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   Chapter 9 THE DOVER PATROL

The History of Caliph Vathek By William Beckford Characters: 31657

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


The kings and the presidents go their ways,

Their armies march behind them,

But where would they be,

Said the man from the sea,

Without us Jacks to mind them?

It is seldom possible, during the course of a war, to appraise the ultimate value of any single action; and it was only by slow degrees, as we have suggested, that the results of Jutland were to become visible. Not until the very end was it fully to appear that the enemy's capital surface ships had been so hammered and cowed as to have freed the seas of them with a finality equalled by no other naval fight in history. Presently, as we shall show, that proved to be the case; and, from now onward, he relied upon his submarines-it was early in 1917 that these reached their high-water mark of mercantile destruction-and occasional tip-and-run raids on the part of his destroyers based upon Zeebrugge and Ostend.

With regard to the submarine campaign, this was the most serious menace the Admiralty had been required to face; and it was to take charge of the grave situation, created by its initial success, that Sir John Jellicoe, to the sorrow of the Fleet and with much personal regret, was called to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in succession to Sir Henry Jackson.

This able officer had succeeded Lord Fisher on the latter's resignation in May, 1915-when the Gallipoli campaign had seemed to him finally to have made an end of his alternative policy-Mr. Balfour having become First Lord in the Coalition Government formed at the same time. In Admiral Beatty, however, both the navy and the nation felt that the Grand Fleet would be in capable hands-the changes taking place after friendly discussion between the officers concerned, in the Iron Duke-and Sir John Jellicoe returned to Whitehall to deal with as perilous a crisis as had ever faced the empire.

What had in fact happened was that, under the stimulus of war, both scientific research and achievement had advanced, as regarded the submarine, with unprecedented strides. From a range of scores to a range of hundreds and even thousands of miles, they had become effective. They had begun to attain a speed that put them on superior terms to the vast bulk of mercantile steamers; and they already carried guns that, before the war, it would have been thought impossible to mount, and that were in fact heavier than those carried by the earlier German destroyers. Nor had the measures of defence as yet overtaken those of destruction in the race for stability. The methods that, to a great extent, had been successful in dealing with the smaller submarines had become obsolete; and the devising of others, their practical application, and the safeguarding, in the meantime, of our mercantile marine-more than half a million tons of mercantile shipping were, at this time, being sunk every month-were problems upon whose solution depended not only the victory of the Allied cause, but the actual physical existence of the people upon these islands.

Of the means ultimately adopted, of which it may at once be said that none was in itself a complete solution, it would be impossible, in the present volume, to give more than the briefest details. The plotting out of minefields for which 100,000 mines, of an improved type, were ordered by Admiral Jellicoe, and of which the most extensive was designed to stretch from the north of Scotland to the waters of Norway; the construction and employment on a vast scale of speedy patrol vessels of all descriptions; the regular use of aircraft, both for observation and the dropping of depth-charges; and the development of the convoy system with destroyer escorts, as the increase in the production of the latter justified this-it was rather to a combination of all these methods, and the skill and adaptability of the men employing them, that the ascendency over this new weapon was slowly regained. Of one particular means, however, namely the employment of lure ships-armed vessels, variously disguised-no record of our naval activities from the personal standpoint could omit some account; and of the amazing courage and ingenuity with which the Q ships, as they were called, were handled, let the following couple of examples, chosen at random, sufficiently indicate.

Powerfully armed, but with a false screen disguising the extent of her armament, the apparently easy prey, H. M. S. Prize, a topsail schooner of 200 tons, was sighted, on April 30, 1917, by a prowling submarine. This opened fire at about three miles range, and, according to plan, Lieutenant W. E. Sanders ordered some of his crew, as though in a panic, to lower a boat and push off. Meanwhile the ship's head was put into the wind, and the gun crews lay flat on the deck to conceal themselves. Still shelling the schooner and inflicting numerous casualties-borne in silence as part of the game-the submarine approached to within seventy yards, apparently satisfied that she had been definitely abandoned. That was Lieutenant Sanders' chance, and he made the fullest use of it. Running up the White Ensign, the screens were dropped, and every available gun opened fire. The submarine's conning-tower was blown to pieces, as was her forward gun, all of the crew of the latter being destroyed; while a machine-gun on the Prize raked her deck. In less than five minutes she was on fire and sinking in a cloud of smoke, her captain and one of her men being picked up and brought aboard the Prize as prisoners. The Prize herself, however, was now sinking fast; and it was only by the most strenuous efforts of all aboard that the holes in her were plugged and she was kept afloat till, two days later, she was found by a motor-launch.

