A Destroyer's War Day
BROADCASTING has made us familiar with a day in the life of all kinds of people, and magazines and newspapers have been doing the same sort of thing for quite a long time, so that we have become acquainted with conditions of fellow-creatures' lives of which previously we have known nothing. And very interesting these "days" are too, though probably the last people in the world to think so are those who live them.
I have had it said to me sometimes: "Yes, you tell us about incidents in your life and of some of your experiences, but never of what you actually do on board. Can't you give us a little more insight into your actual daily life ? "
Yes, it can certainly be done ; but the fact is, the idea of doing it never even enters one's mind, and the average naval officer finds it as difficult to write a description of his daily life as an ordinary business man would to give an account of the routine of life in the office or other place where he conducts
his operations. After all, to most of us the trivial round, the common task, certainly gives us all we need to ask in the way of doing our duty; therefore, to most ordinary people, it is inconceivable that hum-drum routine, repeated as it is and must be day after day and month after month, should be of the slightest interest to anyone outside their own callings. But as this is evidently not the point of view adopted by the outsider, I will make a great effort and try to give an idea of a typical day in the life of a commander commanding a destroyer in war-time. I have taken war-time as the period because it is of necessity more interesting and ought to be more exciting than peace-time, though, even so, it will be seen that war can be a very dull and monotonous business. Perhaps it is just as well that a true picture of this particular form of a naval officer's existence should be available. Here it is.
The time is 7.30 p.m. The commander and his officers are in the wardroom partaking of the evening meal. On his right sits his first lieutenant, who is only twenty - four, but the responsibilities of his office and the hardships of life in a destroyer which spends 70 per cent. of her time at sea have made their marks on him, and he looks much older. On
the commander's left is the "chief." He is an engineer-lieutenant-commander, and of much the same age as his captain. Then there remain the sub-lieutenant, a mere boy of twenty, the gunner, a warrant officer, and the surgeon probationary, who has not had time to complete his course for a full-blown doctor, but hopes to be alive to do so as soon as the War is over. In the meantime he wears one stripe of the "waggish" order and ranks with a sub-lieutenant, R.N.V.R.
A tap is heard at the door and the yeoman of signals enters.
"Signal from the captain (D), sir."
The captain takes the signal from the signalman and reads aloud: "Captain (D) to `Mouse.' You are to proceed to sea with your division at dawn and carry out a thorough search of the area bounded as follows (here follow details of the boundaries of the area).
"Enemy submarines are reported to be working in this area. Acknowledge."
Turning to the sub-lieutenant, he asks: "What time's dawn to-morrow, navigator ? "
" About 4 a.m., sir," is the answer.
" All right, yeoman. Acknowledge the signal
and make a signal to the division to prepare to weigh at 4 a.m."
Then to the other two officers: "All right, number one ? All right, chief ? There 's no peace for the wicked, but I hope we have a bit more luck this time." After which the meal continues without more interruption.
After dinner the sub brings a chart along on which he has drawn out the area which is to be searched on the morrow. With this spread upon the table the captain and navigator work out the method they propose to adopt.
There are four destroyers in the division, and they will have to be spread on certain lines of bearing, so that the search can be carried out in the most thorough way and in the shortest possible time.
When all these details have been written down to the satisfaction of the captain he is free to retire to his cabin, where he sinks into his arm-chair and reads his book until it is time to turn in.
The first lieutenant has already sent for the coxswain and petty officer of the upper deck and made all arrangements for weighing at 4 a.m.
The engineer-lieutenant-commander has sent for his chief engine-room artificer, and arranged with
him to be ready for trying the engines at 3.45 a.m. Thus all arrangements have been made for the little ship to carry out the orders of the captain of the flotilla.
Meanwhile the wind howls in the rigging, and there is every indication of dirty weather at sea on the morrow. But in the north it is usually blowing, and those who are not on watch do not find that this noise disturbs their rest. They have had three years of it, and it has become a part of their life, which is, to say the least, a merciful dispensation of Providence.
The bluejacket servant duly comes with the unwelcome announcement : " Quarter to four, sir ! "
" What 's the weather like ? " is demanded.
" Blowing 'ard, sir," is the answer.
" Damn! " And the steaming cup of cocoa is put down on the little table at the side of the captain's bunk. The bluejacket retires.
Things move briskly now. At five minutes to four the captain is on deck and the chief comes up and salutes. " Engines all ready, sir," he reports.
At two minutes to four the first lieutenant reports: " Ready for weighing, sir."
The captain goes on to the bridge, where he
finds the yeoman of signals and his number two, a leading signalman, the coxswain at the wheel, two A.B.'s at the telegraphs, another A.B. in the " chains," ready to heave the lead, and, of course, the navigator, the sub, who has put the local chart on the chart-table, with the necessary navigational instruments.
All these ordinary dull preliminaries have been carried out at a period of the twenty-four hours when man does not show any particular enthusiasm to be up and doing, and when, indeed, most people, despite the War, are still asleep and happily oblivious of the heavy trials of the coming day ; but it is one of the helpful features of the naval officer's life that he has almost ceased to differentiate between night and day.
