Authors: Nicholas Monsarrat
‘Midships . . . Wheel’s amidships, sir.’
‘Steady, sir . . . Course, north, twenty-five west, sir.’
They held the new course for five minutes, till the fishing boats were abeam and well clear of them. Then he brought the ship back on her former course, and was just about to make a note of the manoeuvre in the deck log when from the Captain’s voice-pipe there came a sudden call: ‘Bridge!’
‘Bridge, sir,’ answered Ferraby.
‘What were you altering for, sub?’
‘A fishing boat, sir,’ he said, compromising with the strict truth. ‘We’re clear of it now.’ His surprise made him add: ‘How did you know, sir?’
He heard the Captain chuckle. ‘The steering engine makes a lot of noise down here . . . Everything all right?’
‘Yes, sir. The next light’s coming abeam now.’
He waited for a comment, but none came, and presently a slight snore told him that he need not wait any longer. Obscurely, he felt rather proud of that snore. It was the most definite compliment he had had so far in the ship.
It grew lighter: the sky imperceptibly paled: to the eastward, the land took on a harder outline, and beyond the nearest hills others began to come into view, their snow summits waiting to catch the first shafts of the sun. Matching the sky, the sea round them paled also, turning from black to a livid grey; and a distant lighthouse, which had been beckoning them towards the horizon, struggled against the coming of daylight and faded till its beam was a faint, wan flicker against a mist of rising land. The whole length of the ship gradually emerged, from a dark outline into a three-dimensional and solid structure, with frost glistening all along the upper works: on the bridge, figures and then faces came up sharp and clear – lined faces, grey with cold and fatigue, but relaxing now as the dawn cheered them.
Below, the ship stirred and came to life, welcoming or accepting the end of the watch. The smoke from the galley chimney thickened, and bore with it a coarse and cheerful smell of frying: feet rang on ladders and along the iron deck: from a hatchway aft, the grey bristly face of Chief E.R.A. Watts peered at the daylight as if scarcely believing in it. The first night at sea was over.
Just before eight, Lockhart came up to the bridge to take over the watch. He had had nearly four hours’ sleep and was feeling fresher than he had expected.
‘All alone?’ he asked, when he had had time to look round him.
‘Yes,’ answered Ferraby. He could not resist elaborating. ‘I took the last two hours myself.’
Lockhart smiled. ‘Is that so? And to think that I slept peacefully through it all . . .’ He looked at the nearest point of land. ‘How far have we got?’
Ferraby, showing him their position on the chart, asked: ‘Are you taking over? Where’s Number One?’
‘Eating breakfast,’ said Lockhart tonelessly. ‘Snorkers. Good-oh.’
For a moment they stood side by side in the cold morning air. The sun was now just under the rim of the hills; it was a lovely morning. Still steady, still as tranquil as the day,
ploughed northwards past magic islands. Lockhart sniffed the faint breeze. ‘Fun, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Ferraby. ‘Yes, it is.’
Vice-Admiral Sir Vincent Murray-Forbes, K.C.B., D.S.O., R.N. sat at his desk on the Operations building overlooking Ardnacraish harbour, playing despondently with a silver paperknife engraved: ‘Presented to Lieut.-Commander V. Murray-Forbes, R.N., on relinquishing command of HMS
From the Ship’s Company, October 1909. Good luck.’ He did not see the engraved sentences: indeed, he had not read them for many years; but they had a direct connexion with his despondency, and especially the date, which was incontrovertible. It was something he carried with him always, like an unlucky charm; for it meant, by inference, that he was in his sixtieth year, and was too old to go to sea again.
The Admiral looked what he was: an old sailor, and surely due for retirement after a lifetime of distinguished service in the Navy. It was a lined face, strong, tremendously wrinkled round the eyes: the broad stretch of gold braid on his sleeves was impressive, and the rows of medal-ribbons seemed no more than the face deserved. The D.S.O. was Jutland, the K.C.B. represented a long and brilliant serial story, from C.-in-C. China to C.-in-C. Home Fleet and then to a notable shore appointment: the rest of the ribbons signified that he had managed to stay alive a long time in various odd parts of the globe. Too long, indeed, for his present peace of mind: the year 1918, when he was captain in command of a destroyer flotilla, had been the peak of his fighting days, and now this new war had come too late for him to start them all over again. For though he had managed to defer his overdue retirement, it had not been for the reason that he had hoped.