Less successful, but equally representative of the work of these individualist adventure-ships, was the extraordinary action fought by the Dunraven in the following August. Commanded by Captain Gordon Campbell, who had already distinguished himself in this particular form of warfare, the Dunraven, apparently an ordinary armed merchant-ship, sighted an enemy submarine on the horizon. Observing that the Dunraven continued her zig-zag course, the submarine at once set off in chase of her, remaining submerged till within less than three miles, when she came to the surface and opened fire. With what was seemingly her single gun, the Dunraven began to reply to this, at the same time sending out distress signals, by means of her wireless, in order to preserve her supposed character. Later, as the shells began to drop nearer, she lowered her "panic" party, being already herself then on fire aft.

Meanwhile the submarine had approached to within 400 yards, being obscured by the Dunraven's smoke; and, for this reason, though every moment's delay added to the risk of her after magazine's being blown up, Captain Campbell decided not to open fire until he could get a clearer view of his enemy. Unfortunately, before this happened, a heavy explosion revealed to the submarine the true nature of thee Dunraven by accidentally starting her fire-gongs, one of her guns, with its gun crew, having been destroyed. There was no alternative, therefore, but to drop the screens-though only one gun could be brought to bear-the enemy submarine, taking alarm, having already begun to submerge. It was now obvious that the Dunraven would be torpedoed, and Captain Campbell took prompt measures. Removing the wounded, and concealing them in cabins, and bringing a hose to bear on the fire, he signalled that all traffic should be kept below the horizon during the final act that was to come. Having been twice torpedoed, he then sent away a second "panic" party, and thus left the ship apparently forsaken, with all her guns unmasked and the White Ensign flying.

The fires had now to be left to work their will; ammunition was exploding on all sides; and, for fifty minutes, while Captain Campbell and those remaining with him still lay hidden, the submarine cautiously surveyed the vessel through her projecting periscope. She then came to the surface, astern of the Dunraven, where no guns could be trained on her, and, for twenty minutes, proceeded to shell her before steaming past, and again examining her. Captain Campbell then decided to let off a torpedo at her, but this just missed. Apparently unobservant of this, the submarine then turned and steamed slowly down the other side, Captain Campbell loosing a second torpedo, also unhappily without result. This was seen by the enemy, who at once submerged again, Captain Campbell signalling for help; while, as a last resource, he disembarked yet a third "panic" party, leaving but one gun's crew aboard. Nothing more was heard from the enemy, however, and, in a few minutes, British and American destroyers were on the scene; the wounded were transferred; the fires were put out; and the Dunraven was taken in tow. Both Captain Campbell and Lieutenant-Commander Sanders received the Victoria Cross for their Q boat work-the latter being unfortunately lost, with his schooner the Prize a few months after the incident just related.

Now in all these measures, as in the surveillance of shipping and the protection of Anglo-French traffic, the Dover Patrol necessarily played a commanding and indeed vital part. Upon it devolved the guarding of the southern of the two outlets by which alone the German submarines might escape into the Atlantic; and the difficulties were trebled by the enemy's possession of the West Flanders ports. With the geography and defences of these and their strategical significance we shall deal more particularly in the next chapter as with the splendid episode in which the Dover Patrol rendered them largely valueless to the enemy. But it must never be forgotten that, for nearly four years, the Dover Patrol carried on its work with the hostile ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend always within three hours' steaming. Darkness is the friend of the destroyer, daylight the friend of the submarine. Both were stationed at these enemy ports; and the strain upon the Dover command can thus be gauged. Further, it has to be remembered that through no other channel in the world passes so continual a procession of ships, how integral in the life of this country let a single incident suffice to show. In perhaps the darkest hour of the war, a serious proposal was made to the Government completely to seal the Straits of Dover for a certain defensive purpose. The proposal was examined, and it was then ascertained that, as regarded London alone, one of the following alternatives must immediately follow. Either it would have to be arranged, at a time when pressure upon our rolling-stock was at its severest, that no less than seventy-two additional trains should enter London daily, or that more than three and a half millions of London's population should be removed to the Atlantic ports that it was proposed to use. The suggestion was thus found to be wholly impracticable, but its examination at least proved the immense responsibility resting upon the Dover Patrol and the officers in charge of it.