" Four o'clock, sir." Punctual almost to the second the sub makes known the hour.
" Make the signal to weigh." As soon as the captain has given this order the masthead-light is seen to flash into an endless succession of shorts and longs. It is still dusk, and the signal is being made to the division by flashing-lamp in Morse.
The first flashes are the call to the division. Three
destroyers out of the flotilla are seen to flash back.
The next signal is " Weigh."
Now this and, with certain exceptions, all other signals are not obeyed until the executive is made by the senior officer. Consequently, when the signal to weigh has been acknowledged by the other destroyers the yeoman turns to the captain and says : " Signal acknowledged, sir."
" Make the executive." As this is being flashed out, the captain gives the order to the first lieutenant, who is on the forecastle : " Weigh."
" Weigh," repeats the first lieutenant; and the capstan heaves round and the cable begins to come in.
When battleships and suchlike giants get under way there is a considerable amount of formality. Flags are hoisted to show the state of the cable, when it is up and down and when the anchor is away, etc. ; but in destroyers such things were dispensed with, in war-time at any rate.
In big ships, as soon as the anchors are away, the signal is made to turn together to a certain point of the compass. We do not worry about this in destroyers.
The course out of harbour is known perfectly well to the other boats, and the signalman, having reported all the remainder of the division to be under way, the commander orders him to make "Single line ahead, speed ten knots." And so the division proceeds to sea.
Once clear of harbour the course is set and the commander turns over the ship to the officer of the watch, and feels at liberty to go down to the charthouse just under the bridge.
As soon as the harbour is cleared the navigation is done from the chart-house, which is also to be the home of the captain until the ship returns to base.
This chart-house consists of a long chart-table extending from one side to the other - a matter of merely six feet - and a settee parallel to it. This settee is to be the captain's bed until the ship is in harbour once more.
You see, if the captain cannot be on the bridge in a moment he might just as well not be there. In a destroyer, more than almost any other craft, any action that has to be taken must be done at once. If the captain cannot be there instantly he is of no assistance.
I served the whole of my time during the War in
destroyers, and the hours spent in stuffy little chart. houses must add up to many thousands.
Generally speaking, the life at sea is monotonous. Occasionally a submarine is come across, and I have already described such an encounter. But this does not often happen, for to the submarine the destroyer is its most deadly enemy and he keeps well clear. It is the weather which is the destroyer's worst enemy. I don't care what anybody says, there is one thing that nobody can get used to, and that is extreme discomfort.
During the war my experience was that nine days out of ten the weather was vile. Not for a moment was the ship still ; generally, in fact, one had to hold on to something to prevent oneself being dashed to pulp against the ship's side or some obstacle in the way. To take food was nearly always a difficulty, and there was no pleasure attending this function. One ate just as much as was absolutely necessary and no more, and consequently naval officers in destroyers were not liable to be anything but thin.
The instructions having been carried out to the letter, the return to harbour is made.
As soon as the base is sighted the challenge is
flashed out by a powerful flashing-lamp from the shore.
The reply having been given, the shore station asks the name of the ships, which is given. Then, as the division gets nearer, the gates in the net barrage are opened and the destroyers pass into harbour and proceed directly alongside oilers to complete with oil. This done, they are at liberty to return to their anchorage and anchor or make fast to buoys, as the case may be.
This is a moment worth living for ! Surely everything in this world is measured by contrast ? These boats have been at sea for perhaps four or five days on end. During this time the weather has been as beastly as it can be, even in the North Sea. There has been no peace and little rest for anybody on board. The food has been badly cooked and served, because the conditions have made anything else impossible. It has been impossible for anybody to have a bath or even to wash properly, and shaving is such a hazardous operation under these conditions that, speaking personally, I dispensed with it as a matter of routine when at sea. There has been little or no news of the world outside.
And now comes the contrast which makes life worth while. A thoughtful depot ship sends a boat off to the destroyer as she makes fast to her buoy. It brings the mail and any official letters which have accumulated during the absence.
The captain descends with his letters to his cabin, where he finds a steaming hot bath ready for his weary limbs. There is nothing so refreshing or soothing as a hot bath when one is really tired.
And presently the signalman comes down with the following signal from the captain of the flotilla
"Let fires die out. Captain (D) to captain. Hope you will dine with me to-night at seven-thirty."
"All right, yeoman. Tell the engineer-lieutenant-commander and inform the first lieutenant, and make reply to captain (D) ‘W.M.P.’ "Which the ingenious reader will rightly translate as meaning "With much pleasure."
"Very good, sir."
And the captain, refreshed from his bath and comfortably wrapped up in his warm dressing-gown, falls back in his arm-chair with a sigh of satisfaction and reaches his hand out for the first letter of the mail which is heaped on the table beside him.
His worries and discomforts are forgotten, and
to-night he will have a decent dinner, and over a glass of port will discuss with his senior officer the problems of the War and other interesting subjects until it is time to return to his ship and have that truly blessed thing, a long and undisturbed night's rest.
<-Chapter 10 -Contents- Chapter 12->
^ back to top ^