They would not send him back to sea. ‘Not repeat not too old’, he wrote in firm capitals on the signal pad in front of him, and then, as firmly, scored it out again. But the defiant scrawl represented something which could
be scored out. Three months earlier, after intensive wangling, he had very nearly brought off the sea appointment that he craved for; but fifty-nine years could not be gainsaid, and the Sea Lord who was his personal friend had had to pass him by. Instead – ‘A most responsible job,’ they reassured him: ‘a very important one, where your experience will be vital.’ So the only sphere where he really wanted to use that experience – afloat – was finally closed to him: the best answer they could give him was Ardnacraish, destined to be the training base for every new escort in the Western Approaches command. It
important – damned important – but it wasn’t what he wanted; and now he looked at Ardnacraish and, with his eyes still turned back to that seagoing appointment, he cursed it roundly.
Ardnacraish might have returned the compliment, though with less justice: what the Admiral had done to it had had the overriding sanction of war. But certainly there had been changes . . . If you took a small Scottish fishing village of two hundred inhabitants in the remote Highlands, with one inn, three shops, a slipway, and a small landlocked harbour: if you decided that it had to be turned into a naval training base, and transported there everything necessary for its establishment – huts, storerooms, sleeping quarters, gear and equipment of every sort: if you set up a signal tower and a radio station, laid a defence boom, deepened the harbour, and put down a line of mooring buoys: if you drafted in a maintenance and training staff of seventy officers and men, and organised an additional floating population of two or three hundred sailors at a time from visiting ships – if you did all this, you got a certain result. It would probably be the result you wanted: but you could hardly expect a sweet unspoiled Highland village to be a residual part of it.
Ardnacraish had been lovely: it would be lovely again, when the alien visitation was over; but now it was a place for a job, a utilitarian necessity, and as such it was patchwork, ugly, and unrecognisable.
But it was his responsibility . . . The Admiral looked out of the window at the harbour, across an intervening line of corrugated-iron roofs which housed the asdic and signal departments. There was, as usual, a brisk wind blowing: he could hear it rattling the ill-fitting doors of the other offices in the building, and he could see it ruffling its way across the harbour and sending small vicious waves slapping against the mooring buoys. There were no ships in, at the moment, except the oiler and the tug attached to the base: the last one had left two days previously, and they were waiting for the next arrival, due that afternoon. She was to be a brand-new type, and the first of her class: a corvette – theatrical name, but an honoured one in naval history. He had her training programme ready for her, and she would start straight away.
It was a stiff programme, though an experimental one still, since convoys themselves were as yet in the embryo stage, and one hardly knew what the escorts would have to contend with. But there were certain things which all ships had to do and to be, whatever job they were intended for: as a fundamental basis, they had to be clean, efficient, and alert. In this, almost everything depended on their officers, and, judging by the last war, there were going to be some pretty odd officers before the thing was over. This ship, he noted, had an R.N.R. captain, which meant, at any rate, a seaman in command . . . The others, amateurs, might be worth anything or nothing.
The Admiral frowned. He would soon find out what they
worth, and what the ship was worth too: that was his job. He might be too old to take one to sea, but he was still a firm judge of what a ship should look like and how she should behave; and however long the war lasted, and whatever the urgency, no ship would leave his command which did not meet this lifelong standard.
There was a knock on the door, and a signalman entered.
The Admiral looked up. ‘Well?’
entering harbour now, sir. Lieutenant Haines said to tell you.’
‘Has he signalled her a berth?’