Established at the beginning of the war, the examination service in the Downs, therefore, continued without intermission to its end, the work being conducted by the Ramsgate Boarding Flotilla, largely manned by reservists and volunteers. From a hundred and twenty, diminishing, as the war proceeded, to eighty vessels a day were thus overhauled; and, almost every night, the Patrol was responsible for the safety of a hundred vessels here at anchorage. Nor did these duties exhaust the list, for to the Dover Patrol fell the additional task of supporting, day and night, the left flank of the British army. In a very real sense, indeed, it was itself not only the left flank of the British army, but of the whole of the Allied forces reaching from the Alps to the Belgian coast. Subject to continual attack not only from enemy surface-craft and the ever more efficient German submarines, but from daily and nightly excursions of hostile aeroplanes and airships, its own weapons of offence were largely novel and hitherto untried. The sea-going monitor was still, in most respects, an unfamiliar vessel; and the splendid qualities of these shallow-draught gun-platforms-some of which had just been completed for river work in Brazil-were as yet unrevealed when first enlisted for their arduous duties upon the Belgian coast. When it is also recalled that under no other command, perhaps, was serving so large a proportion of amateurs, some idea becomes possible, not only of the peculiar functions of the Dover Patrol, but of the very deep debt owed by the nation to this sort of naval maid-of-all-work.

To Rear-Admiral the Hon. Horace A. L. Hood-afterward, as we have seen, to be lost in the Battle of Jutland-fell the responsible task, in the first days of war, of directing the activities of this composite force; and, in the great race toward the coast that followed the first battle of the Marne, a flotilla under his command was actively engaged in supporting the left wing of the Belgian army. It was during the last half of October, 1914, that the military position, as regarded the coast-line, was most critical; and it was during the night of October 17th that Admiral Hood, flying his flag in the old fleet-scout Attentive, anchored off Nieuport Pier with three monitors, the Severn, Humber, and Mersey, the light cruiser Foresight, and several destroyers.

Early next morning news was received that the German infantry was marching from Westende, and the flotilla moved up the coast to draw the fire from, and if possible to silence, the batteries that accompanied them. Almost immediately fire broke out from the shore, and this proved to be the beginning of a coastal campaign that continued without intermission for the next three weeks. For the defence of Nieuport some machine-guns from the monitor Severn were put ashore, and it was while in charge of these that Lieutenant E. S. Wise, gallantly leading his men, was killed.

For the first few days, the enemy troops were trying to push along the coast roads in considerable force; a large amount of transport came under the naval guns; and much damage and destruction was caused by them. In view of this, the enemy soon changed his tactics, the infantry being withdrawn; while heavier guns were brought into action, compelling a response from the sea-forces. The lighter craft were therefore sent home to be replaced by H.M.S. Venerable and some old cruisers, while, at the same time, five French destroyers were placed by Admiral Favereau under Admiral Hood's command-the latter having the honour, as he put it (and it is tempting to wonder what would have been the comments upon this of the Hood who fought under Pitt) of flying his own flag in the French destroyer Intrepide.

During the later stages, persistent submarine-attacks were made upon the larger bombarding vessels, but these were thwarted, though not without casualties, by the alertness and dash of the destroyers. It was while thus guarding the Venerable that the destroyer Falcon came under a very heavy fire from the enemy's larger guns, and exhibited, in the persons of her officers and crew, the utmost coolness and devotion. Thus, under a hail of projectiles that eventually killed him, Lieutenant Wauton remained unmoved at his outlook for submarines. With the captain and twenty-four men killed and wounded, Sub-Lieutenant Du Boulay took command of the ship. Finding himself the only unwounded man on deck, Able-Seaman Ernest Dimmock immediately went to the helm while Petty-Officer Robert Chappell, himself dying, and with both legs shattered, worked to the last, as best he could, tending his fellow wounded on board. Meanwhile on land, owing to the arrival of reinforcements and th

e skilful inundation of the flat country, the enemy's rush was finally checked, and the position more or less established early in November.

