been begun in the similar enclosed area of the Baltic, Commander Max Horton in the E9 being in this case the pioneer. This officer had already accounted for a couple of German men-of-war, the light cruiser Hela sunk in the previous September, and the destroyer S126 put down three weeks later It was early on a fine Sunday morning that the E8 had sighted the Hela about six miles south of Heligoland. Two torpedoes were launched, and about half a minute after the second was despatched, the listeners on board E9 had heard an explosion telling them that one at any rate had got home. A quarter of an hour later, the E9 had emerged again to see the Hela listing heavily and apparently beyond hope of redemption; and, when she had next come to the surface, it was to find the cruiser gone and her first German warship to her credit. The destroyer had been sunk three weeks later, near the mouth of the Ems River and under the very guns of Borkum.

Such was the record of Commander Max Horton before he made his way into the Baltic in the following year, and began to operate there almost at the same time as his colleagues established their mastery in the Sea of Marmora; and he was worthily succeeded by Francis Cromie, than whose personal story the war produced no stranger. Entering the Baltic in the summer of 1915, as a lieutenant-commander in the submarine E19, to die three years later, as an acting captain, in the most tragic of circumstances at Petrograd, few men can have played, in so short a time, such a bewildering variety of parts.

Having arrived in the Baltic, his first task was to combat as far as possible the importation into Germany of ore from the Swedish mines. To this end he organized, therefore, and he was the first to organize, a definite and co?rdinated plan of campaign; and this soon bore visible fruits, not only in the number of vessels sunk, but in the precautions forced upon the enemy. Within a few days, in the early autumn, no less than ten of these vessels were put out of action, the majority being total losses. Amongst the victims were the Lulfa, Nicomedia, Gutrune, and Pernambuco-all vessels over 3,000 tons; while, a few days afterward, five German transports were torpedoed and sunk, and a sixth forced to run aground. Of these no less than ten were the actual victims of Lieutenant-Commander Cromie himself in the E19.

His most notable feat in this year, however, was the sinking of the German cruiser Undine, which was engaged with some destroyers in protecting a train-ferry upon which Lieutenant-Commander Cromie had designs. Of the general spirit in which not only this particular expedition, but all his work was undertaken, something can be gathered from a letter to his mother in which he describes his adventures as follows: "We did another fifteen hundred miles," he wrote, "this last trip. I went to bed for the first two days out with 'flue,' and so directed operations from my bunk. We met a German submarine and had to dive in a hurry, and found ourselves down at 140 feet, before I could get out of bed to take charge. The third day we found a lot of 'wood' outside neutral waters, and, after a short chase, we made a lovely bonfire, being unable to sink the stuff. The 'inhabitants' left hurriedly, leaving a small puppy dog, which we rescued. Its father was a Great Dane, and its mother a pug, but considering it is a 'Hun' it is not half bad, and is a great favourite. Nothing travels by daylight since our last raid on the 'hen-run'; so my special haunt was very dull, and I gave it up after four days, and tried another spot where I knew train-ferries must pass. We had an exciting chase, but it was spoilt by two destroyers and a cruiser turning up. Guessing that they would come back again I lay low, and, sure enough, I caught the Undine in the afternoon. The first shot stopped her and put her on fire, but she was not going down quickly enough, so, avoiding the destroyer who was after us, I dived under the Undine's stern and gave her another from the other side.... We arrived in covered with ice."

Technically an expert of the highest order, modest and courageous, he was idolized by his men, and his conduct when once, off the port of Memel, the propellers of his submarine became caught in some German nets, would have afforded ample reason for this, even had it not been an expression of a character already well known to them. Whether or no he had been taking a legitimate risk, for the predicament in which they found themselves, he instantly took the full blame. For several hours, they had tried in vain to free themselves, and it looked as if at last they had been outwitted. Calling his crew together, he frankly confessed to them that he had taken them into this trap and that he saw no way out. His intention was, therefore, if the worst should come to the worst, to rise to the surface and give them a chance for their lives, he himself remaining below to blow up the vessel and save it from capture. Happily, by a last skilful and well-planned manoeuvre, he succeeded in freeing the propellers from the entanglement, and the E19 was once more at liberty, having never been nearer death, to continue her career.

It was not only as a submarine commander of the first quality, however, that Cromie was unobtrusively making his mark, but as an organizer and administrator in charge of his flotilla through a period of ever-increasing difficulty. Busy, as he was, arranging for repairs and supplies, and safeguarding the moral of his men in strange and remote surroundings, he found or made time to learn the Russian language, with results quite impossible to over-estimate. By the end of 1916, he had acquired-let us rather say there had come to him-a reputation extending far beyond the little technical world of the British submarine contingent. For patent efficiency, complete honesty, and entire fearlessness, there are no international boundaries; and in Cromie there were added to these a very remarkable patience and deep human sympathies. It was these qualities, recognized by all parties, that, throughout the abrupt and dark changes of the Russian Revolution, invested Cromie with an unique influence, responsible for the saving of scores of lives.

Stationed at Reval, it was largely due to Cromie that, when the naval mutiny broke out in the Russian Fleet, many officers were saved from the fate that befell their less fortunate colleagues at Helsingfors and Cronstadt. With his headquarters on the Russian cruiser Dwina, Cromie lived through the spectacle of beholding his own Russian servant appointed to the command of the vessel; yet, though he had vigorously deplored the formation of the committees that took over the charge of the Fleet and appealed to them in vain to uphold the discipline vital to the preservation of the Russian navy, their personal respect for him enabled him to hold his flotilla together and even to carry on offensive warfare.

It was not for very long, however, that this continued possible. The débacle that had set in could not be stayed; and, after the treaty between Germany and the Bolshevik Government had been signed at Brest-Litovsk, hope flickered out. There was then nothing left but to destroy the British submarines, and for their gallant crews to return home; but Captain Cromie, as he had then become, was appointed naval attaché at Petrograd.

Here he carried into a new and perilous sphere the same qualities that had already distinguished him, and his influence with all sections was of a kind possessed by no other British representative. Even when the British Embassy was withdrawn, he remained at his post in spite of the fast-accumulating threats of hunger, pestilence, fanaticism, and German intrigue. He was at last to die, at Bolshevik hands, in a Petrograd brawl in September, 1918; but yet without leaving, in spite of the madness that slew him, a real enemy in Russia.

A bold and skilful seaman, a first-class organizer and leader of men, a naturally sagacious diplomatist, he was of a type not too common even in the navy itself. A Chevalier of St. George, in the case of Francis Cromie, it may be said that the words, indeed, bore their literal meaning, and few of our losses in the turmoil of war were less reparable than his.

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