The Admiral got up, and walked across to the window again. A ship was just entering the narrows, moving very slowly, edging sideways to offset the crosswind: as he watched her, she lowered a boat which began to make for one of the central mooring buoys. His eyes went back to the ship, and he appraised her carefully. She was small, smaller than he had expected: rather chunky, but not ungraceful if you discounted the clumsy-looking stern and the mast plumb in front of the bridge. She looked clean – and so she damned well ought to be, fresh from the builders – and the hands were properly fallen in fore and aft, in the rig-of-the-day. She was flying her pendant numbers, and a brand-new ensign. One gun on the fo’c’sle – a pom-pom aft – depth-charges – nothing much else . . . Something like an overgrown trawler. But she’d have to do more than trawler’s work.
He watched her securing to the buoy, neatly enough, and then he turned to the signalman.
‘Send a signal. “
from Flag-Officer-in-Charge. Manoeuvre well executed”. Then tell Lieutenant Haines to call away my barge. I’m going aboard now.’
For three weeks they worked very hard indeed. From the moment that the Admiral’s barge approached in a wide, treacherous sweep right under their stern and almost caught the Captain unawares, the ship’s company was in a continual state of tension. If they were not out exercising with the submarine, they were doing gun drill or running through Action Stations in harbour: if they were not fighting mock fires or raising the anchor by hand, an urgent signal would order them to lower a boat and put an armed landing party ashore on the nearest beach. In between times, relays of men attended drills and lectures ashore: sometimes, with half the crew thus absent and their normal organisation unworkable, a fearsome directive from the Admiral would set them to some manoeuvre which necessitated every available man tackling the nearest job, irrespective of his rating.
Stokers would find themselves firing guns, seamen had to try their hand at hoisting flag signals: telegraphists and coders, gentlemanly types, would take on the crude job of connecting up filthy oil pipes from the oiler. ‘Blast the old bastard!’ said Bennett sourly, when some crisis or other found him hauling on a rope instead of watching other people do it: ‘I’ll be cleaning out the lavatories next.’ Lockhart wished it might be true . . . The three week’s ordeal was exhilarating, and profoundly good for the ship, as far as training was concerned; but there were occasions when they all felt due for a holiday, and none too sure that it would arrive in time.
There were no holidays now: this was the time for winding up, for tuning to top pitch: they would have no other chance. Little by little the process advanced: the rough edges were smoothed off, the awkwardness of apprenticeship overcome and then forgotten. It was a progress they all acknowledged, and welcomed: their ship was coming alive, and for that reason she was a better place to live in, a surer weapon to use. There would come a time, they began to realise, when alertness and a disciplined reaction to crisis might save all their lives; if the price, now, were overwork and sometimes over-harshness, it was worth paying the score, and forgetting it as soon as it was paid. No weariness, no boredom, no grudge against authority, was worth setting against this ultimate survival.
The measure of their progress was nowhere more apparent than during the trips they made to sea, on exercises with the submarine attached to the base. The main purpose of these trips was to try out the asdic gear – the anti-submarine detector which was their main weapon – and to perfect the teamwork between the asdic operators, the depth-charge crews, and the Captain, which would be a vital element in their future effectiveness. In those early days, the asdic set was an elementary affair, not much more than a glorified echo sounder, working horizontally all round the ship, instead of vertically down to the seabed; but it was still a weapon of precision, it could still produce results if it were properly used. And certainly the hunts themselves, with a real moving, elusive quarry to outwit, instead of the synthetic target that they practised on ashore, were the most exciting part of their training.
At first they had very little success. Bennett, Lockhart, and Ferraby all took turns at manoeuvring the ship during a hunt, and they all found the same inherent handicap – there were too many things to think about at the same time. The ship had to be handled, sometimes in bad weather which set her rolling like a metronome: the submarine had to be found, and held during the run-in: the asdic operators had to be controlled, and chivvied back on to the target if they showed signs of wandering: the engine revolutions had to be altered, the correct signals hoisted, the depth-charge crews warned, the right button pressed at the right moment. And if they forgot one of these things, the whole attack collapsed and had to be written off as a failure, a foolish waste of time attended by a deplorable publicity . . . It was no wonder that, during the preliminary exercises, each of them in turn developed stage fright, and did their best to cover it by a mixture of bluff and pretended indifference. Bennett, naturally, was by far the best at this: to listen to him, nothing moving below the surface had a chance of survival when he was Officer-of-the-Watch, and precious little on top.