Such was the high standard set at the outset by the Dover Patrol; and, under Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald H. Bacon, who succeeded Rear-Admiral Hood in the following April, it was not only worthily sustained, but finally established beyond challenge-the development of Dunkirk as an additional offensive base, being one of the great achievements of the war. Thus, in spite of its ever more arduous and multitudinous duties-and it is interesting to remember that this was the command in which Nelson was the least successful and most ill at ease-it had been engaged, by the end of 1915, in no less than fourteen concerted actions. Knocke, Heyst, Zeebrugge, Ostend, Middlekerke, and Westende had been severally attacked; three military factories, two ammunition depots, storehouses, and signalling stations had been destroyed; considerable damage had been done to the wharves and the famous Mole at Zeebrugge; thirteen large guns had been put out of action; and a dredger, a torpedo-boat, and two submarines sunk.

During this time the only British losses were three vessels sunk; and their very names indicate the extent and variety of the marine resources that were to prove our salvation. The armed yacht Sanda, the pleasure steamer Brighton Queen, once so often thronged with cross-channel trippers, and the drifter Great Heart-these were the first casualties of the Dover Patrol. That they were so few was due in large measure to the vigilance and seamanship of three men, of Commodore C. D. Johnston in command of the Dover destroyers; of Captain P. G. Bird in charge of the drifters; and of Commander W. Rigg, who was chiefly responsible for the early organization of the mine-sweepers; while to Wing-Commander Longmore of the Dunkirk aerodrome must be assigned much of the credit for checking the enemy's aircraft. Had they not been supported, however, by the cheerful fidelity and amazing competence of their subordinates, they could have achieved but little as was generously recognized by Vice-Admiral Bacon in his first official despatch.

"Their Lordships will appreciate," he wrote, "the difficulties attendant on the cruising in company by day and night under war conditions of a fleet of eighty vessels comprising several widely different classes, manned partly by trained naval ratings, but more largely by officers of the naval reserve, whose fleet training has necessarily been scant, and by men whose work in life has hitherto been that of deep sea fishermen. The protection of such a moving fleet by the destroyers in waters which are the natural home of the enemy's submarines, has been admirable, and justifies the training and organization of the personnel of the flotilla. But more remarkable still, in my opinion, is the aptitude shown by the officers and crews of the drifters and trawlers, which, in difficult waters, under conditions totally strange to them, have maintained their allotted stations without a single accident. Moreover, these men under fire have exhibited a coolness well worthy of the personnel of a service inured by discipline. The results show how deeply sea adaptability is ingrained in the seafaring race of these islands."

Those are words that, if they were true of the first sea-recruits of 1914, are equally, and, in some respects, more astonishingly applicable to the thousands that subsequently joined them from all ranks. Of these earlier candidates for sea service, none was more typical than Lieutenant-Commander H. T. Gartside Tipping, the oldest naval officer then afloat and one of the first to perish in the Narrow Seas. Having retired from the navy, with the rank of lieutenant, thirty-five years before the outbreak of war, Lieutenant-Commander Tipping had inherited a small estate, including a yacht, in the Isle of Wight. Here he had lived a quiet country life, ardently devoted to yacht racing; had kept himself alert and physically fit; and, at the age of sixty-six, having rejoined his old service and been given the rank of lieutenant-commander, had gladly and efficiently served under officers who might almost have been his grandsons.

To such a man as Lieutenant-Commander Tipping, however, the call of the sea may quite understandably have been imperative. Far less foretellable, and only to be explained, surely, by the racial instinct referred to by Admiral Bacon, was the later phenomenon of expert sailors quartering the seas in fast patrol-boats, who, but a year or two before, had been farmers or commercial travellers, or clerks behind counters in London shops. Christened in naval fashion by their professional brothers with various opprobious nicknames, these were in reality but the affectionate symbols of the older navy's pride in its temporary junior partners; and the best measure of their work-necessarily undramatic, as all preventive work must largely be-is a survey of what the enemy was unable to accomplish in any representative period of the war. Let us take, for example, the six months before the Battle of Jutland, in its middle period. In that half year, through the Dover Patrol alone, there passed 21,000 merchant ships, and of these only 21 were lost or seriously damaged as the result of enemy action-little less than one in every thousand, entrusted to the case of this particular command. More remarkable still, perhaps, since these were inevitably, of course, the enemy's constant and most tempting target, not a single transport or one soldier's life was lost at sea during the same time.

Such had been the record, then, of the Dover Patrol up to the events described in the last chapter-events that, as we have shown, drove Germany's naval activity, for its main efforts, under the water, and confined it afloat to those tip-and-run raids of which that of the following February may be taken as typical. It was on Sunday night, February 25th, soon after eleven o'clock, that a number of star-shells suddenly broke in the sky over the Isle of Thanet, illuminating the coast for a long distance and bringing many of its inhabitants to their windows. Almost simultaneously a brisk bombardment revealed the presence of a flotilla of German destroyers-Margate, Broadstairs, and a little hamlet between them, being subjected to the enemy's fire. Fortunately the casualties were few, and there was no military damage-none of the places attacked being fortified towns-but a woman and a child were killed and two children seriously wounded, and a dozen houses wrecked or injured. A single British destroyer pluckily engaged the enemy, who was soon lost to sight in the darkness, neither the British vessel nor any of the raiders suffering, as far as was known, any serious hurt.

For this enemy success, if such it can be called, and for one or two previous ones of a like nature, there was considerable criticism of the Dover Patrol, chiefly of an ignorant and hasty character. With the Germans at Zeebrugge and Ostend, and in favourable conditions of weather and darkness, it was obviously out of the question to give immutable guarantees against occasional excursions such as these; and that these brief and lawless bombardments reflected no lack of spirit on the part of the Patrol, the Dover destroyers Swift and Broke were soon triumphantly to demonstrate.

This was in the small hours of the dark morning of April 21, 1917, some of the German destroyers having crept into the Straits and shelled both Dover and Calais. In the case of the former town there were no casualties, but over a hundred shells were thrown into Calais, several people being killed, others injured, and a good many houses being destroyed. Out on patrol and near mid-channel steaming westward, were the Swift and Broke, the Swift leading under Commander Ambrose Peck, and the Broke in charge of Commander E. R. Evans. Of the two vessels, soon to become immortal, the Swift was seven years the older, having been launched at Birkenhead in 1907 from the yards of Messrs. Cammel Laird. She had a displacement of 1,800 tons and carried four 4-inch guns. The Broke, on the other hand, had only just been completed before the outbreak of war, and, although approximately of the same dimensions, carried six 4-inch guns and three torpedo-tubes. By a remarkable coincidence, in view of what was to come, she bore the name of that Sir Philip Broke who commanded the Shannon during her historic duel in the spring of 1813, with the Chesapeake, when the latter was captured, after a most heroic resistance, during a hand-to-hand struggle on her deck. Commander Evans was, of course, the famous Polar explorer, who had been second-in-command to the ill-fated Captain Scott.

The sea was quite calm, but, in the black night, it was impossible to see more than half a mile ahead; and the enemy vessels were but six hundred yards distant when they were spotted by the destroyers' lookouts. Six in number, and including amongst them some of the fastest destroyers in the world, they were then on the port bow and travelling at high speed in an opposite direction to that of the Swift and Broke; and, almost simultaneously, they became aware of the presence of the two Britishers. Instantly they sounded their fire-gongs, and, six to two, opened rapid fire. A minute before and the Swift and Broke had been respectable members of a gallant flotilla. Ten minutes later-such is the luck of the sea-and they had written their names forever in British naval history.

Wheeling round almost at right angles to her previous course, and in the face of the point-blank fire and dazzling flashes of the enemy's guns; with a target before her little more than 300 feet long and racing through the darkness at nearly thirty miles an hour; with the practical certainty, if she missed this, of being herself rammed by the next in the line; regardless of the odds, the Swift hurled herself at the first visible German destroyer. So instant had been the decision of the Swift's commander, that it might almost have been called automatic-the natural response not only of a lifetime's schooling, but of all the centuries behind this of British admiralty. Hit or miss, it was a sporting chance, the chance of a lifetime, and he took it. Alas, it was a miss, but such a narrow one that he himself cut through without disaster, swung round to port, torpedoed another of the six, and then picked up and chased a third.

Meanwhile the Broke, following the Swift, had put her helm over almost at the same moment; had successfully torpedoed one of the enemy line, literally plastering her with 4-inch shells; and was now making to ram another-possibly the one that the Swift had missed. This she did, splitting her at full speed, burying her bows in her and crushing her down; and there then ensued such a fight as had scarcely been witnessed since the days of steam. With a gun out of action and part of her bridge already carried away before she had rammed; with her helmsman bleeding from several wounds but sticking to his wheel as long as he was conscious; with the remaining enemy destroyers pouring their shells into her, and German sailors swarming into her forecastle-the Broke raked her prey with everything that could be fired from a 4-inch gun to an automatic pistol.

By now, however, several Germans had gained their footing on deck, where Midshipman Gyles had been working the forward guns; and, for a few seconds, half blind with blood, and almost alone, he met the rush. Then a huge German seized his pistol-wrist and tried to wrench the weapon away from him, only to be struck at and thwarted by Petty-Officer Woodfield and finally cutlassed by Able Seaman Ingelson. With cutlasses and pistols the decks were then cleared, and a couple of hiding Germans made prisoners, and half a minute later the Broke freed herself from the German destroyer. With the Swift still chasing the enemy that she had marked down, and with two others put out of action, the Broke now turned her attention to the remainder and attempted to ram yet one more. In this she failed-she had been struck in the boiler-room and was becoming difficult to manoeuvre-but loosed a torpedo at the destroyer nearest to her, and was successful in hitting her.

The enemy was now in full flight, but the disabled Broke succeeded in drawing level with one of the burning destroyers. Rapidly losing way, she nevertheless approached her at considerable risk to herself, the enemy, who had previously been shouting for help, suddenly and unexpectedly opening fire-an act of treachery that, as it proved, merely hastened his end. Four rounds silenced him, and a torpedo aimed amidships struck him fairly and settled his fate.

Meanwhile the Swift, herself partially disabled, had lost touch with the vanishing enemy, and, coming about, had sighted the destroyer rammed by the Broke and now on the verge of sinking. Here, too, the sailors on board were chorussing their desire to surrender; but, with natural suspicion, the Swift remained on guard, her guns trained on the sinking vessel. Presently this heeled over; the crew took to the water; and, as there seemed to be no other enemy vessel in sight, the Swift cautiously switched on her searchlights, lowered her boats, and began the work of rescue. At the same time the Broke began to signal to her-the whole fight had lasted barely five minutes-and the two crews were soon cheering each other, as well they might.

Both the destroyers sunk were four-funnelled vessels of the fastest and latest German type; two others had been crippled; and over a hundred men and officers taken prisoners. When the Broke rammed, as her helmsman had said, "I smiled for the first time during the action"-and that smile may be taken as representative not only of both ships' companies but of the town of Dover on that April morning, when the two destroyers, saluted by everything in the harbour, modestly crept to their buoys.

Brilliant as this little action was, however, and typical both of the ineptitude with which the German destroyer-service was handled, and the prestige that the Dover Patrol had built up for itself during the war, it was but an incident of the ceaseless campaign, waged with almost every weapon in the Narrow Seas. Thus, while the coastal bombardments that had been so prominent a feature of the earlier months of the war were, for military reasons, deemed inadvisable during 1916 and 1917, an active blockade of the occupied Flanders area was maintained and vigorously pressed home.

Not only was the minefield that had been laid down when the North Sea was first closed continually added to, but other barrages were always being thought out and improved as necessity demanded. Thus, in 1916, twenty miles of nets had been laid parallel to the Belgian coast, and, in the winter of the same year, another had been constructed from the Goodwins to Dunkirk. This was somewhat difficult to keep in order, but the Belgian nets were renewed in 1917, and, in November and December of the same year, 4,000 mines were laid between Folkestone and Boulogne. These were of the latest type, and, with further additions, together with a system of flares and day and night patrols, developed into a barrier against which, in the end, the German submarines beat in vain-at least seventeen of these being certainly known to have fallen victims to its efficiency.

Second only in naval importance to the Grand Fleet, and in even more strenuous contact with the enemy, none had more cause, perhaps, to bless the Dover Patrol, of whose unadvertised work this is but the barest outline, than those 2,000,000 soldiers, for whom, each year, it acted as crossing-sweeper, on their way home to England.

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